Proving God’s Faithfulness
June 1, 2003
One day a man called his church and said, “Can I speak to the head hog at the trough?”
The secretary thought she heard right but asked, “I’m sorry. Who would you like to speak with?” The caller repeated, “Can I speak to the head hog at the trough?”
The secretary answered, “Well, if you mean the preacher, then you may refer to him as ‘Pastor’ or ‘Brother,” but I prefer you not call him the ‘head hog at the trough!’” The man replied, “Well, I was planning on giving $100,000 to the building fund…”
To which the secretary quickly responded, “Hang on. I think the big fat pig just walked in.”
As we begin this morning, let me acknowledge that the church has gotten a bad rap for the perception that it is always asking for money. Caricatures of the clergy almost always involve some reference to making people feel guilty about giving. I just want to say that you can call me whatever animal you’d like if you’re ready to write a check for $100,000! Just kidding.
I want you to know that I wrestle with speaking about giving because I realize the stakes are high. I know of at least one visitor who has not returned because we focused on this topic when we were kicking off our building campaign two years ago. Perhaps you’re visiting today and are already looking for the exit doors. Please don’t feel like we’re after your money because we’re not.
I do want to mention that our study in Malachi has really messed with me, as I’m sure it has with you. If you feel a bit beat up and guilt-ridden, let me remind you that the very first message of Malachi is that God loves you. God sent His Son to deal with our guilt and shame. As we come to our theme today, let me say that the deacons have not put me up to this. I am not trying to manipulate you to give to any plan or program of PBC. As we’ve been going through this last book of the Old Testament verse-by-verse, this just happens to be the next topic.
Having said that, while I feel some ministerial awkwardness about stewardship sermons, I’m not apologizing about the subject matter today. How we manage money is directly linked to our discipleship. In fact, there are more verses in the Bible regarding our resources than about Heaven and Hell combined. Of the 38 parables Jesus told, 16 of them are about money. The Bible has fewer than 300 verses on prayer, less than 500 on faith and over 2,000 verses that deal with wealth and possessions! The inescapable conclusion is that how we deal with finances in general, and what we give in particular, is a big deal to God. And so we need to focus on our funds, no matter how uncomfortable we may feel about it.
Last week we concluded by establishing the fact that Jesus is a refining fire. He cleans us up because we’re dirty. And He does His work in us so that He can see His image reflected through us. I want you to notice that one of the reasons He refines us is so that we can give offerings to God with pure motives. Look at Malachi 3:3-4: “Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years.” Instead of giving their injured, crippled, and diseased animals, once they honor God’s name, they will offer acceptable offerings. They will bring their best, not their worst.
My guess is that most all of us could stand a little refining in our attitudes toward offerings as well. We don’t give in order to get. We give because of what we’ve been given. With that in mind, please turn to Malachi 3:6-12 where we will discover five features of grace giving.
Five Features of Grace Giving
1. Refocus on God’s character (6). As we’ve been learning in Malachi, our view of God determines everything else about us. If we consider Him weighty, we will live and give accordingly. If we see God as out to get us, then we’ll be afraid and give only to appease His anger. And, if we don’t think much of God at all, chances are we won’t give much either. Verse 6 helps us get refocused: “I the LORD do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.” God is speaking in the first person. The word “Lord” literally means, “He who is” and refers to His immutability, or unchangeableness. The next phrase repeats and emphasizes this fact: “I the LORD do not change.” To “not change” means that God can be counted on. He does not waver or falter because He is faithful.
Our only hope in life is this: God never changes. He is the one constant we can count on while everything around us moves and turns and shifts. Here’s a working definition: “God does not, and cannot, change in His basic character.” Nothing that God has ever said about Himself will be modified; nothing the inspired prophets and apostles have said about Him will be rescinded. All that God is, He has always been; and all that He has been, and is, He will ever be. We could use the word “always” to express this truth about God. God is always wise, always sovereign, always faithful, always just, always holy and always loving. Whatever God is, He always is. There are no “sometimes” attributes of God. All of His attributes are “always” attributes.
There are many verses in the Bible that teach this truth. Here are two:
- 1 Samuel 15:29: “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man, that He should change His mind.”
- James 1:17: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”
I want you to notice that because God does not change, we can count on Him to keep His covenant with us. Specifically, the immutability of the Almighty is the guarantee of His grace. Look at the last part of verse 6: “So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.” God could have legitimately wiped out His people because they had broken their part of the covenant.
Friends, do you see God as gracious and merciful? I’m convinced that many of us do not fully understand the depth of God’s love. He does not change. You can count on Him. Psalm 78:38: “Yet he was merciful; he forgave their iniquities and did not destroy them. Time after time he restrained his anger and did not stir up his full wrath.”
Because God does not change we can confidently count on three certainties:
- His promises never change. Romans 14:21: “Being fully persuaded that God had power to do what He had promised.”
- His purposes never change. Isaiah 14:24: “The Lord Almighty has sworn, ‘Surely, as I have planned, so it will be, and as I have purposed, so it will stand.’”
- His personality never changes. Hebrews 6:18: “God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie…”
That leads to a second truth. Because God does not change, God’s people can change.
2. Return wholeheartedly to God (7). The first part of verse 7 is a summary statement of the fickleness of the followers of God down through the centuries: “Ever since the time of your forefathers you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them.” They, like us, have turned away, which literally means, “to turn off.”
The warning God gave them in Deuteronomy 31:20 had proven true: “When I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, the land I promised on oath to their forefathers, and when they eat their fill and thrive, they will turn to other gods and worship them, rejecting me and breaking my covenant.” When our needs are met we often turn away from God, don’t we? Instead of keeping God’s Word in front of us, we try to push it out of the way as was done in Nehemiah 9:26: “But they were disobedient and rebelled against you; they put your law behind their backs.”
And yet, despite how we live and what we do, God graciously calls out with words that reveal His longing for relationship. Look at the next phrase in verse 7: “Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord Almighty.” To return means to turn back to what we know is true. The door to blessing starts when we turn back. You can hear God’s desire to have all of us in Hosea 14:1: “Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God. Your sins have been your downfall!” And, when we turn back, even if it’s just a small step, God promises to meet us. James 4:8: “Come near to God and he will come near to you.” One of my favorite verses is found in Jeremiah 3:22: “Return, faithless people; I will cure you of backsliding.”
You would think they would want to return to their Redeemer, especially since He promised to restore the relationship and even cure their wandering hearts. But, once again, God’s people haven’t changed much over the centuries. Instead of returning wholeheartedly, they deny that they even have a problem. Look at the last part of Malachi 3:7: “But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’”
They are not asking for some practical ways that they can step it up spiritually. This is now the sixth time in the book where they have responded like smart alecks. The New Living Translation captures their denial: “How can we return when we have never gone away?” They don’t think they’ve done anything wrong. How can they come back when they’ve never left? How can they repent if they’re not guilty of any sin?
The first step back is to ask, like the prodigal son did when he was in the pigpen, “How did I get here?” Friend, listen carefully. The first place to start is to admit that you’ve departed. You might not have left on purpose. Perhaps it’s just been a slow drift. Most of us don’t decide to rebel but over time, we neglect this and neglect that and start doing something that isn’t good, and after awhile we recognize how far we’ve fallen. Do you want to return wholeheartedly? If so, then admit that you need to.
The second step is this: “How do I get back home?” What do I need to do? What changes do I need to make? What path do I need to take? Malachi’s message was a call to return. One way to return is to step up our offerings.
3. Realize the importance of giving (8-10a). Look at verse 8: “Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, ‘How do we rob you?’ In tithes and offerings.” The word “rob” here means to “take forcibly.” The people didn’t like this accusation. How could they be stealing from God? The reason God says that they are robbing Him is that they had begun to take what belonged to Him and kept it for themselves. They had lost sight of the fact that God owns everything. Deuteronomy 10:14: “To the LORD your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it.”
As a way to recognize God’s rightful rule and omnipotent ownership of all things, God’s people in the Old Testament were instructed to give tithes and offerings. This word literally means “a tenth,” or 10%. While some would say that this teaching is based on the Law, let me remind you that Abraham practiced tithing 400 years before the Law was even established in Genesis 14:20 when he gave a tenth of everything he owned to the priest Melchizedek. Deuteronomy 12:11, which is part of the Law, challenges God’s people to bring their tithes and special gifts to the place of God’s choosing.
The people of Israel did not just give one tithe. First, they were required to bring a tenth of all produce and livestock, or the financial equivalent, into the Temple for distribution among the Israelites. The Levites then gave a portion of their tithe to the priests. Second, they were to bring another tithe during special feast days. Third, adults were required to pay a half shekel whenever a census was taken.
Failure to tithe properly could have included not giving at all, withholding part of it, or not giving at the proper time. Whatever the reason, because they had been robbing God, verse 9 says that the whole nation was under a curse. That reminds us of what God said in Amos 4:9. Even when He sends problems, it’s in order to get us to return to Him wholeheartedly: “Many times I struck your gardens and vineyards, I struck them with blight and mildew. Locusts devoured your fig and olive trees, yet you have not returned to me, declares the LORD.”
When we grovel about giving or withhold what is His, we are robbing God of His right to use us to propel His purposes in the world. Look at the first part of verse 10: “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house…” The storehouse was the chamber in the Temple where the tithes and offerings were kept. Let me make three summary statements about the application of tithing for today.
· While we are no longer under the Law, tithing is a good benchmark for believers. In other words, it’s a good place to start, sort of like a “minimum guide” for giving. J. Vernon McGee refers to it as a yardstick by which we can measure ourselves.
· It’s easy to tithe and yet miss out on what’s really important. Jesus took the Pharisees to task not because they didn’t tithe, but because they had become so legalistic that they no longer cared about their love for God or for their neighbor. Luke 11:42: “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.” God looks at the heart, not the hand. He focuses on the giver, not the gift because the attitude is more important than the amount.
· The practice of tithing is a good reminder of who’s in charge of my life. When I give at least 10%, it’s a way to be reminded that God owns everything that I have. God wants what my money represents—me. When giving to God, we’re just taking our hands off what belongs to Him in the first place. My use of money shows what I think of Him because my giving is a thermometer of my love. Joe Stowell writes, “it’s not so much what you have but, rather, what has you that makes all the difference” (From the foreword to “A Biblical Theology of Material Possessions,” by Gene Getz).
I don’t have time to give a full picture of what the entire Bible teaches about giving but let me quickly draw three more principles from just one verse in the New Testament. Since we are not under the Law, it’s essential that we understand giving in an age of grace. Having said that, in general, the New Testament heightens, rather than lessens the teachings of the Old Testament. 1 Corinthians 16:2: “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income…”
- Giving should be punctual. The Bible says that believers are to give on a regular basis: “On the first day of the week.”
- Giving should be personal. Giving is something that is inherently individualistic. It’s between you and God what you give. At the same time, the Bible makes it clear that every believer is to give: “each one of you.” Giving is not just a suggestion. God expects each of us to be givers.
· Giving should be proportional. We are to give according to how God has blessed us. The believer is to set aside “a sum of money in keeping with his income.” Proportional giving means that the more God blesses us, the more we’re able to give. That’s New Testament grace giving, which may involve more than just giving 10%. According to Malachi, the more you give, the more you are blessed. 1 Corinthians teaches that the more you’re blessed, the more you can give. Someone put it this way: “Give according to your income, lest God make your income according to your giving.” The Old Testament gives a command to tithe by setting a standard of percentage giving. In the New Testament the command becomes a model as we’re urged to practice proportional giving. The emphasis is on liberality, not limitation.
Ultimately, when we give we are saying that we trust God to take care of our needs. That leads to the next feature of giving from the middle section of verse 10: “Test me in this, says the LORD Almighty…”
4. Relinquish control by trusting God (10b). Here’s another way to say it. When we give at least 10% of our income to God, we’re saying that we trust Him to enable us to live on the other 90%. Jesus put it this way in Matthew 6:33: “But seek first His kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Researcher Sylvia Ronsvalle, after studying giving patterns among Christians, concluded by saying, “If you want to know what we learned in 25 words or less, giving is down because we don’t love God as much as we love a lot of other stuff” (“Salt of the Earth,” July/August 1997).
Malachi 3:10 is the only place in the Bible where God tells us to test Him. To “test” means to investigate or prove something as true. It doesn’t sound right, does it? We’re warned about not putting God to the test and yet when it comes to giving, God invites us to test Him because the real issue is not money, but trust. When we decide to give a percentage of our income to the Lord, we then have the opportunity to trust His faithfulness to meet all of our needs. Or, we could put it like this: When we first give ourselves to the Lord, all other giving is easy.
God is saying, “I dare you! Test me in this way to see if I really exist or not.” Listen to the New Living Translation: “Try it! Let me prove it to you!” This is one of the most amazing verses in the entire Bible. He allows Himself to be put on trial. He didn’t have to make this promise. He could have simply told us to give 10% because He demands it and that’s that. But He wanted us to get to know Him in a much deeper way. Is God alive? Is He real? Does He love me? Will He keep His promises? One of the best ways to find out is to start tithing.
Many years ago, when I was an intern at a church in the Chicago suburbs, we launched a campaign to pay off the mortgage on the building. We had banners around the church that had just two words on them: “Prove Me.” It was during this emphasis that Beth and I cemented our commitment to tithe and we’ve never regretted it. I’ll never forget the joy that took place as we watched God bring in the finances so that we could retire the mortgage. I still remember the Sunday when we burned the note from the bank during a worship service. I can’t wait for that to happen here when we finally pay off the Family Life Center so that we can begin building a new worship center!
5. Rejoice in God’s blessings (10c-12). Look with me at the last part of verse 10 through verse 12: “…and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit, says the LORD Almighty. Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land, says the LORD Almighty.” This week I interviewed several people by asking them to simply tell me what came to their minds when I said the word, “tithing.” Here are some of their responses: “Do it. It works. Joy. Worship. Blessing.” It almost makes me feel sorry for those who don’t use the tithe as a yardstick for giving. They don’t know what they’re missing!
God says that He will open wide the river of heaven and will blow us away with His blessings. The phrase “floodgates” is used in Genesis 7:11 where we read what happened when God started to flood the earth with water: “…on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened.” The phrase, “so much blessing” means that God will give us more than enough. The world says the more you take the more you have. God says, the more you give, the more you are. Corrie Ten Boom put it this way: “The measure of a life is not its duration, but its donation.”
Proverbs 3:9-10 sheds some additional insight into how God rewards those who honor Him: “Honor the LORD with your wealth, with the first fruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine.”
The word, “pour” in Malachi 3:10 means to “to make empty.” When we trust God with our giving, He will empty His bucket of blessings on us and we’ll barely be able to stand it! We’ll feel like we don’t have any more room to hold everything that God gives us. Proverbs 11:24: “One man gives freely, yet gains even more; another man withholds unduly, but comes to poverty.” Proverbs 22:9: “A generous man will himself be blessed…” God is saying, “I dare you to try and exhaust me with your giving.”
Blessings come to those who tithe and amazingly, Malachi 3:11 states that God will keep certain bad things from happening when we give Him our first fruits. When I give, I put myself in a position to trust God to meet all my needs. In addition, God declares in verse 12 that His plan for global evangelization will be met. Can you imagine what would happen to the cause of missions if every believer would give at least 10% to kingdom purposes?
Let me close with three application points.
1. Audit your giving. Take some time to sit down and determine how much you’ve been giving to the Lord. One sermon I read this week had a great title: “Cirrhosis of the Giver.” George Barna, an evangelical researcher, just revealed the most current statistics about giving (“Barna Update,” 5/19/03).
· The proportion of Christians who tithe dropped by 62% in the past year.
· On average, believers give less than 3% of their income to the local church.
· Just 6% of evangelicals tithed to their church in 2002.
2. Take the tithing challenge. I wonder if some of you are ready to take God up on His tithing test. Here’s an idea. Why not determine to tithe this summer? For the months of June, July, and August, give like you’ve never given before. Ask God to prove Himself. Stop if you’d like in September, but my guess is that you won’t want to. I believe God will pour out His blessings in ways you have never experienced before.
3. Get out of debt. I know that some of you want to give more but you feel strapped because of the mountain of debt that you’re under. If you need some help in this area, we’ve included some information in the bulletin about Crown ministries. You can find a budget calculator on their web site and they can put you in touch with a financial counselor (www.crown.org). Ron Blue gives some helpful advice in his book called, “The Debt Squeeze: How Your Family Can Become Financially Free.” Let me share the five steps he offers to help get out of financial bondage:
· Transfer ownership to God.
· Determine where you are.
· Make a commitment to stop going into debt. This may require “plastic surgery.”
· Develop a repayment plan.
· Establish accountability.
One of my friends from college became a Christian the year after I did. He is totally sold out to Christ. Unbelievably, he and his wife not only tithe, but they give an extra 1% of their income each year to missions. That means that every year, their total giving goes up by 1%! When Beth and I were getting ready to go to Mexico as missionaries seven years ago, he took me aside and told me, with tears of joy in his eyes, that he and his wife want to get to the point where they can give an extra tithe to God’s global work. He then told me how much they were pledging to give to our family for our work in Mexico. I want you to know that I will never forget this. But it isn’t the amount I’ll remember, it’s the joy on his face as he shared their excitement about being able to give!