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Sermon preached on Malachi 3:6-12 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 12/11/2011 in Novato, CA.
“And I Will Return To You”
In this passage we see a call for the people to return to God. Verse 7. If the people return to God, God says that he will return to them. And so what is then flushed out in this passage is the concept of repentance. Repentance is about turning. It’s about turning around from one direction to another. From a direction of sin toward the direction of righteousness. From a direction of godlessness to godliness. From the direction away from God to the direction toward God. Repentance involves a turning, and that’s what this passage is about.
Well, as a Christian, it is important to understand the concept of repentance, since we’ve been called to faith and repentance. We’ve been called to turn from a life apart from God and turn toward him in faith. To trust in his forgiveness and set him as the Lord in our life. That’s what Christian conversion is all about. It’s about a turning to God. We see a kind of turning described in this passage. Here it is about the people of Malachi’s day turning back to God, specifically in the area of worship. And I like how Malachi describes this. Often when we think of repentance, we think of confession. Confessing a sin is part of repentance, but it’s not all of it. Repentance involves not only confessing a sin, but then turning from it. In your mind you make a mental u-turn and look to stop practicing that sin in your life. Here Malachi shows us this with the example of tithing.
And so again, the people respond right away in verse 7 again with a bit of spiritual ignorance. God had just confronted them on their sin. God said they needed to return to him. And yet in verse 7, they ask “In what way shall we return.” Well, they should have been able to examine their lives and answer that question in light of God’s law. But we are glad they asked because it shows us a picture of returning. Returning involved turning from their sin to follow God and his holy laws. Here God points to their failure to tithe. That was a sin they needed to turn from if they were to return to God.
And so we’ll be spending some time today thinking about their failure in tithing. But then we’ll situate that within the context of their call to repent and return to God. So then let’s think about their failure to tithe. We’ll start with a basic definition of this. First, note that tithing is an ordinance. Verse 7 mentioned ordinances and then the passage goes on to talk about the ordinance of tithing. Offerings are mentioned here too alongside tithing. They are related, though don’t become the focus here as much as the tithing. Back in chapter 1, he had dealt with their problematic offerings. So here God says they had not been giving a tithe, and that this tithe was not optional. It was a statute God commanded them to be doing as part of their religious worship.
Specifically, a tithe was a tenth. A tenth of their income. The word literally means just that – a tenth. Numbers 18 gives the primary legislation on tithing. This tenth of their income was supposed to be given to the priests and Levites as their primary sustenance. Deuteronomy 14 goes on to describe how normally they were to bring this offering at the main tabernacle, with the exception of every third year. In those years you were to store the tithe up locally to provide for the needs of both the local Levites, and the poor and needy. This is what it’s getting at in verse 10 when it talks about the storehouses being full. These tithes were to fill up God’s storehouses to provide food for these different groups. Evidently those storehouses had become empty at Malachi’s time due to the people’s sin. Of course, as I mentioned, they also had failed in their offerings. The law required the tithes, but also had a number of other offerings mandated for the people. So, they had failed in both the tithes and offerings, per verse 8.
So we’ve begun to define the tithes here. But there’s another aspect of the tithe that we don’t want to miss. They are not just an ordinance. They are a covenantal ordinance. What I mean is that they are something God’s covenant demanded as part of the law of God. The requirement to tithe was a stipulation of the old covenant. I mention the covenantal aspect because of what we see in this passage. You see, covenant stipulations are governed with covenant sanctions. With blessings and curses. Blessings for obedience, and curses for disobedience. And we see covenant sanctions in this passage connected with the tithing, with the language of blessings and curses. Well, in the old covenant, God issued a long list of these. Deuteronomy 28 describes these sanctions of the old covenant. It says that the people would be blessed as they kept the law, and they’d be cursed if they didn’t. These blessings and curses were largely physical blessing and curses, tied up with life in the Promised Land. The New Testament helps us to see that these blessings and curses were typological. The old covenant blessings looked forward to better eternal and spiritual blessings God’s people would receive in a heavenly inheritance. And the old covenant curses looked forward to far worse eternal and hellish curses.
And so we see these blessings and curses held out here out here in this passage. Verse 9 – They have already been cursed. Because they had not been tithing, thus they were already under curse. And verses 10 and 11 go on to say that if the people resumed tithing they would find that curse replaced with blessing. And so what this is doing is situating tithing within the covenant. Tithing was not just a casual request of God. It’s a command within the context of the covenant. It’s performance was protected by sanctions. They’d either be blessed as they kept this ordinance, or cursed as they didn’t.
The description of the blessings in verses 10 and 11 make this clear. When you look at the long list of old covenant blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 28 you see them reflected here. I’ll give you just a few examples from Deuteronomy 28, though more could be cited. Deuteronomy 28:12 for example says that the Lord will open the heavens to water the earth, if the people obey the covenant laws. Verse 10 here uses that same language of opening the heavens. Or in Deuteronomy 28:38 it says that a covenant curse would be that the locusts would devour most of the produce of the land. Verse 11 here says instead that God will rebuke the devourer, another way to describe a pest like a locust, if the people tithe. Verse 11 says instead they’d have rich agricultural blessing if they would tithe. One last one. Deuteronomy 28:10 sums up the blessings by saying that all the peoples of the earth will see that you are a people called by the name of the Lord. Similarly, verse 12 says that if they people tithe, all the nations will call them blessed.
So the point here is that Malachi paints obedience to the tithing ordinance as something covenantal. They were under covenant curses already in part because they hadn’t been tithing. They would receive covenant blessings if they would repent and return to tithing. And so God was reminding them of their solemn obligations, as well as encouraging them of how good it would be to follow them. If they would but return to God, he would return to them. And this would be such a good thing. Full even of covenantal blessings.
And so since they had not, we see God use this radical language. What’s God’s assessment of their sin? How does he assess their lack of tithing? They were robbing God. I love how verse 8 puts it. Will a man rob God? The sense you get here is that it’s almost inconceivable that a man would rob God. Could someone do this? If they could, would they? Who’d rob God? I bet most thieves wouldn’t knowingly choose to rob a police officer’s home. Well, who would be bold enough, arrogant enough, to rob God! And yet God says that’s what the people did. When they didn’t give their tithes and offerings, they were robbing God. Why? Because God had said those things belonged to him. They were covenantal obligations. Thus they were robbing and defrauding God by holding them back.
For Christians, we can see both the specific application and the general application. We ought not to rob God in our giving, or in anything that belongs to him. Most specifically, he calls us to cheerful and radically give to him. More generally, remember what Jesus said. He said give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar’s and to God what belongs to God’s. The implication of Jesus’ words there is that we belong to God! And so we offer to God not only our tithes and offerings, but in the words of Paul in Romans 12:1, we offer our whole selves as a living sacrifice to him. Our covenant obligation is to say that our life is not our own, we have been bought with a price. We belong to God. Let us not rob him by not offering our whole lives to his service, let us give of ourselves and even our finances.
And so we’ve discussed a bit today about the call to tithe in this passage. Let’s step back now to the larger subject of repentance. Israel is being called here to repent. To return back to God, particularly in covenant obedience to the ordinance of tithing. Repentance for them would be to turn from their sins and begin tithing. Likely their failure to give tithes and offerings represented only part of their sinfulness. They should then take this principle to all the ways they had departed from God’s law. And so a wonderful promise is given here in verses 6 and 7. God has not consumed them, instead he gives them an opportunity to repent. If they repent and return to God, then God will return to them.
So then, a question comes to me as I think of that. These words sound very gracious. In fact they are very gracious. It’s very gracious that God had not consumed them yet. It’s very gracious that God would allow them another chance to keep his laws. Is this call to return then a picture of the gospel in advance? Is it a picture of the gospel that calls wayward sinners to repent and find forgiveness and grace in God? In some sense yes – in that this is God promising restoration to a repentant people. And yet more needs to be said. Because what you also find here is the tension between the law keeping and faith. Let me flush this out for the purpose of understanding the gospel all the better.
You see, in verse 6 God says he does not change. He says that here to express his unchanging grace and mercy that he shows to his people. Grace that will not leave his elect to be lost, consumed by his wrath. God is the only one who ultimately never changes. Yet, the people here have an aspect of them that has not changed either. Verse 7 says that their waywardness has not changed. Verse 7 – “From the days of your fathers, you have gone away from my ordinances and have not kept them.” This is not to say that they didn’t have times of repenting and returning in there. Rather, they had lots of those times. Read the book of Judges for example. Time and again the people would turn away from God and his laws. Time and again, they’d get into trouble – i.e. covenant curses – then they’d repent and return to God. God would then return to them. Their most recent exile was just another example of that. And so God never changes – he is always faithful and showing mercy to his elect. But his people hadn’t changed either – they had a chronic problem with disobedience and turning away from their good God. So then, in light of this, verse 7 is not strictly speaking the gospel in advance. It’s actually presents a picture of the tension the people had been under in the law. Struggles to turn, return, and stay turned to God.
You see, what they needed was a new covenant, and ultimately a new heart. This old covenant left them time and again under curse as a people. Jeremiah says they had broken that covenant and needed a new one. The Apostle Paul is clear on this in Galatians 3. No one is going to be justified by God through the merits of our law-keeping. That’s why Israel kept falling; they sumbled over the law thinking salvation was about law keeping. Paul says instead that the law is meant to drive us to Christ. To faith in him. To be justified by faith in Christ. You see, that is the gospel. The gospel calls us to have faith in Christ that even when we don’t keep the law as we ought, that we are given grace and forgiveness.
This is not to say that we must not repent as Christians. No, we must. Jesus said, repent and believe in the gospel! That’s why this passage does have something in it that looks forward to the gospel. Repentance is part of our conversion. Jesus comes to us as we come to him. He abides with us as we abide in him. We do need to repent and turn to Christ. We turn and put our faith in him. We even turn and look to keep all his holy laws. But the point is that we need God to give us the power to do this. In the old covenant, time and again, they struggled to return and stay turned. But the prophet Ezekiel predicted a day when a new covenant would come, and then God would give us a new heart. That would be a heart that would be turned to God and stay turned. This is not to say that those who lived under old covenant couldn’t find salvation. Those who were saved in the time of the old covenant surely experienced heart change by God as well. And yet so many back them stumbled thinking they could keep the law on their own. That is what brought out the constant struggle to turning and returning to God. And so this is what they needed: a new covenant for the old one had been broken, and new hearts to replace their heart of stone. We thank God for how clearly this has come now in Christ. And we thank him that the Spirit has been poured out in such rich measure to bring us to him in faith. God is the one who draws people to Christ, John 6:44.
And so be encouraged. What you should take away from this is that in our call for repentance, we will likely have struggles. Israel struggled in their repentance. They had repeated times of waywardness. You in your life as a Christian may have struggles to repent as you know you ought. But if you have genuine struggles and are calling out to God for help, know that he will hear that prayer. That is the promise of the new covenant. That God will see that his people’s hearts are ultimately turned back to him. In other words, yes, repent. Repent and believe. And if you stumble in waywardness, repent afresh and be encouraged. Jesus is not finished with you. Keep looking to repent and trust that he will complete the heart work in you.
Let me say all this another way. Our repentance should lead to new obedience. Yet, if we simply read Malachi 3:7 and think in ourselves we can produce enough obedience on our own strength, we are mistaken — if we think we just can starting keeping the law well enough on our own. What we need is to see is the tension the people had in doing this consistently. We need to see that we need his Holy Spirit to do a work in our heart. Only as the Holy Spirit works in us a new heart, will we be enabled to go and live in this way. Only then will we have the power to tithe with a cheerful heart and a clear conscience. Then God’s holy ordinances will be truly written on our heart. So, what I want us to see is the necessity of Christ to work in us by his Spirit, for us to fulfill verse 7. And yet the good news is that Christ has come. And Christ has poured out his Spirit. And Christ is drawing his people from all over the world to himself! Christ enables us to live out the call of verse 7 to return to God. And so the call is for each of us to come to him in faith. Call upon him. Ask him to forgive you of your sins. And ask him also to help you then follow his commandments. And if Christ has worked in your heart, then you do have the power now to repent and believe. Therefore, repent and believe!
Well, what I’d like to do now in the remainder of our time today is to look further at an interesting note in verse 10. This should drive home our application from this passage today. In verse 10, God says about the tithing, “Prove me now in this.” God is saying to test him with regard to tithing. Test him by tithing and see what happens. He says that if they are faithful to tithe, he will bring all the covenant blessings upon them. He invites them to prove this by way of a test. Start tithing, he says, and you will see the blessing. That will prove God’s faithfulness. Well, this is interesting concept because the Bible generally forbids the testing of God. For example, after the Exodus from Egypt, God’s people were thirsty in the wilderness in Exodus 17, and the Bible criticized them, saying they were testing God there with their faithless demands. Or, Jesus in Matthew 4 when he was being tempted by Satan in the wilderness, was brought to the highest point of the temple. Satan told him to throw himself to the ground, saying God would protect him if he was really the Messiah. Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:16 which says you shall not put the Lord your God to the test. And yet here with tithing, God invites the people to test him in this.
I think the idea here is that there is a way we could sinfully test God, and there is a way in which we can righteously see God’s faithfulness proved. It’s wrong to test God out of unbelief. That’s what the Israelites did in the wilderness when they started complaining and demanding God to give them water. Essentially they didn’t believe God would provide for them and so they were demanding that he prove himself to them. It’s also wrong to test God out of presumption that he will give you grace in your sin. Like how Satan tried to get Jesus to jump – that would be reckless with his life and would be presuming God’s grace to come to the rescue. That’s not a right way to test God either. We should not do these things. So what about verse 10 here? Well, I think this is simply God saying, that as you obey him, look for his promised blessings. It’s not that you are setting up some scientific experiment to prove God’s existence, sparked by doubt and unbelief. No, rather in faith, you follow God, and then you should look for his blessings in your life. You should in faith expect the blessings to come. And when you find them, you should be encouraged and thank God.
So what does this mean for the Christian then? Should we tithe in faith and then expect in faith a huge financial blessing in return? Well, I’m not a health and wealth preacher, and will not promise you that. You have to remember that we are not in the old covenant any longer. That old covenant held out lots of physical blessings tied up with the Promised Land. We said before those were typological blessings. Blessings that looked forward to something far better than just abundant crops of grain and grapes. But we are in a new covenant. So, that means we must look to see what blessings are held out for us in the new covenant for obedience.
Well, looking to the New Testament, we see that God talks of blessings us in many ways, ways that are sometimes physical, earthly, and material. Yet, especially God blesses us in spiritual, heavenly, eternal ways. When it comes to financial giving to God, we see that he continues to reward that. 2 Corinthian 9 talks about that – saying that we who sow generously will reap generously, and that God will richly bless us. Philippians 4 talks about how God recognizes our financial gifts and credits those to our account, and that in turn God will supply all our needs. Now, I wouldn’t take from these passages a guarantee that if you but tithe, you will reap huge financial returns. Personally, I can say that as I’ve grown over the years to more faithfully tithe and give to God, that he has indeed blessed me in many, many, ways, including financially. But I just want us to realize that the way God may bless us for obedience can come in many different forms, not always in physical material ways. In fact, the spiritual blessings are of a far better nature. Remember Jesus said that those who have left everything in this life for the sake of his kingdom, shall “receive many times more in this present time, and in the age to come eternal life.”
So how then are we to go about “proving” God in this? Again, not with a spirit of unbelief or presumptive grace. Rather, we are simply recognizing what 1 Timothy 4:8 says, that godliness have value for both the present life and the life to come. In other words, as a Christian, live by faith. Obey God’s commands and trust that he will bless you. Look even for those blessings. When you find them, praise God for it. Do this in general with all God’s commands for us. But do it also specifically as well. For example, take the promise of Philippians 4:6-7. It says that if you joyfully take to God your troubles in prayer, that he will give you a peace that transcends understanding. So then, prove God in that – in faith, joyfully take your troubles to him prayer. See then how he will give you this promised peace. You don’t do it with a spirit of unbelief, trying to see if you can scientifically prove God to be there. No, you do it as an act of faith – looking to see God at work as you obey his commands. Godliness does pay off! You don’t have to be a health and wealth preacher to say that. Godliness does have value in this present life. Look to see this true in your life! With Christ’s help, look to live out his laws. Then see how he blesses you in return. Again, it may often not be a material blessing – sometimes it may be. But see that God will indeed richly bless you and provide for all that you need as you follow him.
And so saints of God, let us look to see God doing great things in our life. Let us look for this as we really look to grow in obedience and righteousness. We turn to Christ in faith. We abide in him. It’s his Spirit at work in it all. And as he abides in us we bear much fruit. Even fruit of obedience. Even fruit to give financially to God. To give tithes and offerings. To give cheerful to the work of his church. What amazing grace that he gives us all what we need for our salvation – faith, repentance, changed hearts, and he even grows us in obedience. Praise be to God! Amen.
Copyright (c) 2011 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.