Robbing God

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on November 3, 2002

Malachi 3:8-12


Malachi 3:8-12
Robbing God

Stewardship Sunday, November 3, 2002

If you have your Bibles,
I’d invite you to turn to the book of Malachi,
the last book of the Old Testament,
to the third chapter. The stewardship committee has chosen Malachi 3:10
as this year’s stewardship theme verse and it seems appropriate to look at that
passage and its context in some detail. Malachi prophesied during what Old
Testament scholars called the Persian Period. That is the period of time in
which the exiles, who had been taken off into parts of Persia, came back to
Jerusalem, successively rebuilding the temple and the walls of Jerusalem and
restoring some modicum of normalcy to the nation of Israel. And during the
reconstruction and dedication of the second temple, we begin to have prophets
addressing some of the typical spiritual challenges of the people who have
returned.

And Malachi is one of those prophets. He actually comes about 50, 60 or 70
years after the restoration of the temple, but the issues that He speaks to
remind you of things that you find in the words of Amos or in the books of Ezra
and Nehemiah. And that’s because Malachi was prophesying in the time of Ezra
and Nehemiah. Specifically, He was addressing serious abuses in Jewish life in
those days such as the problem of the priests. The priests were lax, and some
of them were debauched in their own morality, and you’ll find the prophets of
this period addressing that directly. You’ll also find prophets of this period
of time dealing with the defective sacrifices that were being offered by the
children of Israel. If you remember in the law of God, only pure and
unblemished sacrifices, the very
best of the flock, were to be
taken to the temple and offered as sacrifices. But you’ll find prophets in this
period indicating that the children of Israel were short-changing the Lord in
that regard. They were bringing the worst of their animals as opposed to the
best in their offerings at the temple altar.

Furthermore, the people were neglecting their giving,
their tithes, and that’s
one of the issues that’s taken up in the passage we’re going to look at today.
But you can find this same charge against the people not only in Malachi 3, but
you can find it in Amos 4, and also in Ezra and Nehemiah, as well as in the
chronicler’s account of the reign of Hezekiah.

You also see an address of the problem of unbiblical divorce. There was a
rampant issue in Israel in which Israelite men were divorcing their Jewish wives
and were remarrying foreign woman. It was causing a religious meltdown in the
land. And you’ll see the prophets bringing charges against Israel for this. In
other words, God’s covenant was being violated, it was being forgotten,
it was being ignored, and
it was being broken. And Malachi takes on all those sins in his book and more.

And interestingly, the very abuses that He addresses are exactly those that you
find in Nehemiah on his second visit to Jerusalem in about 432 B.C., and so most
scholars will guess that Malachi was prophesying somewhere between 435 and 432
B.C. It’s also interesting that Malachi exhorts the people to remember the Law
of Moses. Now why is that significant?
Because in 444 B.C. what had Ezra done?
He had read the whole law, out loud, to the people of God. And now
Malachi, just some 10 years or so
later, is saying,
“Remember the law of God. Obey the law of God.”
So all of these things add up dating Malachi’s ministry somewhere between
445 and 432 B.C.

Now the book of Malachi is composed of seven parts and in each part Malachi
addresses what He sees as symptomatic of the spiritual problems of Israel. One
of the parts we’ll look at today is giving or stewardship,
or frankly, the failure of giving and stewardship in Israel.
But these are things which He
sees, diagnostically, as symptomatic of the spiritual problems being faced by
the children of Israel.

It’s interesting that there are two main parts to his prophecy. He addresses
the priests and He addresses the people. He primarily addresses the priests in
chapter 1, verse 6, on through chapter 2, verse 9. Then He turns his attention
to the people in chapter 2, verse 10 through chapter 4, verse 3. And so the
part that we’re looking at today in Malachi 3:8-12, is addressed especially to
the people of God.

In Malachi 3:7-12, He gives another of several concrete examples of how the
people had sinned. And his example there is the failure of the people of God to
pay their tithes and their other dues. Now, our section identifies this
concrete example of sin, and it also identifies it because it is not only an
example of sin, but it is also a way in which the people of God can show a
concrete expression of repentance. In other words,
if giving of tithes and offerings,
or the lack thereof, shows
a failure of spirituality, so also
the rectification of that problem can show an outward expression of a change of
heart. So this is not only an opportunity for Malachi to address the heart sins
of the people of God, it’s also a way for him to show us a tangible way that we can
respond to God’s rebuke and challenge and command in the work, and show that our
hearts have truly been changed. So turn your attention with me to Malachi 3 and
we’ll look together at verses 8 through 12. This is God’s word:

“Will
a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me! But you say, ‘How have we robbed You?’ In
tithes and offerings. “You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing Me, the
whole nation of you! Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there
may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,” says the LORD of hosts, “if I
will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing
until it overflows. “Then I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will
not destroy the fruits of the ground; nor will your vine in the field cast its
grapes,” says the LORD of hosts. All the nations will call you blessed, for you
shall be a delightful land,” says the LORD of hosts.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of his God’s holy and inspired word. May He
add His blessing to it. Let’s pray.

Our lord and our God, we ask that by Your spirit You
would give us eyes to see and ears to hear the truth set forth in this Your
word. More than that, we ask that the word would be a mirror to our heart to
show us our sin and that Your Spirit would then take that word which has shown
us our hearts and shown us the commands of God and make us willing to do that
truth. We ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Stewardship is a matter of the heart. We have emphasized that regularly at
First Presbyterian Church I know for many, many years.
Certainly over the last five or
six years that has been a constant refrain from the stewardship committee, from the pulpit, and from the classrooms of this church,
that stewardship is more than just an outward thing,
it is an expression of a heart which has been renewed by grace. And
because that is true, it is also true that failure in stewardship is a certain
mark of a spiritual problem. Failure in stewardship is a certain mark of a
heart problem. If a Christian is struggling and failing in stewardship, that is
a certain mark that something is wrong spiritually. Furthermore, the flip side
of that is that faithfulness in stewardship is not grace
but it is a mark of our repentance. It shows that we recognize that we
have sinned. It shows that we know that we need forgiveness. It shows that we
have turned from sin to God for grace and that God has done a work of grace in
our heart and we are responding back to God for His grace to us.

Now Malachi understands all of these principles and that is why He chooses as
one of his seven major charges against Israel to address the issue of Israel’s
stewardship. Malachi’s passage points, first of all, to a failure of
stewardship and He reckons this failure of stewardship to be both serious and
culpable. This isn’t a peripheral issue. It’s a serious issue as far as
Malachi is concerned.

Secondly, Malachi’s passage points to the consequences of a failure of
stewardship. And again, those consequences are serious. In this passage He
speaks of God cursing Israel because of their failure in stewardship.

Thirdly, Malachi’s passage points to God’s gracious promise of three things:
blessings, protection and witness.
All of these are a motivation to faithfulness in stewardship, and it’s precisely
those three things that I’d like to explore with you today.

I. Failure of stewardship as a
serious and culpable sin-How Israel sinned against God through a failure of
stewardship.

First of all, this charge about the failure of stewardship,
this warning of cursing, and
these three promises of blessing, of protection and of witness that Malachi
points to in this passage. Let’s look at verse 8 and see the first thing,
This charge against Israel because of its failure in bringing the
required tithes and the voluntary offerings to the Lord’s house. As far as
Malachi is concerned, this failure of stewardship is serious and culpable.
Israel will be held to account for this and it is not a light thing.

Have you noticed verse 8 and the humor and the irony in it?
It really has four parts. It begins with a rhetorical question that is
somewhat humorous. Will a man rob God? Now
the verb is a very strong verb there. It’s like a verb to mug or to
take something forcibly
from someone else. And so the very question is a
little bit ridiculous. Will a man rob God?
I mean, you can see a picture in
your mind of a human attempting to mug the sovereign of the universe. And so
it’s a rhetorical question that has a little humor to it and it expects, or it
leads you to expect, a negative response. Of course a man can’t rob God.

And then you see the second part of the verse,
“Yet you are robbing Me.”
This is the unexpected divine answer to this rhetorical question. It’s like God
from heaven saying, “Of course a
man can’t rob God, but you people have figured out how to do it.”

And then you come to the
third part of the verse in which the people respond with “Who, me?
What do you mean robbed You?
When have we done that? How
have we done that?” It’s a
denying kind of a response to God’s charge. “No, we haven’t done that. Come
on, you got to be kidding. We haven’t robbed You.”

And then you find God’s
reply: “Oh yes, you have and here’s how you’ve done it. You’ve robbed it from
Me through your failure at stewardship. You have failed to give the tithes that
I have commanded and the offerings that I have called for.”

Now you need to understand
this passage in light of its context. Remember that from around 520 B.C. down
into the 430s B.C., there had been excessive waves of exiles coming back from
the various lands, and they are again progressively restoring Israel. First,
the temple is rebuilt. Then the walls are rebuilt. And then something of
normalcy is returned to civic and government life. But during this period of
time, as you might imagine,
the people are relatively poor. They have been in a semi-slave state in
exile, they’ve returned to a land
with absolutely no infrastructure,
and they are very vulnerable economically. By and large, the economy is
depressed, and in that kind of a situation
in which the formerly exiled returnees are poor,
they are tempted at short- changing God of the required tithes and
offerings that were to be brought in for the support of worship and religion in
the land. Some of them are, perhaps, not giving anything at all;
others of them are only giving part of what God had commanded in His
law. Now Malachi doesn’t see this as ‘okay.’ You might have been tempted to
say, “Well look, these people are poor. Of course they’re not giving all the
tithes. Come on, give them a break!”
Malachi sees it, however, as a sign of a major spiritual problem.

I remember about 20 years ago, April of this year, that Robert Rayburn,
who was then the acting president
of Covenant Seminary, came to
preach a Bible conference at my home church, and He preached out of Malachi.
I’d never heard Malachi preached before. And that sermon was called “Seven
Signs of Serious Spiritual Sickness.” You can see why I remember the sermon series titles. They
were all like that. And of course, He identified one of those serious signs of
spiritual sickness as a failure of stewardship. And He’s drawing that right out
of Malachi.

It’s interesting that Malachi will even take up that issue with people who had a
plausible excuse for not giving to the Lord. We’re poor!
And yet He charges them,
“You have robbed God in tithes and offerings.”
He sees their failure of stewardship as a failure of loyalty to God,
a failure of trust in God,
a failure of heart to put God first in their lives.

Now, we need to ask a question or two. What does He mean when He says
“You have robbed Me of tithes and offerings.”
What are tithes and offerings?
Well, let’s tackle the tithes first. In the Old Testament a tithe was a
tenth of the produce of the land, consecrated and set apart for special
purposes. And, in fact, there were three tithes in the Old Testament. There
was the tithe that was given to the Levites. It was given to them so that they
could live. You remember that the Levites weren’t given any land so they
weren’t normally to be expected to be farming. And so those who farmed in
Israel were to give a tenth of their proceeds so that the Levites could live off
of that. The Levites then took a tenth of what had been given to them and gave
it to the priests, and in that way the Levites and the priests were supported so
that they could do the work of ministry, instead of working to support their own
families. It’s their version of what we say when we call minister. We say, “So
that you may be free of world1y cares and avocations, we give you this stipend
so that you may devote yourself to the work of service.”
Well, that was exactly how that particular tithe worked in the Old
Testament.

But that wasn’t the only tithe. There was also, secondly, a tithe in the old
testament that was given for the support of the work of the temple. And
thirdly, there was a tithe taken at least every three years for the support of
the poor and needy in Israel. Now scholars don’t know exactly how to put all
these together but it is clear that at least 27% of the produce was mandated by
God to be given back to the support of religion and worship in Israel. So the
next time you’re tempted to complain about 10% plus offerings, remember that the
mandate was a minimum of 27% in the Old Testament. In fact, it may have been
more because we know that if you didn’t go down to the temple to give the temple
tithes as required, you were allowed to do this extra thing: Give 20% more
towards the support of the temple. So it went up to 47%. Now you know a
Republican would call that confiscatory, you’re swiping a lot from me. So
there’s a tremendous demand for faithfulness in giving for the support of
worship and religion in the land Israel, and the Levitical law spoke of all
three of those tithes: One for the Levites,
one for the use of the temple and the great feast,
and one for the poor of the land.

Offerings refer to the portion of the sacrifices that were set apart for the
Levites and priests, and also to voluntary gifts that were given for special
purposes. By the way, isn’t it interesting that even in the Old Testament there
is both compulsory and voluntary giving. One part of your giving in the Old
Testament was compulsory; You had to give it. Another part of your giving was
up to you. That’s where we get the language of free will offerings in
the Old Testament. Those things which you decide to give of your own voluntary
choice, without compulsion. You give it on your own.

Now in the New Testament, giving is also compulsory and voluntary, but it’s a
little different. All giving is compulsory and all giving is voluntary in the
New Testament. And you find that out as you learn from the Apostle Paul the
principles of Christian stewardship.

At any rate, Malachi notes that failure in giving as a sign of spiritual
decline. And friends, a failure of generosity in Christian giving is always
either a sign of spiritual decline or of spiritual bankruptcy. It may be a sign
that we never have tasted grace. It may be a sign that we haven’t ever been
awash in the extravagant love of God ourselves. And that’s why Malachi points
to this issue. A failure in stewardship is serious and culpable and it’s a sign
of something going wrong in the heart. Well that’s the first thing I want you
to see.

II. The consequences of the
failure of stewardship — the result of Israel’s stewardship failure: the curse
of God.

Now if you’ll look with me at verse nine, we find this curse,
this warning of curse. Because of Israel’s unfaithfulness in stewardship, we
see the consequences of the failure of stewardship,
the result of Israel’s
stewardship failure: “You are cursed with a curse for you are robbing Me. The
whole nation of you.” In other words, God brings to bear a punishment that fits
the crime. The people of God are refusing to give God the portion of the
produce of their soil which is due according to His law and therefore He is
cursing them.

We see the nature of that curse in the very promise of blessing that comes in
verses 10 through 12. He says “I’ll send a devourer, locusts, to spoil your
crops.” And as a result of this,
in the very place you are robbing Me,
I will withhold from you. So God gives them a punishment that fits the
crime. He touches the very place and kind of their sin.

Isn’t it interesting that in the very punishment that He brings He attempts to
separate them from that which is dragging them away from him. They’re wanting
to hold on to their things, to
their produce, to their income,
and not give it to Him. And so, in order to draw them back to Himself,
He takes away the thing that they’re trying to hold on to so that they will then
have to turn and hang on to Him. We see the principle of Proverbs 11:24 right
here in Malachi 3:9: “There is one who scatters and yet increases all the
more. And there is one who withholds what is justly due and yet it results only
in want.” That is exactly what is happening in Malachi 3:9.

Let me ask you to take your hymnals out and turn to the last hymn that we are
going to sing today. Look at number 432, “We give Thee but Thine Own.”
There is an interesting example of this very principle in the third
stanza of this hymn. Look at the language. The language says “Our hearts are
bruised and dead, our homes are bare and cold, and lambs for whom the shepherd bled, are straying from the fold.” That’s a strange line to sing in the midst of a song about
giving to the Lord. “Our hearts are bruised and dead,
and homes are bare and cold.”
Now, the irony that is produced by that line is precisely what Malachi is
pointing to in Malachi 3:9. When one attempts to hoard to oneself it results in
bareness. This is the principle of the curse of God.

And could it be that one cause of spiritual barrenness in our homes and churches
is the parsimony, is the stinginess,
is the withholding of the giving of God’s people for the support of
worship and religion? Well,
Malachi speaks here of the consequences of failure in stewardship,
the curse of God.

And then, beautifully and graciously and divinely, He reveals to us three
gracious motivations to generosity in religious giving. Look at verses 10
through 12. Here we see three gracious motivations to generosity in religious
giving: The promise of blessing;
the promise of protection;
and the promise of witness. Divine
promises are given for blessing, protection and witness to Israel and these are
designed to motivate Israel in stewardship faithfulness. Here we meet, in verse
10, a promise of blessing to Israel designed to motivate Israel in her faithful
giving to the Lord. And it’s very significant for the context again. These are
poor Israelites. And they’re saying, “Lord, we’re poor already. The yield has
not been good from the crop this year and if we give to you all of these tithes
that are required in your law,
we’re going to go hungry.” Now
here’s God’s word in response. “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse so
that there may be food in My house. Test Me in this if I will not open for you
the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows.”
Our temptation, when times are lack, is to skimp on what we give to the
Lord. These people had that very real temptation. “Lord, we’re going to go
hungry. There’re going to be days of the week that we can’t feed our children,
if we give You what You’ve said in Your law.”
God says “Fill up My house with
what I have told you to give in My word, and I promise you I will fill up your
house. You test Me,
You give to Me what I’ve said in My word, and I promise you not one of you will
lack.” These returnees were poor
and they were questioning whether they could afford to obey God in stewardship.
And as a result they were either giving partial or no tithes and in reply God
basically says this, “Give to Me
and you will not lack. No one who gives to Me will have the result of want or
lack. No one ever yet lost from serving God.” Thomas Moore says this,
“No one ever yet lost anything by serving God with a whole heart or
gained anything by serving God with half of one.”
The lord is saying that. He’s saying, “You give what I’ve commanded and
I promise it will not result in lack for you. I’ll pour out My blessings upon
you and you’ll have food in your house as well.”

Let me ask you this friends. Are you holding back on Christian giving because
you don’t think you can afford it?
Then in God’s sovereignty and wisdom this verse was written for you. You can’t
out-give God. And there are so many passages in the Old and the New Testaments
which confirm this very principle. God literally promises to prosper those who
are faithful in giving. He gives so we might give, to Him and to others,
and He is faithful in His prospering of us.

The second promise or blessing in this passage you’ll see in verse 11. “Then I
will rebuke the devourer for you so that it will not destroy the fruits of the
ground.” Here we meet a promise
that God will spare or mitigate or alleviate the curse which was mentioned in
verse nine, and He gives it as a motivation to our generosity in religious
giving. He’s promising protection to Israel against that which would cause them
to lose profit and income and increase, but He does it as a way of motivating
them to stewardship faithfulness. Isn’t it interesting, that when you give,
ironically, God says, you gain. When you give away,
you gain. Why? Because the curse of the devourer is rebuked. And we go back
to the very principle that we just read in the third verse of hymn number 432.

Thirdly, if you look at verse 12, He goes on to give an evangelistic motivation
for giving. “All the nations will call you blessed for you shall be a
delightful land.” In other words, Malachi is saying that when you give what God commands in His
word to give, the Abrahamic promise is fulfilled. Remember what God said to
Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3? That
God would bless him, but also that the nations would call him blessed. Well,
Malachi is saying, when you are faithful to give what God has commanded, God
brings about fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise. But notice what that does.
It serves as a witness to the nations that God is faithful to His promises. So
there is an evangelistic effect of giving. Our giving serves as a witness which
results in the nations blessing us, and in their blessing of us, they come to
know the living God. Isn’t that the story of Acts 2 and 4 and 6?
That the people of God in Israel gathered around in the church in
Jerusalem in Acts 2 and 4 and 6. Though they were poor they looked out for one
another and they shared and they gave and what happened?
The pagans around them looked and they saw God’s hand and they saw
God’s
love and they blessed them and they held them in high esteem and many of them
were converted. When you give to the work of the church and kingdom you are
blessed by the nations and you bear a witness to them.

All of these things Malachi is challenging us with today. These words are for
us upon whom the ends of the ages have come. May God grant us that we would
respond with Christian hearts to the teaching of His words. Let’s pray.


Our Lord and our God, show us the
truth, enlarge our hearts,
make us generous, convict
us of stinginess and parsimony, and bless the nations through our blessing of
the saints and of the work of the kingdom in tangible gifts for the work of
service. These things we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Please be seated. As the ushers come to take their places to receive the
pledge, I want to remind you of several things. We are aware of the challenge
of the economy in which we are right now. The last year has been very
difficult, exceedingly difficult
on many in our congregation and the last three years have been difficult for
many. We’re also very aware of the challenge of the lack of giving in our
congregation. Although we’ve been very encouraged by the fact that over the
last five, six, seven, eight years more has been given,
we’ve been discouraged by the fact that more has been given totally
and proportionately by fewer people. There is a desire in our leadership
in the church to see more members of the congregation being faithful to God’s
word in giving for the support of the work and worship of the church. Less than
half of the families of our congregation make a pledge of commitment to giving.
If you are one of those today, I would challenge you now to begin to commit to
giving to the work of ministry in the church.

We also face the challenge of the cash flow deficit for this year’s giving which
continues on. And we will, in the last two months of this year have an
opportunity to show, perhaps even sacrificially, our commitment to the work of
the lord’s kingdom as we attempt to make up that deficit which is now just under
$400,000.

There is also before us today, of course, the pledge of the ministry of the
church for the year 2003. Again, it is our desire that there would be increased
giving, but even more than that,
that there would be increase of the people who are giving, that there
would be more members of our congregation who would be faithful in giving tithes
and offerings.

We’ve also faced the challenge increasingly over the last five years of the
commitment process dragging out. I want to challenge you now,
make your commitment today and if you’re not ready to make it today,
make it tonight or make it next week. Don’t let this drag into January.
Let’s make our commitments and make them as quickly as we possibly can. Use
your pledge as a motivation. Use it as a target to shoot for and to exceed.
Use it as a tool to be more consistent in your regular and monthly giving. Use
it as a device for measuring your own increase in past giving.

But above all, remember that giving is a matter of the heart. It is an
index of our heart and it is also a way in which we can tangibly express God’s
work of grace in our hearts. Let’s give now to the Lord and commit to give to
the Lord our pledges for year 2003.

Please stand for the Lord’s benediction. Grace to you and peace,
from God the Father and our Lord,
Jesus Christ. Amen.

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