“Fancy saying to God, the Lord God Almighty, Maker and Owner of the entire universe…
If you do your bit God I’ll give you a cut – how’s ten percent suit you!?”
Tithing, or the giving of exactly one tenth of one’s increase to God in some manner, is certainly found in the Bible. But, as always, as Christians, our question shouldn’t be solely “Is it in the Bible?” but rather, “Is it something that is intended to be a practice of this New Covenant era?” There are many things found in the Bible that have absolutely nothing to do with the age we now live in. For instance, in Leviticus, chapter 1, verses 14–17 we read an instruction of how to prepare a bird for a burnt offering. I personally do not doubt for one moment that this is a ‘biblical’ practice, so why don’t either you or I do it? Answer, because we understand that this was an instruction given to a particular group of people at a particular phase in God’s dealings with man but it has no place in this Covenant.
I do not wish to overlabour this topic so without further ado I will simply give a summary of the origin and development of ‘the tithe’ below. Afterward we can move on to look at much more relevant questions that concern the Spirit-born child of God living in the New Covenant era: “How should a Christian give?” & “Who should a Christian give to?” These will be considered in PARTS 2 and 3 of this article.
The first mention of tithing in the Bible comes in the book of Genesis (as do so many ‘first mentions’). The book of Genesis covers many centuries of human history and can itself be broken down into several distinct eras, but the most relevant point to our subject is simply this: it deals with a time before the Mosaic (Old) Covenant came into being. The first mention of tithing had nothing to do with any special ‘covenant’ (agreement) that God had made with anyone. It was an entirely spontaneous, willing gesture on the part of a godly man (Abraham), which came out of a pure desire to express his, love, devotion and thankfulness to God for a mighty deliverance.
“And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God. And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth: And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he gave him tithes of all.” (Gen 14:18-20)
No one told Abraham he had to do this or how much to give to Melchizedek. He decided himself that that was what he wanted to do. He never asked for anything in return or stated that he was making a new rule for his descendants. Whether or not Melchizedek even had any practical need of the offering is not mentioned. Being as he was ‘king’ as well as ‘priest’ of Salem I some how doubt it. It seems that ‘need’ was not the uppermost factor but rather Abraham did this simply because he wanted to express how thankful he was to the Lord.
The next mention
In stark contrast to Abraham’s spontaneous and generous gesture the next person who is mentioned in relation to the subject of tithing is Jacob. He had a very different approach to that of his grandfather Abraham.
“And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, So that I come again to my father’s house in peace; then shall the LORD be my God: And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.” (Gen 28:20 – 22)
What a cheek! Fancy saying to God, the Lord God Almighty, Maker and Owner of the entire universe… “If you do your bit God I’ll give you a cut – how’s ten percent suit you!?” Jacob may have been chosen and elect according to God’s purposes but that didn’t mean that he didn’t have an awful lot to learn about his Maker at this particular juncture of his life. Jacob, descendant of Abraham and Isaac, a man destined to become ‘Israel’, the embodiment of a nation, may well have set a precedent here. What we shall see next is that when God made a covenant with Israel (the nation) He insisted that they keep to the bargain made by their father.
Tithing becomes an established law in Israel
Following the establishment of the Mosaic covenant right through to the final book of the Old Testament there are many references to tithing. It was established by God as one of the commandments, along with many others, for the duration of the Old Covenant period.
“And all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land, or of the fruit of the tree, is the LORD’S: it is holy unto the LORD…. These are the commandments, which the LORD commanded Moses for the children of Israel in mount Sinai.” (Lev 27:30 & 34)
We know that at times the nation failed to fulfil its obligations in this, which resulted in God holding back His blessings to them (e.g. see Malachi 3:7-11). This certainly makes me think once again of Jacob’s ‘bargain’ with God. It seems that the Lord took it seriously.
Is it confirmed in the New?
The above is the briefest of surveys of the origins and development of tithing in the Bible. Now we come to the important question for Christians (not Old Covenant Jews) living in today’s age; are we expected to continue to tithe? The New Testament mentions the subject of tithing in just two contexts. I’ll refer to them both:
1. Mat 23:23 & Lu 11:42 – the same context
The above two references both relate to an occasion (probably the same occasion) when Jesus was upbraiding some religious hypocrites. The Pharisees and Scribes loved to pay close attention to all manner of little rules and observances in a pedantic way and yet at the same time they had bypassed things as important as justice, mercy and faith. Jesus didn’t tell them not to pay their tithes but that they should get things in perspective. The important thing that we must realise is that this was still the Old Covenant period. Never think that the gospel records are recounting a period in time that belongs to the New Covenant. The New Covenant hadn’t yet been made. The New Testament testifies that this covenant was made in Jesus’ blood and Jesus hadn’t at that time died. It was quite right for these folk to continue to observe the tithing laws (though I am not sure that they were intended to go as far as tithing from their kitchen herb garden!). Jesus Himself kept all the Law of Moses but we are not under that covenant and not under that law.
2. Heb 7:5 -9
The only other mention of ‘tithes’ and ‘tithing’ in the New Testament is a retrospective explanation, in the seventh chapter of the book of Hebrews, concerning things that belonged to the Old Covenant. I’ll leave you to read the passage but it is quite simply a teaching about priesthood and relates to Abraham, Melchizedek and the Levites. It has nothing at all to do with instructions to New Testament believers.
Hence, there is no ‘commandment’ to tithe in the New Testament, no example of any Christian tithing and the only mention of the subject is in the clear context of Old Covenant people and practices.
In summary thus far
- Abraham first gave a tithe offering as a spontaneous thank you to God.
- Jacob (who no doubt had heard of this occasion) decided to try to ‘strike a deal’ with God on this basis.
- God, when giving the Old Covenant law to Jacob’s descendants included tithing as a part of that covenant.
- Coming to the New Testament we do not find any command, or even hint, that this is what God is wanting from His people today.
Let not the reader think therefore that there is no expectation of Christians giving of their substance (in some manner) to God. The systematic offering of a given ‘percentage’ is indeed nowhere to be found in the pages of the New Testament but it none-the-less has plenty to say about the subject of ‘giving’. I don’t just mean our time, our efforts etc. it is clear that we are to give of our material goods, but we need to see what are the principles that govern New Testament Christian giving. This will be covered in PART 2
Go to PART 2 of this article: Should a Christian Tithe? ~ Principles of Christian Giving