As you know, the theme for the summer series of sermons is stewardship. For those of you who have attended each Sunday, you may have concluded that it is a subtle theme, especially if you were waiting to hear about giving money to the church. Well, tonight’s sermon is not subtle! We are going to look together at the biblical notion of tithing. We will explore three questions: What is a tithe? What is its purpose? Does tithing still apply today? Our passage from Deuteronomy lays the foundation for the answers.
What is a Tithe
Verse 22 presents the command to tithe: “You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year.” The word “tithe” means a tenth. The Israelite community was an agricultural community. Most men were farmers and herders, and it is understandable that the specific reference for tithing is produce and animals, which are also mentioned in verse 23.
Even so, it interesting that there is no command to tithe anything else. No instructions to merchants or builders or tailors to tithe their income. No instructions to tithe money. On the other hand, before the law was given by Moses, tithing was carried out which did involve income. Abraham tithed the spoils of the battle he fought to rescue Lot. Jacob, after his dream of the stairway from heaven, vowed to give back to God a “full tenth” of all that God gave him.
Considering these things, we can say that to tithe is to give a tenth of one’s income or what one uses to produce income. The farmer gives one tenth of his produce; the herdsman gives one tenth of his animals.
What is the Purpose of Tithing
What was done with these tithes? To whom were they given and for what purpose? Let’s go on with our passage in verse 23. “And before the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always.”
They ate the tithe! In fact, they had a party with it at the temple! Moses goes on in verses 24-25 to give instructions to those who lived far away and could not practically transport their full tithe of produce and animals. They could redeem the products with money, travel to Jerusalem, and then buy whatever they wanted to party with. Read with me verse 26: “and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household.”
I like this command! Maybe we should try this. We get together at the church once a year and have a big party. Do you think we could have wine and other fermented drink? As the verse says, “whatever your appetite craves.”
Before I go too far (and have the elders escort me off the pulpit), let me note a few particulars. This was a family event. The whole household was included. They couldn’t get too out of hand. Secondly, they had to invite guests who were clergy or involved in some kind of ministry work. Verse 27 says, “And you shall not neglect the Levite who is within your towns, for he has no portion or inheritance with you.” The Levites of today would be the clergy, the church support staff, missionaries, and ministry workers. Thirdly, they had to have the feasts at the temple. No private parties. Deuteronomy 12:17-18 make clear that the place of the celebration is not optional: “You may not eat within your towns the tithe of your grain or of your wine or of your oil, or the firstborn of your herd or of your flock, or any of your vow offerings that you vow, or your freewill offerings or the contribution that you present, but you shall eat them before the Lord your God in the place that the Lord your God will choose,” i.e. Jerusalem.
Now we are getting to the point of these feasts. Deuteronomy 12:7 explains what they were about: “And there you shall eat before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your households, in all that you undertake, in which the Lord your God has blessed you.” This was the Thanksgiving Day meal. The rejoicing was rejoicing in the blessings of the Lord, which sprung from the labor of their hands. Tithing, which was the product of their labor, testified to the blessing of God. It was a way of saying, “See how God has blessed me,” or more accurately, it was a way for God to say to his people, “See how I have blessed you. Rejoice in the blessings I have given you. Delight in them.”
The rejoicing in God’s blessings were also an acknowledgement that he alone was the provider. Go back to verse 23 to the phrase “that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always.” The farmers may have grown crops and the herders raised their sheep and goats out in the fields and countryside; the production may have occurred in the communities throughout the country, but it all came from the hand of the Lord whose presence was represented at the temple in Jerusalem. Therefore, his people were to make their pilgrimage in acknowledgement the all they had came from the Lord. That is what is involved in fearing the Lord.
So, the first purpose of the tithe we see here is that thankful joy may abound, acknowledging the Lord to be the Giver. There is another. It is the practical purpose of providing for the ministry of the Lord.
In Numbers 18:21 God says, “To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting.”
When the Israelites entered the Promised Land, land was apportioned to each of the tribes. Within each of those tribes, each family was allotted land, which they farmed and provided for themselves. The tribe of Levi, however, was given no land, and, thus, members of the tribe, the Levites, had no means to provide for themselves. Their jobs all had something to do with service for the temple. They may be priests; they may be temple musicians; they may be temple sextons. They lived throughout the land and would go to Jerusalem at appointed times to do their work. The tithes were the means by which they were supported. They, by the way, were instructed to tithe the tithes they received.
So, we have as a second purpose the support of the Lord’s ministry. The third purpose was to help the needy. Verses 28,29 read: “At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. 29 And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled…”
It appears that each third year, all of the tithes were reserved to provide for the ministry workers (the Levites) and the needy (foreigners who have no land inheritance, and orphans and widows who could not work the land). The yearly tithes would also be used for such support, but the third years were devoted to providing for the needs of others.
And then, there was a fourth reason, to be blessed. Verse 29 ends with the phrase, “that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.” Tithing was a means of receiving blessing. Remember the verse in Deuteronomy 12:7: “and you shall rejoice…in all that you undertake, in which the Lord your God has blessed you.” Because God has blessed your labor you give. Because you give, God will bless your labor. It is the same principle presented in Malachi 3:10 where God says, “’Bring the full tithes 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.’”
We have now answered two questions about tithing. First, what is it? It is giving a tenth to the Lord of what one produces or receives as income. Secondly, what purpose does it serve? It serves several purposes. One, it is a means to rejoice in the blessings of God and acknowledge him as Provider. Two, it is a means to support the ministry of the Lord. Three, it is a means to provide for the needy. Four, it is a means to receive further blessing from the Lord.
Does Tithing Still Apply
That is what the Old Testament presents about tithing. What does the New Testament tell us? Well, we learn that the Pharisees tithed hypocritically. In a moment of anger Jesus lashed out at the Pharisees for a number of hypocritical acts, the first one involving tithing. “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Luke 11:42).
Luke 18:12-14 records a parable Jesus told about a Pharisee and a tax collector who go to the temple to pray. The Pharisee’s prayer went like this: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” Jesus was criticizing the Pharisee for lack of humility.
There is one other reference to tithing found in Hebrews 7:4-10. The writer uses the occasion of Abraham giving his tithe to Melchizedek to demonstrate how great Melchizedek was. Here you have Abraham to whom the covenant promise was given tithing to a priest who was not of God’s covenant lineage.
That’s it. There are no other references. There is no instruction to tithe, no reference to it at all. To be sure, there is instruction about giving that cover the bases of tithing. 2 Corinthians 8 speaks to the joy that we should have in giving, especially in thanks for what we have received from Christ. 1 Corinthians 9 is an argument for why preachers of the gospel should be supported. The very office of deacon arose out of the early church’s need to provide for widows in an organized way. The church presumed that it was to help the needy among its people.
But there is no direct teaching to tithe, which leads to our third question, “Does tithing still apply today?” The answer is clearly “yes and no!”
It does not apply in the same way as the Old Testament. Giving ten percent to the Lord was a law. It does not carry that status in the New Testament. Jesus did not disparage tithing, even when making reference to the Pharisees. Yet, on the other hand, he did not instruct his disciples to tithe. In the passages that teach about giving, tithing is not even named, much less taught. There is no reference to an annual thanksgiving feast in any location. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine the first Christian, who were Jews, giving up the practice. If anything, the book of Acts shows the early Christians being more liberal in their giving than less. Even so, no standard of amount is ever given or taught. We are to be generous; we are to give as we prosper; we are to give joyfully. But no percentage is forthcoming.
Having said this, I exhort you to tithe. Let me explain why. We may not be commanded to tithe, but we cannot escape the benefits to God’s people through tithing.
One, tithing is a significant, solid method of providing for the Lord’s ministry and the needy through the church. I cannot think of a better method of supporting the church and its ministry. Many people give without a plan. If they are in church and remember to write a check or have some cash on hand, they give. Or they may have a fixed amount of what they should give weekly which seems about right to them, and probably amounts to two or three percent of their income, so studies of churches have reported.
Sometimes people are moved to give more. A dynamic speaker inspires them; a tearful speaker moves them; or a stern lecturer fills them with guilt. Something happens to tug on their hearts and the money comes forth. The problem with this method is that so much relies upon the skills of a good speaker. I think highly of our senior minister but he’s not a very good weeper. Our trustees will get time from time to report on the finances, but they are not into guilt lecturing. We bring in dynamic speakers for our conferences, but they get more caught up expounding on God’s greatness rather than how much God needs us. Until Tenth takes lessons from the churches and preachers on TV, we cannot expect more money through motivational speeches!
Another method among churches to encourage giving is pledging or faith promise. Whatever the variation, the principle is that you commit to a certain amount of dollars. Members are to “pray about” how much the Lord would have them give and then trust him to provide. The difficulty with the concept of giving is that it is not taught in Scripture, and it encourages people to make a vow, the very thing Scripture cautions us to be careful of.
By consistent tithing, the church is ably supported and you are able to give significantly. Ten percent is a lot of money. You know it is. Why else is it so difficult to give? Whether you are comparatively wealthy or poor, it is a big dent out of your funds. And it is a significant amount for the church. Let’s say you earn ten thousand dollars. You could give a thousand dollars. That’s a lot of money that can make a difference. Tithing allows you to give significantly.
The other reason for tithing is the blessing you receive. The better the tithe the better the party the tithers good afford at the temple. They benefited from their own tithe. So do we. We worship, fellowship, and receive spiritual care in the facilities our giving pay for. We have as good as what we are able to give.
I understand that what I just said sounds rather selfish. We are not here for ourselves but for God, and we should consider what more we could be doing for others if we didn’t spend so much on ourselves. That is all true, but we have got to admit, what Moses instructed the people to do with their tithes was extravagant. We could even say wasteful. To take their tithe and spend it on “whatever your appetite craves” borders on hedonism, wouldn’t you say? We can offend God by going overboard in spending on ourselves, but we can also offend him by discounting his bountiful gifts.
And there is the blessing of giving itself. I think most of us would agree that the more we give the more blessed we are. We are blessed by the very act itself. We feel good. If that is the case, the more we give the better we will feel. I know Christians who struggle to tithe, but I don’t know any who feel bad about tithing; whereas, many who do not tithe do feel bad that they are not putting more in the offering plate.
Furthermore, we will most likely reap reward. Remember the principle: Because God has blessed your labor you give. Because you give, God will bless your labor. It may seem self-serving, but in reality it is a principle we approve of. Proverbs 11:24 says, “One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.”
Again, if by tithing we give more, then all the more we can expect God’s blessing. This is not a hard-fast rule: I give x amount of dollars, I can expect x amount return on my investment. But for us to tithe, we to a degree have to sacrifice our own selfish desires and trust God to provide. Generally, God’s principle for himself in such instances is not merely to provide for such givers, but to bless.
Finally, it is a wonderful way to testify to the world our love for God and our faith in Christ. “See the joy and trust I have in my God.” I am encouraging you to tithe, not because it is a law – it is not – but because it is a joy to do so. Our neighbors need to see that. They need to see that we give liberally, because we give intentionally and with joy. To speak of being blessed by God and then to give no more than an unbeliever gives for the good of others belies our testimony.
We should demonstrate in this very practical way how rich we are in Christ. To borrow from 2 Corinthians 8:9, we need to be saying through our action, “See the grace of my Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for my sake became poor, so that I through his poverty might become rich. And in Christ I am rich indeed.”
(If you want to tithe, but you don’t know the practical steps of getting there, consider the help at Crown Ministries (www.crown.org). Tithing, you will quickly find out, is not about giving 10 percent of your money away. It forces you to think what you do with 100 percent of your money. Take stock of what your financial situation is and whether it is in line with how the Lord would have you as a steward of his money.)
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