Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on November 4, 2013

Proverbs 3:9

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If you have your  Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to the book of Proverbs.  We’re going to take a break this morning from our series in the book of Hebrews to look at the text that has been chosen by the deacon stewardship committee for our theme verse for Commitment Sunday.  Today is the Lord’s Day on which we make our commitments to the support of the church’s work and worship for the year to come.  And so at the end of this service we’ll make our pledges for the 2014 budget.  And the deacon stewardship committee has chosen the theme of “Firstfruits,” which is in fact a very important theological theme in both the Old and the New Testament.  The idea of firstfruits is mentioned at least thirty-one times in the Bible.  And it’s not just an Old Testament idea.  Yes, the idea of firstfruits, the minute that the sickle hit the first blades of grain at the time of the harvest, that was when the firstfruits festival began, and the minute that that happened you were to take the best of the firstfruits of the crop to the Lord and offer them as a sacrifice to Him.  There’s all sorts of material in the law of Moses about those firstfruits.  But in the New Testament, the apostle Paul talks about firstfruits more than any other writer in the New Testament.  Nine times the apostle Paul uses the theme of firstfruits.  He applies it to Jesus – “Jesus is the firstfruits of those who have died in” – what?  “His resurrection.  He’s the firstfruits of a multitude that no man can number that will be raised from the dead in him and be with God forever.”  He uses the idea of firstfruits for the Holy Spirit and he even uses the idea for firstfruits with you and me.  And of course James and the book of Revelation give words about firstfruits in the New Testament. So it’s a theme that you find throughout the Bible.  

Firstfruits and the Ceremonial Law

Today we’re going to be looking at Proverbs chapter 3 verses 9 and 10 because I want you to see the whole of the context of that passage.  It’s the only passage in the entire book of Proverbs that addresses anything in the ceremonial law.  Usually the book of Proverbs is about our moral behavior, our ethical practice, and it does not get into things that deal with the liturgy of Old Testament worship.  This is the only passage that refers to something in the ceremonial code in the book of Proverbs and it’s very interesting that it’s about firstfruits and it’s about giving.  And we’re going to look at this passage together today.  In Israel, the practice of giving firstfruits was the practice of bringing the best of the first things that you harvested to the Lord in worship and offering it as a sacrifice to Him.  

What the Firstfruits Indicated

And this indicated several things. First of all, it indicated that you understood that God owns everything and that all we are, are stewards. Secondly, it indicates that you recognize that even though you’ve worked hard and you’ve sowed your seed and you’ve tended your crop and you’ve worked hard as a farmer, that the increase that you have received is a gift from the Lord.  In other words, we don’t view ourselves as sort of pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  We recognize that as hard as we work – and we’re to work hard – yet everything that we receive is a gift from the Lord.  Third, it indicates that the people of God understood and were thankful for God’s providence.  They were saying in that firstfruits ceremony, “Thank you, Lord.  You’ve taken good care of us.  This good crop that we had this year, You gave it to us and we thank You for it.”  Fourth, it was an indication that they were trusting God for continued provision.  I mean, if you’re going to take the best of the very first stuff that you harvest and give it to the Lord, you’ve got to trust that the Lord is going to keep on providing you what you need so that you can feed your family so that you can continue to live and serve.  And above all, the feast, the festival of firstfruits, was a way that the people in the Old Testament could say, “You know what?  God is first and best and so we give Him what is first and best.”  

“Firstfruits” in the life of New Testament believers 

But the New Testament applies what the Old Testament teaches about firstfruits to Christians.  And so this is not just something that’s to be left behind in the ceremonial law with no spiritual application and message for us today.  There’s a lot that we can learn from our study of the firstfruits.  And so I’m particularly thankful that the deacon stewardship committee chose this particular passage from Proverbs chapter 3 verses 9 and 10 because it gets us into four great themes.  And as we get ready to read this passage, I want you to be on the lookout for those themes.  The first theme is your money and worship.  This passage says something about a connection between your money and worship.  Second, this passage says something to us about your money and priorities.  Third, this passage says something about your money and plenty.  And fourth, this passage says something, especially to us as we see it in light of its New Testament application, it says something to us about yourself as a firstfruit.  So be on the lookout for that as we read together.  Let’s pray before we hear God’s Word.

This is Your Word, Lord, and as such, we need to hear it.  We do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from Your mouth.  So open our eyes to see and our ears to hear the truth that You have for us in Your Word.  And by Your Spirit, so apply it to our hearts that we understand it, we believe it, we love it, we live it.  All these things we ask in Jesus’ name, amen.

This is God’s Word.  Hear it in Proverbs 3 beginning in verse 9:

“Honor the LORD with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.”

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word.  May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

The Bible teaches us that God’s people are to give their first and best to God and it teaches us that through the law of firstfruits, even as that law is expounded in the New Testament.  And the Bible teaches us that we, the people of God, are chosen by God to be firstfruits unto Him.  And I want to explore both parts of that reality in this passage today by looking with you at four things.  And the first one has to do with your money and worship.  

I. Our Money and Worship

Do you realize that your giving is meant to be worship?  That’s explicitly entailed in the exhortation in this passage.  Did you notice it in the first words of verse 9?  “Honor the LORD with your wealth.”  That is a directive for you to worship with what you have.  Worship with your money. Think of your use of money, think of your use of your resources, think of your giving of your resources as an act of worship.  Do you think of it that way?  You know, I know that when you are singing a hymn or a psalm on Sunday morning or Sunday evening you know you’re worshiping. And I know that when you are joining in with the pastoral prayer on Sunday morning or with the prayer of the elders on Sunday evening that you know that you’re worshiping God.  I know that you know that you’re worshiping God when you’re listening to the sermon or you’re listening to the Scripture reading or you’re participating in a baptism or you’re coming to the Lord’s Table.  You know that when you gather with God’s people on the Lord’s Day and do those things you are worshiping Him.  

Worship through our Giving

Do you realize that you worship God through the giving of your money as well?  Our Westminster Confession of Faith reminds us that we worship God “through offerings and alms.”  We worship God through what we give to the support of the church’s worship and work as well as what we give in terms of benevolent giving.  Those things are ways to worship God.  And the proverbs are telling us here – be deliberate about that!  “Honor the LORD with your wealth.”  Worship the Lord in your giving.  Hughes Old, who is probably the greatest historian of the history of Christian worship alive today, he’s forgotten more than the rest of us put together have ever known, says that the only contribution to the historic protestant liturgy made by Americans is the inclusion of the offering in the worship service.  In other words, if you went to a Reformed church a hundred and fifty years ago in England or Scotland or on the continent of Europe, they wouldn’t have had an offertory.  You would have given your money to the Lord either before you came into the worship service or after the worship service.

Well starting sometime in the 19th century, Americans began to incorporate the giving of our tithes and offerings into the worship service.  And of course in doing so, they were paying heed precisely to this instruction.  “Honor the LORD with your wealth.”  Make sure that you understand that in your giving, that is an act of worship.  Is that your attitude when you are giving?  If it’s not, you’re missing a blessing.  I, when I got married, I divided my tithe up, generally, over about twelve months of the year so that I was giving evenly as much as I could across the year, but I would only hand that check in one Sunday a month.  And then I got married to Anne.  And it hurt her feelings that I wasn’t putting things into the offering plate every Sunday because her daddy had always put something in the offering plate every Sunday.  And I realized I’d better fix that real quick!  So I made sure that I had enough to put in the plate every Sunday because it was important to her.  And you know what?  It became a blessing to me because I realized that I got to participate in an act of worship at the offertory every time I was in the service.  That’s one reason I love to sit in a service here at First Pres. so that I can give my offering during the service instead of sticking it in Jimmi’s box down the hall on Monday or on Friday.  I get to hand it in during the worship service.  It’s an act of worship.  Is that your attitude towards giving?  If it’s not, you’re missing a blessing.  You’re missing a blessing.

II. Our Money and Priorities 

Second, look at verse 9 again.  This passage says something to us about our money and our priorities.  This passage teaches us to prioritize our giving to God.  “Honor the LORD with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce.”  So we’re to honor who with our wealth?  We’re to honor the Lord with our wealth.  I was at a dedication service just yesterday afternoon for a building that had been built to house school functions. And as I looked at the walls and the names of the people that had given to the building of that particular facility, your names were all over it.  In fact, I can go to the zoo in Jackson, I can go to the children’s museum in Jackson, I can go to the science museum in Jackson, I can go to Oxford and Starkville, I can go all over this state and when I look on the walls of who has given to the museums and the public institutions and the colleges and universities it’s your name!  And I just want to tell you, as your pastor, that makes me proud!  I’m just proud to know you!  I’m thankful that you are generous in giving for the welfare of this entire community.  What this passage says is, it’s good to be generous but remember your priority is your giving to the Lord.  “Honor the LORD with the giving of your wealth and bring the firstfruits of the produce to Him.”  

Our first and best, not our leftovers 

This says something about priorities.  In other words it’s saying, “Don’t give God your leftovers.”  God should receive the first and the best.  Give the Lord your first and your best.  If you look at Exodus chapter 23 verse 9, that’s one of the passages in Moses’ writings where the law of firstfruits is taught, you will see these words.  Sorry, 23:19 not 23:9 – I couldn’t see without these on!  23:19 – “The best of the firstfruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God.”  There’s a classic, one-sentence statement of the law of the firstfruits.  Bring the Lord the best of your firstfruits the minute the harvest begins.  There’s the law of the firstfruits.  And what’s the principle?  Make a priority of bringing your first and your best to the Lord.  

I’ll bet a lot of you had the same experience – when I was a little boy, my dad took a dollar bill, showed me the dollar bill, and then he took a stack of dimes, ten dimes, and he spread them out and he said, “Now those den dimes equal that dollar bill.”  Now he said, he stacked them up and he said, “Which one of those dimes is the Lord’s?”  And I said, “The one on top.”  He said, “That’s right.  The first one, the first one of those dimes is the Lord’s.”  He was just teaching me not to give the Lord my leftovers.  Don’t spend what I think I need to spend and then whatever’s left over give that to the Lord; give the Lord my first and best.  That’s a good lesson and that’s part of the lesson of the firstfruits.

III. Our Money and Plenty

Third, look at verse 10 now.  I know you’ve already been peeking ahead to verse 10 but look at it now; look at what it says.  “Honor the LORD with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.”  Now you may be thinking, “Boy that verse could be a hey-day for prosperity preachers!  The health and wealth folks could go wild with that!”  And no doubt they have!  But what that passage is reminding us is that there is a mysterious connection between plenty and generosity.  There is a mysterious connection in our experience between plenty and generosity.  Not because we want plenty and so we give a lot in order to get plenty, but because we want God and we are generous in our giving and God in His kindness gives us plenty.  There is a mysterious connection between plenty and generosity in the providence and promise of God.   And here’s the principle – the Lord blesses with plenty those who make Him their priority, not because they want plenty but because they want Him.  In other words, Proverbs is telling you generosity will not make you poor.  Oh it’s true that some of the most generous people you’ll ever meet are poor, so this is not a “get rich quick” scheme.  But the point is, in God’s providence He so often appoints that those who are generous in their giving are generously supplied so that they can generously give.  

A Parallel Theme in the New Testament 

That’s, by the way, a New Testament theme as much as it is an Old Testament theme.  Would you turn with me to 2 Corinthians chapter 9 and look at what Paul says in chapter 6?  This is the cheerful giver passage.  “The point is this” – 2 Corinthians 9 verse 6 – “whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”  Verse 8 – “God is able to make all grace abound to you so that, having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.”  And then look at verse 10 – “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for all your generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.”  Now there’s Paul articulating exactly what this passage is saying.  Is this passage saying that every Christian who is generous is going to be a multi-millionaire?  Sadly, no.  Is it saying that God will always reward with plenty those who make them their priority?  Yes, it is.  I don’t know exactly how that plenty is going to look; sometimes it may be financial, monetary, wealth.  Sometimes it may be other things – more intangible but more real at the same time.  But it’s a promise that when you make God your priority you’ll never ever regret it.

I was talking to one of our elders at the door and he repeated a story about a very wealthy man in the state of Tennessee.  He had, for a long time, been very wealthy and then the economy robbed him of many of the comforts that he had.  And someone said to him, “Do you regret all the money that you gave away when you were wealthy now that you’re not wealthy anymore?”  And his reply was, “I just wish I’d given more when I had it to give.”  And I must say, looking back on my own life the thought has never crossed my mind, “I wish I hadn’t given as much.”  That thought has never crossed my mind.  And many times I’ve thought, “I wish I’d given more,” but I’ve never thought, “You know, I gave too much.  I wish I hadn’t given that much.”  And this passage is reminding us that the Lord blesses with plenty those who are generous.

IV. Seeing Ourselves as Firstfruits

One last thing.  Look at verses 9 and 10 again.  It’s a command about giving firstfruits.  And in the first instance, that means actually giving a portion of the harvest back to the Lord – the first and best of that harvest to the Lord.  But when you look in the New Testament, look at 2 Thessalonians chapter 2 verse 13. There, Paul says this.  “We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved.”  Did you realize that you are firstfruits?  It’s not just that you are to give firstfruits; you are firstfruits!  God chose you to be firstfruits.  And in James – turn forward just a few pages to James chapter 1 verse 18.  What does James say in James 1:18?  “Of his own will he brought us forth, by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”  Did you realize that you, Christian, you are a firstfruit?  Now that’s amazing.  

Giving: An Expression of Firstfruits People

What are we learning there?  We’re learning that we need to see ourselves as a special possession of the Lord’s and thus uniquely devoted to Him.  So our giving is not just something that we do; it is an expression of who we are.  We place a priority on giving to the Lord because we understand that we belong to the Lord in a unique and special way.  If you were in charge of a charity and if you were in charge of developing that charity, which would you rather have – would you rather have a person who gave you a generous check or would you rather have a generous person who really really was invested in the ministry of your charity?  Well I know which one I’d want if I were the development officer.  I’d want the generous person because that generous person would not only give one check, that generous person would probably keep on giving over the years and furthermore, would pray for that charity, would be involved in that charity, would give time to that charity, energy and effort to that charity.  The point being is, a person who is generous and who is invested in a particular act or ministry of generosity is going to be more valuable than just one check, one time, one off.  

Firstfruits: A Gospel Picture

Well isn’t it interesting that God says that it’s not just that you are to give your firstfruits, you are firstfruits.  That’s what you are!  So your giving is an expression of your understanding of who you are.  You give out of who you are.  God, in His love, gave His only begotten Son in your place on the cross.  And He chose you, who trust in Jesus, to be His firstfruits.  And He calls you, who are His firstfruits, to give your firstfruits, so that your giving is an expression of who you are and it’s an expression of realizing who you are.  God has chosen you as His first and best and so you give Him your first and best.  There’s a lot of Gospel in there actually, if you think about it.  That’s the law of the firstfruits.  That’s why I was so excited that the deacons chose that as our theme.  May God make us a firstfruits congregation.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for Your Word.  Make this a reality in our congregation and in our experience.  In Jesus’ name, amen.

Now at this time, I want to call the ushers forward and I want to invite you not only to make your Lord’s Day contributions of tithes and offerings to the Lord, but to take your commitment cards, these beautiful cards, and we have them in the pews if you haven’t had a chance to bring yours from home today, please place these in the card as well and do it as an act of worship.  Do it with joy in your heart because you’re worshiping the Lord as you do it.  Now let’s receive our tithes and offerings and our commitments for the support of the church’s ministry in 2014.

Now if you’ll take your hymnals in hand and turn with me to number 729, we’ll sing, “All Things Are Thine.”  

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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