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Monday, February 20, 2012

“Out on a Limb” - (02/19/12)

Malachi 3:7-12 (Message #6 in Malachi Series) 
February 19, 2012

            Are you a risk-taker?  Do you get a thrill from sticking your neck out and doing things that are a little bit dangerous?  I do.  That’s one of the reasons why I like riding my big, black motorcycle.  It’s a rush!  It’s also why I went skydiving a couple of years ago with one of my equally crazy preacher friends.  It was totally amazing and I will do it again in a heartbeat if I can ever come up with the money, because it was worth every penny.
            Going out on a limb, doing something that requires courage and that gets you out of your rut—is a good thing!  Life is short and we need to live it to the fullest rather than hanging back and living in fear and in the shadow of the “what-ifs.”  But sometimes that involves taking risks.  But when you think about it the most wonderful things in life involve taking a risk:
  • Asking a girl to marry you, knowing that she might turn you down
  • Having a baby, knowing that he/she might be born with Down Syndrome
  • Getting in the car and driving to grandma’s for Christmas, knowing that the roads are icy and that you might have an accident on the way
  • Applying for that new job, knowing that you might end up disappointed
  • Flying to Europe for the vacation of a lifetime, knowing that there might be a crazed terrorist onboard who will try to bring the airplane down
  • Buying your first house, knowing that you are now under the obligation to make the mortgage payments and to do all the upkeep on the place
            Sure, bad things can sometimes happen.  However, we take these kinds of risks because the outcome is worth the small chance that something might go wrong.  In our text for today, the LORD invites His people, the Jews, to go out on a limb and do something wild and crazy—namely, to trust that if they will be faithful to Him in their financial giving, He will bless them beyond their wildest imaginations.  God challenges them to test Him and see if He won’t open up the windows of Heaven and pour out on them blessings beyond anything they have ever seen.
            This text is very relevant to our day as well, because most Christians today give very little to the work of God.  Very few American Christians tithe or even give regularly.  Why is that?  What are we afraid of?  What does this say about our level of commitment to Christ and to His Kingdom?  And more importantly, what does God think about this?
            In the verses leading up to our text for this morning the LORD has announced to the murmuring people of Israel that the day is coming when He will suddenly draw near to mete out judgment upon the wicked.  Then He proceeds to explain the reason why He has until now withheld His blessing and His salvation of Israel.  He says that the reason why Israel waits in vain for the judgment of the wicked and the salvation dawning with it is not to be found in God, but in the Israelite people themselves, in the fact that for generations they have transgressed the commandments of God.
            He goes on to explain in 3:6 that while the world, including the nation of Israel, has continued to grow more and more wicked, He Himself does not change.  His character, His laws, His covenants, and His promises all remain unchanged through the years.  In fact, through His prophet, Malachi, He tells the people of Israel that His unchangeableness is the only thing that has saved their bacon up until now.  In spite of Israel’s unfaithfulness, God has remained faithful to His covenant.  If it weren’t for that He would have utterly destroyed them because they surely had it coming.

Verse 7: “From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from My statutes and have not kept them.  Return to Me, and I will return to you,” says the LORD of hosts.  “But you say, ‘How shall we return?’”
  • The LORD is saying that this is not a new problem.  This has been going for generations, since the times of their great-great-grandfathers.  Isn’t it interesting that evil character and wicked actions, as well as noble character and righteous actions pass on from one generation to the next?  That’s because our kids watch what we do and listen to what we say.  Moreover, they read between the lines to see what we really believe and feel about things.  They can usually tell whether or not we really love God and serve Him from right motives.
  • “Return to Me, and I will return to you.”  This is God calling the people to repentance, which is the real meaning of the word “return” used here three times.  The LORD makes them a conditional offer.  He says, “I’ll meet you half-way.  You turn around and move back toward Me [a 180 degree turnabout] and I will move toward you.”  But notice their response: How shall we return?  Return from where?  Repent from what?  We haven’t gone anywhere and we haven’t done anything wrong.  In fact, we’re still doing all the right stuff, for crying out loud.  What do You want from us, God?”  They certainly do not have a teachable attitude here.  They obviously regard themselves as righteous and refuse to acknowledge any wrongdoing on their part.  So the LORD gives them an example of where they have gone wrong.

Verse 8: “Will a man rob [defraud] God?  Yet you are robbing Me!  But you say, ‘How have we robbed You?’  In tithes and offerings.” 
  • “In tithes and offerings.”  The LORD brings up the issue of the tithe, and also what was known as the “heave offering.”  “Will a man rob God?  Yet you are robbing Me in these things!”  Now you have to understand that the tithe (literally, “the 10th”) was not voluntary in the OT.  It was not negotiable—it was the LAW and had been since the beginning, clear back to the time of Moses.  God required that every Jew set aside 10% of every penny he made, every crop he raised, every vegetable in his garden, and every animal in his flock to be given over to the LORD.  It was that 10% that supported the Levites and the priests and their families (Num. 18:24).  It was that 10% that maintained the Tabernacle and later the Temple.  The tithe also supported widows, orphans, and foreigners (cf. Deut. 14:28-29).  The Jews had a theocratic government where God was their King, so in a very real sense that 10% was taxes owed to maintain the society.  God says to them that to withhold the tithe is the same as robbing from Him.  [For a complete explanation of the tithe see Lev. 27:30-33; Numbers 18:20-32; Deut. 14:22-29].
  • “In Tithes and offerings.”  This Hebrew word (terumáh) is used for freewill gifts, for gifts of the firstfruits, for the half-shekel sanctuary tax, and most importantly, for portions of sacrifices that were reserved for priests and their families (Num. 5:9; 18:19; Lev. 7:13-14, 32; etc.).
  • But again, when confronted with their sin they weasel and waffle and dissemble and play ignorant: How have we robbed You, LORD?”  As if they didn’t know!

Verse 9: “You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing Me, the whole nation of you!” 
  • So God explains that the result of their sin is a curse upon their whole nation, because the practice had become so widespread.  It wasn’t just one or two, here and there, but apparently refusing to pay the tithe had become the norm.  As a result, God has already visited them with severe punishment, with the curse of barrenness and the failure of the harvest.  The people were cursed with poor production from their land and animals, just as had been predicted in the Law of Moses clear back in Deuteronomy chapter 28.  Yet now God promises to lift the curse if they will but repent and mend their wicked ways.  He is holding out to them His offer of mercy, grace, pardon, and restoration.

Verse 10: “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.”
  • Here the LORD calls the people back to begin doing what they should have been doing all along—namely, “…bringing the whole tithe into the storehouse.”  The emphasis here is on the word “whole.”  Many of them were paying a portion of the tithe but were keeping back a portion for themselves.  But we can see here that by God’s definition, partial-obedience is just another name for “disobedience.”  By their actions they were defrauding the LORD.
  • Those who believe that the NT teaches tithing have to explain this “storehouse” thing.  In the historical context it makes perfect sense.  There were storage chambers established near the sanctuary where the tithed grain and other commodities were warehoused until they were needed.  These storehouses were maintained and operated by the Levites.  This same Hebrew word is elsewhere translated as “treasury” (cf. I Chron. 27:25; Psalm 38:7, etc.). 
  • However, like I said, those who teach tithing as a New Testament principle have to explain what the storehouse is in the modern setting.  Of course, they say that this is a reference to the local church, and that believers must bring a tenth to invest in the church’s ministry.  However, if we go down that road we will very quickly find ourselves coming under a heavy yoke of bondage of our own making, because God never commanded Gentiles to pay this tithe.
  • Notice that in the second half of this verse the LORD.  “…Test Me now in this,” says the LORD of hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows [sluices] of Heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows.”   Opening the sluices of Heaven is of course a figure, denoting the most bountiful supply of blessing imaginable, so that it flows down from Heaven like a drenching rain.  Remember, back in 2:17 the Jews were calling God’s character into question by saying that God rewards the wicked and withholds blessings from the righteous.  Now He challenges them to put His promise to the test.  This is not, as some have claimed, a contradiction in Scripture.  The LORD forbids us to “tempt/test” Him.  In Matthew 4:7 we hear Jesus in the wilderness temptation quoting Deut. 6:16 to Satan saying, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”  But this is different that what God is saying here in Malachi 3:10.  In this case Jehovah is encouraging His people to go out on the limb by faith and trust Him, and He promises that if they do they will not be disappointed but will find that He is always faithful to His word.

Verse 11: “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. 
  • Notice, THEN I will rebuke the devourer for you.”  This is all conditional, predicated on their willingness to recognize their sinfulness and to repent and turn back to obey and serve God once again.  “The devourer” is a personification of the powerful curse that God has laid against them.  It probably took the form of ravenous locusts and devastating weather conditions that destroyed the crops.

Verse 12: “All the nations will call you blessed, for you shall be a delightful land,” says the LORD of hosts. 
  • He says that all the other nations will be jealous of Israel when they see God pouring out His abundant blessings on her.  They will come to recognize that those blessings come from the hand of Jehovah and are not just some kind of dumb luck.
  • “...for you shall be a delightful land.”  The Hebrew adjective indicates pure enjoyment and the things in life that are genuinely pleasurable (cf. 1:10, to be pleased; and 3:1, to be delighted).
  • This would be in fulfillment of the promise that God made to Abraham way back in Genesis 12:2-3, that the blessings on him and his seed would be so great that they would overflow to the nations roundabout them.  In fact, through Abraham’s descendants all the nations of the world would be blessed.

            So how are we supposed to apply this passage to our lives today?  You’ve heard very few messages from me about giving because fundamentally I believe that our giving should be between us and God.  However, the Bible talks A LOT about money and about its significance, and to be a faithful preacher of God’s Word I cannot shy away from certain subjects just because they make people uncomfortable or unhappy.  Of course, I realize that we are not Jews and the tithe was specifically mandated for them.  So what are the principles that apply to us?  Are there lessons about financial giving in today’s text that do apply?
            First, of all, as we’ve said before all Scripture is God-breathed and is profitable for us, and that includes the Book of Malachi.  Even though we do not live as Jews under the Old Covenant we are still obligated to observe the spirit of the Law.  God is the Holy, Sovereign Ruler of the universe and we are His subjects.  All that we have comes from Him, even the air that we breathe.  He is the Lord and Master, and we are His stewards, entrusted with His things.  Nothing belongs to us—it all belongs to Him.  That is the starting point in building a Theology of Stewardship.
            Second, God does not need our money, but He asks us to give it because every time we do it reminds us that we are indebted to Him for everything we possess.  He could easily make $100 bills drop from the sky but instead He has chosen to do His work on earth through human instruments faithfully serving as His hands and feet and voice.  He cycles His money through our wallets and bank accounts but make no mistake, He still considers it to be HIS, and so should we.  The Bible says that it is “required of stewards that one be found trustworthy/faithful” (I Cor. 4:2).  That’s what God was looking for in Malachi’s day and that is what He expects of us, His servants, in 2012.
            The Bible teaches that our giving to God and to the support of His Kingdom is an accurate gauge of our love for Him and of our life’s priorities.  The Bible says, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21).  Now does God still require a tithe from us?  I don’t believe so, but He does ask for our love, our faithfulness to Him, and our commitment to the cause of Christ.  He does still ask us to “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matt. 6:33) and He promises that if we’ll do that He will “supply all our needs according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19).
            As I said a moment ago, I don’t believe that the tithe, per se, is a NT obligation on Christians.  However, that doesn’t mean we are off the hook!  The Scriptures give us several abiding principles that should guide us in our giving.  Let’s look at them:

  1. We should give freely and liberally (Matt. 10:8; II Cor. 8:2-5; 9:7).  God loves us to give cheerfully and generously to support His work, both in the local church, in our community, and around the world.
  2. We should give as an act of worship (II Cor. 8:8-9; Matt. 6:2-4).  Again, giving is an accurate gauge of our spiritual temperature.  When we give little it reveals that we love little.  When we give grudgingly it shows that our heart is not in it.  God wants our hearts and our undivided affection.  When He has that our wallet goes along for the ride.
  3. We should give proportionately (II Cor. 8:3; 9:7).  As God blesses us with more we should give more.  Unfortunately, what usually happens is that when we get that raise we run right out and buy a bunch more stuff for ourselves, never giving a thought to the fact that God might have given us that extra money so that we could invest it in a missions project.  The average American Christian lives in debt, living paycheck to paycheck, house poor, with no margin to invest in the Kingdom of God because we are spending every cent on ourselves, plus some.  We call it “embezzlement” when an employee uses company funds to feather his own nest, and it can get you 15-20 years in the state pen.  Yet that is what we do to God.  We use Kingdom funds as though they belonged to us, and they don’t.
  4. We should give sacrificially (II Sam. 24:24; Mark 12:41-44; Rom. 12:1-2).  If giving to God doesn’t sting a little then you aren’t doing it right.  If you don’t feel the pinch then you aren’t digging deep enough.  If your giving doesn’t cramp your style then it’s not a sacrifice, it’s just a tip tossed on the counter.  After looking at Christ’s sacrifice for us, is it so much to ask that we would make some sacrifices for Him?
  5. We should not give expecting commensurate physical or financial blessings in return.  Our giving should not be done with the idea that this now somehow obligates God to repay us in earthly currency.  This is the awful error of the “name-it-and-claim-it”, prosperity-gospel fake preachers and so-called televangelists on TBN and other religious stations.  They claim that your financial gift is “seed money” and that if you will send it in to them then God will repay you 30, 60, or 100-fold, depending on the quality and quantity of your faith.  That’s a lie!  If that’s your motivation, try the stock-market or the horse-races.  We give to God, not because it is a great financial investment but because it is “our reasonable service of worship.”

            I believe that God is still inviting believers to go out on a limb and trust Him with their finances.  I believe that His promise of blessings for those who take Him at His word is still in force.  I believe that you can’t out-give God, and that to be a faithful steward is a wise financial decision.  I believe that if you are unfaithful as a Christian steward you will find that God withholds his blessings from your life.  I believe that if you will begin to give according to Luke 6:38 God will open up the windows of Heaven and pour out blessings so great that you won’t be able to contain them all.  In that passage Jesus said: “Give, and it will be given to you.  A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.  For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

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About Me

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

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