Sunday, October 3, 2021

Plunder of the Soul

It was early morning, and an entire country was gathered around as Joshua began rolling the dice, casting lots, to see which tribe to turn his attention to. Judah's number came up. The leaders of the clans of Judah stepped forward. The lots were cast again. Zerah. The extended families in the Zerah clan stepped forth. Another roll of the dice, and it's the family of Zabdi under the microscope. No wonder Zabdi's grandson Achan was sweating bullets in the desert. He was guilty as sin. And the investigation was zeroing in.

But let's rewind a few days, or else none of this makes sense. The tribes of Israel had come up against a walled city, perhaps one of the oldest cities in the world, a place called Jericho. And what hope was there to breach the unbreachable defenses? Soldiers alone couldn't do it. This, Joshua had learned, would take priests. The priests led a daily parade, carrying the Ark of the Covenant and blaring trumpets, around the city. The soldiers – Achan among them – marched behind them. During these days, Joshua had informed the army that “the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the LORD (Joshua 6:17). “But you, keep yourselves from the devoted things, lest, once you have devoted them, you take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel a devoted thing and trouble it” (Joshua 6:18). All the silver of Jericho, all the gold of Jericho, all the fine cloth of Jericho, was pronounced 'most holy' in advance, destined for the LORD's treasury, even before the walls fell (Joshua 6:19). So when they did, when the walls came down, Achan and the rest went in. They devoted the city to the LORD, placing it under the ban, sending it up in flames (Joshua 6:24).

But in the process of that, Achan saw so much silver, and a massive bar of gold, and the most gorgeous cloak imported all the way from the land of the Sumerians. Surely God didn't need all this, he thought. But it was so shiny, so beautiful. And why shouldn't he enjoy it himself? Why shouldn't Achan profit from Jericho's demise? So he took what he wanted, what he could carry, and he smuggled it away under everyone's noses, plundering in the midst of the chaos. He snuck it off and buried it in a ditch beneath his tent in the camp (Joshua 7:21). Just like that, Achan was suddenly the richest man in Israel, and no one was the wiser!

No one, that is, but he and God. And God was not pleased. God didn't hold Achan alone accountable. No, Achan's sin polluted the entire camp, placed Israel's tents in the same perilous state as the cities of Canaan. The LORD's anger “burned against the people of Israel” (Joshua 7:1). It brought them a pathetic loss on the next battlefield (Joshua 7:2-5). The people were distressed; even Joshua himself blamed God for deserting them (Joshua 7:6-9). It never occurred to anyone that some grave sin could have intervened between Jericho and the next challenge. But God told Joshua Israel was guilty of theft – not just any theft, but theft from the LORD himself. Not any ordinary property owner – God was the aggrieved party. And so long as the theft went unaddressed, so long as misallocated devoted treasure was in the camp, the LORD would not be.

Hence the lottery the following morning. The divining finger came to point at Achan. With all eyes on him, he confessed. Joshua sent messengers to his tent, making sure it wasn't a false confession. They verified the facts. Achan and all he had – including defiled devoted goods, now a danger to the camp – were gathered together. And the destiny of Jericho became that of Achan's tent also, in flame and stone (Joshua 7:22-26). For Achan had done a horrible thing. He implicated all Israel in robbing the God who was in their midst. And in doing so, even if temporarily, he robbed all Israel of their God.

And that's because, as the Law already said, “every devoted thing is most holy to the LORD (Leviticus 27:28). Of course, Jericho's silver and gold weren't all that belonged to the LORD's treasury. As Israel moved into the land, they had been instructed that, once they settled in, every harvest season was to see them take the firstfruits – the most secure growth God gave them – and take it to the priest for him to lay it down before the LORD's altar (Deuteronomy 26:1-4). What's more, “every tithe of the land... is the LORD's: it is holy to the LORD. … And every tithe of herds and flocks... shall be holy to the LORD (Leviticus 27:30, 32).

But fast-forward about eight centuries or so. Amid a hard time in Israel, the mysterious prophet Malachi steps forward with a litany of reasons why the nation stands wrong before their God. The priests have been offering sick sacrifices, 'polluted food,' on the holy altar (Malachi 1:7-8). The teachers have been tripping people up and leading them astray (Malachi 2:8). Marriage covenants have broken down, been ripped apart (Malachi 2:14). People have been outright calling God's moral standards into question (Malachi 2:17). And they've been cutting back on their tithes, their firstfruits, their offerings (Malachi 3:8). It hasn't been 'all the tithe,' the full tithe, that they've been giving, just a fraction of it. They've been skimping, keeping for themselves the portion of their goods that God had pronounced holy to himself. And now God hints that this is why they've been dealing with drought and locusts, why they've in fact been standing under God's curse (cf. Malachi 3:10-11).

The LORD says he takes it so seriously because for Israel to have withheld the full measure of their tithes and firstfruits and offerings is to have in fact robbed God, somewhat like Achan did. Whereas Achan had stolen the devoted treasures of Jericho which God claimed for himself as 'most holy,' the Israelites of Malachi's generation are keeping the tithes and offerings that God claims as his holy cut of the blessings he gives them, for the sake of his worship in the land. And so “you are cursed with a curse,” the LORD thunders, “for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you,” as the camp of Israel did then (Malachi 3:9). And they need to turn and repent, Malachi says, by now bringing 'all the tithe' into God's treasury (Malachi 3:7, 10). Once they do, then they'll be reminded what it's like to live as God's treasured possession themselves (Malachi 3:17).

As in Malachi's day, so in ours. As in Achan's case, so in ours. Because God gives the victory, because God gives the peace, because God gives the harvest, God calls for a measure to be offered in gratitude to him, as his holy portion of his own choosing, with which he may support his holy estate on the earth. And that is why there were tithes and firstfruits and offerings in Israel. You'll sometimes hear people say today that they don't think tithing is for Christians, since the New Testament doesn't explicitly repeat the command. It's less than clear why it should have to, when the Old Testament was what the apostles already counted as Holy Scripture. The early church came to see that offerings to the church fulfill the place of the offerings of the Old Law – just as we sang about “our firstfruits” this morning. By the third century, the church openly called for Christians to “put aside portions and tithes and firstfruits for Christ, the high priest, and for his servants. … Offer him the fruits and the works of your hands so as to receive a blessing, giving him your tithes and your firstfruits and your vows...”1

What we give is not simply charity of our own initiative, a generous act of our choosing and under our control, any more than that was true of Malachi's tithe or Jericho's booty. God gave us all we have. He gave the victory, he gave the peace, he gave the harvest. What we give him is only already his own. It's that portion of his gift which he gives under condition that it be directed back to his own holy hands in the church. And it is possible, as it was in Malachi's day, to fall short of a tithe or offering that honors him in the way he directs. To fall short in that way is, in Malachi's words, 'robbing God.'

This may be a hard saying for us. I'll tell you, tithing is not fun to preach on. One of my least favorite subjects behind this here pulpit. But God commanded us, “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15). And if I passed over this application of God's command, then I'd be the one robbing you of “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) as the church has long since come to understand it under the Holy Spirit's continuous guidance. Just 150 years after Jesus rose from the dead, one of his followers – John's disciple's disciple – explained that the law shouldn't even have to tell Christians to tithe because a true Christian is one “who has vowed to God all his possessions, and who leaves father and mother and all his kindred, and follows the Word of God.”2 What he's saying, in other words, is that under the new covenant, once we have Christ, the standards go up, not down.

God wants our tithes, our firstfruits, our offerings, sure – but God wants more. Some Pharisees Jesus met were so scrupulous that they tithed even on the herbs they sprinkled to season their food. Jesus says they were right not to neglect tithing, right to be conscientious about it! He says they shouldn't give that up! But he faults them for being so obsessed with tithing the little things that they weren't giving him the firstfruits of their lives – of justice, of mercy, of faithfulness itself (Matthew 23:23). As for us, we're “the church of God which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). “You are not your own: You were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). And so when we treat ourselves as if we are our own, we're robbing God of his purchased possession: us! We rob God of ourselves when we wander away, straying after sin. We rob God of ourselves when we refuse to conform our character to his influence. We rob God of ourselves when the firstfruits of our action aren't justice, mercy, and faithfulness. And we rob God of ourselves when our practice denies the value he places on us. For you – each one of you – are far more precious to God than any pile of silver Achan dug from Jericho's ashes. For you are the treasure from which Jesus Christ is now building and adorning his holy temple.

And in that temple, Malachi prophesied that, in answer to the priestly failures of Israel, God would call forth sacrificial worship from the world beyond their borders: “From the rising of the sun to its setting, my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name will be great among the nations, says the LORD of Hosts” (Malachi 1:11). In that same passage, Malachi repeatedly refers to the sacrificial altar as “the LORD's Table” (Malachi 1:7, 12). It should come as no surprise that the early church claimed that the fulfillment of Malachi's words was among them: that at their gatherings, that 'pure offering' was truly sacrificed.3 They called it their 'thanksgiving' – in Greek, 'Eucharist.' It was a sacrifice they offered every week, in bread and wine. “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not communion in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not communion in the body of Christ? … Are not those who eat the sacrifices communers in the altar?” (1 Corinthians 10:16, 18). This, the Apostle Paul says, is now “the Lord's Table” – the same one Malachi foresaw (1 Corinthians 10:21).

The Eucharist, the Christian thank-offering, brings into our midst nothing less than God's ultimate self-giving – not feeding us with ordinary food, but with “spiritual food” and “spiritual drink” (1 Corinthians 10:3-4). For when we receive what has been consecrated on the altar, what the words of Jesus have created anew, then Christ himself is supplied by faith as our food and our drink. But it's only when we receive worthily, recognizing indeed Christ's body and Christ's blood, beholding God's gift of God in disguise – only then does his grace bear fruit for life rather than death. For “whoever eats the bread or drinks the Lord's cup unworthily will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. … For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Corinthians 11:27, 29). In so doing, they rob themselves of the fruitfulness of grace, rob themselves of God. They, sadly, plunder their own soul. And so do those who refuse the gift, who keep themselves away, who will not be sharers and communers in the offering.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, those baptized in the fountain, those bought with a price, those named with the holy name: Let us no more rob God, nor consent any longer to be robbed of God! For the sacrifice nears the altar. The offering is to be raised up and spread on the table. God has drawn nearer than we ever could have believed. The Holy Fire has entered our midst, visible to faith's eye alone. Let our worship reach its height! Let the incense of our song arise! Let Christ our Lord – crucified, risen, coming again – be magnified! Amen.

1  Didascalia Apostolorum 2.26.1; 2.34.5, in Alistair Stewart-Sykes, The Didascalia apostolorum: An English Version with Introduction and Annotation (Brepols, 2009), 150, 157

2  Irenaeus of Lyons, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching §96, in Ancient Christian Writers 16:106

3  See Didache 14.1-3; Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 41.2-3; Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresis 4.17.5, for three examples, just from the first 160 years after Jesus' resurrection, of the eucharistic reading of Malachi's prophecy.

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