Malachi 3:13-18: Futile to Serve God?

Sun, 06/12/2020 - 09:30 -- James Oakley

Let me begin by asking you a question. What do you think being a Christian is like? On balance, when you weigh up the pros and cons, is it in your advantage to be a Christian? Is it a good thing or is it overall a bad thing to do?

I take it many of us here would say, most of us here would say, it’s a good thing. That’s probably why you’re here. But it’s worth asking the question. It’s a really good question to ask if you’re a Christian, to look back on your life, and say: “Do I have any regrets that I have chosen to go through life as a Christian? Or, if I have no regrets today, have there been seasons in my life looking back when actually I have for a while regretted it, even if I’m in a different place today?”

It’s a good question to ask if you’re not yet a Christian, if you’re still looking into the claims of the Lord Jesus. What would it be like if I became a Christian? Would it be a good thing for me to do or not?

Now, if you want to know what someone thinks, what you have to do is listen to what they say. the Bible says that out of the overflow of our hearts our mouths speak. But in particular, you know from experience don’t you that the best way to find out what someone thinks about you is to listen to what they say to other people about you when they don’t think you can hear them. That’s when all the truth really comes out. Well we get to do that with the people of Malachi’s day, because we get to hear what they are saying about God when they’ve forgotten that he can hear them, and it’s really quite revealing.

So what I’m going to show us from today’s Bible reading is this: I’m going to contrast for us two different ways to talk about God. One is good, and one is bad. And then I’m going to bring us two reasons why living for God, why being a Christian, is really a very good thing indeed.

Bad Speech – Futile to Serve God

Firstly then, the bad way to speak about God. And that is to say that it’s futile to serve God. So here are verses 14 and 15: “You have said it is futile to serve God. What do we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the Lord Almighty. But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly evildoers prosper, and when they put God to the test they get away with it.”

So they look at their lives, and they say, “What has it cost us to follow God?” Answer: We’ve had to carry out his requirements. We haven’t been able to go through life doing what we want; we’ve had to do what God asks of us, and at times that’s felt like a burden upon us.

And then the other thing we have to do is we go about like mourners. Being a Christian, or being a member of God’s people, has felt like attending a funeral, where we’ve just been miserable. Now we don’t quite know why they’re so miserable. It could be that just the demands God has made on them has made them miserable. It could even be that they think it’s a kind of religious duty to look miserable, as a demonstration of just how sorry they are for their sins. But either way they’re a miserable lot, and they say this is because we’re following God.

That’s what it’s cost them. What have they gained for their misery?

Answer: nothing! “It is futile.” “What do we gain?” The implied answer is clearly, “nothing”.

Then they look at the other people, on the other side of the fence, and they say: “Well, how did they go about life, how did they live?” Verse 15: They are arrogant; they are evildoers. They go through life arrogantly doing evil things. And what’s their reward for their behaviour? Do they get punished by God for this? No! Absolutely nothing! “We call the arrogant blessed; evildoers prosper; and when they put God to the test they get away with it.” Complete impunity. They cause havoc, and it costs them nothing.

A little bit like thinking back to my days at school. It always seemed that the children who muck about in class and cause trouble seem to have a lot more fun at school, and they never get in trouble for it. So you think: “Why am I bothering to be studious, if I have less fun and actually there’s no downside to mucking about?”

It feels like that way at times, and that’s how it can feel with God. It can feel that way if you’re a Christian. You can look back on your years of following the Lord Jesus, and you can see how you’ve put in the hard yards and yet for what? It’s gained nothing. It can feel that way as well if you’re not yet a Christian. You look at the thought of becoming a Christian, and you can see everything that you would lose, and absolutely nothing that you would gain.

Now note that the attitude behind this is a really strange one. They are asking: What do I get out of it? What do we gain?

You might remember last time we looked at Malachi, which was about three weeks ago now, that lots of them weren’t paying their full tithes, the 10 percent that God asked them to give — to ensure that there was food for the poor, food for the priests, and food for their parties. They were asked to give 10 percent of their income for that, and the people were withholding part of it. You can almost hear the mental calculations going on: “If I gave my full 10 percent, it would cost me … 10 percent. What would God give me back if I did that? Would I be quids in at the end of the year? Or would I be a net loser? No, I don’t think it’s a good economy. I don’t gain enough out of this to be worth making that kind of an investment.”

Now, God will answer that question, and God will show that it is a good deal to follow him. We will get to that later on today, and more next week.

But let’s look at the attitude itself, because the attitude itself is a bad one. In some areas of life, you see that is exactly the right attitude to bring. My bank is forever writing me letters, inviting me to upgrade my bank account to one with certain benefits for which a monthly fee has to be paid. At that point, it is exactly the right thing to do, to look at those supposed benefits, and say: “Are these things I would need, and be paying for anyway? How much money will I save or gain by taking out this bank account? And if it’s not at least as much as they’re going to charge you, don’t do it.” It’s the right attitude to bring to a bank account.

But in other areas of, life it is totally the wrong attitude. Imagine someone deciding whether to marry the man or woman they love, and they sit down with a piece of paper, and they draw two columns: pros and cons. They try to work out: “Will I be better off overall if I do this?” Marriage doesn’t work like that. Love is about what you put, in what you give, not about what you think you will gain by doing it.

The question is: What kind of thing is Christianity? And the answer is: it is a relationship not a rule book, and it’s definitely not the spiritual equivalent of a bank account. It’s much more like a marriage relationship. It’s about God’s love for his people, and our love for him.

So asking, “Am I going to get my money’s worth?”, is just the wrong standard by which to evaluate being a Christian. It is, of course, the attitude that led Judas to betray the Lord Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.

There’s the bad way to speak about God. It’s futile to serve God.

Good Speech – Encouraging to Fear God

Then we get the contrast, the good way to speak, which is encouraging other people to fear God.

So here’s verse 16: “Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard.”

So there’s the scene. You see the people of God in the rebuilt city of Jerusalem, in 400 B.C., grumbling with one another. But dotted amongst them are pockets of people amongst whom a different conversation is taking place. We’re not told what they said, but we do know three things.

We know who they are. They are those who feared the Lord. We know to whom they speak — to each other. And we know God’s reaction. He listened, and heard. He noticed; he was impressed. So it would seem that they are speaking with each other, and encouraging each other to keep going at fearing the Lord.

Now maybe the idea of “fearing God” seems like a really odd idea for you. But you have to remember that fearing God is not about being terrified of him, frightened of him. Rather it’s about having total respect for him.

So imagine two different churches in different parts of the world, and the head of state in each case enters the church one Sunday morning.

In the first case, you have a totalitarian regime ruling the country. The citizens of that country live in fear and terror at the regime. Their biggest worry is that they might fall out of favour with their leaders, and end up carted away to some imprisonment camp or worse. Imagine the overall head of state of that nation walked in the back of church one Sunday morning. What would happen is that everyone would forget social distancing, and people would move to the ends of the pews nearest the walls, and cower in fear because they don’t know what’s about to happen.

Or imagine in our own country of Great Britain that her Majesty the Queen decides one morning she wants to come and join us here in Kemsing for worship on Sunday. Wouldn’t that be wonderful. I imagine we’d have to say: “Have you booked? Let me just check, we’ve got space for 29 tickets. What’s your phone number in case test and trace need to get in touch?” We’d be thrilled to have her. We wouldn’t treat her casually. Utter respect for her, but we certainly wouldn’t be frightened and terrified.

Fearing the Lord is much more about how you treat her Majesty the Queen, than about how you treat the totalitarian leader of whom you are in great fear.

So there’s the contrast. Two different ways to speak of God.

Is serving fearing God the wise path through life, or is it the road to misery with no upside to make up for it?

Well, God gives two reasons why fearing and serving him is good.

God Remembers.

Number one: God remembers. God remembers. Here’s the second half of verse 16: “A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honoured his name.”

A scroll was written. Persian kings used to keep written records of their reign, of good deeds that were done to make sure that the good deeds never went unrewarded.

If you’ve read the story of the book of Esther, for example, you will know the hinge, the turning point, in that story is when King Xerxes of Persia cannot sleep, and he had the record of his reign brought to him. He discovers that Mordecai a Jew was never rewarded for the occasion when he saved the king’s life. On that one hinge, the whole of the Jewish race in the whole of the Persian Empire is saved from certain death.

Again, go back to my school days. Children hate it if teachers say, “That was a good bit of work you’ll get a certificate for that. Or, that was good behaviour; we’ll reward that.” And at the end of the week, end of the term, the rewards get handed out and you get forgotten. “That’s outrageous! How do they forget me?”

When I was at school, there was along one of the corridors a big notice board with a big section for each of the four houses in the school, and all the children’s names were written. (This is a primary age school.) Whenever you did a good piece of work, the teacher would put a plus sign and their initial on that board against your name. If you did a bad piece of work, you get a minus with the teacher’s initial. Good behaviour, a star. Bad behaviour ,a stripe. Three stripes, detention. Anyway, at the end of the year, all the points got added up and the various house awards got given out. It was wonderful. But you knew, because your name was there with your stars, stripes, pluses and minuses, that nothing would be forgotten. Everything would be remembered.

So it is with God. He will not forget. the New Testament speaks of “the Lamb’s book of life”. Isaiah 49 speaks of God writing the names of his people on his hands. Some people do that today don’t they, write on their hands. I don’t understand that (you know: bread, milk,…). Fine! God writes on his hands. Did you know that? He doesn’t write “bread and milk”, his shopping list. He writes your name. if you know the Lord Jesus, he’s written your name on his hands to make sure he never forgets.

God won’t forget. God remembers.

God Distinguishes

Then, secondly God distinguishes. The second reason why it’s good to follow God, and to serve him: God distinguishes.

Verse 17: “‘On the day when I act,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘they will be my treasured possession. I will spare them just as a father has compassion and spares his son who serves him. And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.’”

There is a day when God will act. Previously in Malachi, we’ve had mention of “the day”, a day when God will act in judgment, a day when “they get away with it” will not be happening anymore. And then God says the difference between those who serve God, and those who do not, will be very visible indeed.

450 years later, the apostle Paul preached to the people of Athens. He said this: “In the past God overlooked {your} ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, for he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

There is a day. Now, I won’t say more about this today, because God’s going to elaborate about that day in the passage we will look at next week. But, for today, the point is this: God distinguishes. The day is coming when God will treat his children very differently. He’ll treat us like the members of the royal family we are.


So what do you think being a Christian is like?

Be very careful of the attitude that looks at God, and asks, “What do I get out of it?” It’s a very poisonous attitude to have towards God, whether you’re a Christian or not.

Take every opportunity to encourage others that serving and fearing the Lord is a good thing.

And then be reassured: God remembers and God will distinguish.

Website Section: 
Sermon Series: 
Additional Terms