Editor's Intro: Will Stevens is the author of God's Givers. In it he traces a theology of giving through the Old Testament, focusing on seven stories. To go along with the book he has created a curriculum to help translate these biblical principles of giving to a contemporary community of faith.
How often does your church talk about giving? How many times a year do you include a message on giving in your regular Sunday sermon series? As you preach through each book of the Bible, do you take the time to draw out the biblical principles of giving from the text? In most cases, preaching on giving represents a break in the regular preaching pattern of a church. The giving or stewardship sermon or sermon series is an interruption in the regular exploration and uncovering of God's Word. But preaching on giving should not be a one-time affair in the life of the church. In the course of the Bible, from Genesis' the account of Cain and Abel's offering to the Lord, to the gift exchange of the wicked at the death of the two witnesses in Revelation 11, the Bible is filled with texts that inform us about biblical giving.
Through these stories, pastors can uncover and explore with their congregation several biblical principles that apply to the church today.
I am blessed to wear two hats as a servant of the Lord. I am gifted to be a preacher, but I am not a pastor. Instead, the Lord has called me to be a leader of a ministry, WaterStone, whose mission centers on promoting, inspiring, and facilitating charitable giving. During my doctoral studies in expository preaching, I discovered that of the 25 or so members of my doctoral cohort, I was the only non-pastor. I learned from these pastors that delivering the message on giving to their congregations presented an annual challenge. They and their congregations would enter into a mutual silent agreement. The giving sermon was an appointed time of the year that was clearly marked out as a break in the regular preaching of the biblical text. The church and the pastor's attitude was that it was that dreaded time to talk about giving so let's just get it over with. The congregation would hold their breath knowing that the end of the sermon would come and there would be a call to make a financial commitment.
Obviously, there is a major problem here. Why is the "giving sermon" considered an interruption in the regular round of preaching through God's Word? Why can't the biblical texts on giving be profitable for equipping believers? As a leader of a ministry focused on charitable giving and a student and practitioner of expository preaching, I sensed a purpose. How could I help pastors more fully explore and uncover the truth and beauty of giving in the Bible?
Throughout the biblical record, a wide variety of accounts of giving presents the truth that giving expresses an individual's faith and walk with God, or lack thereof! In Exodus 35:21, the Bible sums up the connection between giving and faith by declaring "Everyone who was willing and whose heart moved them came and brought an offering to the Lord for the work on the tent of meeting." In contrast, the Bible teaches that those who covet, steal, acquire, accumulate, give for the wrong reasons or without proper motives, reveal in their corrupt "giving spirit" a corrupt heart and faithlessness toward God. How can we preach this truth that faith and giving go hand in hand?
Giving in the Old Testament
Old Testament narratives form a perfect setting for preaching on giving, because stories, the primary component of narrative, powerfully communicate the principles of giving through the decisions and behavior of real people in real-life situations. Biblical stories offer vivid images of real people putting faith into practice and by their examples place giving in theological perspective. Old Testament narratives are an excellent vehicle for pastors to transmit vibrant stories of giving: stories that educate; stories that inspire; stories that populate the collective historical memory of the people of God.
The preacher's chief goal in exegeting Old Testament stories of giving is to translate their underlying biblical principles to a contemporary community of faith. By preaching on giving in the Old Testament, pastors can uncover and explore with their congregations several biblical principles that apply to the church today:
Giving reflects the character of God.
Giving expresses faith, i.e. an intimate relationship with God.
Giving blesses, not only the recipients, but also givers, families, the community, and God.
Giving reflects fellowship with the community of faith.
Giving honors God; it upholds his divine order by putting into practice precepts like justice, righteousness, and equity.
Giving is transformational and is often a mark of regeneration and repentance.
Giving is an essential element in proper worship.
Biblical and theological issues
Giving is one aspect of the larger biblical theme of stewardship. Biblical stewardship includes much more than giving. Stewardship begins when we acknowledge that God is the source and owner of everything, not just material goods, but every ingredient of life. Stewardship includes the careful caretaking of all that God entrusts to us: time, talents, treasure, spiritual gifts, relationships, power, and influence, and expects us come to commit them to his purposes, not our own.
The key point in preaching on giving is that giving rests at the intersection of one's faith in God and one's stewardship of one's possessions. When we give according to biblical principles, we express our faith and trust in the Lord, both as individuals and as a church community. When we give, we express our faith as the people of God.
Most preaching on giving draws on the New Testament with references to the rich young ruler, the widow's mite, the parable of the talents, and a few verses about being generous, cheerful and blessed. When it comes to the Old Testament and giving, preachers love to roll out a widely-popularized concept of the tithe, either as a requirement or at the least, as a starting point for giving. In short, most teaching on giving today presents a stark dichotomy: in the Old Testament, giving was all about the law, obligation, and obedience; in the New Testament, giving was all about grace.
However, the Bible tells a single story of giving. Giving, when done in a truly biblical spirit, is an expression of faith, whether in the Old or the New Testament or in the church today. Whenever the Bible describes profiles in giving, there is a spiritual dimension underlying the outward material act. In Genesis 4, when Cain and Abel approached the Lord with offerings of the fruits of their labors, they were both seemingly conforming to a prescribed and acceptable pattern of worship. Yet the outcome of their giving was vastly different. God accepted Abel's gift, yet rejected that of Cain. What separated the two offerings was the heart condition of the individuals. It is likely that Abel's offering was accepted and Cain's was not because of the very different attitudes of their hearts.
The connection between the inner motivation of faith and its outward material expression is the key to understanding biblical giving. Giving and faith are inextricably linked. The church today can benefit from preachers offering a broader and deeper perspective on biblical giving that shines a spotlight on the Old Testament practice of giving and its correlation to a walk of faith.
As preachers unpack the biblical principles of giving reflected in Old Testament narratives, they can inspire recent stories of biblical giving in their churches today. The Old Testament can help us make the connection between faith and giving and inspire the faithful to a heightened joy of generosity and be more like "God's givers."
As you consider a new way of preaching on giving, there are three key points:
Giving is not just about the "how much," but about the "why."
The stories of our giving today followed closely the narratives of stories of giving presented in the Old Testament. Giving is the outcome of real people making sometimes tough decisions to put God first in their lives.
Giving is a mark of a community of faith. We may think of giving is an individual contract with God, but the Bible teaches that giving is always part of a community of faith coming together to honor God.
It should be the goal of every pastor inspire their church today to live as and be known as a community of giving. Preaching the stories of giving from Old Testament narrative texts is one way to begin that mission.
Here is an outline of a thirteen sermon series drawn from Old Testament narratives that elicit key biblical principles of giving:
Will Stevens is the Vice President of Giving Strategies for WaterStone. Will is currently working towards his DMin and PhD degrees from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary with a focus on an Old Testament theology of giving and recently finished his book God’s Givers: Seven Old Testament Stories of Fearless Giving.