Admittedly, preaching on stewardship seems only slightly more exciting than watching grass grow. We pastors too quickly assume that little new light can be brought to a biblical topic that seems so crystal-clear, and we erroneously conclude that we risk offending our hearers when we preach on a topic that is obviously designed to divest them of cash.
Giving goes against the natural bent of fallen humanity the bent to receive rather than give, to hoard rather than to distribute, to grasp rather than to release. And, in fact, it is this very issue humanity's inherent selfishness that makes stewardship significant. First, it helps us model God's initiative of generous giving; and second, it builds a faith relationship that teaches trust and helps mature the faith of our members. Third, it reverses the trend of independence by teaching principles of increasing dependence upon God's providence.
A crisis in the past: Elijah and the widow
In Elijah's day Israel suffered divine judgment for rebellion and disobedience. People followed their leaders into apostasy, with devastating results. "And Elijah the Tishbite, of the inhabitants of Gilead, said to Ahab, 'As the Lord God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, except at my word'" (1 Kings 17:1).*
As divine judgment fell on Israel, God moved to preserve the prophet's life. First, Elijah was miraculously fed by ravens at the brook Cherith. When this source of water dried up, God again spoke to Elijah: "Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. See, I have commanded a widow there to provide for you" (verse 9).
Now let's go back in time and witness the drama unfold.
Elijah in crisis. God's call is testing Elijah's faith. Although divine direction is clear, a crisis of faith immediately confronts the prophet. Logic demands disobedience or at least delay in following God's instruction. Widows, even in Israel, are so low on the socioeconomic scale that the idea of such an individual providing for others is laughable. By human logic, the idea of a widow in a heathen nation being able, much less willing, to support Elijah is patently ridiculous. However, Elijah has learned that God is faithful to His word, and he responds in obedience even when logic indicates otherwise. "So he arose and went to Zarephath. And when he came to the gate of the city, indeed a widow was there gathering sticks. And he called to her and said, 'Please bring me a little water in a cup, that I may drink.' And as she was going to get it, he called to her and said, 'Please bring me a morsel of bread in your hand'" (verses 10, 11).
The widow in crisis. God's call also tests the widow's faith. She knows the full desperation of her plight and is prepared to deal with the consequences. She knows she faces death. "As the Lord your God lives, I do not have bread, only a handful of flour in a bin, and a little oil in a jar; and see, I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die" (verse 12).
Obviously the widow has few re sources even in the best of times. Now she is down to the bottom of the barrel. Her provisions are so meager that she needs only a couple sticks to kindle the fire to cook this last supper for herself and her son. Understanding a mother's love, I believe this widow probably expects to give the entire cake to her son.
God's three-facet plan. But Elijah outlines a different expectation. He offers an alternative course that promises to preserve the life of her family. "Do not fear; go and do as you have said, but make me a small cake from it first, and bring it to me; and afterward make some for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord God of Israel, 'The bin of flour shall not be used up, nor shall the jar of oil run dry, until the day the Lord sends rain on the earth'" (verses 13, 14).
In his request, Elijah states three facets of God's plan. First, God has a portion. God's portion is small "a small cake." It is small but vital. God does not expect all that a person has, but He does require His portion.
Second, God's priority is essential. His portion must come first "but make me a small cake from it first." God takes priority above all other demands or desires. He will be first or He will be nothing in our lives.
Third, God's promise is great. He promises deliverance "The bin of flour shall not be used up, nor shall the jar of oil run dry." But notice the clarity of God's plan. The widow must experiment in faith in order to receive God's promise. She must first trust and obey God's command before she experiences the reality of His promised deliverance.
In this case, the widow chooses to obey and the results are tangible. "So she went away and did according to the word of Elijah; and she and he and her household ate for many days. The bin of flour was not used up, nor did the jar of oil run dry, according to the word of the Lord which He spoke by Elijah" (verses 15, 16).
What a lesson. Experimentation in faith brings dramatic, life-preserving results. This widow woman started out an unbeliever "As the Lord your God lives" (verse 12) and ended up not only with her life spared from death, but a person of faith who had seen God work in her own household. Physical and spiritual deliverance had come for her family.
The coming crisis: what God expects of us
The book of Revelation describes a final crisis when the world, under God's judgment, experiences consequences similar to those Israel experienced in Elijah's day. "And he causes all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads, and that no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name" (Rev. 13:16, 17).
When God's people can do nothing to provide for themselves even to buy or sell goods for their family they must depend totally upon God. What a faith this will require! Total dependence upon our heavenly Father without doing any thing through our own capabilities to provide for ourselves or our families. Perhaps we will learn the lesson that God is all we need only when God is all we have.
But what will enable us to take such a giant step of faith in that final crisis? I believe it will be because our faith has grown through repeated smaller faith steps before the crisis comes.
Obedience our only choice. Like the widow of Elijah's day, God's people must obey to survive. And the principles of that obedience are still the same."'Bring all the tithes into the store house, that there may be food in My house, and prove Me now in this,' says the Lord of hosts, 'if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it. And I will rebuke the devourer for your sakes, so that he will not destroy the fruit of your ground, nor shall the vine fail to bear fruit for you in the field,' says the Lord of hosts; 'and all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a delightful land,' says the Lord of hosts" (Mal. 3:10-12).
God's portion is small a tithe, just 10 percent. God's priority is essential He must be placed first. God's promise is great deliverance! God will take care of us. But notice, God will take care of us if we permit Him. If we cannot trust God with 10 percent, how will we trust Him when we can do nothing for ourselves and must depend upon His sustenance for 100 percent?
The issue of faith today is the same as it was for the widow. Experimentation. God asks us to put Him to the test. He wants us to determine for ourselves that faith works!
Once I was preaching on Malachi 3, and a concerned church member suggested preaching obedience regardless of the result. He reasoned, "Maybe God wouldn't bless, but people must still return tithe nevertheless." I responded, "But that isn't what the Bible says." God says, "Prove Me now in this!" If God's word is not sufficient to honor His own self-imposed test, it is not good for much at all. God requires obedience, but He does not require blind obedience. He offers to grow our faith through divine experimentation.
This is a biblical principle "taste and see that He is good!" In fact, God delights in experiential and experimental development of faith. "Real experience is a variety of careful experiments made with the mind freed from prejudice and uncontrolled by previously established opinions and habits."1
That is what I want real experience ! Notice how it comes by careful experiments. Scott Peck says, "Learning can be passive or experiential. Experiential learning is more demanding but infinitely more effective. As with other things, the rules of communication and community are best learned experientially."2
Needed: a heart relationship. For us today, God's commands presuppose a heart relationship. The Creator of this universe is not a pauper who must wait on our 10 percent to operate His kingdom. Scripture declares that He owns the silver and the gold and the cattle on a thousand hills.
So Jesus does not need our money. Jesus needs our heart. But the Saviour knows that He will not have one without the other. He says, "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matt. 6:21). Jesus underscores an essential rule of life. We love that to which we give. We love that for which we spend. If we spend only for ourselves, if we give only to ourselves, we will end up loving only ourselves. If we invest beyond ourselves, if we give to heaven' s objectives, if we spend for heaven's priorities, we will end up loving heavenly things.
How to survive the coming crisis
A. Why we don't preach stewardship
1. Assumption: the topic is boring
2. Perception: nothing new to say
3. Anticipation: audience alienation
B. Why we must preach stewardship
1. Responsibility: to teach all that God has revealed
2. Privilege: to help faith mature
3. Blessing: to believers when their faith embraces dependence on God.
I. A crisis in the past: Elijah and the widow
A. Israel in crisis as a result of disobedience (1 Kings 17:1-7)
B. Elijah in crisis when called to obey (1 Kings 17:8-11)
1. God's command promises protection (verses 8, 9)
2. Human response involves obedience (verses 10, 11)
C. The widow in crisis as a result of hearing God's plan (verses 12-16)
1. She recognizes her tragic plight (verse 12)
2. She recognizes God's threestep plan (verses 13, 14)
a. God's portion is small: "a small cake"
b. God's priority is essential: "first"
c. God's promise is great: "deliverance"
3. She must experiment in faith in order to receive God's promise
4. She obeys; and deliverance is provided
II. The coming crisis (Rev. 13:15-17)
A. Economic and spiritual collapse threatens God's people (verses 15, 16)
B. God's people can do nothing to provide for themselves (verse 17)
C. God's people must choose obedience in order to survive (Mal. 3:9-12)
1. God's portion is tithe: 10 percent
2. God's priority is essential: "first"
3. God's promise: "deliverance"
Our crisis today (Matt. 6:19-21)
A. God's command presupposes a heart relationship
B. God's people must experiment in faith to taste God's faithfulness
C. Our confidence in God will enable us to overcome the ultimate crisis
We are God's stewards, entrusted by Him with time and opportu
nities, abilities and possessions, and the blessings of the earth and
its resources. We are responsible to Him for their proper use. We
acknowledge God's ownership by faithful service to Him and our
fellow men, and by returning tithes and giving offerings for the
proclamation of His gospel and the support and growth of His
church. Stewardship is a privilege given to us by God for nurture
in love and the victory over selfishness and covetousness. The
steward rejoices in the blessings that come to others as a result of
his faithfulness. (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:15; 1 Chron. 29:14; Haggai 1:3-
11; Mal. 3:8-12; 1 Cor. 9:9-14; Matt. 23:23; 2 Cor. 8:1-15; Rom.
* All Scripture passages in this article are
from The New King James Version.
1 Ellen G. White, Testimonies (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol.
3, p. 69.
2 M. Scott Peck, The Different Drum: Community
Making and Peace (New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1987), p. 84.