My son is the assistant manager of a Potbelly's sandwich shop in the northern suburbs of Chicago. When you ask for a glass of water, most restaurants like Potbelly's will give you a plastic cup. Of course, if you have one of those plastic cups, you can't go to the pop machine and take pop. You haven't paid for it. But just about every day, something happens at Potbelly's that is often the most entertaining moment of my son's day. He watches as the workers at Potbelly's hand the plastic glasses to those who have ordered water, and many of these obviously well-to-do people of the northern suburbs take their plastic cups, and instead of pushing the little water tab, they fill their cups with pop. There are no whistles or sirens that go off. Potbelly's doesn't call the police or haul out guns or take the customers captive. As graciously as he can, my son walks over to the customer and says, "I'm so sorry. I didn't realize we were supposed to charge you for pop. Can we go over and ring that up?" As he takes them over to the counter, he says it's pretty entertaining to see them turn crimson red in embarrassment. After all, they are stealing.
God hates stealing.
"You shall not steal," the Bible says.
Stealing can be small. Stealing can be large. But it's stealing either way. Bernie Madoff oversaw a Ponzi scheme that went on for years. They don't even know exactly how much he stole, he stole so much money. They estimate that it was somewhere between nine and twenty-one billion dollars. It's the biggest Ponzi scheme in American history—and Madoff was the former chairman of Nasdaq! Stealing isn't just some mugger, short on money or strung out on drugs, sticking a gun in someone's back in the alleys of Chicago, saying, "Hand me your wallet!" Stealing happens all over the place—high or low.
In early 2009, there was a news story about a Catholic priest in Florida who had been taking money from the offering plates. They figured he had stolen over a twenty-year period. They knew he had stolen at least 800,000 dollars from the church in recent years, and since it had been going on for a long time, they estimated he had stolen 20 million dollars from the church. To make matters worse, he used the money to take care of a mistress.
"You shall not steal," the Bible says.
In 2007, Spherion, a career recruiting and staffing agency, asked 2,000 employees if they had ever taken office supplies for personal use. Nearly 20 percent admitted they had. Surprisingly, the agency found that the likelihood of someone stealing company materials for personal use increased with those at higher educational and salary levels. In other words, the better educated and the higher the salary, the more people stole from their business. Thirteen percent of employees with a high school education said they pilfered office supplies, compared with twenty-seven percent of college graduates and twenty-two percent of those with graduate degrees. Apparently, the better educated you are, the more clever you are at stealing—and the more you somehow justify it or rationalize it.
Isaiah 61:8 tells us of God's character—of his holiness. God says, "I, the Lord, love justice. I hate robbery and iniquity." Why do the Ten Commandments include "You shall not steal?" Because God loves justice. He hates stealing. Large or small, 60 billion or 20 billion, he hates stealing. He hates what Bernie Madoff did, and he hates glasses of pop stolen from Potbelly's.
In John 12:1-6, we are told of a woman who anointed Jesus. John writes:
Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus' feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, "Why wasn't this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year's wages." He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
Did you know that before Judas betrayed Jesus, he was a thief? That he was stealing from the offering just like the Catholic priest? Judas was a thief—just like Satan is a thief.
In John 10:10, as Jesus speaks about himself as the good shepherd, he has this to say about the Devil: "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I have come that they may have life and have it to the full." Satan is a thief. He steals from every human being. He steals their soul, taking what is most valuable.
Judas was a thief, because the Devil is a thief, and he put that spirit into Judas. Make no mistake: stealing is a very bad thing. There is wicked company in the act of stealing.
Theft in today's world
How are we tempted to steal today? Piracy of music or movies or software—that's stealing. How about taxes? The Bible says we should pay taxes to the government, but we are sometimes tempted to understate our income or overstate expenses, which are nothing more than ways to steal from the government. People are often tempted to rip off government agencies or large corporations. You can do this through something as simple as a return policy. If a corporation or a store has a policy that says you can return anything you want, there are people who will walk into that store looking to buy something they know they will only use for a week. They buy it, use it, and then return it, saying, "I don't like it." The whole process costs that company money that comes out of somebody's pocket.
We're tempted to steal from our employer when we're lazy. If my employer pays me to work 7 ½ hours or 8 hours or 10 hours or whatever—if I work 4 hours and then twiddle my thumbs for the other 3 or 4 hours, I'm stealing from my employer.
Of course, there's one person from whom we're all tempted to steal from more than anyone else: God. In fact, people steal from God more than any other person in the universe. In Malachi 3:6-10, God said:
"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. But you ask, 'How are we to return?'
"Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, 'How do we rob you?' In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—the whole nation of you—because you are robbing me. 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."
God rebuked Israel because they were not giving him a tenth of their income, just as he had commanded them. He said that was stealing. And the magnitude of this kind of stealing goes beyond anything that goes on here on earth. We're talking about stealing from God himself! I would be terrified to do that. "You shall not steal"—and you definitely shall not steal from God!
Being a giver
The Ten Commandments have two sides to them. There is the side that says don't do this, and then there is the flipside that says do this instead. So, what is the positive fulfillment—the positive impulse—within the command "You shall not steal"?
Stealing is born out of an impulse that says, "I want more. I want so much more that I want what you have, because what I have is not enough." If I feel like I don't have enough money, I want your money. If I feel like I don't have enough food, I want your food. Stealing is that part of us that says, "Yours comes to me"—that part of us that is a taker. The opposite of that impulse, of course, is the impulse to be a giver, to be generous. The command that says you shall not steal also calls you to be a generous person who is bringing blessing to other people. It calls you to be a giver to others—the kind of person that when you walk in the door, others say, "I'm so glad to be around you. You are such a generous-hearted person, such a generous-minded person, such a giver of your work and your time. You bless me when you come in the room."
My wife's sister is a very gifted cook. We recently went on vacation with her, and for several nights in a row, she cooked these fabulous dinners. Every day she was on her feet for hours, preparing these meals for our family. I was blessed to be able to have these wonderful meals because she was so generous with her time and her energy and her gifts. That's what a generous, giving person does. May God give us the grace to have that same spirit—a spirit where not only do we not steal, but we are givers, a generous people who take people out for lunch, invite people over, offer help when someone is doing a job.
In Ephesians 4:28, Paul writes: "He who has been stealing must steal no longer." But Paul doesn't just stop there. He adds: "[he] must work doing something useful with his own hands so that he may have something to share with those in need." This passage shows you how the Ten Commandments work. There is not only the forbidden—what you don't do—but there is movement to the positive impulse of what the Spirit leads us to do instead of stealing. There is a movement toward sharing with those in need, toward being a blessing, toward being a giver to other people.
We can give because God is a giver
We see that this is not just what we're to be like, but this is what God is like. God is a giver. He's the greatest giver of all, because everything comes from God. The Bible says, "Every good thing comes from God. From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever." God is a giver—the giver. John 3:16 says, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." That's the impulse of love, and that is the impulse of our God.
The Son God gave us, Jesus, came to the world and gave. His was a ministry of giving healing, giving teaching, giving wisdom, giving the blessings of the Lord, and giving deliverance. And isn't it interesting that when he went to the cross to give the ultimate sacrifice of himself for our sins, he hung between two thieves? The greatest gift in all of human history was given between two thieves—two people who took from others, wanting more, more, more. God came and identified with thieves! God could have arranged to die on a single cross. Everything about the cross and the death of Jesus was providentially arranged by God to communicate messages, to have meaning. God intentionally chose those two thieves, because he wanted to identify with those two thieves. Rather than hanging alone on a single cross, he put a thief on his right and a thief on his left, and he said: I'm going to come, and I'm going to die with you and for you.
That's the gospel. We can't save ourselves. Friends, we're all thieves! We've all stolen! Large or small, we've all stolen, and God says, "I'm going to come, and offer the greatest display of love and giving and sacrifice." Second Corinthians 8:9 says, "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich." Paul is writing about a glorious exchange where God, in all of his riches, all of his grace, all of his blessings and abundance, comes to thieves, hangs beside them, and lets them see his generosity, his love, his giving spirit. Jesus became poor and hung between two thieves, and because of this, he made us thieves rich. When we embrace this reality, it changes our greedy, covetous hearts—hearts that say we never have enough, hearts that are never content, hearts that want more, more, more.
The Bible records that the two thieves on the cross at first abused Jesus by insulting him. But before it was all over, one of those two thieves experienced a changed heart. He saw something in the man hanging on the center cross—something he had never seen before. He saw a love and a heart of giving that he had never known or experienced from other people. He saw what God's love and giving and generous heart is like. When he saw that love—when he saw the gospel lived out before his eyes—his heart was changed. Luke 23:39-42 says:
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" But the other criminal rebuked him. "Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
How did the thief know who Jesus was? He was looking at a crucified man! What was it about the situation that made him think that this was a king coming into his kingdom? Somehow that display of the gospel—that display of God's generosity and love for thieves—changed him and he believed. So it is with you. He comes to you and me, all of us thieves. Even if we've never pilfered with our hands, we've pilfered in our hearts. And he says, "I'm enough for you. I am the giver."
The nature of God is to give, give, give. That is what God is all about. In eternity, we are going to experience a whole other level of his blessing and generosity and salvation and goodness. God is going to ladle it upon us. He's going to spoon out upon us blessing upon blessing upon blessing through all eternity, and there won't be one smidgen within us that thinks, I want to steal, because we'll have all we need in the blessings of God. As David said in the Psalms, "My cup runneth over," through all eternity. We see this reflected in the word of Jesus when he said to the one thief, "I tell you the truth. Today you will be with me in Paradise." Paradise. When you're with God, out of this evil world, you will go to Paradise. You will go to be with the one who never stops giving, never stops loving, never stops providing blessings to us through Jesus Christ, forever and ever.
Believe in him. Trust in him. Give your life to him. Follow him. And you won't have to be a thief anymore, because your heart will be so full from the Giver.
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ___________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? _______________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? ______________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ___________________________________________
Craig Brian Larson is the pastor of Lake Shore Church in Chicago and author and editor of numerous books, including The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching (Zondervan). He blogs on Knowing God and His Ways at craigbrianlarson.com.