I've heard it said that when someone becomes a Christian, the last part of them to be converted is frequently their wallet. That was just as true in ancient Israel as it is today.
We continue to work our way through the book of the prophet Malachi, written roughly two and a half thousand years ago. If you've been with us as we've looked at this together, you will know that the people were growing tired and cynical. They were doubting that God really did love them, and God calls them to come back to him, to love him in response to his great love for them. “‘Return to me, and I will return to you,’ says the Lord Almighty.”
Well, what will that look like in practice? We've seen many areas of life that are touched by this, as we've worked our way through Malachi. We come today to money. “You ask, ‘How are we to return?’” Answer: “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.” They are failing to give God something that is rightfully his. “You ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’” Answer: “In tithes and offerings.” They're failing to give God the tithes and the offerings he is due.
The tithe literally means “the tenth”. The people had to give a tenth of their income each year. These tithes were given in the Old Testament law for three purposes.
Tithes Given for the Priests
Number one for the priests.
Each family in Israel was given a parcel of land that they would farm, and that they would use to feed themselves and their families. The priests and the other Levites were not given their own land. That's because their time was not to be spent working the land, but working for the Lord, working in the service of the temple. And to free them up to give their time wholeheartedly to the work of the Lord, other Israelites would instead give one tenth of what they produced to ensure that the priests and the Levites could feed themselves and their families.
The tithe was given to feed the priests.
Tithes Given for the Poor
Number two, it was given to feed the poor.
The tithes were stored up so that the community was able to take care of the poor amongst them.
Tithes Given for the Parties
And number three, to provide food for the parties.
Three times a year, all of Israel would gather together in Jerusalem like one big family, to celebrate the many ways that God had blessed them. And the tithes ensured that there was plenty to eat and drink, so that they had a celebration fit for the good God that they were there to celebrate.
Food provided for the priests, for the poor, and for the parties.
Bring the Whole Tithe
And the Israelites of Malachi’s day were not doing it. God says “bring the whole tithe into the storehouse”. The storehouses and storerooms around the temple area were not having the full tithe brought in, but something less than that full tenth.
You get a little sense in this passage of why that might be. Verse 11 gives us the hint that they've had perhaps a few years of poor harvests, maybe locusts or other pests devouring their crops and fruit dropping off the vines and the fruit trees before it's ripe enough to eat. And so you can imagine them looking at the poor harvest yet again, and doing the maths, and thinking we can't afford to give God ten percent of this. If we do we might not have enough to get ourselves through the winter. Let's just give him 5 percent this year keep, that little bit extra to make sure we have enough to get by. And God says to them, “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse that there may be food in my house.”
And then he invites them to see what happens. You see, they think they can't afford to be as generous as to give their ten percent. But 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 there will not be room enough to store it.” A bumper harvest, so vast that the storehouse that is built to fit in ten percent of their produce will not be big enough for the tithe of that bumper harvest to fit. The pests will no longer eat the crops, and the fruit will no longer drop off the trees before it's ripe.
Tithing in the New Testament?
Well, that was God's call to them in the time of Malachi. What happens to this command (to give a tenth of our income) as we move into the New Testament? How do we hear this as Christians today?
Well what we discover in the teaching of Jesus is that God becomes interested in much more than just one tenth of our money .He's interested in more than that, although he's not interested in less than our income and our money.
Give God More than our Money
He's interested in more than that.
Here are some words of Jesus from Mark chapter 8. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels.”
Jesus asks us to give him much more than one tenth of our income. He wants all of every part of us. Not a tenth, but everything. Not just our income, but every area of life. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves take up their cross and follow me.” Not deny a tenth of our income to follow Jesus, but deny our very selves. We lay at the feet of the Lord Jesus all that we are, and all that we have: our money, our time, our houses, our careers, our jobs, our families, the opportunities before us – and we say to the Lord Jesus: “This is now all yours and not mine. Do with it as you please.”
A little like in ancient Israel, we may find ourselves wondering: “Can I really afford to do that? It sounds too costly. Will I have enough for me to live off, if I give him everything.” In some parts of the world, Christians do that in principle. They lay everything before Jesus, and they discover it does indeed cost them everything, as they literally lay down their lives to follow Jesus. Most of us will not have to do that. But Jesus still asks us to entrust everything to him, to hand it all over.
But do we find ourselves as losers in life because we do that? Not at all. Not when you see things from the sweep of eternity. Jesus says here that he will return in his father's glory with the holy angels. He will return to this world, and he will judge every single one of us for the way we've lived our lives. And on that day, the one thing that matters is whether we know and trust the Lord Jesus for ourselves. He died on the cross and rose again, so that we can be forgiven for all the things we've done that are wrong. But we do need to know him, to put our lives into his hands, so that when he returns as judge we are forgiven and welcomed into his home. Knowing Jesus in this life is the difference between eternity in heaven and hell.
So when you zoom out to view the eternal perspective, following Jesus, giving him everything, never leaves you a net loser. You may not be rich in this life, but with eternity in view you're always much, much, much, better off giving up everything for him.
He's interested in far more than just our money.
Still Give God our Money
But he's not interested in less than our money. As we give him everything, he still has things to say to us on how that affects our wallets.
The New Testament never repeats the magic number of “ten percent”. It never gives us that as a command for Christians to follow. But it does have a lot to say on generous giving.
As God asks us to think each of us for ourselves how much of what we earn will we give to the Lord – give to his church here on earth so that people can be set aside full time to work for the Lord, so that we can care for the poor amongst us, so that we can have resources with which to celebrate the Lord's goodness – as you think for yourself, “How much will I give to the Lord, for these things?”, here are three principles to help you think that through.
Number one, it should be proportional.
That's the principle of the Old Testament tithe. How much do you have coming in? Take a tenth. Those who have lots coming in give lots; those who have a little coming in will give much less.
Give proportionally. Ask yourself, “How much am I earning?”, and give some kind of proportion of that. It should be proportional.
Number two, it should be cheerful. “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
Ask yourself how generously can I give to the Lord's work, and still be giving cheerfully? At what point would it cease to be a cheerful gift, and become a resentful gift? And give as much as you can such that it is still cheerful.
Give proportionally. Give cheerfully.
And number three, give generously. As you work out for yourself “what proportion of my income will I give to the Lord and his work”, you'll need to come up with a number. The number reflects all that God has done for you in the Lord Jesus, his great love for you as he died and rose again.
These were things that Old Testament Israel were yet to encounter. God gave them a law and gave them a number “10” And it seems to me that for most of us, our experience of God's goodness ought probably to mean that we come up with a number that isn't smaller than the one that they had to do. But that's for each of us to decide.
Many, many Christians have found down the centuries that this “ten percent” figure remains a really useful guide, as they think this through for themselves.
But all of this for us, as for them, is a response to God's love.
God's love for us is constant, and it's vast.
“I, the Lord do not change.” And so God invites each of us: “Return to me, and I will return to you. … Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse that there may be food in my house. Test me in this, and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven, and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. … Then all the nations will call you blessed for yours will be a delightful land, says the Lord Almighty.”