The church was located near my seminary in California. Quite famous and exceptionally large, it had an evening service focused on its extensive worldwide ministry.
The service frequently included missionaries supported by the church who were visiting the US. It also featured well-known missionary speakers.
This particular night was a two-fer: the church supported a Bible translator who was also a well-known missionary speaker. After my last class of the day, I went to hear her.
A large crowd filled the brand-new sanctuary. When the missionary was introduced, she stepped up to the podium with her Bible translating colleague. I don’t know how to say it any other way, but they looked horrible. Each was wearing a threadbare dress, worn, faded, and—it appeared—stained.
One of them opened with a prayer and then thanked the church for the clothes it had sent from its thrift store. Apparently, the clothes were shipped in some kind of barrels, and while that may explain the stains, it didn’t explain why the dresses were almost in tatters.
I almost started laughing except the two missionaries seemed sincere rather than sarcastic. As I glanced around the room, many of the church members seemed mortified. Their gardeners dressed better!
I never found out if the missionaries wore the tattered dresses on purpose to send a message to the church, but it really was funny regardless. Clearly, the church members had not sent their best to the missionaries.
Sadly, this not-sending-our-best is often characteristic of our giving, and God addressed this human tendency in several Old Testament passages.
The First Fruits and the Firstborn
The term first fruits is essential as we continue to explore the road less traveled.
In the Old Testament, the term first fruits (~yrIWKBi) refers to the firstborn son: Jacob referred to Reuben as the first fruits (Genesis 49:3).
In Jeremiah 2:3 we read, “Israel was holy to the Lord, the first of His harvest” (NASB). The most common Old Testament usage, however, is in reference to the first harvest of grain and other produce.
When God initially gave the law, the Feast of Harvest was a time for God’s people to offer Him the first fruits of the harvest (Exodus 23:16). The Feast of Weeks was the time for bringing the first fruits of the wheat harvest to God as an offering (Exodus 34:22 NASB).
Unlike the tithe of 10 percent (that’s what the word tithe means), the size of the first fruits offering was not clearly specified. However, in Deuteronomy 26, we find further instructions regarding the first of all the produce of the ground: the amount was apparently contained within a basket (v. 2 NASB).
In that chapter we also find a liturgy celebrating God’s redemptive acts on behalf of Israel: the Jewish giver spoke these words to the priest as he handed the basket that held his offering (vv. 5-10).
With their first fruit offerings, the Israelites were giving God their first and their best.
The beginning of Exodus 34 echoes the Passover instructions God gave to Moses while the people of Israel were still in Egypt: You shall devote to the Lord the first offspring of every womb, and the first offspring of every beast that you own; the males belong to the Lord… and every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem (Exodus 13:12-13 NASB).
It seems clear that God wanted His people to associate the giving of their firstborn with His salvation act of bringing Israel out of Egypt—an act that cost the Egyptians their firstborn—and into the promised land.
The giving of the firstborn was a reminder that God had saved them from slavery to harsh Egyptian taskmasters.
In Exodus 34:26, God commanded the Israelites, “You shall bring the very first of the first fruits of your soil into the house of the Lord your God” (NASB). Among these first fruits would be fruit, grains, and anything else the Israelites planted, cultivated, and harvested.
This instruction follows the verse twenty-five instructions about the Passover Festival, Israel’s commemoration and celebration of God’s delivering them from slavery in Egypt.
Here, the focus seems the fact that God is the driving force behind the yet-to-come fruitful harvest.
Recognizing God even before seeds were sown was to acknowledge that it is God Himself who causes the rains to fall, the sun to shine, and the crops to come to harvest.
The offering of the first fruits and the firstborn in response to God’s instructions would remind the people of His faithful acts of deliverance.
Paul appeared to echo that idea in 2 Corinthians 8:9 where he presented giving as a response to the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, the New Testament salvation act that parallels and dwarfs God’s Old Testament salvation act of deliverance from Egypt.
Jesus saved us from slavery to sin, and our offerings to God are to remind us of that very fact. Our offerings are also to—like the Israelites’ offerings at Passover—be occasions of giving God our first and our best.
After their deliverance from Egypt, God’s chosen people settled in the promised land, but the ensuing generations of God’s people failed to obey the commands of their faithful God. As a result, they found themselves captured and living in exile.
When Nehemiah learned that the walls and much of Jerusalem lay in ruins, he returned to the holy city to lead the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem and of the walls that surrounded the city. Nehemiah wanted to reestablish the presence of God’s people in His holy city.
It was a time of spiritual renewal and giving was a central element of the Israelites’ rediscovered passion for God: Nehemiah 10:32-39 documents the renewal of giving among the Israelites and the subsequent spiritual renewal and vitality!
In this climate of spiritual revival and renewal, the Israelites renewed their commitment to give to God the firstborn, the first fruits, and their tithes to God.
Many of these affirmations were also a recommitment to the Exodus teaching that giving one’s first fruits was associated with the spiritual rebirth and renewal of God’s people. The Israelites gave God their best.
It is no surprise that giving is a matter of the heart and therefore closely associated with revival and renewal.
We can glean at least three principles from the Bible’s teachings about first fruits and the firstborn:
- Giving our best is telling God, “Thank You”
- Giving from our leftovers sends the wrong message
- Giving our best can bring spiritual renewal
Giving Our Best Is Telling God “Thank You”
As we saw in the previous chapter, in the book of Exodus, the giving of the first fruits and the firstborn is intricately linked to God’s saving work on behalf of Israel.
God’s deliverance of His people from Egypt and His giving them the land promised them so long ago was His defining work on behalf of His people.
The first fruits offering was to be the people’s response in recognition of—and with gratitude for—God delivering them from slavery in Egypt.
For the Christian today, giving the first of our wealth and earnings is one way we thank God for delivering us from slavery to sin and for giving us a new life in Jesus Christ. Simply put, our giving is a way of saying, “Thank You.”
Our Polish church had sent a short-term mission team to Siberia and I was on the team. When we prepared to leave the Siberian village where we had experienced such warm hospitality and fruitful ministry, I was already wrestling with thankfulness issues.
The economy had nearly collapsed, unemployment was high and many families were struggling to survive. The host family only compounded my angst when they presented me with a thank-you gift as we said good-bye.
They handed me a small box containing the following items:
- Two pencils that were used and about ½ their original size. These were gifts for my two children.
- Herbal tea for my wife that was picked from the floor of the forest and wrapped in a tissue paper.
- A postcard of Lake Baikal for the entire family.
- 10,000 Russian rubles for my travel expenses (about $2.00)
It wasn’t the most elaborate, expensive gift I ever received but it was one of the most meaningful. Giving is a way of saying, “Thank You.”
God Should Not Get Our Leftovers
First Fruits - The word itself tells us that God should get the first of our material income.
After all, the purpose of the first fruits principle was to remind the Israelites of the relationship God had with them and of all He had done on their behalf.
The first fruits principle is also an opportunity for us to live out our priorities: ideally, we give first to God, we give our best to God, and then we use what remains of our material wealth as He directs.
The story of the clothes gifted to the Bible translators, though, was a story of giving leftovers. Such a gift honors neither God nor the recipients.
Again, giving our first fruits to the work of God is a statement about our priorities: we are saying with our gift that God is our top priority.
Our stewardship of the resources He has entrusted to us will always reflect the place God has in our life.
Giving Our First Fruits Can Bring Spiritual Renewal
Have you ever considered a possible connection between giving and an experience of renewal and revival, individually and corporately, among God’s people? I have seen this firsthand in Eastern Europe.
Sadly, over the years I have visited many churches in that region that have buildings constructed because of foreign funding. Many of these churches were too large for the current congregation.
(A big building was part of the Field of Dreams church-planting philosophy: “If we build it, they will come.”) Many of those buildings are nearly empty today, but the faithful who remain can’t give enough to maintain the property. In one church, for instance, I preached wearing a coat, gloves, and a scarf.
It was the dead of winter, and the congregation couldn’t pay to heat the sanctuary—or the Sunday school rooms, so children didn’t attend during the six colder months of the year. Also—and nearly without exception—the spiritual vitality of these kinds of churches had been lost.
One pastor told me that his building had become an albatross around his neck. As he spoke those words, I was looking at a picture on the wall behind him that had an American and a South Korean, each with a shovel, at their groundbreaking ceremony years before.
Churches in these two countries had funded the building of the albatross.
In contrast to that are the large churches I’ve visited in Eastern Europe where the congregation gave funds to God for the building materials as well as to support the vocational workers and ministries of the church.
These churches routinely have a spiritual vitality that is palatable. Giving our hearts to God by releasing some of our material goods leads to spiritual life, both individually and corporately as a church.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure how common this teaching is in our evangelical Christian world. The notion that God deserves our best is usually in reference to our service in the church, not to our material giving.
Perhaps that’s because—and this is only my impression—the road well traveled works differently.
Each month we receive our income and then sit down and pay our bills. After we finish paying the bills, we decide how much we’ll give to the church or Christian missionaries. In other words, we give God from what is left over.
In addition to seeming more robotic than joyful, this approach to giving is problematic for two reasons.
First, giving from the leftovers isn’t really an expression of our thankfulness and love for our Savior, and it sends the wrong heart message to God.
Think about it: would your spouse or girlfriend be pleased if you gave her some leftover flowers on her birthday?
Second, this approach to giving causes huge internal dissonance because our actions are not aligned with our heart.
Again, if I got some leftovers from the fridge, warmed them up in the microwave, and then slapped them on a paper plate for my wife’s birthday, those actions would not be a genuine expression of my heart or my love for my wife. And she might slap them right back at me!
When we offer God our best, though, we express our heartfelt love for Him, and our hearts and our actions align. Does giving God your first fruits sound like a hard practice?
Here’s something that helped me. Years ago, an elder in our church taught me to have two bank accounts. One was our personal bank account for normal economic activities such as bill paying and grocery shopping. The other was the God Fund.
Whenever I received a paycheck, a percentage of that income went directly into the God Fund, and that was to be my first fruits offering.
The money went into that account first, before we paid in bills or spent any money from our second account. My wife and I have continued that process to this day.
God deserves our best and our first, not our last and our leftovers.
The Road Well Traveled: Giving is important for Christians and should be part of our regular financial plan.
The Road Less Traveled: Everything we have belongs to God. To show our love for God and to show Him that He is our top priority, we give to Him first, and then we take care of our other financial commitments.