“What’s in it for me?”
It is amazing the things you can learn when you google that phrase! You can learn about abusive relationships, business growth advice, personal life coaching and everything in between.
The only place that question seems totally foreign is in the upside-down Jesus culture.
While the words themselves are not inherently evil or wrong, the driving force behind them, the heart attitude, can be.
This last dispute that the Messenger brings to Israel is one that exposes a disturbing attitude.
Malachi 3:13–15 (CSB) — 13 “Your words against me are harsh,” says the LORD. Yet you ask, “What have we spoken against you?” 14 You have said, “It is useless to serve God. What have we gained by keeping his requirements and walking mournfully before the LORD of Armies? 15 So now we consider the arrogant to be fortunate. Not only do those who commit wickedness prosper, they even test God and escape.”
In essence they were asking, What’s in it for me?
Let’s look at the components of this charge:
What have we gained though either obedience or repentance?
GAIN: what do you suppose they were using as a measure of their profit? They just came out of exile, the temple was rebuilt but wanting, some of the people were back in Jerusalem but many of them were still scattered. They had undergone numerous attacks by several different countries and had no army of their own any more.
When they compared their PHYSICAL possessions or wealth to the nations around them, they seemed to have gotten the short end of the stick.
I had the pleasure of hosting a young man in our house that was from Israel. He was Jewish and lived in Jerusalem. I was so excited to learn from him what his perspective of God would be. I was horrified to hear him say that he did not believe God existed, that religion was just a method used in the old days to teach moral values and codes and religion still has value in that. So, I asked him what it was like to be a Jew living in Jerusalem. “It’s great if you like walking around with a target on your back all the time” was the response. “Everyone wants our land and we are always at war over it.”
Where is God? Why would I follow a God that blesses everyone else and makes me a target? What has God ever done for me?
Those words shocked me. However, the more I pondered them, the more I realize that it was not an isolated attitude. It was very much the same harsh words that the post-exile Jews had for God.
However, even in modern churchdom we find this mentality. We go from church to church looking for the one that has the things we want, looking for how a church can meet our needs. We literally ask, “What’s in this church for me?”.
Here is how I read this in the modern church:
I don’t care for their type of music or the style of preaching is not what I want. It’s too small of a church, its too big.
Serve in the nursery or teach Sunday School? I don’t have any kids, my kids are grown up, I will miss the music and the message – I don’t want to serve in the nursery or teach.
Attend a Bible Study? I have a busy schedule, I am in the middle of binge watching my favorite series for the 3rd time, I would have to give up something else – I don’t have time to study the Bible.
In each of those cases we have weighed the cost of the commitment and said, “What do I gain vs what do I lose” or, What’s in it for me?
We can find this mindset subtly creeping into our own lives when we think about the other topics we addressed in this letter:
What’s in it for me?
The problem with this question in God’s economy is that it rarely aligns with the heart of God and his plan for mankind. If we truly loved God and loved others, we would never be able to ask “What’s in it for me” with a clear conscience.
This attitude goes back to the original sin in the garden and is counter to God’s plan. When you read the words of the serpent you hear the test: YOU will be this way, YOU will gain that thing. The serpent states (though falsely) “What’s in it for Adam & Eve”:
Genesis 3:1–6 (CSB) — 1 Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the wild animals that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You can’t eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit from the trees in the garden. 3 But about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, God said, ‘You must not eat it or touch it, or you will die.’ ” 4 “No! You will certainly not die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “In fact, God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 The woman saw that the tree was good for food and delightful to look at, and that it was desirable for obtaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it; she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.
Even the responses of eve in verse 6: good food for HER, delightful for Her to look at and desirable to giving HER wisdom.
What was in it for Eve? SHE would be satisfied; she would be wise and like God. Or so she thought. What she failed to do was fear God.
Any time we live life with a self-serving attitude we fail to live in the fear of God.
The conclusion of a self-serving attitude is a mindset of consequentialism – where we attempt to justify our actions by the current circumstances or perceived benefits (or lack thereof).
JUST like with Eve, the Jews choose to believe a lie:
Malachi 3:15 (CSB) — 15 So now we consider the arrogant to be fortunate. Not only do those who commit wickedness prosper, they even test God and escape.”
Just look around! The arrogant climb the ladder of success. Those that break the laws have more, and those that challenge God and say there is no God are not even punished by God! At first scan of the world around them, it appeared as though God actually favored those who did NOT fear him.
These charges are directly in violation of Micah 6:8, which was the command of the God through the prophet Micah about how the Jews were to live. The Jews were questioning the value of obeying God.
Micah 6:8 (CSB) — 8 Mankind, he has told each of you what is good and what it is the LORD requires of you: to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God.
The moment of choice.
Malachi draws us to this point in his oracle, never giving us all the details or circumstances behind all the accusations and retorts, but certainly wants us to realize that there are two groups of people in God’s economy – and the difference comes down to a choice.
Talking amongst ourselves.
There are two groups of people that are talking amongst themselves. It appears as though the wicked in verses 13-14 have been talking to each other. The JPS Tanakh words verse 13 like this:
Malachi 3:13 (JPS) — 13 You have spoken hard words against Me—said the LORD. But you ask, “What have we been saying among ourselves against You?”
Which is an interesting translation. Perhaps that is to help us notice the contrast between the second group of people talking among themselves:
Malachi 3:16 (CSB) — 16 At that time those who feared the LORD spoke to one another. The LORD took notice and listened. So a book of remembrance was written before him for those who feared the LORD and had high regard for his name.
The message of the Messenger (Malachi) draws to a close with polarized people groups. We have heard what God will do to the wicked, and now God is going to tell us how he will treat those that fear him:
Malachi 3:17–18 (CSB) — “They will be mine,” says the LORD of Armies, “my own possession on the day I am preparing. I will have compassion on them as a man has compassion on his son who serves him. 18 So you will again see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.
From this book we can categorize those people a couple different ways:
Here, they are those that speak harshly against God and seek their own temporary gain vs those that fear God.
Those that fear God will be God’s possession. They will be his. They will belong to him. This is a reminder that God will keep his promise, only there is a twist.
Exodus 19:5 (ESV) — Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine;
The people who will be God’s possession will not be those that are simply born into the family of Abraham physically, it will include all those that are born into the family of God with their hearts.
As we wrap up this dispute, we should take time to ponder what we are saying about God? Do you wonder what gain there is in following God? Do you doubt that God does truly reward those that fear him? Have you approached your faith, or even the church, with an attitude of “what’s in it for me?”
The last words
Malachi 4 (CSB) — 1 “For look, the day is coming, burning like a furnace, when all the arrogant and everyone who commits wickedness will become stubble. The coming day will consume them,” says the LORD of Armies, “not leaving them root or branches. 2 But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings, and you will go out and playfully jump like calves from the stall. 3 You will trample the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day I am preparing,” says the LORD of Armies. 4 “Remember the instruction of Moses my servant, the statutes and ordinances I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. 5 Look, I am going to send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers. Otherwise, I will come and strike the land with a curse.”
This last section of Malachi, from 3:3-4:6, might be broken down like this:
As we wrap up our time with the prophet Malachi, let’s consider why is ending this way:
You say it is not worth following God. However, those that fear God will be the ones God preserves and calls his own, so you must choose who you will serve. Someday, all of mankind will be judged as to whether they feared God. However, because God loves the people he created in his image, he will send the Messiah he promised in Gen 3:15, to help draw people back to God before we all go through the refiner’s fine.
The MESSIAH will come and be the perfect example of keeping the law, of honoring covenants, of giving back to God, of living a life for others and not for ourselves. When the Messiah comes, he will be in total contrast to the way that the Jews were living!
So we leave the last prophet in the section of the OT called, “The Prophets” with a reminder of the human condition, the ultimate end of the God story and the promise of the one picked by God to restore us to God before that day of the Lord appears.
THIS is the message of the prophets and the message of the exile! Fear God! Turn back to God! Be the people he created you to be and represent him with your life!
Though you are broken you can be healed. Though you have turned away you can be restored. Before it is too late, learn to fear God.
THIS IS A MESSAGE OF HOPE.
This is the message the Jews needed after the exile. This is the message WE need even today.
SIDE NOTES: Testing God.
Malachi 3:15 says that the wicked were testing God and getting away with it. The concept of testing God is an interesting one to study.
In Malachi 3:10 God says to test him. This is regarding their willingness to keep the covenant with their giving. If THEY keep the covenant God will do what he promised. This test was invited by God.
However, in the Law, the people were told NOT to put God to the test.
Deuteronomy 6:16 (CSB) — 16 Do not test the LORD your God as you tested him at Massah.
This was in regard to worshipping false gods or idols.
Also, when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, we read this:
Matthew 4:5–7 (CSB) — 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city, had him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: He will give his angels orders concerning you, and they will support you with their hands so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” 7 Jesus told him, “It is also written: Do not test the Lord your God.”