We have probably all benefited from the ministry of Dr James Dobson who founded Focus on the Family in 1977. Several best-seller books on parenting and marriage designed to strengthen families through proper love and discipline.
Focus has grown to an $80-million-a-year multimedia organisation. It produces daily broadcasts for over 1,800 radio stations world-wide as well as magazines, books, tapes, and videos used by Christians the world over. What is not well known though is that Dobson's father was a poor itinerant evangelist. This is how Dobson describes his upbringing:
"Travel was expensive and we never seemed to have much more money than was absolutely necessary. One of the problems was the way church paid their ministers in those days. Pastors received a year-round salary but evangelists were paid only when they worked. Therefore, my father's income stopped abruptly during Thanksgiving, Christmas, summer vacation, or any time he rested.
Perhaps that's why we were always near the bottom of the barrel when he was at home, but that didn't stop my father from giving. "I remember Dad going off to speak in a tiny church and coming home ten days later. My mother greeted him warmly and asked how the revival had gone. He was always excited about that subject. Eventually, in moments like this she would get around to asking him about the offering. Women have a way of worrying about things like that.
"`How much did they pay you?' she asked. I can still see my father's face as he smiled and looked at the floor. `Aw...' he stammered. My mother stepped back and looked into his eyes. "`Oh, I get it,' she said. `You gave the money away again, didn't you?' "`Myrt,' he said, `the pastor there is going through a hard time. His kids are so needy. It just broke my heart. They have holes in their shoes and one of them is going to school on these cold mornings without a coat. I felt I should give the entire $50 to them.' "My good mother looked intently at him for a moment, and then she smiled. `You know if God told you to do it, it's okay with me.'
"Then a few days later the inevitable happened. We ran out of money. There was no reserve to tide us over. That's when my father gathered us in the bedroom for a time of prayer. I remember that day as though it were yesterday.
He prayed first. "Oh, Lord, You promised that if we would be faithful to You and Your people in our good times, then You would not forget us in our time of need. We have tried to be generous with what You have given us, and now we are calling on You for help. A very impressionable ten-year-old boy named Jimmy was watching and listening very carefully that day.
`What would happen?' he wondered. `Would God hear Dad's prayer?' "The next day an unexpected check for $1,200 came for us in the mail. Honestly! That's the way it happened, not just this once but many times. I saw the Lord match my dad's giving stride for stride. No, God never made us wealthy, but my young faith grew by leaps and bounds. I learned that you cannot out-give God!"
You cannot out-give God. That is one of the abiding lesson we have learnt from the Old Testament. We began in Genesis way back in September last year. We followed the journey of God's people and Creation through the Fall to Abraham and the Covenant. From a family enslaved in Egypt to a nation in the Promised Land. From Moses to Joshua and the Judges. From Samuel and Saul to David and Solomon. From the rise of the Kingdom to their Fall in Exile.
Today we come to the end of the Old Testament story in Malachi 3. Where has our journey taken us? What have we learnt along the way? We saw how God sent leaders and prophets, kings and priests to warn God's people, to lead a wayward people back into a right relationship with Himself. We saw how repeatedly Israel stumbled and rebelled. We noticed how God saved them, disciplined them, provided for them and promised that one day He would send a Saviour. But what kind of Saviour?
Read Malachi 3:1-5. The long wait was nearly over. What is remarkable is that despite all the lessons learnt along the way, there is no sign of moral development or growing spiritual enlightenment. The human need was the same and so the message was essentially the same. Judgement is coming so get ready. Why? Because God himself is coming to judge the earth and will deal with sin once and for all. How? Either by taking it away from repentant people or taking the unrepentant away with it. The times in which Malachi lived around four hundred years before Christ are remarkably typical of our day and generation.
Does that surprise you? It shouldn't because human nature is just the same today. The religious leaders were falling to proclaim the word of God. The house of the Lord was in financial difficulty. And God's people were compromising their faith. So what is new? Malachi lays down the basis of divine blessing. It was as true and relevant in the days of Abraham or Moses, or Samuel, or David, or Ezra and Nehemiah as it is today.
If we want to experience God's blessing we must do three things.
1. Turn back to God (3:6-7)
2. Stop robbing God (3:8-9)
3. Start trusting God (3:10-12)
1. Turn Back to God 3:6-7
"Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts." That's what repentance means. Turning round. Sin is not primarily about breaking God's laws, its about taking God's rightful place at the centre of our lives. Sin is about running our lives our way and not his. Its going against his will and moving away from his love. Therefore, repentance is nothing less than a return to God Himself. "Return unto me and I will return unto you." says the Lord. In New Testament language John puts it this way: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." If you are not experiencing God's blessing in your life at the moment perhaps it is because you have wandered away from God.
As the saying goes, "If God feels far away who do you think moved?" Malachi's message then is very simple. Turn back to God. But how do I demonstrate I have turned back to God? How do I show I am repentant? By putting God first where it matters - not with our mouth but with our money. Turn back to God and prove it. How?
2. Stop Robbing God (3:8-9)
"Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse." The principle here is consistent throughout the Bible. When we give, God blesses; and when we withhold, God curses. So God says, "You are under a curse, the whole nation of you, because you are robbing me." How? By not paying what was due. Notice,
2.1 The Place of Giving 3:10
"Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse." In the sanctuary there was a storehouse built for depositing the tithes and offerings of the people. It was God's prescribed method that all the tithes and offerings were to be brought to one place. The New Testament equivalent is the local church. The distribution of money will naturally include needs beyond the local church, but the responsibility to bring the tithes and offerings to the local church is assumed in the NT. It is right to bring your tithe and offerings to the place where your membership is established, your spiritual life is nourished, and your church privileges are enjoyed. If you give elsewhere, directly to mission agencies or to charities, then it should be over and above the required tithe needed to maintain the ministry of the local church, not in place of it. The place.
2.2 The Proportion of Giving 3:10
"Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse" Verse 8 mentions Tithes and Offerings. These are not the same thing. A tithe refers to the first fruit, a tenth of the first produce or income received. Under the Old Covenant it was compulsory to tithe.
That is why Malachi says the people of Israel were robbing God. The implications are quite profound. Tithing is not a principle we can dismiss as something associated with the Mosaic Law that was superseded by Jesus Christ. It is important to realise that tithing as a principle is four hundred years older than the law. Abraham gave tithes to God through Melchizedek.
He gave Abraham bread and wine, symbols of sacrifice, and Abraham acknowledged his indebtedness to God by giving Him tithes of all his resources. In Matthew 6 Jesus assumes that his hearers already tithe. He merely criticises them for wanting to be seen doing so. We know from early church history that tithing was promoted by the church fathers. In England as early as A.D. 786, it was already common practice during the reigns of King Alfred, Edgar, and Canute. And if you check out your Prayer Book when you get home you will find the injunction at the end of the Communion Service the words,
"And note that every parishioner shall communicate at least three times in the year, of which Easter shall be one. And yearly at Easter every parishioner shall reckon with the vicar; and pay to him all Ecclesiastical duties, accustomably due, then and at that time paid."
The principle of tithing is therefore timeless. It was neither instituted by the law nor terminated by grace. It was neither given by Moses nor rescinded by Jesus Christ. It is true that we are no longer under law but under grace. However, if the requirement of the law was that believers gave 10% then how can we who are recipients of God's grace give less. I believe giving a specific proportion of our income rather than what is left over is the biblical way of acknowledging our indebtedness to God for all that He has done for us. Let me illustrate this by comparing two children.
"I go to a home where there is a little girl, five or six years of age, and give her a box of chocolates. She straightway disappears, and when she returns her lips and fingers are covered with chocolate. In another home, however, the box is opened at once, and the little girl brings it to me and says, 'You have the first one. '0h, no!' I say, 'they are for you.' 'But please,' she pleads, 'you brought them to me, do please have the first one.' And helping myself I say, 'Thank you.' Which child has the warmest place in my affections, and which is more likely to get another box of chocolates?"
The tithe is like the first chocolate handed back to God. For some, it will be one tenth of the total income (as the word indicates); for others, it will mean more. In "Rich Christians in an age of Hunger" Ron Sider argues the case for proportional tithing. That is, the more one has the more one should give, just as our taxation system assumes. So for example, after deciding the basic amount you need to live on, for every £5000 more you earn you might choose to give 1% extra. So if you began at the national average of £20k @10%, on £25k you might give @11%; say on £30k @12%; on £35k @13% and so on. It is for you to decide before the Lord, secretly, willingly and joyfully. Thankful for all He has already blessed you with. For those without regular income, and for those married to non-Christians it may be appropriate to find other ways of contributing to the local church.
Malachi not only refers to tithes but also offerings. Offerings were over and above tithes. The word "offering" means free will giving. The Bible teaches that God demands the tithes, whereas he deserves our offerings. He demands the tithe because everything belongs to Him and giving reminds us of that fact. It also reminds us we are stewards not owners. However, He also deserves our offerings because they are an expression of our love and appreciation. It is inevitable that you will not always agree with every decision made by church leaders as to how the church's resources should be invested. Should we invest in a youth worker or cleaner? Nevertheless the Scriptures teach us that we demonstrate our obedience to God through respecting and submitting to those in authority over us. There is a difference though between our obligation to maintain the regular ministry of the church - that is what our tithes are for, and our freedom to respond to particular appeals for funds for special projects, such as our free will offerings. The place and proportion of giving.
2.3 The Purpose of Giving 3:10
"Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house." The tithes and offerings were the only means by which the servants of God lived. Like Dobson's father. They had no inheritance of their own. In a similar way, God has ordained that those who preach the gospel shall live by the gospel. The church lives and functions by means of the tithes and offerings of His believing people. Our giving is tangible evidence that we have turned back to God and have stopped robbing God. Thirdly it is evidence that we have started to trust God.
3. Start Trusting God 3:10-12
I hear you say, "Stephen, you don't know my circumstances. I cannot afford to tithe." My answer is simple. On the basis of these verses, "You cannot afford not to!" What does God say in verses 10-12? "Test me in this" says the Lord and see if I will not open you the "floodgates of heaven." This is the way God's describes his blessing, "floodgates of heaven"! I hated tests at school but this is one test worth doing. God's purpose for the church is that we should be as "a delightful land"- a paradise of fruitfulness and fragrance. When we are obedient and give responsibly, regularly and sacrificially, God's blessing will be so evident that even non Christians to see it and marvel.
During the reign of Frederick William III, king of Prussia, he found himself in deep trouble. He was carrying on expensive wars; he was endeavouring to strengthen his country and make a great nation of the Prussian people. But he did not have enough money to accomplish his plans. He could not disappoint his people, and to capitulate to the enemy would be unthinkable. He decided to approach the women of Prussia and ask them to bring their jewellery of gold and silver to be melted down and made into money for their country. He resolved, moreover, that for each ornament of gold or silver he would give in exchange a decoration of bronze or iron as a token of his gratitude. Each decoration would bear the inscription, "I gave gold for iron, 1813." The response was overwhelming.
And what was even more important was the fact that these women prized their gifts from the king more highly than their former possessions. The reason, of course, is clear. The decorations were proof that they had sacrificed for their king. Indeed, it is a matter of recorded history that it became unfashionable for women to wear jewellery. So the Order of the Iron Cross was established. Members of this Order wore no ornaments, save a cross of iron for all to see. What a tragedy that the iron cross came to be debased in this century. Perhaps it is time for us to get back to origins, back to the wooden cross and elevate that above all other worldly possessions, not as a piece of jewellery, but as a sign of our dedication to the one who for our sakes was nailed to it.
How? Malachi may mark the end of the Old Testament but it is also a good a place to start. Turn back to God, stop robbing God and start trusting him. Then we will be ready and not ashamed when our Lord Jesus Christ returns to judge this earth and make a new one. A moral restoration. A material restitution. A miraculous realisation. "Test me in this", says the Lord. Let's do it. Let us pray.
I am grateful to James Dobson and Stephen Olford and his book "The Grace of Giving" for material used in this sermon.