Pastoral Notes for Sunday, March 17, 2019

After last week’s message, someone asked me such a great question that I thought it worth answering publicly, so that the rest of you can overhear. The question was this:

“After receiving the vision of the stairway from heaven and the promises of God, Jacob responds by saying, “And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to the Lord” (Genesis 28:22). Is this where we get the idea of a tithe?”

It’s a great question. The answer is yes and no. The answer is no in the sense that we’ve already witnessed tithing with Abram in Genesis 14. After the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the eastern kings, Melchizedek, King of Salem, blesses Abram and, as an act of homage, Abram gave to him a tenth of everything he had (Genesis 14:20). But the answer is yes in the sense that the idea or principle of a tithe is derived foundationally from Genesis 14 and 28.

It is interesting, however, that in the same way Abram received a blessing and then responded by giving a tenth of all he had (Gen. 14:20), Jacob too received a blessing from God and responded by pledging a tenth of all he had (Gen. 28:22). In both instances, the same pattern is followed, and the pattern illustrates a fundamental principle in giving—that we give generously to God in response to His generous giving (blessing) to us. In other words, we don’t give to get blessed, as if we could earn God’s favor through giving. (Sadly, we hear that line of reasoning too often from prosperity gospel preachers). Rather, we give from blessing. From the overflow of God’s generosity, we are generous!

Now, at this point in the biblical text, Abram and Jacob are giving voluntarily. There was no command to give a tenth or tithe to the Lord at this point. That changes later on. The principle of the tithe becomes the commanded standard for Israelite giving under the Mosaic Law (see Leviticus 27:30; Numbers 18:25-28; Deuteronomy 14:22-29).

All this raises the question, “Should we still tithe today?” Some believe the command to tithe remains binding on the Christian in the New Testament. For instance, Jesus references the Pharisees tithing in Matthew 23:23, and he doesn’t expressly do away with it. He does, however, criticize them for their fastidiousness in tithing when they neglect the weightier matters of justice and mercy.

When we turn to the key writings of the apostles on giving, we find no interest in the matter of tithing. Instead, we see a more radical standard—sacrificial giving. Sacrificial giving starts with offering your whole self to God (Romans 12:1-2; 2 Cor. 8:5) and then giving generously of your material resources to the work of the church (1 Cor. 9:6-8, 16:1-3; Gal. 6:6, 10; 2 Cor. 8:1-15).

In the wake of Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Testament law, the New Testament writers are unconcerned about percentage points when it comes to giving. Not once do the New Testament writers invoke the tithe in their many appeals. Instead, the central and driving focus for giving in the New Testament is the gospel. To summarize Paul’s plea in 2 Cor. 2:8-15, are you giving of your material resources in a way that reflects the generosity of God’s gift to you in Jesus Christ? That’s where the New Testament wants our attention when it comes to giving, and that’s the question we must keep answering with a clear conscience before the Lord.