Sunday Morning Sermon — Exodus 20:15, You Shall Not Steal

17 Jun

Exodus 20:15 “You shall not steal.”

When I was in Haiti back in January, I noticed that everywhere we saw the presence of bars and walls. Even the mission we worked at had a tall wall around it and a guard at the gate. When we arrived in the capital, Port Au Prince, and got off the plane into a van to go to where we were working, I noticed in front of a place that sold cars a guard armed with an assault rifle right next to the entrance to the store. Houses had walls with barbed wire or pieces of glass running along the top. All through Haiti there were these visible signs of a fear of theft. I have noticed this same walls and bars approach in other places around the world too.

In America, it used to be somewhat different. I remember even as a child growing up in Charlotte that we didn’t think much about leaving our doors unlocked or leaving our stuff out. And then one day, it happened. In those days, my brothers and I would come home from school and were home alone until my dad got home from work about 4 o’clock. I will never forget arriving home one day when I was about 10 years old and walking toward my front door to see the glass in the door broken in. I stood there frozen for a minute, listening for anybody inside. My brother came to the front door and explained that somebody had broken into our house while we were all gone. They stole a jar full of change and not much else but that event left a mark on me for a while. I no longer felt safe in my own home. A few years later I remember a time when someone stole a lot of garden tools and a tiller off our front patio. I remember my dad on the phone with the police reporting all that had been stolen. Theft was a becoming a reality for us in Charlotte and I think it has just gotten worse in the years since I lived there.

But you know its even pretty bad in a little town like Hickory. When I hear the crime report on the local radio, it is very often centered on a car stolen here or a house break-in there. When I visit people in the church in their homes I sometimes hear comments about home break-ins at other homes nearby. Stealing is going on everywhere. And it’s going on at a higher level in our culture as well. Government and big business also see their share of theft and corruption.

Yet I find with this particular sin that it is always something somebody else is doing. It is interesting to contrast this commandment with the last one about adultery. Sexual sin in our culture seems on one level to be much more acceptable than theft. Almost all of us will admit to being adulterers at heart at least sometimes but very few of us will admit to being thieves at heart. Most of us think that theft is something “those people” do. We think it is something that the so-called “riff-raff” of society does. Stealing is something for low-lifes while lust or even sexual acting out is an expression of personality or a natural desire to sow one’s oats. So in a strange way we have watered down sexual sin by saying everybody struggles with it while we have separated ourselves from stealing, claiming it is a sin for the desperate but not for upstanding people like us. We have in this a perfect illustration of how our wicked hearts rationalize sin. We either say “it is no big deal because everybody does it” or we say “it is no big deal because only the real sinners do it.” We clear ourselves either by lumping the whole human race in with us in our sin or we clear ourselves by claiming to be above it all.

But when we really begin to look at this commandment, it becomes clear that stealing is not something that is confined only to the lowest rungs of society. Thieves often wear nice suits and rule in the halls of power. Thieves are often in church on Sunday morning. Thieves often have great families and seem to be upstanding citizens. As with all the other commandments, the commandment about stealing goes much deeper than we think. Unlike the other commandments, my sense is that most of us think of ourselves as pretty much innocent of breaking this one. But I think as we look at what the Bible says this morning we may come to a different conclusion, one which I hope will make us thankful for grace and committed to living with integrity as we trust in the power God has given us through the Holy Spirit because we have trusted in Jesus.

As with the other commandments, we’ll be looking today at what the Bible says about this commandment and then we’ll finish by looking at several ways we can apply this commandment to our lives.

THE BIBLICAL TEACHING ABOUT STEALING
The first thing I notice about this command in Exodus is that it is very brief and very general. Just like the commands about murder and adultery, this sentence is made up of only two words in Hebrew, the original language of the Old Testament. We aren’t given any specifics about what we can’t steal or from whom or why. We are just given a blanket statement, “you shall not steal.” When we talked about the commandment about murder, we noted that the word for murder was very specific in Hebrew. It didn’t refer to warfare or capital punishment or self-defense or the killing of an animal. The Hebrew word ratsah referred specifically to murder or killing by negligence. But here in the verse about stealing, we find a very general word that is used often in the Old Testament and refers to all kinds of different stealing. So this commandment is meant to be broad in its application. “You shall not steal.” Nowhere, never, nothing. Don’t steal. It’s a done deal.

But the question here is, why is this one of the ten commandments? I mean, we have seen obviously that the first four commandments relate to the right worship of God and so it is right that they be among His most important laws for us. And we have seen that honoring our parents is foundational to the health of society and reflects our reverence for God, so that one makes sense. With murder, we see that to take the life of one made in the image of God is an affront to God. With adultery, we saw how breaking up a marital union through infidelity was devastating to the society and is destructive of marriage, God’s great gift to us which reflects His own relationship with us. But why stealing? Some people would say, “what’s wrong with it?” You know, “finders-keepers” and all that. If you were lazy enough to leave it out then I have no problem taking it. So why is this in the Ten Commandments? I think there are three reasons. First, it is the violation of a person made in the image of God. When you take the property of another person, you are bringing harm to one who is made in God’s image, who is the very pinnacle of God’s creation. Second, when we steal we destroy society because we create a culture full of distrust and fear. But most of all, stealing is such a significant sin because it is a failure to trust in God’s ability to provide for you. So stealing is a failure to worship God rightly and a failure to love your neighbor rightly. This makes it a very serious thing.
So what does the rest of the Old Testament say about stealing?

The key word is respect. We should have respect for the property of others as a way to express love for our neighbor. When this respect is violated, God gives a punishment. Last week we said that other ancient cultures during the time the Ten Commandments were given also had strong laws against adultery. In this case ancient cultures also had laws against theft but they tended to be more harsh with their penalties than God was with Israel. There is only one law in the Old Testament where the one who steals is put to death. Usually they are just to pay restitution. We’ll get into the reasons for this difference in a moment.

There are several passages about theft in the next chapters of Exodus. Chapter 22, verse 1, forbids stealing animals from others. If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox and four sheep for the sheep. And so the law forbids the stealing of livestock animals. These animals were people’s livelihood. And the restitution was based on the value of the animal.

In Exodus 22:2 we see that God’s law permitted the Israelite to defend his property. If a burglar came in at night to your house, you could kill him and not be guilty of murder. He was taking his life into his own hands by coming into your house. Exodus 22:3, “If a thief is caught while breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there will be no blood guiltiness on his account.”

In Exodus 22, verses 5 and 6, the law commanded restitution when our negligence caused another person to lose property. So when an animal got loose in a neighbor’s vineyard, the owner of the animal was responsible to pay damages to the neighbor.

In the book of Leviticus, chapter 6 verses 2 through 7 we see that if a person steals and is caught they have to pay back all they have stolen plus 20% and must also offer a guilt offering to the Lord.
We also see in Leviticus 19, verse 13 a command to be fair that is put in the terms of stealing. “You shall not oppress your neighbor nor rob him. The wages of a hired man are not to remain with you all night until morning.” So here the idea is that people are to be paid in a timely fashion. We shouldn’t hold wages over a person for leverage.
The last verse in the Old Testament I want to highlight is Exodus 21:16. It says, “He who kidnaps a man whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.” So here we have something very interesting. All along the penalty has been restitution, restitution, restitution, pay it back and then some if you stole it. But here the penalty is death. Why? Because you have kidnapped a person, stolen one made in the image of God. So the penalty is death. The gravity of taking a person is greater than taking a thing. Taking a thing is still a sin, one serious enough to be included in the Ten Commandments, but taking a person is on a whole different level.
So the Old Testament says we have a right to own property but that we should not go beyond what God has given to us in a way that defrauds or takes from our neighbor. So the basic command to love our neighbor is the positive way to avoid stealing.

As with the other commands, the New Testament doesn’t contradict the Old Testament commands but expands on the meaning of the command. The New Testament makes it clear that stealing is a reality in the ancient world but it sees stealing as hypocrisy. In other words, it goes against our profession of faith in Christ and reveals instead a wicked heart. Being a thief is a terrible witness to the world. We don’t let our light shine by cheating people and taking things that don’t belong to us.

Turning away from theft is a sign that we have repented. In Luke 3:14, John the Baptist in his preaching, when asked by the soldiers how they could show that they had repented, said, “Don’t extort money from the people anymore and be content with your pay.”

In Ephesians 4:28 Paul says, “He who steals must steal no longer, but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good so that he will have something to share with the one who has need.” When we were lost, stealing was natural to us, but in Christ, we must turn away from it. Paul gives a similar challenge in Titus 2:8-10, where he counsels slaves to not steal from their masters in order that they might be a good witness to their masters. Now this verse rules out all stealing because if there is anyone who might feel justified in stealing it would be a slave. But even the slave is not to steal.

Paul 1 Corinthians 6:10 says “thieves and covetous and drunkards and revilers and swindlers will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Again, some may think that is harsh but it is just like adultery. If you are a thief, if you are cheating people, if you are covetous, what you are showing is that things are your god. And if things are your god then God is not your God, because no one can serve two masters. So those who give themselves to thievery will be lost just as those who give themselves to lust or pride or any other false god. But remember what Paul says next in 1 Corinthians 6, “Such were some of you, but not anymore. You’ve been changed by the power of Christ, you are a new creation.”

The New Testament also expands on the Old Testament by pointing to spiritual thievery as a reality with which we must deal. Jesus accused the Pharisees of robbing widow’s houses. Through their teaching and influence they were taking away the livelihood of widows, pressuring them to give beyond their means. This was a kind of spiritual thievery Jesus strongly condemned. In addition, in John 10, Jesus compared false teachers to thieves, saying that those who teach another way of salvation are like thieves, stealing souls from the truth.

So the New Testament broadens the meaning of the commandment by calling all Christians, as a matter of their testimony and their assurance of salvation, to not steal. Instead, the New Testament urges us to uphold two qualities: hard work and contentment. Both these qualities glorify God and show the world that our treasure is in Him. This is at the heart of what Paul was saying in Philippians 4, Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

And one of my favorite passages on this topic is Hebrews 13:5-6 Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” 6 So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” What a passage!

And of course, the granddaddy of them all is Matthew 6:19-21, where Jesus says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

So these passages get to the heart of the matter. A Christian is not to be money-obsessed. A Christian is to be focused on hard work and contentment. A Christian is to be focused on eternal rather than earthly treasure. These attitudes will keep us far from a heart that would consider stealing.

So now that we’ve seen something of the biblical truth about this commandment, let’s finish with considering how this commandment applies to us.
First, let me say that this commandment is an equal opportunity destroyer. Rich people can be money-obsessed, poor people can be money-obsessed, everybody in between can be money-obsessed. This is especially true in a culture like ours that measures so much of our worth as human beings by how much money we make. It is the obsession with things rather than God that leads to a thieving heart. Thievery is not a problem only for the poor. Remember Enron? Remember Bernard Madoff? Thievery runs across every sector of society.

Second, thievery takes many forms. How many of you who are students have made a habit of cheating in school? If you are stealing answers you are stealing. If you are giving answers you are an accomplice to theft. If you are cheating in school, most of all you are cheating yourself by failing to learn the things you need to learn.

How many of you have defrauded others in business? Philip Ryken in his commentary on Exodus tells the story of a famous Norman Rockwell painting of a woman buying a turkey from a butcher and the butcher is weighing it out on an old-fashioned scale. And they are both looking at each other and smiling pleasantly but if you look closely at the picture the butcher is secretly pushing down on the scale with his thumb and the lady is secretly pushing up on the scale with her forefinger. Do you ever cheat in business? That is theft. The problem with cheating in business is that you often get applauded for it. Many people will call you shrewd and wise if you cut corners and cheat a little here and there. But God calls it sin.

Here’s one that I really came to terms with in studying this week. I have come to believe that the lottery is a violation of this commandment. I haven’t preached against the lottery and I’ve always kind of wondered about it. My suspicion is that a lot of preachers rail against the lottery because they don’t want their church member’s tithe money to go to the lottery but that is an unloving assumption on my part. But what I’ve come to terms with this week is that the lottery violates the basic principle of neighbor love that is wrapped up in this commandment. When I play the lottery, someone wins and millions of people lose. The pot only gets to 300 million dollars through the donations of people. The lottery company isn’t fronting that money. They’re actually skimming a good bit off the top. Millions of dollars are going to be won by one person, but those dollars came from our neighbors. If we win, everybody else loses. In gambling, for one person to do well, thousands must lose. I don’t see how this can fit in with the idea that we are to love our neighbor. You might say, well, it’s their choice and that is true. But if it was their choice to spend their paycheck getting drunk every night I wouldn’t join them and I wouldn’t make sure their glass was full. That would not be love. I urge you for this reason not to play the lottery. And of course, we all know that gambling preys on the poorest among us, promising them in their desperation a great windfall. But God is so clear in His word that we should not take advantage of the poor and yet we all know people who can’t afford it going day after day, year after year to buy lottery tickets and never hitting the jackpot.

Another way to apply this command is to think about how we treat others who serve us. Do you leave a tip at the restaurant? If you are a business leader, do you treat your employees fairly and give them a living wage?

Do you steal through simple selfishness? Do you say of people who come to the Food Ministry, “Those people are just trash. I’m not going to give anything for that” while all the while you spend lavishly on yourself? Is your attitude, “What’s mine is mine?” If it is, you have an idolatrous heart. The true saying is, “What’s mine is God’s.” When we realize that everything we have is because of Him, then we will be in the right frame of mind about possessions and avoid violating this commandment. You are where you are because God enabled it by arranging the circumstances of your life. It is not because you are just a cut above all other people. Your health, your ingenuity, your hard work, if you had good circumstances in your upbringing, every one of those things is God’s gift to you.

And finally, do you steal from God? You remember Malachi 3? “Will a man rob God? Yes, by tithes and offerings.” In a sermon by Ligon Duncan he related a story from Paul Harvey about a lady who dug a turkey out of her freezer that had been in there for 23 years. She called up the Butterball Turkey hotline. She wanted to know whether that turkey is still edible after 23 years. Well, the butterball turkey hotline man had the answer. If it had been at zero degrees for 23 years, yes it was safe and edible, but it would taste like cardboard. Throw it away. Her response, “Good, that’s what I thought. We’ll give it to the church.”

I wonder if that isn’t our attitude toward giving to the Lord? If I have some leftovers that I don’t really want, OK, but otherwise, what’s mine is mine. I hear people talk sometimes and they say, “well I don’t have any money so I’ll just give my time.” But I’ve got to say a lot of times that’s a cop out that shows I am too fearful to trust God or too wrapped up in the love of money to give. Some of you may say, well, that’s Old Testament, that’s Malachi, we are not under the law. And I say, yes, you’re right. There isn’t a verse about tithing in the New Testament. But there are lots of verses about giving. And it seems to me that when it comes to God’s commands, the New Testament standard is always higher than the Old Testament standard because we have the finished work of Jesus and the indwelling Holy Spirit to lean on for strength to follow God. So I think 10% is really the minimum we ought to give to the Lord’s work. We should give much more if we are able. And you don’t have to give all that to your local church. You can give to our missions partners or to the food ministry or to the Pregnancy Care Center or to other gospel-based helping ministries. You can set aside a little all year and give to Lottie Moon in December, where every penny will go to foreign missions. I would urge you not to give too much to television ministries. In many cases, most of what you are giving there is going either to buy airtime or to line the pockets of the preacher. I think the best investment of our giving is to invest locally for the building up of the local church body and ministry to our community and to invest internationally in those ministries which are taking the gospel to those who have never heard. Generous giving in those avenues can do great good for God’s kingdom.

This morning, I can’t know your heart. So I just ask you as we close to ask God to search your heart and reveal to you whether any of these things are true of you. My opinions are not the issue. What does God say? What does God really say? I’ve tried to show you that today. Now it is up to you whether you will rebel against His word or receive it.

The problem of stealing, as with the other commandments, is a problem of the heart. The only solution to the problem of the heart is a new heart through faith in Jesus Christ. His death on the cross forgives you of your sin and gives you His righteousness in the sight of God. His resurrection gives you eternal life. His Holy Spirit dwells in you to convict you and change you. Today, if you are feeling uneasy about the things we have talked about, the Holy Spirit may be speaking to you, calling you to good changes. Don’t resist His work.

Do you remember when Jesus was crucified, He wasn’t crucified alone was He? You know who was crucified with Him? Two thieves. One on each side of Him. And one of them resisted Jesus and railed on Him all along, and the other saw his own sin and knew he was guilty. “We have sinned all our lives, but this man has done nothing wrong. Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Jesus saved a poor thief in the final hour and He can save you. God loves to save thieving, lustful, prideful, murderous hearts and change them over time to make them like Jesus. Will you turn away from the theft in your life today in whatever form it takes and find all your contentment and joy in God, laying up treasures in heaven and not on earth?

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