A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas before the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper on February 2, 2020.
“You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).
The basic definition of stealing is taking “(another person’s property) without permission or legal right and without intending to return it.” What someone owns is theirs, and if you take it you are stealing. But stealing is not necessarily limited to property. For example, the Westminster Larger Catechism includes “fraudulent dealing, false weights and measures, removing landmarks, injustice and unfaithfulness in contracts between man and man, or in matters of trust; oppression, extortion, usury, bribery, vexatious lawsuits, unjust enclosures and depredation; engrossing commodities to enhance the price; unlawful callings, and all other unjust or sinful ways of taking or withholding from our neighbor what belongs to him, or of enriching ourselves; covetousness; inordinate prizing and affecting worldly goods; distrustful and distracting cares and studies in getting, keeping, and using them; envying at the prosperity of others; as likewise idleness, prodigality, wasteful gaming; and all other ways whereby we do unduly prejudice our own outward estate, and defrauding ourselves of the due use and comfort of the estate which God hath given us” (WLC Q. 142). I’m sure you have a few more things to add…I do not.
To simplify the scope of the eighth commandment, I see in Scripture three general ways in which we break the eighth commandment: stealing from others, stealing from ourselves, and stealing from God. Stealing from others may be the most obvious, but as the Larger Catechism reveals, we may be breaking the commandment blatantly, or it could be indifference or ignorance. Less obvious is that we are also prone to steal from ourselves, often as a result of disobedience.
But ultimately, breaking the eighth commandment is stealing from God, the one least considered in our sin.
Stealing from Others
When asked which is the greatest commandment in the Law, Jesus responded with a summary: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37), combining the first four commandments of the Ten into one great commandment.
Jesus then combined the remaining six of the Ten into a second commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). Therefore, as we consider the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal,” we must do so in light of our Lord’s summary. Rather than a love for neighbor, theft reveals an indifference at best and a hatred at worst for others. In light of this, stealing reveals something about the heart of the thief, a lack of love for others and self.
As the Larger Catechism explains (at length), stealing is not simply the theft of property. For example, we steal from our employers when we don’t work diligently. We steal from each other when we don’t pay our taxes on time and in the amount we should. We steal from businesses when we don’t pay our bills on time or default on our obligations.
We may not think of these examples as stealing but they are, and more importantly they are telling of who and how we love. For this reason the Apostle Paul commands the church, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:7-8). “Love does no wrong to a neighbor” (Rom. 13:10a) but stealing does.
The antithesis of stealing, interestingly enough, is work. Consider Paul’s counsel to the thieves of Ephesus: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Eph. 4:28). The remedy for stealing is honest work, which is not a punishment but a blessing from God. And through the blessing of work what is the thief taught? How to use what is earned to show love to someone in need.
When was the last time you considered your work as a means of showing love to others? In many ways, we have become more like the thief, taking in our perpetual lust for consumption, instead of giving to others in love. Solomon captures this vanity well stating, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes?” (Eccles. 5:10-11). Or, in our American context: lock them away and forget about them in our ministorage.
Rather, let us labor in love for others. Let us give from the fruit of our work. Let us rejoice in the bounty of God’s blessings upon others through us. And all of this in love, for “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10).
Stealing from Ourselves
Because stealing is defined as taking someone else’s property, we typically don’t think of breaking the eighth commandment as stealing from ourselves. Yet, in a sense, the repercussions of stealing from others and stealing from God impacts us personally as well. For example, stealing from others or from God today may lead to losing future blessings. While all sin robs us of joy in the Lord, stealing specifically robs us of God’s blessings, such as the blessings that flow to us from giving faithfully.
In Malachi, where God accuses Israel of robbing him by not giving tithes and contributions, he charges them to test him and see the blessings that flow from faithfully giving: “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” (Mal. 3:10). The expression “put me to the test” is actually a challenge to Israel. Will they give as God commands and receive his promised blessings, or will they not give and forfeit the blessings, essentially robbing themselves?
If this sounds counterintuitive, it is! Who gives and in turn receives? God’s children do. Do you not give because you do not have, thinking that to have you must keep? Have you been withholding your tithes and offerings from God and thereby robbing yourself of his blessings? You cannot out-give God. God says, “Bring the full tithe…And thereby put me to the test…if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing.” But God’s blessings are not to be what motivate our giving but rather our love for him, which is the opposite of stealing.
Stealing from God
Ultimately, stealing in its myriad of forms is stealing from God. Why? First, God owns everything. As Moses explained to Israel, “Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it” (Deut. 10:14). Contrary to popular opinion, you and I own nothing; we are merely entrusted with that which is ultimately God’s, as stewards of his bounty. If you think you own it all, then Jesus says you are like the fool who died prematurely with full barns (Luke 12:16-21). Hold it loosely and use it wisely; it is the Lord’s.
Second, God is the one who gives according to his sovereign purpose and pleasure. Indeed, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17a), and in what he gives (or doesn’t give) there is purpose. We have neither the right nor the authority to take what God has given someone else. To do so is to disregard the sovereignty of God.
Third, God provides for the needs of the church through the means of our giving. If we don’t give, then we are stealing from God. Does this sound like a stretch or a plug to increase congregational giving? Consider God’s Word through the Prophet Malachi: “Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions” (Mal. 3:8). Do not ignore this admonition: If you are not giving your tithes and offerings according to the Lord’s provision to you, you are stealing from God.
Fourth, God is glorified in his provision. In his second epistle to Corinth, the Apostle Paul teaches the church the necessity of giving and the importance of being a cheerful giver (2 Cor. 9). While he mentions tangible needs that will be met, most importantly giving produces “thanksgiving to God” leading others to “glorify God” (2 Cor. 9:11-13). What if you gave a tenth of your income with thanksgiving? What if you gave cheerfully for God’s glory, rather than robbing God by not giving. Stealing is not merely stealing tangible property but is withholding thanksgiving and glorifying God. Therefore, stealing is not only sinning against others and ourselves but is most importantly sinning against God.
We may think of stealing from God as using the expression “give and take.” Because God’s “divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3a), the things that God has given are what he has purposed for us in this moment. Stealing then is taking something that God has not given to us. And if God has not given it to us, then we should not steal, nor covet, but be content. We must not take what God has not given.
Included in the “all things” that God has given us is that which pertains not only to life but also godliness. Consider what God has given for our eternal life: “For God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16 NASB). While the wages of our sin is death, “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). God has freely given what we cannot beg, borrow, or steal.
Today, in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we see visibly in sign and symbol, what God has given to us, and that which he gives we do not steal but receive: “Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matt. 26:26-28). Let us rejoice, as lawbreakers, in the one who fulfilled the Law and has given himself for us. Let us receive what he has given with thanksgiving and always for his glory.