Giving: Old Covenant Precedent and New Covenant Practice

Author: Dr. Mark Hahlen

Every group has its own lingo, vocabulary, and practices.  A term commonly used among believers but which rarely surfaces outside of church settings is “tithe,” used as a verb to designate giving to a local congregation or as a noun to designate the gift itself.  The strangeness of the term begs the question, “What is it?,” and its common use in the phrase “tithes and offerings” elicits a companion question, “What’s the difference between one’s tithe and that person’s offering?” Beyond these questions is yet another: Is the tithe an obligation for followers of Christ?   

The term “tithe” (Hebrew, ma’aser) means “tenth” and refers to one-tenth of a person’s agricultural or monetary goods, offered to God. The first explicit Old Testament record of a worshiper of God giving a tithe appears in Genesis 14 when Abraham gives a tithe to Melchizedek, priest of the Most High God (vss. 18-20) upon his victorious return from battling a coalition of Mesopotamian kings.  He tithed from the spoils in an act of thanksgiving acknowledging God as He who enabled him to conquer the kings and to rescue his nephew Lot, Lot’s family, and those who had been earlier taken captive from the cities of the plain. Many years later, Jacob vowed to give a tenth to Yahweh (Genesis 28:20-22).

Within the Law given to Israel through Moses, a tenth of Israel’s annual produce belonged to Yahweh and was set apart for Him (Leviticus 27:30-32). This command was based on the prior principle that the land belongs exclusively to Yahweh, and he had given it to Israel (Lev 25:23). Thus, Israel was considered a tenant on Yahweh’s land, and all the wealth the land produced rightly belonged to Yahweh. All material prosperity that the individual, family, or nation possessed was Yahweh’s gift and not solely the product of human strength and cunning (Deuteronomy 8:17-18). The tithe was thus “an expression of thankfulness for the blessings that God had given [Israel] in the land. The increase of grains, vineyards, flocks and herds was a witness to God’s largesse and a consequence of His love for them...When the people brought the tithe, they acknowledged that God owned everything and was graciously allowing them nine-tenths of the produce” (Gary Hall, College Press NIV Commentary: Deuteronomy, 245-246).

A substantial portion of this tithe of agricultural products would, of course, have been consumed within the flames of the old covenant’s sacrificial system.  The remainder went to support the Levites and priests in their sacred work, but even that group was required to offer Yahweh a tenth of what they themselves had received (Numbers 18:25-32).   The Law also speaks of a triennial tithe whose primary beneficiary were the fatherless, the widow, the foreigner, and the sojourner in the land, in addition to the Levites (Deut 14:28-29; 26:12).  

The Hebrew term teruma, often translated “offering” or “contribution” in the Old Testament, appears to have been used in one of two ways in distinction from the tithe. It was first used for those portions of sacrifices that were set aside for the priests (Exodus 29:27-28; Lev 7:32-33; Num 18:8, 11). Beyond that, the term designates special gifts offered beyond but often alongside the tithe (Deut 12:6; Nehemiah 12:44; Malachi 3:8). We, too, in contemporary discussion of giving make this same distinction.  The tithe refers to a tenth of our income offered to the service of Christ and His church, while “offerings” refers to gifts above and beyond the tithe presented to further the Lord’s work.  

That late in the Old Testament period, the prophet Malachi could levy an accusation against Israel that she was robbing Yahweh in the tithes and offerings (Mal 3:8) indicates that the people had rejected Yahweh as the nation’s benevolent provider (Deut 6:10-12; 8:11-16).  Moreover, the testimony of one of the governors of that time, Nehemiah, indicates that Israel’s failure to bring their tithes and offerings had resulted in the Levites and singers being forced to neglect their ministries in order to work in the fields to provide for themselves and their families (Neh 13:10-13).

In Malachi 3:10, the prophet employs the messenger formula “says the Lord of hosts” to make more solemn his charge issued to the nation to test Yahweh in the tithe. If the people would bring the “full tithe” into the storeroom, Yahweh would throw open heaven’s floodgates and pour out an abundant blessing.

Although the Lord indeed called upon Israel to test Him in the tithe, it is inappropriate to use the promise of Malachi 3:10 as some sort of “investment strategy” in which one obligates God to increase material prosperity in response to the payment of tithes. First, the promise was made to the nation as a whole, not to individuals. Second, the treatment of the promise as a means toward gaining wealth reverses the principles upon which the tithing laws were given. The Hebrew people were to tithe in response to what Yahweh had already provided, not to coerce or ensure provision. The tithe is not a bargaining chip with God in which we offer to God something He needs so that He will give us something we need or want. To treat the Lord in that way would be to treat our relationship with Him like that of a consumer and an auto dealer, rather than that of Creator with creation or of Redeemer with the redeemed. Third, the promise of abundant provision described by Malachi represented only a restatement of the promises God had already given to Israel in anticipation of their entrance into Canaan (Deut 28:4-12; 30:9). In this way, the promise was merely a reminder that Yahweh provided Israel with what it needs. Fourth, the promise is less a guarantee of prosperity than it is an assurance that the one who trusts Yahweh with the tithe is also able to trust Yahweh for provision.

What are those who live under the new covenant to make of the Old Testament commands and statements regarding the tithe?  Do tithe texts have no bearing whatsoever on contemporary believers in Christ because “we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:6, NIV)?  While the New Testament does not renew the tithe command in as many words, it nevertheless reflects key principles found within the tithing laws of the Old Testament. First, giving acknowledges that the believer is a steward of God’s possessions (Matthew 6:25-34; Acts 17:25; 1 Timothy 6:17). Second, giving generously on the basis of faith in God results in God’s provision of all that the giver needs (2 Corinthians 9:6-11). Third, giving should be proportionate in keeping with one’s means (Acts 11:27-30; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2; 2 Cor 8:11-12).  Fourth, giving shows concern for the poor or those in need (Acts 4:34–35; 11:27–30; Rom 12:13; 15:26–27; Gal 2:10; 2 Cor 9:12–13; Ephesians 4:28) and for the provision for those who minister to the church (1 Timothy 5:17–18). Fifth, giving results in “many expressions of thanks to God” (2 Cor 9:12–13), just as tithing in the Old Testament resulted in the satisfaction of those in need (Deut 14:28–29). Since New Testament texts contain these parallels to principles in the Old Testament tithing laws and since tithing existed as a pattern for giving even before the Mosaic law was given (Gen 14:20; 28:20-22), one may consider the tithe or tenth a reasonable initial guideline for giving for new covenant believers, even though voluntary generosity is emphasized in the New Testament, and no exact minimal requirements are articulated. In His discourse on the fulfillment of the law within the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17-6:18), Jesus contrasted life under the law with life in the kingdom. In doing so, He invariably called citizens of the kingdom to a higher standard. Generous giving should be the natural response of Christians for they are responding to God’s greatest gift, the crucified and resurrected Jesus and to the salvation that comes through the Lord’s Christ.

Guest Author: Dr. Mark Hahlen. Dr. Hahlen is an elder, small group leader, and “teacher at large” with Valley View Christian Church. He is also the chair of the Bible Department of Dallas Christian College and does supply preaching in churches throughout Texas and Oklahoma. His wife, Brenda, is a teacher in preView and is active in Valley View’s women’s ministry.

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