Malachi Series: Overcoming Spiritual Apathy (Mal 1:1-5)
Overcoming Spiritual Apathy
This is an oracle, the Lord’s message to Israel through Malachi: “I have shown love to you,” says the Lord, but you say, “How have you shown love to us?” “Esau was Jacob’s brother,” the Lord explains, “yet I chose Jacob and rejected Esau. I turned Esau’s mountains into a deserted wasteland and gave his territory to the wild jackals.” Edom says, “Though we are devastated, we will once again build the ruined places.” So the Lord of Heaven’s Armies responds, “They indeed may build, but I will overthrow. They will be known as the land of evil, the people with whom the Lord is permanently displeased. Your eyes will see it, and then you will say, ‘May the Lord be magnified even beyond the border of Israel!’ ”
Malachi 1:1-5 (NET)
How should we battle spiritual apathy? It’s possible to know the Lord and love him and yet not consistently live out that reality. Malachi wrote this book to Jews who, in their mind, were following God, and yet God was displeased with them. The priests were corrupt (2:8). They were not teaching God’s Word and were offering polluted offerings to God (1:7-8). The people had ceased giving their tithes to God (3:8) and their marriages were in shambles (2:13-16). And yet, they all claimed to be faithfully following God. Essentially, when God challenged them throughout the book, they responded with, “What are you talking about?” They thought they were alright with God.
Most believe this book was written around 430 BC. It is the last book written in the Old Testament to prepare the Israelites for the coming messiah who would arrive over 400 years later (Mal 3:1-5, 4:4-6). Throughout the book, Malachi addressed Jews who had returned from their Babylonian exile. Because of Israel’s sins, God allowed Babylon to conquer and exile them from their land. However, after seventy years in Babylon, a small remnant of Israelites started to return to the land. There were three returns: one with Zerubbabel in 538 BC who became their governor and helped them rebuild the temple (515 BC), the next was with Ezra in 458 BC who helped the Jews renew their covenant with God, and finally with Nehemiah in 445 BC. Nehemiah became their governor and helped them rebuild the wall around Jerusalem and start rebuilding their national (and spiritual) identity.
Nehemiah and Malachi confronted much of the same sins during their ministry—the Jews were intermarrying with pagans (Mal 2:10-12; Neh 13:23-28), they had stopped tithing (Mal 3:8-10, Neh 13:10-14), the priesthood was corrupt (Mal 1:6-2:9, Neh 13:7-9), and the poor were being abused (Mal 3:5; Neh 5:1-13). Because of this, most believe Malachi was a contemporary of Nehemiah—either preaching during the same time period or shortly after.
Malachi had a unique method of confronting the Jews. He is often called the Hebrew Socrates because of his question/answer method. Socrates would not directly state his conclusions. Instead, he would ask multiple questions to help his students come to the conclusions themselves. Similarly, Malachi, in speaking for God, would state something they were doing wrong, and then ask the questions he anticipated them asking. He asked twenty-three questions throughout the book; sixteen were rhetorical and seven of them were the Israelites’ anticipated questions to God’s disputations with them. The book is centered around six disputations that God had with Israel:
1. In the first disputation, God directly challenged the people by declaring his love for them, to which the people expressed doubts. God responded by telling them about his judgment on Edom who were their enemies (1:2-5).
2. In the second, God challenged the priests because they had shown contempt for him by offering lame and sick sacrificial lambs instead of their best (1:6-2:9).
3. In the third, God accused his people of profaning the covenant of their ancestors by divorcing their wives and marrying pagan women (2:10-16).
4. In the fourth, God pushed back against the claim that he was unjust by declaring that he will send a messenger to prepare for the messiah; then the messiah will come and bring judgment on their sins (2:17 – 3:5).
5. In the fifth, God declared how he is faithful to his promises and therefore they were not destroyed; however, they must change by recommitting to giving tithes and offerings. Because they had stopped, God withheld blessings and instead brought curses on them (3:6 – 12).
6. In the sixth, God accused Israel of speaking harshly about him by saying it’s useless to serve him because the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. However, God promised to ultimately bring justice on the day of the Lord (3:12-4:3).
Finally, after the disputations, God commanded them to return to obeying the Mosaic covenant (4:4) and warned that Elijah will come to turn Israel back to God before the day of the Lord (4:5-6). Elijah refers to John the Baptist’s ministry at Christ’s first coming (Lk 1:17) but also refers to another Elijah-like figure who will come before Christ’s second coming (Rev 11:3-6).
Though there are six disputations throughout the book, they are all connected to the book’s major theme which is that God loves Israel and that they should live in light of that covenant love. In Malachi 1:2, God gave his thesis statement when he said to Israel, “I have shown love to you.” In response, Israel said, “How have you shown love to us?” (v. 2). It is clear from their response that they doubted God’s love and therefore were not living in light of it. Like Christ rebuking the Ephesian church in Revelation 2:4 who was serving God but had lost their first love, so had the Israelites. They worshiped God, but their hearts were far from him. They sacrificed to God but kept back the best for themselves. The priests no longer taught the Word of God, and the people no longer gave their tithes. Their religion had form but lacked any real substance (2 Tim 3:5). Throughout the book, Malachi called them to live in light of God’s covenant love for them. He called them out of spiritual apathy and the sins that came from it.
We all struggle with spiritual apathy at times. The reason is because we naturally love ourselves and others more than God, which leads us into sin. This is why God’s greatest command is to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul (Matt 22:36-37). The reason it’s his greatest command is because it’s our greatest need and we’re most prone to neglect it. We are prone to neglect God or practice our religion without any genuine reverence for him. Therefore, Malachi starts his refutation of Israel with what should be the basis of their religion and ours. God loved them, and as seen throughout the book, they should love and obey him in return. This is true for us as well. First John 4:19 says, “We love because he loved us first.” Our acting in a loving manner towards God is based on his first loving us. Therefore, to faithfully obey God, we must remember his love for us and act in accordance with it.
As we study Malachi 1:1-5 (and the entire book), our hope is to be delivered from spiritual apathy and set on fire in our following of God. We will consider three principles necessary to overcome spiritual apathy.
Big Question: What principles about overcoming spiritual apathy can be discerned from Malachi 1:1-5?
To Overcome Spiritual Apathy, We Must Renew Our Urgency for God’s Word
This is an oracle, the Lord’s message to Israel through Malachi:
In speaking to Israel, Malachi called his message an “oracle,” which can literally be translated as a “burden.” The word conveys urgency or compulsion. The use of this word meant that all the disputations that God had with Israel and his promise to bring judgment weighed heavily on Malachi and gave him a sense of urgency to share it and help bring change. It was a burden to know the truth of the message. It was a burden to share it. And his burden was meant to become the people’s burden—their compulsion and passionate purpose. Though they were the people of God and grew up in a religious system, they became apathetic to God’s laws. They no longer studied God’s Word as they should, nor obeyed it. They weren’t being a light to one another, nor to the Gentiles, and they had no urgency for the coming of the messiah. Therefore, as mentioned throughout the letter, God warned them in hope that they might again take on the holy burden of God’s laws and enthusiastically obey them.
Likewise, this is commonly true of us. Many of us have grown up in Christian homes or been in the church for years, and consequently, we have experienced many of God’s graces and become dull to them. The Word of God, the Gospel, the Lord’s Supper, worship, evangelism, and service no longer excite or impassion us. These graces should be a holy burden that excite and draws us to God and obedience to him. However, they often do not. Consequently, as seen with God’s warnings to the post-exilic Israelites, we must overcome spiritual apathy and sin by becoming urgent about God’s Word again.
We see something of this in the Parable of the Builders which Christ gave to the Israelites listening to his sermon on the mount (Matt 7:24-27). In the story, one built his house on the sand, and it was destroyed by a storm, but the other built his house on a rock and it persevered through the storm. Christ described both builders as hearers of God’s Word, but the one who built his house on the rock also obeyed God’s Word. Christ taught this to the Israelites to move them from passive, apathetic, false faith to true faith which is marked by passionate obedience to God’s Word. Likewise, God through Malachi was seeking to do the same with to the post-exilic Israelites. They were apathetic listeners of God’s Word who needed to take on the burden given to Malachi by becoming urgent about God’s Word before judgment came. We must do the same. To overcome spiritual apathy, we must renew our urgency for God’s Word.
Application Question: How do we renew our urgency for God’s Word?
1. To renew our urgency for God’s Word, we must turn away from sin.
It’s been commonly said that either the Word of God will keep us out of sin or sin will keep us out of the Word of God. Those who are partaking in various sins and pleasures of the world will be less likely to read God’s Word and come to church or small group where the Word of God is taught. They will not enjoy these endeavors much. Likewise, being in God’s Word more will cause us to hate sin and things that promote it.
This is why it’s common to see commands in Scripture to turn away from sin right before we are told to turn to God’s Word. First Peter 2:1-2 says, “So get rid of all evil and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. And yearn like newborn infants for pure, spiritual milk.” If we don’t get rid of sin, it will quench our yearning, our desire, for the things of God. James 1:21 says something similar: “So put away all filth and evil excess and humbly welcome the message implanted within you, which is able to save your souls.” We need to get rid of sin to welcome God’s Word; otherwise, we’ll reject it.
2. To renew our urgency for God’s Word, we must discipline ourselves to study it.
Second Timothy 2:15 says, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” Though passion for something often precedes discipline, that is not always true. Often it takes discipline to learn to delight in something good for us. People often experience this with working out, drinking water, eating vegetables, going to church and small group, or anything else good for us. Often to develop a passion or delight in something, we must make it a discipline first before it becomes a delight. For those who lack a burden and hunger for God’s Word, often the best thing they can do is force-feed themselves by getting up early to study God’s Word, going to bed early to have time in it, and gathering at various times during the week to study God’s Word with others. Sometimes passion precedes discipline, but oftentimes, by being disciplined with something, we learn to like it and become passionate about it.
3. To renew our urgency for God’s Word, we must faithfully obey it.
Christ said this to his disciples in Mark 4:24-25:
…Take care about what you hear. The measure you use will be the measure you receive, and more will be added to you. For whoever has will be given more, but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.
As we obey what we have learned from God’s Word, God blesses us by giving us a deeper understanding of it and opportunities to share it. The measure we use what we have heard will be the measure we receive from God. But, those who do not obey God’s Word will experience loss, including dullness and hardening of the heart. Therefore, those who are growing in passion for God’s Word are the ones who are faithfully studying, obeying, and sharing it; and as they obey, God gives them more—more understanding, more fruit in their service of others, and more fruit in their increasing intimacy with God. However, as mentioned, if we are neglecting God’s Word and obedience to it, we will experience a hardening of the heart as God takes away.
Again, Malachi wrote to Israel concerning the oracle, the burden, God gave him. For the most part, Malachi doesn’t teach new things to Israel. He re-taught things they already knew but had ceased to obey or care about. Israel was familiar with the temple, sacrifices, worship, the importance of marriage, and giving one’s offerings to God; however, familiarity had brought spiritual apathy, contempt, and sin. Unfortunately, that commonly happens to us. We often don’t need to learn new Scriptural truths but be faithful with the old. If we are going to overcome spiritual apathy, we must renew our urgency for God’s Word even as God was calling Israel to do. We must again take on the holy burden of knowing and obeying it.
Application Question: In what ways have you seen or experienced how sin will keep us out of God’s Word or God’s Word will keep us out of sin? How is your passion and reverence for God’s Word currently on a scale of 1-10 and why? When experiencing spiritual apathy, how do you break out of it? How is God calling you to renew your urgency for his Word in this season?
To Overcome Spiritual Apathy, We Must Remember God’s Great Love for Us
“I have shown love to you,” says the Lord, but you say, “How have you shown love to us?” “Esau was Jacob’s brother,” the Lord explains, “yet I chose Jacob and rejected Esau. I turned Esau’s mountains into a deserted wasteland and gave his territory to the wild jackals.” Edom says, “Though we are devastated, we will once again build the ruined places.” So the Lord of Heaven’s Armies responds, “They indeed may build, but I will overthrow. They will be known as the land of evil, the people with whom the Lord is permanently displeased.
When confronting Israel’s spiritual apathy, God says, “I have shown love to you” or “I have loved you” (v. 2 ESV). The tense of the word “love” means something that happened in the past but with continuing results. God was saying something like “I have loved you in the past and still do.” This means there was a long list of God’s loving acts to Israel throughout their history and into their present. The fact that God reminded Israel of this means that they had forgotten, neglected, or were doubting God’s love. Israel had spent over seventy years exiled from their land in Babylon. While there, they experienced all types of persecution, as seen in the books of Daniel and Esther. After moving back to Israel, they rebuilt the temple, but it didn’t compare to the previous temple’s size and glory. They had just rebuilt the walls around Jerusalem but very few people lived in the capital city and the inside needed to be rebuilt. They were still under the Persian king and his appointed governor. They didn’t have an army and therefore were vulnerable to their neighbors who didn’t like them. They were struggling with a drought because of sin, and consequently, their harvests were meager (Mal 3:11). There were various reasons around them to doubt God’s love.
In addition, the prophets had given many prophecies about God blessing and exalting Israel among the nations, the messiah coming, and the nations flocking to Israel to worship Yahweh (cf. Is 49:22-23; 54:1-3; Jer 23:5-6, Zech 8:20-23). These prophecies of a golden era in Israel probably seemed like false hope. They were discouraged about their circumstances, doubting God’s Word, and therefore tempted to doubt God and sin against him. This is why God reminded them of his love. Again, the tense of the word “love” referred to something that happened in the past but with continuing results. Therefore, throughout Israel’s history, there was clear evidence of his love. In fact, even his discipline of them, including the exile, was evidence of his love (Heb 12:6). His discipline was meant to turn Israel back to God and his blessings and away from idolatry and sin. God truly loved them.
In fact, to prove God’s love, he gave the evidence of their calling as his covenant people. He says in verses 2 and 3: “‘Esau was Jacob’s brother,’ the Lord explains, ‘yet I chose Jacob and rejected Esau…” Other versions translate this, “I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated” (ESV). The NET version is correct in translating this as “chose” since the verse does not refer to God emotionally hating Esau and his descendants, the Edomites, or emotionally loving Jacob and his descendants, the Israelites. This love and hate had to do with election; God chose Jacob and his descendants to receive God’s promise to Abraham of being a blessing to the earth. In Romans 9:10-13, Paul talked about this:
Not only that, but when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our ancestor Isaac—even before they were born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose in election would stand, not by works but by his calling)—it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger,” just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
Again, in verse 11, it says, “even before they were born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose in election would stand, not by works but by his calling).” God chose between the two even before they were born. One of them was to carry Abraham’s blessing and the other was not. Now, it must be said, this election is not to salvation or eternal damnation. There would be believers and unbelievers in Israel and Edom, but Israel would carry the blessing God promised to Abraham. The prophets would come through them, the Mosaic Law, the temple, the Bible, and the messiah who would save the world. God chose to call Israel to himself as priests to reach the world. Israel was not chosen because they were good or deserving. God chose Jacob, their father, before he was born and had done any works. Deuteronomy 7:7-8 confirms Israel’s election had nothing to do with their specific merits or God foreseeing some merits in them:
It is not because you were more numerous than all the other peoples that the Lord favored and chose you—for in fact you were the least numerous of all peoples. Rather it is because of his love for you and his faithfulness to the promise he solemnly vowed to your ancestors that the Lord brought you out with great power, redeeming you from the place of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
Though Israel’s circumstances were difficult which made it hard to believe God loved them at times, they needed to remember all the graces God had given them. They were chosen from all the nations of the world to be a blessing to them. As mentioned, even their exile was because of God’s special covenant with them. He would not let them live in sin. In the covenant, he promised to discipline them to help them turn back to God (Dt 28:15, 36).
If they had any doubts about God’s loving election of them, God told them to consider Esau’s descendants, the Edomites. When Israel had been conquered and exiled to Babylon because of their sin, God graciously brought them back to their land. During their exile, the Edomites mocked Israel and therefore God promised to judge them (cf. Ps 137:7, Ob 1:10-14). This happened when the Nabateans Arabs conquered Edom and displaced them from their land sometime between 550 and 400 BC. Malachi mentioned that the Edomites wanted to return and rebuild their land (v. 4), but God would not allow it as an eternal judgment for their sins. When Israel considered Edom’s plight, being unable to return to their land, it would be clear to them how God had loved and blessed them as a nation. In fact, historically, Israel is the only nation to be exiled from their land and to return in mass, which happened multiple times. Mark Hitchcock, in his book The Amazing Claims of Bible Prophecy, said this:
The Jews are remarkable in light of the testimony of history to exile and return. In all of human history there have been less than ten deportations of a people group from their native land. These people groups disappeared in history because they assimilated into the nations to which they were exiled. However, the Jewish people did not simply experience a single exile, but multiple exiles…
Surely, they have experienced great grace which not only is seen in comparison with the Edomites who eventually disappeared from the earth but also every other nation that has been deported. None of them returned to the land but Israel has been exiled and returned multiple times in their history. God has surely loved them in the sense of choosing them and favoring them, and by remembering God’s love, it would help deliver the Israelites from spiritual apathy and various sins. Likewise, we must remember God’s love and grace over our lives to overcome apathy.
Application Question: How can we also remember God’s great love for us?
1. To remember God’s love for us, we must first remember our election to salvation.
God’s choosing of Jacob over Esau before they were born or had done anything good or evil should also remind us of our salvation. One of the mysteries that Scripture teaches is that we were chosen before time for salvation, not based on anything we have done or will do. Ephesians 1:4-6 says,
For he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world that we should be holy and blameless before him in love. He did this by predestining us to adoption as his legal heirs through Jesus Christ, according to the pleasure of his will—to the praise of the glory of his grace that he has freely bestowed on us in his dearly loved Son.
God did all this “to the praise of the glory of his grace.” God chose to love us, commit to us, save us, and use us for his kingdom before we were even born. Some see election as being conditional based on God foreseeing that we would accept him (cf. Rom 8:29, “those whom he foreknew, he also predestined”); however, Scripture seems to indicate that election is unconditional, based totally on God’s grace—his unmerited favor on the lost even as seen with Jacob and Esau (cf. Rom 8:7, 1 Cor 2:14, Eph 2:8-9, Phil 1:29, Eph 1:4). Jacob was a sinner and possibly a worse sinner than Esau; however, God, according to his grace, chose to bestow favor on Jacob before the twins were born. Likewise, God did the same with us. We are sinners just like everybody else, but God chose to bestow grace on us—unmerited and undeserved favor. God’s election magnifies God, not humans since none deserve salvation. We all deserve judgment.
In considering our election which is a repeated doctrine through the New Testament (John 6:36-39, 17:2, Eph 1:4, Rom 8:29, 1 Pet 1:1, etc.), we may not fully understand it, but we must recognize the unmerited favor we have received and give God thanks for his electing love. We are people who deserve judgment but who have experienced saving grace through Christ Jesus. If we struggle with whether we are elect, it’s simple. Christ, in describing the elect who God gave him before time said this in John 6:37: “Everyone whom the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will never send away.” Those who come to Christ in repentance of their sins, faith in his death and resurrection, and commitment to follow him as Lord and Savior shall be saved. Those are the elect.
And if God’s election of us “before time” isn’t sufficient proof for us (or too confusing), God died for us “in time” to demonstrate his great love for us. Romans 5:8 says: “But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God elected us, died for us, and drew us to himself so that we may know him in a saving manner. We must remember God’s election of us to salvation as a proof of his great love for us.
2. To remember God’s love for us, we must be careful to not doubt it when life is difficult.
It seems clear that part of the reason the Israelites were doubting God’s love and therefore had become spiritually apathetic was the difficult things they were going through as a nation. We’re often like this as well when going through difficult times. We have difficulties in our marriage, with our children, friends, health, job, or schooling. Others seem to have more blessings and fewer problems than we do. It’s easy to begin to look at our circumstances and doubt God’s goodness and love for us. Like the Israelites, we must be careful of doubting him in seasons of difficulty. God loves us and has good plans for us. The majority of his blessings are eternal and not just within our seventy or eighty years here on earth. And even our trials on this earth are meant to mature and prepare us for good works now and throughout eternity. Second Corinthians 4:17 says, “For our momentary, light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.” James 1:2-3 says, “My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” We must be careful to not lose sight of God’s love when going through difficulties.
3. To remember God’s love for us, we must be careful to not forget him when things are good.
Though most of the people in Israel probably weren’t struggling with spiritual apathy and doubting God’s love because of prosperity, we know that they struggled with this throughout their history. When they first entered the land of Canaan and conquered it under Joshua, they soon went into 400 years of rebellion against God in the Judges stage. Homosexuality, rape, idolatry, sacrificing their children, idolatry, and all other types of sin began to define them. It was during their prosperity that they neglected God which led to all those sins and God’s judgment. Also, it was under Solomon when Israel was the most prosperous that they started worshipping idols, and God judged the nation by raising up enemies towards it and dividing it. In fact, Moses warned Israel about forgetting God during seasons of prosperity in the Mosaic covenant before they entered the promised land. Deuteronomy 8:11-18 says this:
Be sure you do not forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments, ordinances, and statutes that I am giving you today. When you eat your fill, when you build and occupy good houses, when your cattle and flocks increase, when you have plenty of silver and gold, and when you have abundance of everything, be sure you do not feel self-important and forget the Lord your God who brought you from the land of Egypt, the place of slavery, and who brought you through the great, fearful wilderness of venomous serpents and scorpions, an arid place with no water. He made water flow from a flint rock and fed you in the wilderness with manna (which your ancestors had never before known) so that he might by humbling you test you and eventually bring good to you. Be careful not to say, “My own ability and skill have gotten me this wealth.” You must remember the Lord your God, for he is the one who gives ability to get wealth; if you do this he will confirm his covenant that he made by oath to your ancestors, even as he has to this day.
As Christians in developed nations, we don’t commonly have to deal with overt persecution for our faith, and we are often wealthier than most people in the world (whether we realize this or not). In part because of our prosperity, we often struggle with greater spiritual apathy than many Christians in less prosperous nations. In Matthew 13:22 in the Parable of the Sowers, Christ described the seed amongst thorns this way: “The seed sown among thorns is the person who hears the word, but worldly cares and the seductiveness of wealth choke the word, so it produces nothing.” For us in developed nations, the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of riches commonly choke the Word and make it unfruitful. It’s not that we don’t have churches. We commonly have them on every corner. The problem is wealth and the pursuit of it commonly makes the Word of God ineffective in our churches, making the people in them spiritually dull and apathetic. Therefore, we must heed Moses’ warning to Israel and aim to not forget God when we prosper or for short periods life appears problem free.
4. To remember God’s love for us, we must choose to practice gratefulness.
Though we have been saved by God and received many of his blessings, we often forget to thank God and therefore take his promises and blessings for granted. In fact, we don’t just take them for granted, we are often prone to complaining. In life, as a general observation, those who have experienced the greatest blessings of God’s providences are often the greatest complainers. Those who are used to having great food are more prone to complain about things like the presentation of the food and the texture instead of simply being thankful for it. Those who have great houses and comforts are more prone to complain when visiting someone else’s home or when they visit a developing country. Those who have most benefited from God’s providence tend to be the greatest complainers. Therefore, one of the ways we combat complaining and remember God’s love is by giving God thanks for all his blessings and even the trials which humble us. First Thessalonians 5:18 says, “in everything give thanks. For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
5. To remember God’s love for us, we must pray to comprehend it.
Apparently, the Ephesian Christians struggled with comprehending God’s love just like the Israelites and therefore struggled with loving God in return (cf. Rev 2:4-5). In Ephesians 3:16, 18-19, Paul prayed for God to give them grace to comprehend the depth and width of God’s love for them.
I pray that … you will be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and thus to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you will be filled up to all the fullness of God.
Paul’s praying for this comprehension reminds us that it is ultimately a supernatural work done by God in our lives. We are by nature prone to run from God and not comprehend or be thankful for his grace. Consequently, we should pray often to comprehend God’s great love for us and for others to comprehend it as well. Knowing God’s love ultimately leads to us loving him back. Also, God’s “perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). It delivers us from fears about our past failures or our future because we know our loving God forgives, directs, and provides. Again, 1 John 4:19 says, “We love because he loved us first.” Therefore, we should pray to deeply comprehend God’s love.
6. To remember God’s love for us, we must at times wisely consider God’s providence over our lives in comparison with others.
Though in general, comparison is never wise as it tends to create pride or insecurity within us. However, as seen in this passage, there are times when it may be prudent. It can be wise to at times look around at those who do not know Christ and have not experienced a gospel witness so that we can remember to be thankful that we have. It may be wise to look around at the difficulties of others to realize how much grace we have received and to help us be content and thankful. It can be wise to look around at God’s judgment on other nations to remember that though our nation is not perfect, there is still grace on it. Considering God’s providence over our lives in comparison with others is only good when it leads to worshipping God and being thankful as seen with Israel’s response when considering God’s judgment on Edom and their own circumstances. After considering, they would declare, “May the Lord be magnified even beyond the border of Israel!” (Mal 1:5).
If we are going to overcome spiritual apathy, we must remember God’s great love for us. As Paul taught in his prayer, as we comprehend God’s great love for us it leads to being filled with the fullness of God (Eph 3:18-19)—meaning that God empowers and changes us.
Application Question: Why is it so important to comprehend God’s love for us? How have you at times struggled with doubting God’s love and good plan for you? How is God calling you to grow in remembering and comprehending his great love for you? Is it ever right to compare God’s providence over our lives with others and if so, when?
To Overcome Spiritual Apathy, We Must Focus on God and His Glory Instead of Ourselves
Your eyes will see it, and then you will say, ‘May the Lord be magnified even beyond the border of Israel!’ ”
As mentioned, after God pointed to his judgment on Edom to prove his love for Israel, the Israelites would see and declare, “May the Lord be magnified even beyond the border of Israel” (v. 5). What this means is that Israel would take their eyes off their difficulties and focus on God’s plan to glorify himself not just in Israel but amongst nations. God emphasizes his plan for this shortly after in verses 11 and 14:
For from the east to the west my name will be great among the nations. Incense and pure offerings will be offered in my name everywhere, for my name will be great among the nations…
…For I am a great king,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, “and my name is awesome among the nations.”
In fact, one of the ways God glorifies himself as king and sovereign over the earth is by having mercy on some and bringing justice on others. With Israel, God chose to glorify his name by saving a wicked people and calling them to be a blessing to the world. With the Edomites, God would receive glory by judging them for their sins. Soon after considering God’s selection of Jacob and rejection of Esau, Paul said this in Romans 9:22-24:
But what if God, willing to demonstrate his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath prepared for destruction? And what if he is willing to make known the wealth of his glory on the objects of mercy that he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us, whom he has called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?
Paul said with some, God brings glory to himself by judging their sins, and with others, he brings glory to himself by being merciful to them. This is what we see in election. With the fallen angels, God brought glory to himself by judging every one of them. None received mercy. However, when humans fell, God chose to judge some and give mercy—undeserved favor—to an elect remnant. Likewise, with Edom and Israel, both were sinful and deserving of judgment, however, God gave mercy to Israel because of his election of Jacob but brought only justice to Edom. In both cases, God brought glory to himself as the sovereign King who is ultimately over the nations. In considering these realities, all we can do is fall down and worship the great King who works all things according to the purpose of his will (Eph 1:11). Psalm 115:3 says, “Our God is in heaven. He does whatever he pleases.”
This reality should deliver us from spiritual apathy as we apply it to the various circumstances we go through. As the wise King, God has the right and character to rule in our lives and throughout the earth as he pleases. His decisions may not always seem wise to us, but they are best since he is not only sovereign but also all-wise and all-good. As we trust him and submit to his will as King, it will deliver us from anger and spiritual apathy to his will. Job understood this reality. When Job lost his children and wealth, he said, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. May the name of the Lord be blessed!’” (Job 1:21). He trusted God’s sovereign right as king to give and take away, to bless and curse. He trusted God as a good and wise King, and therefore worshiped him. Likewise, before Christ went to the cross, he prayed for God to take away the cup of suffering but at the same time said, “Nevertheless your will be done” (Lk 22:42). He submitted his will to God, trusting that God’s will as Sovereign was best. Similarly, to overcome spiritual apathy and even anger at God, we must submit to and focus on God instead of ourselves.
As mentioned, through seeing God’s judgment on Edom, Israel was meant to take their eyes off themselves and their difficulties and focus on God and his glory amongst the nations. He will be glorified beyond the border of Israel as he rules justly and mercifully. Likewise, to overcome spiritual apathy, we must take our eyes off ourselves and our difficulties as well and focus on God’s greater plan in the midst of his dealings. God’s plan is bigger than our difficulties. Consequently, if we focus on and pursue God’s glory at work, with family and friends, in church, in difficulty, or in prosperity, it will help deliver us from spiritual apathy and many sins. In 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NIV), Paul said it this way:
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
Instead of focusing on a body that was wasting away, Paul and the apostles focused on eternal realities which kept them from losing heart in their abundant trials (2 Cor 11). Likewise, we must do the same; we must lift our eyes off ourselves to what God is doing in us and around the world as he builds his kingdom on this earth.
Are we taking our eyes of ourselves and our prosperity to focus on God, his glory, and kingdom? If so, it will deliver us from spiritual apathy and many sins.
Application Question: Why is it important to take our eyes off ourselves in the midst of trials to focus on God and his glory? How can we practice this discipline?
How can we overcome spiritual apathy? Israel was religious, but their religion lacked commitment and passion for God. Consequently, many sins crept into their lives. Therefore, God confronted them through Malachi, so they could be restored to him and prepared for their coming messiah. Likewise, we often struggle with spiritual apathy as well. We don’t love God with all our hearts; we struggle with being thankful for his blessing and consequently are led into various sins. Malachi’s words to Israel speak to us:
1. To Overcome Spiritual Apathy, We Must Renew Our Urgency for God’s Word
2. To Overcome Spiritual Apathy, We Must Remember God’s Great Love for Us
3. To Overcome Spiritual Apathy, We Must Focus on God and His Glory Instead of Ourselves
Application Question: What stood out most in the study and why?
• Pray for God to renew our passion and reverence for God’s Word.
• Pray for grace to continually give God thanks for all the graces, blessings, and trials God has allowed or given us.
• Pray for grace to know the depths of God’s great love for us, so we can be empowered to better serve him and delivered from fears and anxieties which hinder us.
• Pray for grace to submit to God as King and trust his sovereignty in all situations.
• Pray for God to bring revival in his church throughout the world, so she can faithfully minister to the world and glorify Christ.