SOME SUBTLE WAYS WE WITHDRAW FROM GOD

Schindler’s List,” is the story of how Oskar Schindler, a German entrepreneur, first exploits but later protects Jews in Poland. When Jewish people were forced into the ghetto, Schindler employed them at his kitchenware factory. This arrangement was beneficial for both Schindler, who received cheap labor, and those Jews who were protected from being sent to concentration camps. When the Nazis closed Poland’s Cracow ghetto, most Jews were either sent to death camps or to a labor camp at Plaszow. At Plaszow, many workers died, and those who were not productive were transferred to nearby Auschwitz.

When the tide turned on the Eastern Front and German forces retreated, Schindler began manufacturing faulty artillery for the German army. Disillusioned with the Nazi party, Schindler conspired with his Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern, to employ Jews from Plaszow, thereby saving them from extermination. When Germany finally surrenders, Schindler knows he will be a wanted man for wrongly using Jews as slave labor. As he prepares to flee, he is surrounded by over 1,000 Jewish people whose lives he has saved. His accountant friend, Itzhak, hands Schindler a piece of paper and says, “We’ve written a letter trying to explain things in case you are captured. Every worker has signed it.” Schindler is moved by this gesture and thanks them. Itzhak then gives Schindler a gold ring with an inscription on it, which Itzhak translates: “It’s Hebrew from the Talmud. It says, ‘Whoever saves one life saves the entire world.’” Weeping, Schindler cries out, ‘I could have got more! I could have got more!’  Itzhak reassures him, ‘Eleven hundred people are alive because of you.’ Schindler laments, ‘If I made more money…I threw away so much money. You have no idea. If I just.…’  Again, Itzhak emphasizes that Schindler has saved generations because of what he did. ‘I didn’t do enough,’ Schindler says. ‘You did so much,’ Itzhak reaffirms. Emotionally undone, Schindler muses, ‘This car…what use is this car? Why did I keep this car? I could have saved ten more people.’ Then taking off his Nazi lapel badge, he guiltily says, ‘This is gold; I could have saved more.’ There are more than 6,000 descendants of Schindler’s Jews living in the USA and Europe, and many in Israel. All the world’s possessions are not as precious as one person.[i]

How we use what God has given us reveals much about who we are. Do we see the resources that God has blessed us with as tools to help others? God wants to change how many of us see money and possessions. Rather than allow them to possess us, which usually entraps us into debt, God wants to free us from that stronghold to use what He blesses us with in more significant ways. One of the most significant paradigm shifts comes in our lives when we see ourselves as God’s managers, rather than thinking that we possess what God has blessed us with. It is seeing ourselves as a steward and accountable to God for every area of our life. You have to understand that we were created by God for His pleasure and glory. The core underlying issue in our attitude towards money is one of trust. We will certainly see that as presented in Malachi 3:6-10 which also reveals the subtle ways we withdrawal from God.

THE FIRST SUBTLE WAY THAT WE WITHDRAW FROM GOD IS THROUGH A LACK OF MEANINGFUL RELATIONSHIP WITH HIM.

We cheat God by not living for Him. This is a form of turning our backs on Him. We can charge God with not caring for us, for not being there for us. We can charge him with not being faithful toward us. That’s what the Israelites were doing during the days of Malachi. To give you a historical perspective of the days of Malachi, he was a contemporary of Nehemiah. This was after the period of the Babylonian exile, when the Jews were returning back to the land under the reign of Cyrus and other Persian emperors and began the rebuilding of the temple and the walls of the city of Jerusalem. While Israel had been unfaithful over the years, God’s faithfulness could not be questioned.  He continued to choose to bless and love Israel even through hundreds of years of unfaithfulness by Israel in their covenant obligations toward God. God continued to show his love through the messages of his prophets, even though his message was rejected and many of his messengers were murdered. Here Malachi gives God’s response to the charge that God had not been just, and had failed to protect them against the other nations, as well as the charge that they were not living in prosperity, but under the dominion of foreign powers.

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?’[ii]

How often today do we blame God for the consequences of our own sinful choices? Nothing has changed. God had been cheated out of a meaningful relationship with His people. What is the priority of our lives? Are we primarily living for ourselves? Or are we living to bring glory and honor to God by embracing God’s values as expressed through His Word? We need to live in obedience to the way He has designed for us. There is a good path, a way of wisdom that does bring blessings in our lives.

THE SECOND SUBTLE WAY THAT WE WITHDRAW FROM GOD IS THROUGH OUR LACK OF WORSHIP EXPRESSED IN GIVING

Jesus spoke significantly to the issue of giving because it is an area that reveals our spiritual condition. Money represents time, work, and is a powerful indicator of our personal values. When we consider all that God has given us, how should we respond to Him? What should we give Him? The obvious answer is all that we are. Then why is it that so many struggle with giving? Have you ever wondered where we should begin when it comes to giving? Right from the very first book of the bible we read that Jacob promised to bring a tithe (a tenth) of all that God would bless him with. What we will discover is a pattern in the lives of God’s people regarding the nature of giving. While Jacob is fleeing from his argued brother Esau, he comes to a place on the way to Haran, where his maternal uncle lives. While spending the night, Jacob has a vision of a ladder extending down from heaven and angels ascending and descending upon this ladder. When he awakes he creates a memorial and calls it Bethel (house of God). It is here where Jacob makes a commitment to God.

and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.[iii]

O.T. scholar, Ralph Smith points out:

Tithing was a very old custom in the ancient world. Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians and Canaanites all practiced tithing before Israel became a nation. …Did all of the people in the O. T. always tithe? It seems that at certain periods in Israel’s history, primarily periods of reform and revival, the people gave their tithes faithfully and abundantly.[iv]

What we discover is that most ancient societies worshipped and gave a tithe as an expression of that worship. We also realize from a careful reading of the Old Testament that when Israel was obedient to God, they tithed and when they withdrew, they didn’t.

This lack of resources affected the sacrificial system, which then fell on hard times. Those who were responsible were forced to find employment in other areas as worship was neglected.

We also see that tithing was commanded under the law.

A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the LORD; it is holy to the LORD.[v]

We see that the tithe (tenth part) belonged to God and was considered set apart for sacred purposes. Later in Israel’s history we discover in the part of the Old Testament called wisdom literature that honoring God with one’s wealth was considered wise and the proper practice in living for God.

Honor the LORD with your wealth, with the first fruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine.[vi]

Here we see the expression of the first fruits or the first part of the harvest belonging to God. When the people gave, God blessed. This is certainly a timeless principle in life. The idea is that when we give, we become a conduit for God to continue to bless us in order that we would continue to bless others. Later in the prophetic literature, we read that one of the signs of spiritual neglect and apathy is seen in the area of giving. In Malachi, we are given an example of returning to God, through giving.

‘I the LORD do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.

Ever since the time of your ancestors 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 mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’ In tithes and offerings.

You are under a curse – your whole nation – 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 there will not be room enough to store.[vii]

A number of things here need to be understood. The idea of being cursed in in relationship to the covenant arrangement with God found in Leviticus (cf. Leviticus 26). Since the Jewish people had disobeyed God, they were experiencing the negative consequences of their actions.

Some people will argue that there is no mention of tithing after the Gospels. It is neither commanded nor is it ended. However, every New Testament example of giving speaks of first giving ourselves. Generosity is a quality that God wants to cultivate in all our lives.

There’s a timeless truth behind the concept of giving God our firstfruits. Whether or not the tithe is still the minimal measure of those firstfruits, I ask myself, Does God expect His New Covenant children to give Less or more? Jesus raised the spiritual bar, He never lowered it (Matthew 5:27-28).

Maybe you believe exclusively in ‘grace giving’ and dis­agree with the church fathers Origen, Jerome, and Augustine, who taught that the tithe was the minimum giving requirement for Christians. But it seems fair to ask, ‘God, do You really expect less of me – who has Your Holy Spirit within and lives in the wealthiest society in human history than You demanded of the poorest Israelite?     Malachi said that the Israelites robbed God by with­holding not only their mandatory tithes but also their vol­untary ‘offerings.’ By giving less in their freewill offerings than He expected of them, they were robbing God. If they could rob God with insufficient freewill offerings, can’t we do the same today? Paul encouraged voluntary giving, yet also described such giving as ‘obedience’ (2 Corinthians 9:13). God has expectations of us, even when our offerings are voluntary. To give less than He expects of us is to rob Him. Of course, God doesn’t expect us all to give the same amount. We’re to give in proportion to how He’s blessed us.[viii]

God is not just looking at what we give, but also what we keep. One story that really impacted me, and was a major turning point in my life in regard to giving is the story Jesus told of a widow. Jesus points out that this certain poor widow who put in two very small coins, while the rich were putting in their offerings at the temple. Notice Jesus’ assessment regarding giving.

Truly I tell you,’ he said, ‘this poor widow has put in more than all the others.

All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.[ix]

God defines my giving by what it really costs me. Are we growing in this grace of generosity in our lives? Can we be guilty of robbing God? Giving is an expression of worship and trust in God. Our giving reflects an expression of obedience which is indication of our love to God. Giving is one of the primary ways of freeing us from the bondage of materialism. It is one way to break the heart bondage of being a taker, by behaving in a counter activity called giving. If giving is a problem, the issue is the heart. A reading of the book of Malachi will reveal a number of ways in which Israel had been unfaithful to God.  In chapter one, you will discover that they were giving blemished animal offerings. In other words, they were giving God their leftovers, not their best. 

In chapter two, you will discover that many of the Israelite men were divorcing their wives and marrying foreign women, a violation of their covenant with God. This speaks to a lack of contentment with the person God had blessed them with. The wisdom literature teaches us to love the wife of our youth (cf. Prov. 5:18). Now, Malachi turns to this other area of unfaithfulness to God. They were withholding tithes and offerings to God.

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.[x]

They were reaping what they were sowing. How often have I heard people say to me, ‘Pastor, I can’t afford to tithe.’ I usually respond by saying you can’t afford not to tithe. Ironically, many people can’t afford to give precisely because they’re not giving. Giving is an expression of our trust that God will care for us. When we don’t give, we are saying that we are in charge of our finances, but we often fail in this area. Why would God give us more when we have never surrendered this area of our lives to Him? Our priorities are often in conflict with God’s priority. That was certainly true in the lives of the returning exiles. One of Malachi’s contemporary prophets was a man by the name of Haggai, who was challenging the people to fulfil their responsibility to rebuild the Temple. However, opposition and eventually apathy caused them to redirect their focus toward their own personal interests at the expense of God’s purposes for them.

You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home; I blew away. Why?’ declares the LORD Almighty. ‘Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with his own house.

Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops.’

I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the oil and whatever the ground produces, on men and cattle, and on the labor of your hands.’[xi]

Through the prophet Haggai, the people responded and rebuilt the temple.

THE THIRD SUBTLE WAY THAT WE WITHDRAW FROM GOD IS NOT TO TEST HIS FAITHFULNESS TO PROVIDE FOR US

This is the only text that I’m aware of that calls us to test God. God is challenging us to tithe and see how He will provide for us. How can God entrust us with more, when we can’t handle what He’s already given us? If you know that something is detrimental to a person’s life, even if it ought to be a blessing, the loving thing to do is to withhold that blessing, because that person can’t handle it at this time in their lives. 

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.[xii]

God will bless those who take God at His word and accept the challenge. We had a single mother who, when she heard this challenge, accepted it and marveled how God provided for her and her children, even helping them through university.

A couple of concepts emerge from these passages.

A. God challenges us to test His faithfulness to us.

The first idea is that God asked His people to test Him in regard to this area of giving. God will provide blessing for those who tithe and give offerings. Watch what happens when you become obedient in this area of your life. The windows of heaven open up for those who respond in obedience, which is an act of faith. Giving is an expression of faith on our part. Do we believe that God is our source of supply? Or do we believe that our jobs or our skills bring in our livelihood? This text also suggests giving beyond the tithe. Offerings were given to those in were needy. In the Jewish Talmud, Rabbi Maimonides (1138-1204) wrote extensively on the obligation to aid the poor. He offers a list of eight degrees of charity.

1. The lowest level of charity is to give grudgingly.

2. The seventh level of charity is to give cheerfully but less than one should.

3. The sixth level of charity is when one gives directly to the poor, but only after being asked.

4. The fifth level of charity is to give directly to the poor without being asked.

5. The fourth level of charity is to give indirectly, with the giver not knowing the identity of the recipient but the recipient knowing the giver.

6. The third level of charity is to give indirectly with the recipient not knowing the identity of the giver but the giver knowing the identity of the recipient.

7. The second level of charity is to give indirectly with neither recipient nor giver knowing the identity of one another. (Thus it is especially praiseworthy to give to a communal charity fund.)

8. The highest level of charity is to help a person before they become impoverished, whether by offering gift in a dignified manner, extending a loan, offering a job, or helping them begin a business of their own.[xiii]

Remember he is speaking strictly of the ‘offerings’ given to help the poor, which were to be given after the tithe had been given to the storehouse.

B. The other concept that we need to understand is what Malachi meant by the storehouse?

It is obvious that he was speaking of the Temple of the Lord. The Israelites were to bring their tithes in order to support the work of the temple and the temple workers, the Levites.

Instead, I give to the Levites as their inheritance the tithes that the Israelites present as an offering to the LORD. That is why I said concerning them: They will have no inheritance among the Israelites.[xiv]

Notice that the people gave their money to the Lord, which was to be used for the Levites work in the tabernacle, later the temple, and for the work of the ministry. The Levites were to tithe to the priests.

Speak to the Levites and say to them: ‘When you receive from the Israelites the tithe I give you as your inheritance, you must present a tenth of that tithe as the Lord’s offering.

Your offering will be reckoned to you as grain from the threshing floor or juice from the winepress.

In this way you also will present an offering to the LORD from all the tithes you receive from the Israelites. From these tithes you must give the Lord’s portion to Aaron the priest.

You must present as the Lord’s portion the best and holiest part of everything given to you.

Say to the Levites: ‘When you present the best part, it will be reckoned to you as the product of the threshing floor or the winepress.

You and your households may eat the rest of it anywhere, for it is your wages for your work at the Tent of Meeting.

By presenting the best part of it you will not be guilty in this matter; then you will not defile the holy offerings of the Israelites, and you will not die.[xv]

Where is the storehouse today? How does this concept apply to 21st Century living? Some would suggest that we give as we deem fit. That was certainly true of the offering, but what about the tithe that went into the storehouse? The storehouse was the temple. But when the temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, another institution was also a part of each community. The synagogue became the center of life, where the law was taught, and prayers were heard. When the temple was restored, the synagogue was perpetuated. The distinction being that the Temple was where the sacrifices were performed. You may not be aware, but synagogues existed in Jerusalem alongside the temple.

One passage in the Talmud gives the number of synagogues in Jerusalem at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple as 480, another as 394.[xvi]

The issue is that once that temple was destroyed the Synagogue assumed the place of the temple in the lives of the Jewish people. It was the place where they brought their tithes. The early church was modeled after the synagogue. Just like the Israelites who gave of their offerings and also were able to benefit from them, as they ate from some of the offerings, there is a benefit to each person that comes to the church. You are being nourished in your lives.

We rarely consider how critical this area is. Most people would not even consider robbing another person, but we don’t see withholding our gifts to God as robbery. It is interesting that Judas Iscariot was a thief. It was this unresolved issue that lead to the most devastating aspect of his life, his betrayal of Christ for thirty pieces of silver.  Robbery in Judas’ case lead to rejection of Christ. How many people have chosen silver over Christ through the years? It is a heart issue that needs to be address in each of our lives. The question is not simply can we trust God to provide for us, but can God trust us with what He gives to us to be used in a manner that will glorify His name?           

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[i]     Schindler’s List (Universal, 1993), written by Steve Zaillian, directed by Steven Spielberg (paraphrased).

[ii]     Malachi 3:6-7, The New International Version of the Bible, 2011.

[iii]    Genesis 28:22.

[iv]    Ralph L. Smith, Micah-Malachi, Word Biblical Commentary, (Waco, TX: Waco Books Publisher, 1984), 333.

[v]     Leviticus 27:30.

[vi]    Proverbs 3:9-10.

[vii]   Malachi 3:6-10.

[viii]   Randy Alcorn, The Treasure Principle: Discovering the Secret of Joyful Giving, (Sisters, Or: Multnomah Publishers, 2001), 60-63.

[ix]    Luke 21:3-4.

[x]     Malachi 3:8-9.

[xi]    Haggai 1:9-11.

[xii]   Malachi 3:10-12.

[xiii]   George Robinson, Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide To Beliefs, Customs, And Rituals, (New York, N.Y.: Pocket Books, 2000), 237-238.

[xiv]   Number 18:24. 

[xv]   Numbers 18:26-32.

[xvi]   Brian De Breffny, The Synagogue, (New York, N.Y.: Macmillian Publishing Co., 1978), 10.

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