Testing The Promise

A chairman of one of the largest insurance companies in the United States was a rags to riches businessman. He had come from a very poor background. One day he was asked: "what is the key to your success as a businessman?" This is how he replied: "Many years ago I made a contract with the Lord, claiming the promise: "Them that honour me I will honour". And I began tithing." He was giving 10 percent of his income away. He said he began tithing when he had almost no income. But he kept his contract with God who began blessing him from then on as he went from one level of business to another. This man would claim that he had tested God's promise and found it true - the promise we heard about in our Old Testament reading this morning - Malachi 3.10:

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."

Well, this morning in our short series of studies called "GOD'S PROVISION" our title is TESTING THE PROMISE. And we are to look together at Malachi 3 and verses 6-12. And you'll see that my headings are first, THE NATURE OF GOD AND THE NATURE OF MAN; secondly, THE CALL TO REPENT; and thirdly, THE RESULTS. But by way of introduction let me say this about our "Giving Review". It is not just about Jesmond, although it concerns the work here. No! it is also about our whole attitude to money in general. The bible sees having money as neutral - but as dangerous. The moral questions relate to how you get it and how you spend it. And listen to Jesus in Luke 12.15:

"Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."

He says "be on your guard" - that means keep a look out and actively take precautions against the wrong desire for money. You put locks on your bike and on your car. You install a burglar alarm to protect your house. You take out insurances against this and that to guard against unforeseen circumstances. Jesus says: "be as energetic to defend yourselves against greed." Well, with that introduction let's look now at Malachi and verses 6-12 of chapter 3. So first, what do they teach us about THE NATURE OF GOD AND THE NATURE OF MAN? There are two things taught here about the nature of God. One, that he does not change. The theologians call this his "immutability". It means that his nature, his goals, his plans and his ways of acting do not change, either for the better (because they are perfect and he cannot become better than he is) or for the worse. God, speaking through his prophet Malachi, is crystal clear (3.6):

I the LORD do not change.

That is why we can learn from the Old Testament and a passage like this one. God's principles that you read in the Old Testament are unchanging. Of course you have to apply them differently in the light of Jesus Christ and the New Testament. Ian was talking about that last week. But God himself does not change. And, two, he is gracious. Look at the second part of verse 6:

So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.

The people in one sense deserved to be destroyed for what they had done. But God is merciful. He forgave them. And he offered them blessings. As we shall see these were not only spiritual blessings but also material blessings. Do you believe all that? As you review your giving, keep in mind that God is unchanging and gracious. But what about us? What about the nature of man? Look at the first part of verse 7:

Ever since the time of your forefathers you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them.

That is what the bible means by sin. That is the human condition. That is the problem from the highest to the humblest. That is the problem with Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles. They seem blatantly to have turned away from God's decrees and not to have kept them. But before you cast the first stone from your more humble position, remember that we have all turned away from God's decrees. And we do so in many different ways. Who here this morning is without guilt in this matter of greed or covetousness? Many Christians fall at this point. St Paul certainly did. Romans 7 verse 7 shows that the command about coveting was a real problem for Paul. First of all he was unaware that he himself was covetous and greedy. It was only when he self-consciously had the equivalent of a Giving Review and began to think about God's command and demands, that he realised that he had failed. Not only that, he got worse. As he says: "sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire." He probably thought, why should I support God's work? Why should I give to others in need? After all, I could expand my tent-making business with a little more capital. The implication is that Paul was tempted not to give as he should. Covetousness was a real problem. How many of us are like Paul? The people in Malachi's day certainly were. These were people who had returned from exile in the 6th century BC. They thought God would make everything wonderful once they got home. But they found Jerusalem still in ruins. Things were not as good as they expected. So they became very negative. And they doubted God's love. Anyone like that here this morning? Oh! you don't find life to your liking. Things here and there are going wrong. Be warned, and be encouraged, by Malachi. The great message of Malachi is that God is love even when it doesn't seem so. Chapter 1 verse 2 says: "'I have loved you,' says the Lord." But the people didn't believe that. They replied to God: "How have you loved us?" And doubting God's love the people blocked the enjoyment of his love by their disobedience. First, they were bringing junk animals for the sacrifices; and calling their corporate worship "a burden" (1.13). Secondly, the priests had "caused many to stumble" by their false teaching (2.8). Thirdly, there was sexual immorality and marriage breakdown; so God says: "I hate divorce" (2.16). Fourthly, there was public dishonesty and injustice (3.5). And fifthly, there was the problem we see in our passage this morning (3.6-12) - people failing to give for God's work. So how did God respond to this situation? That brings us to our second heading. Secondly, THE CALL TO REPENT Look at verse 7b:

"Return to me, and I will return to you," says the LORD Almighty.

How do you repent? That was the question Malachi's contemporaries were asking. Look at the last part of verse 7:

you ask, 'How are we to return?'

God's answer was to talk about money! Look at verses 8-10:

"Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. "But you ask, 'How do we rob you?' "In tithes and offerings. {9} You are under a curse--the whole nation of you--because you are robbing me. {10} 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 am sure in Malachi's day, some of the people immediately turned round and said:

"how unspiritual. This is like bribery. This is like a prosperity gospel. It is suggesting that if we give, God will bless. I am not having any of that."

And so they further justified their greed and their refusal to give. But all that is to misunderstand what God wants. And because people still misunderstand what God is wanting, let me try to explain by giving you five propositions. One, giving to God, or anyone else can never make you right with God or give you eternal peace with God. It can never deal with that back-log of sin, and your future sins. Only faith in Christ who alone paid the penalty for sin when he died on the Cross will do that. If you have never trusted him and given yourself to him, never think you can buy your salvation. Who is making that mistake this morning, and so needs first to trust in Christ to receive his free forgiveness and his Holy Spirit? Do that before you ever think about reviewing your giving! So God, through Malachi, is not saying you can buy salvation. But, two, God is saying that for his work in the world, as a matter of fact, he wants your and my co-operation. He could have worked in other ways. But he chose to work through our co-operation. This is a fundamental principle. So he wants you to pray. He works through your prayers. He wants you to witness. He works by using your words to win others. And he wants you to give money. He works through your giving. God could have worked in other ways. He is omnipotent. But he has chosen this way of working. Three, God is saying that faith must be practical if it is real. The New Testament says (Gal 5:6):

"The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love."

It is not faith that is just words that counts. Of course it is not love or any other good deeds that save you. It is simply that they are evidence of genuine faith in Christ. In some ways it is like that amazing space mission, Apollo 13. I saw the film over Christmas. Those astronauts had to trust the instructions from the ground when things went wrong. The proof that they were trusting ground control was their following instructions. The analogy falls down because God is utterly trust-worthy and all powerful unlike those US controllers. So from day one when you trust Christ you can be sure of the outcome. But the evidence that you trust him, is by doing what he says. So if you are serious with God, according to Malachi, you will not "rob him". Four, this teaching here in Malachi on tithing does not to mean legalism. Yes, there can be legalism. Jesus had to say to his New Testament opponents, Matthew 23.23:

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former.

Here was legalistic tithing. The Pharisees were concentrating on their giving a tenth of everything but ignoring "justice, mercy and faithfulness." But not all tithing, or giving a tenth, has to be legalistic. Jesus didn't say "don't tithe". He said: "you should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former [that is, giving a tenth]." If you separate tithing or giving from these important gospel issues, it is worthless. By itself it won't get you anywhere. But in the context of God's agenda there is a blessing for you and for others. Five, the importance of tithing is that it is "percentage giving." Paul underlines that principle in 1 Cor 16.2. He says:

On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.

Giving "in keeping with your income" is percentage giving. It is not giving without thought or giving a sum out of the blue. No! it requires bits of paper and calculators and adding up and working out a percentage. It is definite. It does need thought. And it is regular giving. That is why we have the "Giving Scheme" at JPC - to encourage percentage giving and regular, systematic giving. But you say, "what percentage should I give? Isn't 10 percent just Old Testament? We are now in the age of the Spirit. Can't we do as we like?" Well, apart from Jesus endorsing the tenth in his clash with the Pharisees, the only percentages we hear about in the New Testament are more than ten percent. There was the 100 percent the poor widow gave; and Zacchaeus who gave 50 percent. But many Christians have found tithing - ten percent - a helpful guideline. Some have worked up to it over a period of a few years. A number give more as the bible shows. However, what is certain is this: if you are going to "repent" and turn around, don't pretend that it won't affect your money. Michael Green says:

giving is a powerful indicator of your spiritual life.

Two centuries earlier John Wesley said:

the last part of a man to be converted is his wallet.

Two centuries before that Luther said:

Every man needs two conversions: the first of his heart, the second of his wallet.

And many centuries before that God said through Malachi:

Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse.

Finally, THE RESULTS First, there is the practical result that God's work here on earth can go forward when his people give - verse 10:

Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.

God owns a cattle on a 1000 hills (Ps 50.10). But God has ordained his dependence on his people to receive back what is rightfully his. That is why not to give, is called "robbing God". That is a serious charge. God owns everything in the world; but he will have nothing unless his people give it back to him. That is the challenge for us. This church can only function as God's people give back to God. Praise him that so many do just that. The second result of giving is that the giver is blessed. Look at verses 10-12:

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. {11} I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit," says the LORD Almighty. {12} "Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land," says the LORD Almighty.

It was John Bunyan who wrote:

There was a man,Some called him mad;The more he gave,The more he had.

That is the testimony of God's people down the ages. There is not always an immediate return. There are people who give, and find life hard. But many do experience God's material blessings. Because they are faithful stewards, God seems to allow them to have more. They can then give greater support to God's work. And where there are no material blessings, there are undoubtedly spiritual blessings. On the one hand giving to God and for his work gives you a sense of eternity. How important that is! Jesus said,

store up for yourselves treasures in heaven ... For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Mat 6:20-21).

And on the other hand giving frees you from the bondage to money that is so endemic in the world today. I must conclude. God is teaching here in Malachi the spiritual law of the harvest. That is what Paul teaches in 2 Corinthians 9.6-8 - and so with his words there I close:

Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. {7} Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. {8} And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.

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