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Changed by an Unchanging God

Notes & Transcripts

6 “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. 7 From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, ‘How shall we return?’ 8 Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions. 9 You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. 10 Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need. 11 I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the Lord of hosts. 12 Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts.

It has been said that the only thing predictable in life is that nothing is predictable. Everything is constantly changing. So is change a good thing or not? Depends on who you ask, I suppose. Change is one of those things that some people like but others don’t. A woman marries a man expecting he will change, but he doesn’t. A man marries a woman expecting that she won’t change, and she does!

The question, “Is change good?” also depends on what we are talking about. It is good that seasons change, bringing cooler temperatures to hot summers and warmer air to cold winters. But change is not good when we think about the relationships that are ruined by changes in human feelings, emotions, and commitments. Our passage today begins with the assertion that the Lord does not change. That is a good thing.

Or is it? First, let’s look deeper into the implications of God’s unchangeableness. Then we will see why we ought to change and how we can go about doing so.

GOD DOES NOT CHANGE

The unchangeableness of God is called God’s immutability. It is an attribute of God that is unique to himself. John Calvin pointed out that men are forced to change because they remember things previously forgotten or because they wish they could undo what they have already done or they discover new ways to do things previously performed.[1] But God is not like that.

God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? (Num 23:19)

This characteristic of God is extremely important to our right understanding of who he is. Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck stated it this way:

‎The doctrine of God’s immutability is of the highest significance for religion. The contrast between being and becoming marks the difference between the Creator and the creature. Every creature is continually becoming. It is changeable, constantly striving, seeks rest and satisfaction, and finds this rest in God, in him alone, for only he is pure being and no becoming. Hence, in Scripture God is often called the Rock.[2]

God’s immutability and this text

But what does God’s immutability have to do with this text? Verse 6 is a transitional verse, as it serves to both conclude verses 1-5 and to introduce the next oracle in verses 7-12. So there are two ways to see how God’s unchangeableness fits into the argument of the text.

First, God’s immutability is the summary answer to the question asked in Malachi 2:17. “Where is the God of justice?” the people asked. And God responds by reminding the people that he is never changing. He remains the God of justice and guarantees that justice will be done. We can be sure of that.

But we also saw last week that when God comes to execute justice, he will deal with the injustices perpetrated by the sinfulness of the human heart. And because of that, the immutability of God is bad news. That very well may be the point being made in verse 6. The last word in the verse may be translated “consumed” as most English versions have it, but it also may be translated “stop” or “come to an end.” So verse 6 may well be understood this way, “For I am the Lord your God, and I am not changed; but you, the sons of Jacob, have not refrained from the iniquities of your fathers.”[3] As verse 7 explains, “From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them.” In other words, God does not change, and that is good. The problem is that God’s people haven’t changed either, and that is not good.

So the fact that God does not change is bad news for sinners who don’t change because God will always be viciously angry at sin.

The problem of not knowing that change is needed

Now this is particularly bad news for sinners who don’t know they are sinners. God pleads with his people in verse 7, “Return to me, and I will return to you.” But the people respond, “How shall we return?” They did not believe that they were guilty of turning aside from God’s statutes. These are God’s chosen people we are talking about! They sincerely thought their religious duties were acceptable to God. But they were wrong. Dreadfully wrong. Calvin noted, “It is an evidence of perverseness, when men answer that they see not that they have erred, and that hence conversion is to no purpose required of them.”[4]

And this is a problem to which the religious are particularly susceptible. The irreligious know that their behavior does not meet God’s approval. But the religious are easily deceived into thinking that God has been appeased by their religious activity. They are like the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son, believing that they never disobey God’s commands (Luke 15:29). But God urges them to return to him.

How can the religious turn back to God when it appears they have not turned away from him to begin with? They do not need to repent for the bad things they’ve done, but for the wrong reasons why they have done good things. It is not enough to do good; we must do good for the right reason. Failing to do so is sin and merits the wrath of a just God.

WHY WE OUGHT TO CHANGE

So because God does not sin, we should be glad that he does not change. But because we do sin, we desperately need to change. Sin is the cause of all the problems we face. God’s justice is not poured out on sin only in the future, as Malachi’s audience was discovering. Because of their sin they were already separated from God, needing to return to him (v. 7). They were also living under a curse (v. 9) and missing out on God’s abundant blessings (vv. 10, 12).

The sin of robbing God

In verse 8 God gets specific about where his people were falling short. He accuses them of stealing from him by withholding a portion of their tithes and offerings. They were guilty of robbing God, not because God needed their contributions but because their assets rightly belonged to him and were to be used for his purposes. So while the people were making some contributions, they were not paying the “full tithe” (v. 10) and consequently God’s purposes were not being achieved.

The purpose of the tithe

This is the kind of text every preacher gets excited about because here we have our basis for guilting congregants into submission and increasing the church budget! That is true so long as we don’t consider the real purpose of the tithe.

First of all we find that tithing, giving away 10% of one’s income, was not unique to ancient Judaism. The Egyptians and the Mesopotamians also practiced tithing.[5] Even before tithing was legislated in the Mosaic Law we find tithing practiced by Abraham (Gen 14:20) and Jacob (Gen 28:22).

The key texts regarding legislative tithing are Leviticus 27:30-34; Numbers 18:21-32; Deuteronomy 14:22-29; and Deuteronomy 26:12-14. It is unclear how many tithes were required; there may well have been two and possibly even a third required every third year. In other words, the tithe actually totaled anywhere from 10-23% of annual profits. The proceeds were used to fund two things primarily.

The primary use of the tithe was to support the Levites who served the nation in the worship of God. “To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting” (Num 18:21). The Levites lived on the support of the people because they were given no inheritance in the land. The tithe was also used to support the poor, mainly foreigners, orphans, and widows. “Contributions” (or, offerings) were used mainly to support the priests and other designated projects.

Another use of the tithes was to fund the annual communal feast. We read about this in Deuteronomy 14:22-29. The people were to take 10% of their agricultural harvest (grain, wine, and oil) and bring it to Jerusalem and eat it there as part of the annual celebration. If the journey to Jerusalem was too far to carry all the goods, then they could liquidate the tithe and bring the money with them to Jerusalem “and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves” (Deut 14:26).

What a party it must have been! Perhaps we should institute this mandatory tithe at Crosstown! The people were to eat and rejoice with good food and lots of fun. And God commanded that they do this “that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always” (Deut 14:23). The feast was a reminder to them that God was the source of all good gifts that they were enjoying. God is no kill-joy! He commanded the people to set aside a tithe for community celebration. God wants us to celebrate well, and we can do that best when we recognize that all that we have is a gift from a gracious God.

The tithes were used primarily to support the Levites as they led the people in worship, to provide for the needs of the poor, and to fund the communal feasts which served to remind the people that God was the source of all blessing. We might say that the purpose of the tithe was to keep Israel centered on God and his purposes to bless them.

Withholding the tithe

Why did the people fail to pay the full tithe? We find a bit more about the historical situation in Nehemiah 13:10-12. When Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem the second time he “found out that the portions of the Levites had not been given to them, so that the Levites and the singers, who did the work, had fled each to his field” (v. 10). Nehemiah confronted Israel’s leaders and restored the practice of tithing so that the temple worship would continue.

The excuse must have been due to the challenging economic times Israel was in as they were still under Persian rule. Given the circumstances, the people must have concluded that God would understand if they only paid part of the obligatory tithe. But God did not let them off the hook. He demanded they pay the “full tithe” (v. 10) regardless of the circumstances. If that seems too demanding, remember the purpose of the tithe was to keep Israel centered on God and his purposes. In giving the tithe the people were benefiting themselves.

And this is why God does not let us off the hook regarding his demands on us no matter how trying our life situation may be. While tithing is no longer obligatory under the new covenant, he does command us to be generous givers even if we do not have much in our checking account.  He commands us to fight for faithfulness in our marriages no matter how tense the relationship has become. He requires us to be on the mission of making disciples no matter how “busy” life has become. And he demands that we worship him in whatever activity we become involved. God commands these things not because he is cruel and unsympathetic to the difficulties of life. On the contrary, he commands these things because he knows they are all for our benefit.

You see the real reason we do not obey God in all that he requires is not because of the excuses we make. The real reason is because we do not believe that God can be trusted. So we spend our money the way we think is best. Or we seek to fulfill our sexual needs with pornography or adultery or premarital sex because we do not believe God’s way of a lifelong, heterosexual marriage will satisfy us. And we do not believe that God’s call for us to give ourselves to worship, prayer, and mission is the best way to use our time so we neglect the spiritual disciplines and have no time for people because we dare not miss our favorite television show each night.

But God has promised to bless us if we will trust him. In our text he even invited Israel to put him to the test to see if he would indeed come through on his promises (v. 10). Putting God to the test is usually forbidden in the Scripture (Deut 6:16; Matt 4:7), but in this case it expresses God’s deep longing to satisfy his people. He wants to bless them! We see this longing expressed in verse 7 as well, where God speaks in the cohortative form. “Return to me, and let me return to you.” He is inviting his people to cast themselves entirely on God and his purposes and see if he will ever change!

HOW WE CAN CHANGE

We can change—and we will change—if we can learn to trust God. And it is far easier to trust God if we can be sure that he is unchangeable.

Remember that I said at the beginning of this sermon that there are two ways that God’s immutability fits into the argument of the text. The first is as a summary of the accusation made in Malachi 2:17. In that sense, God’s unchangeableness is bad news for sinners because God will not change in his hatred for sin. He will have justice on sinners. But now we see that God’s unchangeableness is also good news for sinners. Notice how most English versions translate verse 6. God’s immutability is the reason for Israel’s continued existence in spite of their sin. “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.”

They have not been consumed because God made a covenant with them and he will not fail to uphold it. He has promised to love them (Mal 1:2) and he will not go back on that promise. “I will not violate my covenant or alter the word that went forth from my lips” (Psa 89:34). God told the prophet Jeremiah that his promises are as sure as the coming of day and night. God’s goodness and love show up more brightly against the dark backdrop of the consistency of human sinfulness.  “The antithetic parallelism accentuates God’s goodness.”[6] (Baldwin, 245) The only hope we have to change is grounded in a confidence that God is that good.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it? We struggle to believe that God is that good. So how can we ultimately overcome our trust issue? We need to see definitive proof. We need someone to go before us, entrust himself entirely to God, and see God come through.

Peter says this about Jesus: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Pet 2:23). The Son of God is the definitive proof that the goodness of God can be trusted. Jesus is our only hope for real change. Peter continues:

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Pet 2:24-25)

Jesus bore our sins on the cross, becoming the covenant curse “that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” and inherit the covenant blessing. Because Jesus trusted the immutable God on our behalf, we are able to return “to the Shepherd and Overseer” of our souls in confidence.

CONCLUSION

Now we can see the immutability of God as the blessing that it really is. God is a rock who can be trusted.  He proved it in the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus. He is the only God worth giving our life to.

If you can see this then you have the power you need to turn from your idols to the living God who is waiting to be for you the blessing you long for.


[1] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, vol 4, trans. John Owen (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981), 579.

[2] Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God trans. William Hendriksen (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977), 149.

[3] This is an English translation from the Septuagint.

[4] Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, 583.

[5] R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce K. Waltke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT), (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 703.

[6] Joyce G. Baldwin, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, ed., D. J. Wiseman (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1972), 245.

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