Welcome to another session in our Essential Disciplines series where we take up an interesting challenge. We live in a culture that often seems divided between the “haves” and the “have nots.” Some in our society are blessed beyond measure, while others struggle to get by. As followers of Jesus, we instinctively feel some angst about these extremes. Somehow, we sense that God is not pleased with this level of disparity. But what are we to do about all of this? What is our role as disciples in this world divided by wealth and poverty?
It turns out that the Bible addresses this concern in a clear, compelling way. In fact, God’s Story features a consistent challenge to His people, that they be faithful stewards in the creation that they enjoy. Learning stewardship is therefore an Essential Discipline for those who want to follow Jesus. In this session, then, we discuss some foundational principles of stewardship, and, in the next session, we address some practical recommendations about giving.
God’s call to be good stewards begins at creation. Remember these words from the opening chapter of Genesis:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:26-27
From the very beginning, God gave us this privilege of partnering with Him in ruling over His creation. Later, we read that:
“The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” Genesis 2:15
Just as God names the “day”, “night”, “sky”, “land” and “seas”, He assigns a similar role to the first human being:
“Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.” Genesis 2:19
All this language about “ruling” and “naming” tells us that we humans bear some responsibility to care for this creation entrusted to us.
As sinful human beings, however, we have fallen short in this responsibility. Our collective greed and self-centeredness have destroyed the peace and harmony of the garden. To correct this failure, therefore, God calls a people and gives them a mission to restore order to His creation, a mission that centers on worship and love.
2.1. Bringing God’s Gifts
As stewards of God’s creation, we must remember that all this belongs to someone else. We are not the owners. We manage for the true owner. God frequently reminds His people that creation belongs first to Him before it belongs to us. The Psalmist says:
“The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters.” Psalm 24:1
Early in His story, God requires His people to remember this truth in worship.
“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.” Leviticus 27:30
By setting aside this holy tithe, or tenth, the people remind themselves that the whole harvest truly belongs to God, and, only because of His blessing, can they enjoy the rest of it. The Law of Moses later expands on this point, by contrasting the worship of God’s people with that of the surrounding nations:
“You must not worship the LORD your God in their way. But you are to seek the place the LORD your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go; there bring your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, what you have vowed to give and your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks. There, in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your families shall eat and shall rejoice in everything you have put your hand to, because the LORD your God has blessed you.” Deuteronomy 12:4-7
The people bring their tithes and offerings to worship in a place that represents God’s presence. There, in God’s presence, they also celebrate and rejoice with their families, as a reminder that everything they possess comes only because of God’s blessing.
2.2. Supporting God’s Work
2.2.1. In the Old Testament
But why does God ask His people to bring these tithes and offerings? Certainly, He Himself does not require food and drink. It turns out that a large portion of these gifts support God’s work. Recall this command from the Law of Moses:
“The LORD said to Aaron, ‘You will have no inheritance in their land, nor will you have any share among them; I am your share and your inheritance among the Israelites. I give to the Levites all the tithes in Israel as their inheritance in return for the work they do while serving at the tent of meeting.’” Numbers 18:20-21
From among all the children of Israel, God selected the one tribe of Levites to serve Him at His place of worship. They took care of everything, from care and cleaning of the facilities, to preparation of the sacrifices, to music and public worship. And God called one family line within this tribe, the descendants of Aaron, to be His priests, ministering before the altar as intermediaries between a Holy God and His worshipping people.
Since this group was entirely devoted to God and His spiritual work, the people were responsible for providing for their daily, physical needs. By accepting this responsibility, the people actively demonstrate their support for God’s work. God creates an environment where the temple servants and the people depend upon one another.
The people require the temple servants for their spiritual well-being, to keep them focused on the God whom they must worship. At the same time, however, the temple servants require the people for their physical well-being, to keep them humbled before God in this role of constant service.
And when the people fail to support His work in this way, God takes it personally. Recall this passage from the prophet, Malachi:
“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 it.’” Malachi 3:8-10
This statement points us back to the garden, promising a restoration of God’s original order. If we truly want the blessings of God to pour out, as they did in Eden, we must demonstrate our worship concretely by ensuring that there is “food in my house,” so that the work of God can continue.
2.2.2. In the New Testament
This mandate to support God’s work also continues in the New Testament church. The Apostle Paul, for example, explicitly compares support for the Old Testament Levites with that of New Testament ministers. He writes:
“Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.” 1 Corinthians 9:13-14
Later, he writes to Timothy, saying:
The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages.’” 1 Timothy 5:17-18; compare Deuteronomy 25:4; Leviticus 19:13
As a preacher, I am not sure I like being compared to an ox, but the point is nevertheless clear. Part of worshiping God requires us to support His work, by providing for the physical needs of those dedicated to His service.
Supporting God’s work, then, is one way to reclaim our role as stewards of His creation. But God’s work extends beyond the worship service. We show that we love God by loving others everywhere, in all places. The Apostle John makes this point crystal clear:
“We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” 1 John 4:19-21
3.1. In the Old Testament
As a demonstration of love, the Old Testament law frequently calls God’s people to remember those in need. For example, look at this law about harvesting the fields:
“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the LORD your God.” Leviticus 23:22
When God originally placed the first humans in the garden, there was to be enough for everyone. Now, God’s people had a responsibility to reflect this original intention. While a sinful broken world will continue to create poverty, God’s people are charged to diligently address these needs. Consider this command from the Law of Moses:
“If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need … Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” Deuteronomy 15:7-11
Among God’s people, sharing His possessions, entrusted to us, should be the norm, not the exception. In the next session we will address the practical implications of this requirement, but for now, let’s accept the fact that God cares deeply about the poor who live among us.
3.2. In the New Testament
As we move into the New Testament, we find that Jesus frequently reinforces this message throughout His ministry. On one occasion, He discusses whom He will admit to His eternal kingdom, choosing those who cared for Him when He was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, without clothes, sick and in prison.
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” Matthew 25:37-40
Just as God takes it personally when His people do not support His work, He also takes it personally when people do not care for the poor. Jesus finishes His statement with a somber warning to anyone who ignores the plight of those in need:
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Matthew 25:44-46
Caring for the poor is not optional within God’s Kingdom. It is a mandatory part of our role as stewards of His creation. He intends His garden to feed all His children.
These are foundational principles of stewardship revealed in scripture. We are called to faithfully manage God’s creation through worshipping Him and supporting His work, and by loving those in need around us. In our next session, we will build this on foundation and discuss practical implications for giving. In the meantime, we pray that God will lead you even deeper in your relationship with Jesus.
- Assess how well you think that you are doing at being God’s steward.
- Decide on one step you can take to become a more faithful steward.
- Share this decision with someone you trust and give them permission to hold you accountable for this decision.