The prophet Malachi wrote the last words recorded in the Old Testament — the final words before a four-hundred-year silence. In Malachi 3:18, these words are recorded: “So you will again distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve Him.”
At the time he was writing, there was no longer any distinction. The prophet was looking ahead to a time in the future when there would again be a distinguishing mark or characteristic of a people who served God and were wholly set apart from the nations around them — the role Israel was to fulfill in the Old Covenant (which they didn’t do — as plainly stated in Matthew 21:43).
Now let’s “fast forward” to the time when the Messiah walked the earth, four hundred years later. He spoke many words, giving instruction to His disciples on how to live as befitting His followers, the requirements for being His disciples. His desire for them was exactly the same as God’s desire had been for Israel in the Old Covenant — He longed to see a people who were different, distinct, distinguishable from the nations around them. In some of the first words He taught His disciples, He made clear the distinguishing characteristics of His followers [the “you” here]:
No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith! Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
These words He uttered in Matthew 6 were not idealistic standards, not merely unattainable ideals, put forward as impossible to attain — He said them and He meant them. He spoke not from a theoretical standpoint, but rather from the life He Himself lived as an example for others to follow. Does it sound impossible? Does it sound unreasonable? Does it sound as if it can’t be done in these modern times?
If not, then where can one find these distinguishable people who are serving God, a people who are actually living according to what Jesus taught in Matthew 6? Only in community. For it still takes a community, you know. As John 12:26 makes abundantly clear, only there in that place [community] can one serve Him. For that is where He is:
If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.
Are you there? Hello!?
Maybe then the reason that you are not there (yet) — where He is — is simply because you don’t hate your own life in this world. Since no one can follow Him until he does, no one can be where He is and serve Him there (the Father honors all who do). Do you think that the Father honors you where you are? It’s evident that you’re still outside the there for the obvious reason that all who believe as the Scriptures say [in the manner the Scriptures require] have rivers of living water flowing from their innermost being.1
To get to that place, one must meet the daily qualifications of discipleship. Here’s a challenge to be completely honest with yourself — is this really happening in your daily experience?
And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me, for whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” (Luke 9:23-35)
So since you know you are not there, you’d better get here. Here (in community with brothers and sisters) you can know with certainty that you are one of the distinguished ones serving God. Why community? It’s the only way to meet the criteria presented here in 1 John of actually daily laying down our lives for the brethren:
We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us. (1 John 3:14,16,23)
By these qualifications one can clearly distinguish between those who serve God and those who don’t.