The first time the Bible mentions tithing is the Abraham narrative. In this account, Abram gave a tenth of all his spoils to the mysterious Melchizedek, King of Salem (Gen 14:17–24). No law though is given. And afterward until the Exodus, we read of God’s people worshipping Him through offerings and sacrifices. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all made offerings to the Lord, even while no laws had yet been given on what was required. They made these offerings of worship by faith. Likewise, faith must be a driving principle behind our giving.
Later, in the Mosaic law, God gave the people of Israel special instructions for offerings, sacrifices, and tithes. Some offerings were associated with various feasts. There were also the offerings of the firstfruits, where the people were required to offer the first and best from their crops, from their children, and their flocks (Exo 22:29–30; 23:14–19). The law also required that the people should contribute to the construction and adornment of the Tabernacle (Exo 25ff). In Leviticus and Numbers, laws are added that required the people to give a tithe, or tenth part, of all they owned. By law, one could redeem, or purchase back, one’s tithe by paying an additional fifth (Lev 27:31) These tithes, in addition to being an act of worship, supported the Levitical priesthood, who sustained the sacrificial system in the temple. Very pointedly, the Lord charged the people with thievery for not bringing these tithes in to the temple (Mal 3:6–12). Overall, Old Covenant giving was required by law and demanded much more than 10% (since the tithe was but one of the required offerings), and was tied to the temple worship in the promised land.
Interestingly, tithing is rarely mentioned in the NT. Jesus mentions tithing only twice, and both times in negative examples. First, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for tithing even their herbs and yet neglecting the more important parts of the law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Jesus doesn’t reject tithing; rather he says that the Pharisees should have tithed and loved justice and mercy (Matt 23:23–4; Luke 11:42–44). Second, Jesus gives the bad example of a Pharisee who was proud of his external performances, like tithing and praying, but who did not understand true repentance (Luke 18:9–14). Beyond these words, tithing is only mentioned in chapter 7 of the book of Hebrews. The author of Hebrews understood the OT view of tithing, that is, that tithes were given to support the priesthood. Hebrews 7 is an important text for answering the question as to whether NT believers should continue tithing, as a religious practice. First, the author is arguing that the Melchizedek priesthood is greater than the Levitical priesthood. Second, the text agrees with the Old Covenant, showing that the tithes were tied to Levites’ priestly function to carry out the sacrificial system as part of Temple worship. Finally, and most importantly, the author argues that the higher priesthood of the Messiah, in the order of Melchizedek, brings about a change in the law, as it says in Heb 7:18–9 “For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.” All sacrifices and offerings cease with this new High Priest since he offered Himself once and for all (Heb 8–10)—Jesus’s death is all the sacrifice we’ll ever need. Thus, Old Covenant tithes and sacrifices have been fulfilled in the New Covenant. The sacrifices required by law were but a shadow of what came in Christ. In Christ, our giving is freed from law!
- Some people still find tithing to be practical, that is, ten percent is an easy number, and yet also challenging to maintain. Jesus never condemned it, though He condemned the legalism of the pharisees. Do you still tithe? If so, how do you think about it?
- If the Old Covenant is fulfilled in Christ, what other NT principles should drive the way in which Christians obey through our giving?
- What ways are you practicing justice, mercy, and faithfulness, as commended by Jesus?