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Monday, February 27, 2012

“How to Tell the Righteous from the Wicked” - (02/26/12)

Malachi 3:13-18 (Message #7 in Malachi Series) 
February 26, 2012

            Scientists tell us that among the approximately 7 billion human inhabitants of Planet Earth there are no two people exactly alike.  Even those pairs that we call “identical twins” are, in reality, quite different one from another.  Oh yes, all humans share certain genetic and physiological similarities but in many ways each of us is unique.
            This fact sometimes creates problems.  For example, law enforcement officers always want to be sure that they have the right person in custody.  There are cases of people getting arrested, convicted, and imprisoned for crimes they did not commit, just because they bore such a striking resemblance to the person who did commit the crime.  To avoid such problems police investigators look for any DNA evidence, pore over fingerprints left at the crime scene, show comparative photos to the witnesses, and interview the possible suspects at great length.  They do all of this to try and sort out the good guys from the bad guys, the guilty from the innocent.
            Now on TV it has always been much easier to tell them apart.  In the old westerns, for example, bad guys usually wore dark colored hats, smoked stinky cigars, shaved only on rare occasions, and leered at the girls.  The good guys always dressed better, were clean-shaven, had smarter horses, wore white hats, spoke to the ladies politely, and sang songs on the trail.  But that’s television.  In real life, it’s not always so easy to tell the good guys from the bad.

            So then how can we do it?  How can we tell a righteous person from a wicked person?  Do they look differently?  Do they talk differently?  Are there any defining physical characteristics we should look for?  Oh, that it were so simple!
            Unfortunately, wicked people often look really good, and they try to pass themselves off as righteous.  Some of them even have religious titles and TV programs on Christian networks.  They dress nice, sing well, talk about Jesus, then lie and stick it to you to try to get you to send them money.  To use a biblical phrase, they are “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”  Moreover, they sucker many unsuspecting people into their evil, money-grubbing schemes because folks don’t know how to spot a phony.  In our text for this morning, the LORD tells us how we can tell the righteous from the wicked.  That may turn out to be a very useful skill, indeed.  Let’s look at Malachi 3:13-18.  

Verse 13: “Your words have been arrogant against Me,” says the LORD.  “Yet you say, ‘What have we spoken against You?’”  
·         You’ll remember that last Sunday we looked at verses 7-12 where Jehovah God invites the people of Israel to put His promises to the test to see if He would make good on them.  He accused them of stealing from Him by their unfaithfulness in giving the tithes and offerings they owed Him.  As a result, He warned them of what would happen to them if they didn’t repent of their waywardness and begin doing what He required of them.  At the same time, He promised to open up the windows of Heaven and pour out blessings upon those who repented and returned to love and serve Him with their whole heart.
·         Now the LORD brings up another issue.  They have been speaking evil things of the LORD.  But how did He know?  He knew because He knows everything.  The Word says, “Nothing is hidden from His eyes.”  What is done in darkness or in secret is laid bare before Him as though it were daylight.  That just means we can’t get away with anything.  You thought your mother had eyes in the back of her head?  God is way more perceptive than your mother.  He doesn’t have to guess.  He knows exactly what you are thinking and He hears every word you utter.  You can run but you can’t hide!
·         Here in verse 13 the LORD declares, “Your words have been arrogant against Me.”  The word arrogant means puffed-up, inflated.  We sometimes say that a person is “full of hot air.”  That’s the idea here too.  This is also the word for “proud.”  Their sinful pride is what has been driving them.  And right on cue, just like all the times before in this Book of Malachi, the people respond with, “What have we spoken against You?”  They plead ignorance.  They act like they don’t know what He is talking about.  So He lays it out for them.

Verse 14: “You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God; and what profit is it that we have kept His charge, and that we have walked in mourning before the LORD of hosts?’” 
·         Basically they have begun to view their worship and service of Almighty God in terms of dollars-and-cents.  They’ve been saying, “It’s not worth it to serve Him and to do the things He asks of us.  If there is no material prosperity coming from it, why should we keep doing what we do?  If we are not getting anything out of we might as well quit.”  That’s the kind of thoughts that were going through their heads, and God could hear those thoughts.
·         “We have walked in mourning before the LORD of hosts.”  The problem is that they had merely been going through the motions, showing the outward forms associated with repentance, without actually ever experiencing true repentance in their hearts.  Their religion was all on the outside.  And frankly, God has never been impressed by religiosity.

Verse 15: “‘So now we call the arrogant [proud] blessed; not only are the doers of wickedness built up but they also test God and escape.’”   
·         Moreover, these religious hypocrites go on to allege that the wicked in their pride say whatever they feel like saying and God doesn’t punish them.  On the contrary, they claim, He blesses them all the more, in spite of their arrogance and sinfulness.  And they don’t stop there—they say that these evildoers deliberately do things to test God, and still they escape judgment and justice.  This is just a rephrasing of their earlier charge against God stated up in 2:17.
·         These guys are angry and they don’t care who knows it.  And as often happens, in their anger and frustration they misstate the facts and lose perspective about what was really going on.  They are spouting off, and saying all kinds of stupid things that are completely untrue about their own innocence and about God’s supposed injustice and unfairness.
·         Now I think it’s important to note that it’s not a sin to question God.  He’s not intimidated by our honest questions.  In fact, the Psalmist in Psalm 73 struggled with this same issue and questioned why the wicked sometimes seemed to prosper.  Listen to his words starting in verse 3:
I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.  4They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. 
5They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills. 
6Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. 
7From their callous hearts comes iniquity; their evil imaginations have no limits. 
8They scoff, and speak with malice; with arrogance they threaten oppression. 
9Their mouths lay claim to Heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth.  10Therefore their people turn to them and drink up waters in abundance.  11They say, “How would God know? 
Does the Most High know anything?”   12This is what the wicked are like—always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.
·         The difference between the Psalmist’s questions and those of the people of Malachi’s day was this—the attitude of the inquirer.  It’s OK to ask God hard questions in the genuine search to better know the heart and ways of God.  It’s not OK to murmur against God and accuse Him and impugn His motives and His character, especially His justice.  God hates men accusing Him of being unjust!  He will not tolerate that.

Verse 16: Then those who feared the LORD spoke to one another, and the LORD gave attention and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear the LORD and who esteem His name.  
·         But notice… all this badmouthing of God has now reached the ears of some of the godly people who have loved and served God all along for all the right reasons.  It says, “They spoke to one another, and the LORD gave attention and heard it.”  Not everyone in Israel had turned his/her back on God.  There was still a group of righteous people who had remained faithful to Him.  Moreover, that faithfulness was carefully noted by God.  “A book of remembrance was written before Him.”  Why would God need a written record?  Surely He doesn’t suffer from a bad memory like some of us.  No, He keeps accurate accounts so that for all eternity there will be a public record of the obedience and faithfulness of His people.  “…for those who fear the LORD and who esteem His name.” To fear the Lord means to hold Him in awe and reverence.  His name encapsulates all of who He really is, so that those who truly love and revere Him will be zealous for His holy name.  We learn here that God rewards people for that.
·         The last part of verse 16 reminds me of Jesus’ words to a group of His disciples recorded in Luke 10:20.  He had sent “the Seventy” out to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom and to heal the sick and they had returned with amazing stories to tell of what God had done through them.  That’s when Jesus said: “Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in Heaven.”  But where are those names recorded?  The Book of Revelation speaks of “the Lamb’s Book of Life.”  That is the record of every true child of God, those who are redeemed and will be in Heaven.  If your name isn’t in that Book, it won’t matter how many times you’ve walked down the red carpet or been voted into “Who’s Who.”  When the time comes, if your name isn’t in the Lamb’s Book, the Lord Jesus will say to you, “Depart from Me.  I never knew you.” 
·         I believe that Malachi 3:16 also shows the value of Christians coming together to share openly and prayerfully with one another in the sight of the LORD.  When we come together and praise the LORD, and talk about all His benefits, and testify of His goodness, and bless His name He is right there in our midst, and He hears every word we say, and He takes notes!  Not one word is lost!  It does pay to serve the LORD.

Verse 17: “They will be Mine,” says the LORD of hosts, “on the day that I prepare My own possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his own son who serves him.”   
·         “They will be Mine.”  The LORD says that in the Day of the LORD (cf. 3:1-2) He will claim for His own all those who have loves Him and faithfully served Him.  He regards them as His children, and will spare them the way a man spares his own faithful son.  You can actually hear the pride in God’s voice when He says this.  He is proud of His children. 
·         “…on the day that I prepare My own possession…”  I like the way this verse reads in the NKJV: “They shall be Mine,” says the LORD of hosts, “on the day that I make them my jewels.”  The Hebrew word here translated as “jewels” could be rendered “special treasure,” or “treasured possession” as we have it in the NIV.  This word is a beautifully endearing term that is used several places in the OT to describe the value that the LORD places on the people of Israel who have remained faithful to Him (cf. Exodus 19:5; Deut. 7:6; Psalm 135:4).

Verse 18: 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 beginning of this sermon I asked the question: “How do you tell the righteous from the wicked?”  The answer to that question is found in this verse.  The righteous can be recognized by their service to God.  Specifically that means loving Him, putting Him first, obeying His commandments, and finding one’s greatest joy bringing glory to His name.
·         The wicked, on the other hand, care nothing about serving God.  They are only concerned with what’s in it for them, as we saw up in verses 14-15.  They are not zealous for His name; in fact, it means nothing to them.
·         Notice that He says, “So you will again distinguish between the righteous and the wicked.”  This implies that they used to know the difference but had perhaps started to confuse the two.  The fact is, we are not always good at telling sheep from goats, but the LORD never makes that mistake.  With a glance He can tell them apart.  Even if you take a goat and dress him up like a sheep, you still haven’t fundamentally changed him.  In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus told of a day yet to come when He will judge the nations.  He said: “But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne.  32 All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; 33 and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.”  In this word picture, the sheep are the righteous and the goats are the wicked.  The end of the story is in verse 46: “These [the goats, meaning the wicked] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” 

            When that great Judgment Day comes, which side will you be standing on?  Are you a sheep or a goat?  Will you go into eternal punishment or into eternal life?  For, you see, on that day God will act, and justice will be meted out.  For the wicked it will be a dreadful day (cf. Zeph. 1:15-18).  However, for the righteous it will be a glad day, because they have the promise of the Lamb that He will deliver all those who belong to Him (cf. Psalm 91:7).
            One more thing… the people that the LORD exhorts up in verses 13-15 were religious people who were just going through the motions.  Their hearts were not in what they were doing, so God had not blessed them.  In turn, they blamed God for not blessing them the way they thought He should.  There are a lot of professing Christians who walk around with the same attitude.  They say, “I’ve tried to do my best to please God but He’s just never satisfied, so now I’m just coasting.  It just doesn’t pay to go overboard on religion.”  They may attend church services but often they do it to criticize.  They have little interest in praising God, serving God, or worshiping God, because they really don’t love God.
            Religion for religion’s sake is a chore and a bore.  But when you have a close, intimate relationship with the Living God then worship services take on a whole new meaning.  When your heart is filled with gratitude to God for all His mercies, then service for Him makes perfect sense and presents no hardship.
            This morning, which are you more concerned about: What you are getting out of following after Christ? Or What Christ is getting from you?  If you are more worried about what’s in it for you, then you need to go back and truly get saved!

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About Me

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Since 1994 I have been the pastor of Sellwood Baptist Church in Portland, OR. Before that I was a missionary in South Brazil for many years. Until just recently I have also served as a police chaplain with the Portland Police Bureau. Now, however, God has a new assignment for us. My wife and I have been appointed with WorldVenture and are preparing to move to Ireland to help plant a new church in Sligo, a small city in NW Ireland. I'm married to Ramel, a crazy, beautiful redhead that I love more than life itself. We have three great kids, Jonathan, Chris, and Simoni who have given us ten wonderful grandchildren. We are truly blessed.

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