We’ve been looking at the Ten Commandments this summer. The Ten Commandments are well known and have continuing relevance for us today. The Apostle Paul sometimes said some pretty harsh things about the law, but he emphasized that the law still has a role for us who believe we’re saved by what Christ has done for us. At the end of Romans 3 Paul said, “Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law” (Romans 3:31). Paul says that we can’t be saved by our obedience to the law. We can only be saved through faith in Christ, who has kept the law perfectly and died for those who haven’t. But then Paul says that we still uphold the norms of the law. We do this through the power of the Holy Spirit.
We keep these commandments for a number of reasons, but perhaps the biggest reason is gratitude for what God has accomplished for us. When the people of Israel understood that God delivered them out of bondage in Egypt, obedience to his commands is the only response that makes sense. When we understand what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, it only makes sense that we obey him out of gratitude and amazement for what he has done for us. These commands, which look oppressive at first, are actually a charter of freedom. They tell us how to life free now that Christ has set us free.
Today we are coming to the eight commandment, which simply says, “You shall not steal.” Or, in the original, simply, “No stealing.” You can see that there is a natural progression in these commands. We are to properly honor God and the authorities that God has put into place. Then God instructs us to protect life and marriages. And then we come to our possessions. The simple command is that nobody wrongfully takes from his or her neighbor’s possessions. No stealing.
Today I want to look at this command from three perspectives. First, the obvious. Secondly, what’s not so obvious at first glance. Finally, getting to the heart of this command.
So first, let’s look at the obvious implications of the command, “No stealing.”
It’s pretty simple, isn’t it? No stealing. Many of us can remember a time when we were kids and really, really wanted something. We saw it. Nobody was looking. And when we had a chance, we quickly snatched the item and took it home with us.
Some are overcome with guilt when this happens and quickly confess and make things right, but others of us continue to steal when nobody is looking. If this is you, then Scripture is clear. Stop it. As Paul said to the Ephesians, “Those who have been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need” (Ephesians 4:28).
This is fairly obvious, but let me point out what should be just as obvious, because it’s something that we may overlook. Stealing can take all kinds of forms. If you think that stealing simply equals shoplifting or picking pockets, then you’re really not thinking about all the forms that stealing can take. Some of you may be stealing without even knowing it. For instance:
- borrowing items and never returning them
- surfing the web on company time
- taking office supplies from work for personal use
- overcharging a client
- padding an expense account
- fudging on our income tax returns
- paying someone under the table to avoid taxes
There are some of us who would never dream of walking out of the store with a shoplifted item, but have no problem spending the first half hour at work on Facebook. We’d never dream of committing fraud, but we aren’t really that careful about declaring everything we made or in evading taxes if we can get away with it.
God simply says, no stealing. Right now you face a choice. Some of you are probably thinking of ways to justify what you’ve been doing. You’re thinking that I’m being a little bit fanatical about this. I’d like to ask you to face the truth and to honestly consider ways in which you may be guilty of stealing in your life. No excuses, no rationalizations. We are bringing dishonor to God and taking what rightfully belongs to others every time we’re idle on the job or less than honest in how we conduct ourselves. God says, “No stealing,” and some of us have to make changes as we look at the obvious meaning of the command.
Does it hurt yet? We’re going to go even farther now.
Let’s look at the less than obvious implications of this command.
Sometimes you take a quick look at these commandments and think that you’ve seen everything there is to see. There’s actually a lot beneath the surface. I want to highlight three things that you may miss about this command at first glance.
I think we need to notice that this command teaches us that money has its place. It’s important, but it’s not ultimate. Where do I get this from? On one hand, this command teaches us that there is such a thing as private property. There are some things that belong to you, and I need to respect that they are yours. If I don’t respect your right to own stuff, then there’s no other way to put it. I’m a thief.
This corrects the mistaken belief that some people have that possessions themselves are bad, or that money is bad. The Bible never says this. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Bible teaches that God cares about physical things. In fact, if you read the Old Testament laws, rules about personal property take up a surprising place in the commands God gave to his people. We’re not to take away people’s means of production, such as millstones, as a pledge. We’re not to take away pieces of clothing like cloaks. We’re not to move boundary stones. God cares about our stuff. Everything belongs to God, but he’s given it to us for our use and enjoyment. They are gifts from God. God cares about our stuff.
So this command keeps us from having too low a view of possessions. But it also keeps us from having too high a view. This command puts possessions in their place. They’re important, but they’re not everything. Where do I get this from?
The other week we looked at the command, “No murder.” You may remember me saying that in other law codes at that time, the punishment for murder depended on who you were and who you killed. If you were a slave who killed a wealthy landowner, you may be punished by death. But if you were a wealthy landowner and killed a slave, you may only have faced a financial penalty.
But it’s not like that with God at all. The penalty for murder doesn’t depend on who you are or who you murder. All life is valuable before God. And the penalty for murder is not financial, because money can never adequately compensate for life. What this tells us is that in God’s eyes, human life is much more valuable than money or possessions.
The same goes for this command, “No stealing.” In other cultures, the penalty for stealing included mutilation and sometimes death. When God gave his commands, it was quite different. The penalty and the remedy for stealing was not death, but restitution. And it didn’t depend on who you were either. Your social rank has no bearing on the penalty. What God is telling us is this: human life is far more valuable than property. One can never be substituted for the other.
This has huge implications for how we live, because we face choosing between people and possessions all the time. The stuff we buy comes at a cost, and that cost is often relational. Buying certain things means that we may have to work more, which means that we will have less time to spend with our families, for instance. God says in these commands that people are more important than possessions. Human life is far more valuable than property. This really ought to shape the way that we live.
This leads us to a second less-than-obvious implication. Each of these commands has a positive and a negative. No murder means, for instance, that we value life. No stealing also has a positive. When Martin Luther taught on this command, he first covered the negative: don’t steal. But then he covered the other side. “On the other hand,” he said, “it is commanded that we advance and improve his possessions, and in case he suffers want, that we help, communicate, and lend both to friends and foes.”
This command, then, means that we not only refrain from stealing. It means that we seek the good of our neighbor through generosity and kindness. So when God describes a way of living that is righteous and just and right in Ezekiel 18, he describes a man who “does not oppress anyone, but returns what he took in pledge for a loan. He does not commit robbery but gives his food to the hungry and provides clothing for the naked.” The opposite of not stealing is not keeping your stuff just for yourself. The opposite of stealing is generosity. It means that we have a calling to share our resources with others.
You see this all over Scripture. It’s a huge theme. Deuteronomy 15:7-8 says:
If anyone is poor among your people in any of the towns of the land that 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.
Proverbs 19 says, “Those who are kind to the poor lend to the LORD, and he will reward them for what they have done” (Proverbs 19:17). Hebrews 13:16 says, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” You may object that you can’t help everyone. The good news is that you don’t have to. You only have to do what you can with what you have, which is, when you think about it, a pretty high standard. Galatians 6:10 says, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
This is really an extension of what we said earlier. People are more important than possessions.
There’s one more not-so-obvious implication. In Malachi, we read that not tithing is actually robbing God. Malachi 3:8 says:
“Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.
“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’
“In tithes and offerings.”
This gets tricky, because tithes were part of the old covenant with Israel. The New Testament doesn’t require the tithe, but it has lots to say about giving. We read in 2 Corinthians that giving should be voluntary and cheerful (2 Corinthians 9:7-8). In Acts, we read of people selling property to meet the needs of the poor (Acts 4:34-37). The early Christians were characterized by radical and joyful generosity.
So how much should we give? In a way, that very question is wrong. There’s no prescribed amount. You should give generously. You should give so that nobody could say that you’re robbing God in how you spend your money. C.S. Lewis said, “I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.” Theologian John Frame suggests that the cheerful giving of the New Testament cannot be much less than the Old Testament regular tithe of 10%. Don’t rob God by the amount that you give.
You can see that there’s a lot in this command. There’s the obvious: don’t steal. There’s the not-so-obvious at first glance: possessions are important, but not as important as people, so be generous with people and also give generously and joyfully to the Lord.
There’s just one more thing. We need to get to the heart of this command.
I’ll tell you what’s been going on in your heart this morning. You’ve been thinking, “Give me a break! How do you expect me to do this? You’re telling me to stop surfing Facebook on company time. Then you’re telling me to give away my money to others and to give more than I can spare to the Lord.”
Well, I know. As someone’s said, you think these commands are getting personal when you read, “No adultery.” But then they get even more personal in some ways. For a lot of us, our stuff is closer to our hearts than anything else.
I said earlier that the Bible isn’t negative about possessions or money. It does, however, warn us against a great danger that we all face: love of money. Money itself isn’t bad, but love of money is. Paul writes in 1 Timothy 6:6-10:
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
When Jesus spoke about money, he personified it as a rival god, an idol. He said, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” (Matthew 6:24).
So let me tell you what all of this means. Money can be an incredible blessing in your life, something that you use and enjoy and share joyfully with others. Or: money can be an idol that grips your soul, holds you captive, robs you of your joy, and plunges you into ruin and destruction. It can be a counterfeit god that promises much but that ultimately destroys you.
In other words, what this command really gets to is our heart. How can our hearts be set free from the worship of this false idol so that we can use and share and give away our money?
It’s to put our hearts on an even greater treasure than our stuff. When we grasp what Jesus has done for us, that he left his wealth and became poor so that we could be made rich, and when we’re transformed through the gospel to realize that God himself is our inheritance, then we can be set free to use our stuff instead of worshiping our stuff. This command, you see, is just a variation of the first command to have no other gods before God. And this is only possible through the forgiveness and transformation that comes through the one who was crucified among thieves in the place of us who are thieves.
Father, we’ve seen that there’s much in this command that lies below the surface. In this command, you call us to set our hearts on true treasure. Jesus told us, “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:20).
This command is really about worship. May each person here see what Christ has done for them. And may seeing this cause them to dethrone every idol, and to worship you alone; to use stuff without worshiping stuff; to give generously and joyfully. We pray this in the name and in the power of the one who gave his all for us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.