When we put our faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, we enter a love relationship with him. It's a sacred romance. It's not just a working relationship. It is a love relationship with God.
I was watching Fox news, and Geraldo Rivera was interviewing some troops in Afghanistan, those who are on the prowl to try to get Osama bin Laden. As he interviewed one of the soldiers, the soldier was standing right next to his commanding officer. Rivera asked him, "What do you think of your commanding officer?" And without hesitation the soldier said, "I love this guy." It was obvious there was a love relationship between them. There was a bond far more than just, This is the guy I have to report to and he gives me orders. There was a definite, genuine love between them. That's the way it's supposed to be between you and God.
But sometimes lovers quarrel. Lovers quarrel when one party in the relationship has committed an act of betrayal. Then things start to break down, and a quarrel breaks out. We're going to listen to a lovers' quarrel between God and his people.
We rob God when we don't give
It's in Malachi 3:612 where this lovers' quarrel breaks out. God begins, because he is the one who has been betrayed. He says, "'I the Lord do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. Ever since the time of your forefathers you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,' says the Lord Almighty."
God is saying: Look, we have this love relationship. Somebody in this relationship has moved, and it's not me. I don't change. And it's a good thing for you, or you might be destroyed, because historically over the years of our relationship you have not been faithful. You've constantly turned away from the agreements we've had, the decrees I've given you.
But then God says these tender words: "Return to me, and I will return unto you." And oh, what tender words they are.
But remember this is a lovers' quarrel, and God's people are not immediately convinced; these words don't make their hearts melt and become tender. God says at the end of verse 7, "But you ask, 'How are we to return?'"
God answers that. In verse 8 he says, "Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me." It's interesting that God singles out the area of money. We might expect God to get after the people for worshiping idols, although these are people who came back from 70 years of captivity in Iraqancient Babylon. They have come back to the land, and one thing we know about the Jewish people after this captivity is they don't struggle with worshiping false idols like they did before they went into captivity.
But in this case God singles out money. That stands to reason, doesn't it? A lot of lovers' quarrels are over money. If you're married you know that's true, because you've had that happen in your home. One day one of you looks at the checkbook and says, "S dollars and cents at WMart! You said you were only going to buy toilet paper and toothpaste." And then later in the week the other spouse finds out a 4 has been purchased, and that is not how the money was going to be spent. And you both feel the other person has betrayed you and has robbed the money you had both set aside for a specific purpose. That's what God is doing in this lovers' quarrel. He is accusing his people of robbing him.
You can anticipate what they're going to say. The second line of verse 8 says, "But you ask, 'How do we rob you?'" God, come on. Explain that. How do we rob you?
God gives the answer at the end of verse 8 and in verse 9: "In tithes and offerings. You are under a cursethe whole nation of youbecause you are robbing me."
God is upset here, and he calls these people a name. In verse 9 he says, "You are under a cursethe whole nation of you." That word "nation"the Hebrew word gowywas used for the pagan peoples, and rarely in the Old Testament does God use that to describe Israel. God typically uses another word. When he speaks of Israel he calls them "my people" or "a people"the Hebrew word ben. But in this case he uses this word gowy, or "nation," because it has the connotations of paganism and being heathen. He's upset with them, and he's lumping their behavior with the behavior of the people living around them: "You are under a cursethe whole nation of youbecause you are robbing me."
How are the people robbing God? In tithes and offerings. The word tithe is literally "tenth," or ten percent. The people living before Jesus were under the law of Moses. That was their covenant with God, and that law in Deuteronomy 14:2229 specified the people had to give ten percent. So if you yielded 90 bushels of wheat, nine would be given to the Lord. If your cows had 30 calves, you would offer three of those calves to the Lord. That was your tithe.
It gets a little more complicated, because in the Old Testament law there were actually three tithes. One was this tithe that was given to the priests. A second tithe was used to celebrate the annual sacred feastthe people used this to throw a party in honor of God. And then every third year the people would give another ten percent to help the poor. When you add that together, that works out to be roughly 25 percent of your income. That was expected of the people, and God says: You are robbing me, because you are not following through on giving your tithes.
We have to ask ourselves a question: Is this issue still a problem today? Is it still a sin not to bring tithes and offerings to God? This is the Old Testament. It deals with a phase of God's program before Jesus came on the scene. And when Jesus came on the scene, some things changed. The way you and I relate to God through Jesus is different in some respects than how the people of Israel related to God. So we have to ask: Is this still a sin for us today?
To answer that question we have to look at Old Testament teaching through the lens of Jesus' teaching and ministry.
Second Corinthians 89 is one of the most complete discussions in the New Testament on giving. The apostle Paul is saying to the Corinthian church: You need to excel in the grace of giving.
So God still intends for us, as his people living in this New Covenant age, to give, to bring offerings to the Lord. And he might be saying to us: You're robbing me. I want you to return to me. I want us to get this relationship right. And the place you need to start is in this matter of giving.
God is beginning to dominate the conversation in this lover's quarrel. In Malachi 3:1012 he tells them how to solve the problem:
"Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this," says the Lord Almighty, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit," says the Lord Almighty. "Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land," says the Lord Almighty.
What's the solution? Again, we have to run this through the lens of Jesus' teaching and the apostles' teaching. We have to read this in light of what we know from the New Testament.
We are to give generously to God's church
First of all, let's talk about the amount. Does God want you to give a tithe? Remember, the word tithe means "tenth." Remember also there were three tithes in Israel. One of them was given every third year, so these people were roughly giving 25 percent of their income. So if you want to get legalistic about tithing, 25 percent off the top is what you would be giving.
In 2 Corinthians 9:7 the apostle Paul gives the clearest answer in the New Testament to this question of how much we should give to the Lord. Paul says, "Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver."
How much should you give? God leaves that up to you.
The Old Testament law has been brought to its fullness in Jesus Christ, so whenever we study the Old Testament law, we have to read it in light of what the New Testament teaches. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9 that we are under the law of Christ.
But as we learn from the Old Testament law, ten percent is a good place to start. God doesn't look at the percentage you give. He looks at your heart, and he looks at whether or not you have been generous. But if you're asking, "Where should I start? What's the minimum?" ten percent is a good guideline. In some cases it's nine percent or eight percent, but I trust as we grow in our faith we'll see that amount increase. But I urge every one of you to look at ten percent as a place to start.
What do we do with this command in verse 10 to "bring the whole tithe into the storehouse"? A lot of people talk about storehouse tithing or storehouse giving. How does this principle carry over to the New Testament? In the nation of Israel, 450 years before Christ, the people were supposed to bring their goodsthe produce from their fields, the grain, the olives, the olive oil, the new wineand it would be stored in a warehouse in the temple. Then the priest would dole out this material as it was needed, probably for three things.
First of all, these goods were used to support the priest and the Levites, those who were serving God vocationally. They didn't have other jobs, so God's design for them to make a living was to get their money from these items.
But also this material was used to meet the needs of the poor in the community, and the priests would divvy out the produce and the goods as it was needed.
And thirdly, these goods were used to meet the expenses of carrying on the temple operation. They had utility bills to pay. They had to have olive oil to light the lamps. So some of the money was used to fund those endeavors as well.
The question is: Are we to follow this practice of storehouse giving? How does that translate into the New Testament area? The principle is still the same: we as God's people bring our gifts and offerings to a central place, in our case, to our church, and we allow the leadership of the church to use this pool of wealth to fund the ministryto pay salaries of missionaries, of pastors, of leaders in our church, to meet the needs of people in our community, and then also to pay the light bills and the bills for other utilities.
As we run this concept of storehouse giving through the grid of the New Testament teaching, we see it's still a concept for today. In Acts 4:3435 the believers in the early church are bringing their goods and laying them at the apostles' feet. Instead of everybody doing their own thing, they are pooling their resources together, and any time you pool your resources together you have more to give and more potential to make an impact. In 1 Corinthians 16:14 Paul is instructing the Corinthian church about setting aside money on the first day of the week to give to the poor people in Jerusalem. That's a major theme threaded throughout parts of the New Testament.
Where does the rubber meet the road, then, for us today? We ought to do the bulk of our giving through our local church. Instead of being individuals, instead of each deciding to do something different, we should give to our local church and trust our church and its leaders to use those resources to meet the needs God has established us to meet in his Word.
My wife and I have committed that 90 percent of what we give in offerings will be given directly to Dry Creek Bible Church. We take 10 percent of our offeringsthat's not a magical figure, it just worked out that wayand we give that to some personal things we'd like to be part of. We have a number of people in our church who go on missions, and last year we got eight or nine letters from college students who were going on summer missions projects. So we'll give that 10 percent to help them. But the concept is to give the bulk of our offerings to our church's general fund to meet the ministry needs.
God blesses us abundantly when we give
The people in Malachi 3:1012 were struggling with some of the same issues you and I struggle with when it comes to giving. They had some of the same factors working against them. In verse 10 God says, "Test me in this and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it." It sounds like the people are scared that if they follow through on their giving commitments they're not going to make it.
These people were facing heavy taxation by the Persians. They had been taken into captivity years before by the Babylonians, and many of them were deported to what is modern day Iraq. They lived there for 70 years, and then the Persians living in the area of modern day Iran overthrew the Babylonians. The Persians said, We've got all of these prisoners of war; let's send them home and let them rebuild the nation and their economy, and we'll come out better economically by doing that. So the people of Israel went home, but they were paying heavy taxes to the Persians.
I'm sure some of these people thought, Our budget is so tight, and if we give our tithes and offerings we're not going to have enough money to pay our taxes. Or if we pay our taxes, we're not going to have enough money to eat. These people were concerned about pests destroying their crops and whether there would be enough rainfall and enough sunshine so the crops would grow and have a good yield.
God says to them: Trust me in this. If you do your part, I will bless you.
Today we have the same concerns, don't we? We worry about the local economy and the markets and the price of gasoline. But God said to these people and he says to us today: I challenge you to test me. Follow through on your commitment, and see whether or not I will bless you. Give at a level that will test my ability to bring blessing to your life.
In the Old Testament times the people's fortunes were tied to the land of Israel, so God blessing them with the good life was related to whether or not they had a productive year, whether the land had a good milk and honey flow. That was their way of saying it was prosperous.
But in the New Testament God's blessing has shifted in its emphasis from material blessings to spiritual blessings. God blessed people in the Old Testament spiritually, and he blesses people today materially. But in the first chapter of Ephesians is that wonderful prayer of blessing Paul prays, and we realize God has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing.
What that might mean is this. If you make an extra $20,000 this year, certainly that's a blessing from God. But if you lose $20,000, that doesn't necessarily mean God didn't bless you. Maybe that blessing is going to be the peace you feel as you struggle with cancer in your family. Or maybe that blessing is the privilege of leading three people to faith in Jesus Christ. Or maybe it's those developing friendships and the bonds you begin to build with people in your small group. Maybe it's the opportunity to go on a mission trip to Haiti. It's still the same. God says: I challenge you to give at a level that will test my ability to bless you. Try it and see whether I come through.
That's the question you and I have to ask today: Am I willing to give at a level that will test God's ability to bless me? Some of us may not be giving at a level that puts God to the test. If that's the case, God is calling us in this lovers' quarrel to return to him in this matter of giving.
One of the best examples I've seen of giving is a friend of mine who lives in Denver, Colorado. He and his wife would say that they have been blessed by God, that they have a beautiful home, and that they are wealthy. But to be honest, according to most of our standards, they're not. Most of you live in nicer homes than they live in. They live in a working class community. It's a nice neighborhood, but many of their neighbors have moved into larger, more affluent neighborhoods. My friend is a schoolteacher. Those of you in education know it's tough to live on a teacher's salary. This guy's wife has a couple of jobs. They drive a used car. But they give 30 percent of their income.
I look at that and say wow. They have put God to the test. They have tested his ability to bless them, and God has come through.
If you define blessing in terms of the square footage of a house, in terms of how many miles are on your vehicle, then you might look at them and say God hasn't blessed them much. But they have a loving, supportive family. They've been able to travel around the world and serve God in missions. God has used them in their community. And yes, they can do some special things. They took me out to eat at Olive Garden the night I was there. It's not like they're stingy tightwads who don't have any fun. But they've taken seriously God's challenge.
Friends, God is challenging you to give at a level that will test his ability to bless you.
As you listen to this lovers' quarrel, when you get to the end of verse 12 listen for the response of God's people. God has done a lot of talking here. What do God's people have to say in response? There's nothing there, is there? God's people don't respond. Could it be that the prophet Malachi didn't include the people's response because he wants to let us think about how we would complete this story, because he wants us to think about how we would respond to God, how we would end this lovers' quarrel? Are we willing to return to the Lord, the Lord who promises to return to us? Are you and I willing to accept God's challenge to give at a level that tests his ability to bless us? That is the question, and the choice is yours.
Steve Mathewson is senior pastor of Dry Creek Bible Church in Belgrade, Montana, and author of The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative (Baker, 2002).