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Pastor Todd Wilson  |  Aug 24, 2014  |  Proverbs 3:9-10

Giving Your First and Best: How to Honor the Lord with Wealth


 

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Today’s sermon is a sermon—you guessed it—on giving. Now, often when pastors announce that they’re going to preach on giving, they feel the need to launch into a round-about apology for having to speak about such an unseemly topic at church; it’s as though they feel the need to give fair warning that the sermon is going to be a bit of a downer!

I’ve done that myself in years past, when I’ve preached on giving. I’ve said things like, “Now, you know, no one is less excited about preaching a sermon on giving than I am.” And, frankly, sometimes it was true.

But I’ve decided I’m going to retire from talking like that. It’s had its day, and I’m done with it. Because I don’t think that’s either true to my calling as your pastor, or true to the nature of the subject matter itself, namely, what we do with our money. Nor do I think it’s the most helpful or loving thing for me to do.

Jesus said, “It’s more blessed to give than to receive,” and pastors want their people to be blessed, so it’s a loving thing for me to speak to you about giving. Or Paul reminds us that “God loves a cheerful giver,” and pastors want their people to be loved by God, so it’s the right thing for me to speak to you about giving.

But there’s another reason. I assume most of you in the room are self-identifying Christians. And if that’s the case, then I will also assume that almost all of the self-identifying Christians in the room want to honor God with your life, want to do what pleases God.

And I bet most in this room have given some thought to how to honor God with your actions; with how you spend your time, how you go about doing your job, how you interact with your neighbors, how you treat your spouse, how you raise your kids, and so on.

But perhaps you’ve spent less time, or have less clarity, on how to honor God with your money. What would that look like, practically speaking? How do I honor God in this aspect of my life, namely, in the use of the resources God gives me?

What are Firstfruits?

This proverb offers us help on how to honor God with our wealth. It provides us, in fact, with a simple answer to the question: firstfruits.

We honor the Lord with our wealth—that is, we give in a way that glorifies God—when we give our firstfruits. “Honor the Lord with your wealth and with the firstfruits ofall your produce” (v. 9).

Now, I take the second part of that verse to explain how we do the first part of the verse; it defines for us the way in which we honor the Lord with our wealth, namely, by giving our firstfruits.

What are firstfruits? It’s neither a term we use, nor one with which we’re familiar. It's a farming term and is at home in the agrarian culture of ancient Israel. It refers to the first portion of an Israelite’s produce, and was to be given three times a year, in conjunction with the three major harvests, which for a farmer would be like the three times a year you get paid or get a paycheck. In ancient Israel, this would mean bringing the firstfruits of your olive oil or sheared wool or honey or grain or wine—whatever it is that you produce; from this you are to give firstfruits.

Firstfruits doesn’t refer to the amount you are to give, but the nature of the gift. To give your firstfruits is to give, as we would say, right off the top. The concept of a tithe referred to the amount to be given, namely, ten percent of the total. But the firstfruits referred to the nature of the gift: that is to say, it answered the question, which ten percent should I give. Because if I spread all my produce out, I’ve got ten different options for giving ten percent.

The principle of firstfruits answers the question: Which one of these should I give? And the answer is this: give the first and best. That’s firstfruits. The first and best of whatever wealth the Lord has given you. This is a biblical pattern for giving.

Most American Christians Give Leftovers

Now, I suspect that if we got serious about applying this principle of firstfruits to our lives, it would revolutionize the average Christian’s giving habits. Why do I say that? Because most American Christians give leftovers, not firstfruits. When the giving habits of Christians have been studied, they’ve found that most Christians give only what they feel like they can spare, what’s available because it’s leftover. Money comes in, they take care of their needs and wants, and with what they have leftover, they then give to God. That’s the way most give.

And yet it’s hard to honor God with leftovers, isn’t it? If we give him the scraps of what we have, do we think he feels honored as the Giver of every good and perfect gift in our lives?

Imagine going out to a nice restaurant for dinner with a friend or a spouse. You order a scrumptious meal—pork tenderloin, asparagus with hollandaise, and garlic mashed potatoes. You of course eat the vast majority of it, even order coffee and dessert to polish off the meal. But you did leave a little bit of the pork and potatoes, and you ask to have them put in a doggy bag so you could take them home. They’re leftovers, what you had left after you’d feed yourself. Perhaps they might come in handy tomorrow, if you need a quick and easy meal.

But imagine if you were going to have the President of the United States over for dinner. Or, if that’s too much of a mental hurdle for some of you, then imagine Billy Graham. In any event, here’s the point, would you throw your leftovers in the micro and serve it to your guest? Of course not. But why not? It would be embarrassing to you and dishonoring to your guest.

And yet when we fail to give firstfruits, that’s just what we give to God. We serve him our financial leftovers, not the first and best bites of the meal. We don’t insist that he be the first to have what we are about to eat; rather, we hand him a doggy bag with some bits and pieces of leftover inside.

Giving Firstfruits Activates Our Faith and Magnifies God’s Worth

But why are firstfruits so important to God? Is he like the child that has to get the first piece of birthday cake otherwise he will pout and maybe even cry? No, God asks us to give him our firstfruits because giving firstfruits activates our faith.

Imagine the Israelite, a dirt poor farmer, totally dependent upon the forces of weather that are completely outside his control; this person is in a subsistence living situation, like many in the poorest countries today. They have nothing to spare, and almost no margin in life. Now, imagine what kind of faith was required to bring in a harvest of crops, with which you and your family depend for your very life and livelihood, and to have God ask you to give, right off the top, the first and the best of that crop. To not first meet your own needs, but to give it to God for his purposes in the world.

Giving leftovers, by contrast, requires zero faith. You don’t have to trust God to provide if you already have the provision you need; you can then give to God what you have as a leftover, that which you don’t need.

As a result, your faith stays dormant when we only give out of our leftovers. There’s no risk or dependence. You keep your financial situation under control and see precisely how the money will meet the needs.

But when you give your firstfruits, your first and best, right off the top, before you know whether the rest will come in or not, then you put yourself in a position of having to look to God to come through for you. And this activates faith.

This is why, as a general rule, people who give generously have a strong and vibrant faith. They are actively casting themselves on God for his provision, asking him to meet all their needs to enable them to live and give generously to others. This experience of trusting God for provision, and then watching him provide, does so much to strengthen faith. What is after all more animating to a life of faith than daily dependence upon God’s grace?

God Gave His First and Best

But when we give our first and best to the Lord, we not only activate our faith, we magnify God’s worth. When we give our first and best, we show that he is first and best in our lives. God is prioritized, takes precedent, and becomes our starting point.

And, frankly, this is what God deserves. We owe him our first and best because he has given us his first and best. He has given us his one and only Son to be our Savior. Jesus Christ is God’s firstborn, his very own Son, who has taken on human nature, lived a perfect life of obedience and suffering, voluntarily gave himself to death and crucifixion for us, shed his blood on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, endured separation from his heavenly Father as he embraced the penalty for our sins, and there cried out, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”

God did this for you and me. We didn’t ask him to do it. We certainly didn’t do anything to deserve it; we certainly didn’t earn it. And God definitely doesn’t owe it to us. But God did it freely. God gave us his first and best. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God gave us his first and best. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). God gave us his first and best. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). God gave us his first and best. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). God gave us his first and best. “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25).

And because God has given us his first and best, should we give him anything less? Can we really give him our leftovers, when he has given us his most precious Son?

Commit to Give First and Best

So, then, if we want to honor the Lord with our wealth, which I trust is the desire of the vast majority of the people in the room this morning, then we need to give him our firstfruits, that is, our first and best.

Practically speaking, what does this mean? How do you do that? Here’s what you should do. The very first thing is to resolve right now to bring this large portion of your life into submission to God. That’s got to be the first step.

But the second step would be to commit to tithe your firstfruits. That is, sit down sometime today, or this week, and figure out your total income; for some that may be harder than others because of the nature of your work, or perhaps you no longer work, or are in a period of transition between jobs, or you're a student. Nonetheless, all of us in the room today have some kind of income that comes into our lives. Figure out what that is, and commit to giving the first 10% of that as an offering to the Lord, specifically, to your local church for kingdom work.

The third step is to stick with it, and not give up. Frankly, one of the best ways to do that is to set it up electronically. Nothing helped us give more consistently, both in frequency and amount, like automating our giving.

By the way, you should know that I hold myself to this thing. Katie and I have for years now given at least 10% of our income to our local church. And so you need to know that I’m not asking you to do something I’m not already doing.

Trust in the Lord with All Your Heart

Now, I fully recognize that giving 10% right off the top may to some in the room sound daunting, perhaps even scary. You’re sitting there running through the family budget and your expenses and other financial obligations, and you simply can’t see how it could all add up, quite literally.

If that’s the way you’re feeling, that’s understandable. But that’s why I love the context of these two verses of honoring God with your wealth, because they provide the key to being able to do that: namely, trust. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart” (v. 5a).

There’s the key to glorifying God with your wealth—giving as an expression not of guilt-induced duty but whole-hearted trust, as we lean not on our own understanding but in all our ways acknowledge him.

And the Lord assures us that as we honor him, we will not find ourselves coming up short on what we need. Just the opposite! When we give of our first and best, God our covenant partner and gracious heavenly Father commits himself to making sure that we have all that we need. Our passage puts it this way, “then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine” (v. 10).

Great Advice from an Unlikely Place

Many of us will immediately recognize the name Stephen King, author of who knows how many best-selling sci-fi thrillers like The Stand, The Shining, Misery, and The Green Mile. Earlier this week I came across some excellent advice he had on giving. King is not a Christian, but what he says about giving here is in sync in many ways with a Christian perspective. Listen to this great advice from an unlikely place:

A couple of years ago I found out what “you can’t take it with you” means. I found out while I was lying in a ditch at the side of a country road, covered with mud and blood and with the tibia of my right leg poking out the side of my jeans like a branch of a tree taken down in a thunderstorm. I had a MasterCard in my wallet, but when you’re lying in a ditch with broken glass in your hair, no one accepts MasterCard. ...

We come in naked and broke. We may be dressed when we go out, but we’re just as broke. Warren Buffet? Going to go out broke. Bill Gates? Going out broke. Tom Hanks? Going out broke. Steve King? Broke. Not a crying dime. All the money you earn, all the stocks you buy, all the mutual funds you trade—all of that is mostly smoke and mirrors. It’s still going to be a quarter-past getting late whether you tell the time on a Timex or a Rolex. ...

So I want you to consider making your life one long gift to others. And why not? All you have is on loan, anyway. All that lasts is what you pass on....

A life of giving—not just money, but time and spirit—repays. It helps us remember that we may be going out broke, but right now we’re doing O.K. Right now we have the power to do great good for others and for ourselves. So I ask you to begin giving, and to continue as you begin. I think you’ll find in the end that you got far more than you ever had, and did more good than you ever dreamed.

As cited by Randy Alcorn

 

That is good advice— from an unlikely place—but that is good advice. First and best: a life of giving.