Tithing: The Spirit and the Law

John 2:13-22

There was shouting, cattle and sheep bolted, birds lost feathers, table tops whacked against stone, then came the tinkle of coins showering the floor. John gasped, what was Jesus doing? Those were tithes and offerings bolting out the door! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market” he shouted! John’s eyes were wide with horror; it did look like a market. Passover had always been a good time to bring the seasonal tithe; and everyone knew the temple priests made a nice profit from that and the Passover lambs; but no one had the guts to say so…till now. The money changers looked at their overturned tables. They didn’t know what to think. Some were worried, others were angry. A few asked, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” John was confused by this quick reply, but after the resurrection he realized Jesus had been speaking about his body. The resurrection of his body on the third day paved the way for a new temple of the Holy Spirit – the church. If Jesus had the power to change the temple he had the authority to clear it. This was a sign. The Messiah had come. The old temple system with its tithes, offerings and sacrifices would soon be over. The new age of the Holy Spirit was beginning.
This post is about tithing. Should Christians tithe? Is it an obsolete Jewish law? Is there a New Testament version? Much of what I will say is an encouragement to pastors – those needing the finances. But there is also a lot for the givers. I hope to show that the law of tithing is over, but the spirit of tithing has just begun. Let’s start with a brief look at tithing in the Old Testament.

A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the LORD…If a man redeems any of his tithe, he must add a fifth of the value to it. The entire tithe of the herd and flock – every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s rod – will be holy to the LORD” (Lev 27:30-32).
The word tithe means tenth. A tenth of Israel’s grain, fruit, herds, and flocks belonged to the Lord. It was holy meaning ‘set apart.’ Israelites living too far from Jerusalem to travel with grain or animals could convert their tenth into cash (redeemed it) and offer that with a purchased sacrifice at the temple.
Then to the place the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name – there you are to bring everything I command you: your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts…And there rejoice before the LORD your God” (Dt 12:11-12).
Tithes were brought to the temple as a type of offering. It was a form of worship; acknowledging God as provider of Israel’s crops and herds. It was done in joyful expectation of God’s continued blessing.
I give to the Levites all the tithes in Israel as their inheritance in return for the work they do while serving at the Tent of Meeting…They will receive no inheritance among the Israelites. Instead, I give to the Levites as their inheritance the tithes that the Israelites present as an offering to the LORD” (Nu 18:21-24).
The tithes were used for the upkeep of the Levites and possibly some aspects of the temple. The Levites were the Israelite tribe set apart to work in the temple fulltime. They were not given an inheritance of land like the other tribes so they could not farm. They were to be devoted to temple and the tithes were to provide their livelihood.
He ordered the people living in Jerusalem to give the portion due the priests and Levites so they could devote themselves to the Law of the LORD. As soon as the order went out, the Israelites generously gave the firstfruits of their grain, new wine, oil and honey and all that the fields produced. They brought a great amount, a tithe of everything.” (2 Chr 31:4-5).
The Levites (priests were a group within the Levites) were supported by tithes so that they could be devoted to ‘the Law of the Lord’. The ‘firstfruits’ was the first tenth of the harvest.
I also learned that the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them, and that all the Levites and singers responsible for the service had gone back to their own fields. So I rebuked the officials and asked them, “Why is the house of God neglected?” Then I called them together and stationed them at their posts. All Judah brought the tithes of grain, new wine and oil into the storerooms” (Neh 13:10-12).
The Israelites sometimes neglected tithing which caused the Levites to leave their work at the temple, purchase fields and start earning a livelihood. This had to be corrected.
There were also times when the Israelites had to be rebuked for withholding some of the tithes:
“Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, ‘How do we rob you?’ In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse – the whole nation of you – because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it”(Mal 3:8-10).
The rebuke is followed with a challenge; God actually invites Israel to test him. If they will bring their whole tithe he will bless them with more than they can contain. We cannot out give God!
In summary; tithing had two main purposes in the Old Testament. First it was God’s way to get Israel to remember that He was their Provider. Second it was God’s way to provide a livelihood for fulltime ministers. And attached to both was the promise of blessing and abundance. Now let’s look at how these ideas affected New Testament believers.

The New Testament church did not refer to its giving as ‘tithing’ because in its day this term still applied to the sacrificial system at the temple in Jerusalem. For them tithing was a temple regulation that involved the offering of grain, fruit, cattle and sheep on an altar. And they considered all these temple sacrifices to have been fulfilled in Christ’s death and resurrection. However, and this is key, the New Testament church did draw on the principles of temple tithing as a model for the support of fulltime ministers and other church needs:
Don’t you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel” (1 Co 9:13-14).
Paul is talking about the Levites who get their food from the tithes laid on the altar at the temple. He is saying that fulltime ministers of Christ should get their livelihood from the gospel ‘in the same way’ as the Levites got theirs from the temple. He says this is the ‘command’ of the Lord. Why is a command from the Lord necessary? Because ministers of Christ must be as devoted to the ministry of the gospel as the Levites were to the ministry of the temple. Often pastors today have had to abandon fulltime ministry and find employment because church members neglected to support them.
The context of 1 Corinthians 9 is money, not animal sacrifices. Paul is answering a few of the Corinthians who are wondering where he gets his money and are questioning his motives for preaching. Paul generated his own income through tent making, but claimed gospel preachers had the right to financial support from the churches:
This is my defence to those who sit in judgment on me. Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas (Peter)? Or is it only I and Barnabas who must work for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk?..If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?” (1 Co 9:3-12).
Paul and Barnabas had a travelling ministry and often had to stop to generate income before they could continue. At times this may have become a distraction to their mission. He points out that the ‘other apostles’ were supported and could even afford to travel with their wives. He says that spiritual work is deserving of a material reward. He considers financial support a ‘right’ of the fulltime minister. Many years later Paul encourages a young pastor called Timothy saying:
The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages” (1 Ti 5:17-18).
Timothy, must have asked Paul about financial support for pastors (the elders who direct). Paul encourages Timothy saying pastors are worthy of their pay. In fact they should be paid well; even double; for they are workers deserving a wage.
Paul makes another connection between Christian giving and temple tithing when he thanks the Philippians for their ongoing support while he is in prison:
“I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God” (Phil 4.18).
The Jewish believer’s of Paul’s day would have understood the implications of what Paul was saying immediately. Supporting someone like Paul was the New Testament equivalent of supporting the temple and its Levites with offerings and sacrifices.
Another tithing principle emerges when Paul advises the Corinthians on a collection being taken to assist the church in Jerusalem. Paul says:
Now about the collection for God’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week (a Sunday), each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem. (1 Co 16:1-3).
Paul tells the Corinthians to give ‘in keeping with their income.’ This is a tithing principle. But what proportion did he have in mind? Well, he does not say. But the idea of taking contributions to Jerusalem was nothing new; and the percentage a Jew was likely to envisage for that trip was a tenth.
Later Paul gives the Corinthians more insight into the heart of giving:
“Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Co 9:6-7).
Paul does not want the Corinthians to give under the compulsion of a law; he wants each person to decide in their heart how much they will give. But they are to give generously, believing that if they sow sparingly they would reap sparingly, and if they sow generously they would reap generously.
So for New Testament believers the tenth was not a law, but it was likely that it acted as a helpful standard. It was not that they had to give a tenth, but that they ought to give a tenth. And because it was what they ought to do rather than what they had to do, it was not policed by church leaders. God alone knew what each believer gave and rewarded them accordingly.
In summary; the New Testament church believed in giving as an act of worship, it encouraged generous support for fulltime ministers, it believed in giving in proportion to income, and it had a general understanding of what was sparing and what was generous. This shows that although the law of tithing did not continue into the New Testament, many of the principles and ideas behind tithing did. Now for the most important part; let’s talk about the Spirit of tithing.

“The Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn 1.17)
Grace is often described as ‘unmerited favour.’ As a result people associate it with God’s forgiveness; but it should also be understood as God’s empowerment. God’s favour forgives and empowers. Moses gave the Law which judges, but Jesus gave the Spirit which empowers; it gives us the grace to do all the Law requires…and more.
Turning ceremonial water into a vibrant and powerful wine was a graphic demonstration of Jesus transforming the ritualistic observance of the Law into an explosive life fuelled by the Holy Spirit. After the Spirit was poured out at Pentecost we see the Church driven time and again in great acts of giving.
“With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace (enabling) was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostle’s feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need” (Ac 4.33-35).
This grace continued wherever believers were full of the Holy Spirit. Paul tells how it happened again in Macedonia:
“We want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints” (2 Co 8.1-4).
The Macedonian churches found a desire within them propelling them to give to the cause of the gospel. They found God’s laws were written on their hearts by the Spirit (2 Co 3.3). No one had to pressurise them into giving; they gave generously even though they were poor.
There is no longer a law of tithing, but there is a Spirit of tithing. The same Holy Spirit who inspired Moses’ Law is now within us, and He calls us to give generously towards the work of the kingdom. Old Testament water has been turned into New Testament wine. The water is bland but the wine is tasty and powerful. Let us never think again of tithing as a burden upon us, because it is now a power within us. “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Co 3.6).

Other Illustrations: A necklace in the offering

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