• The word in the Bible translated as “tithe” is an adjective that means “1/10th”
• The word in the Bible translated as “to tithe” is a verb that means “to give 1/10th”
• The word in the Bible translated as “tithe” is never a noun
TWO PRE-LAW TITHES
The first mention of a tithe in the Bible is in Genesis 14:19-20.
And [Melchizedek] blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.
The Mosaic law tithing system had not been established when this took place. In this case, the tithe is a “spoils of war” gift. It was customary to give a percentage of the spoils of war to the king even if the king did not take part in the battle. The statement is matter of fact and has no prescriptive bearing on anything that comes later. The giving of a tenth of just about anything was a common practice and a standard amount used in a wide variety of circumstances. Abram gives a battle gift to Melchizedek in response to God’s blessing, not to invoke a blessing.
The second mention of a tithe in the Bible is in Genesis 28:20-22.
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.”
Here, Jacob responds to a dream he has received from God. He builds an altar and vows that in exchange for God’s care and provision, he will give God 1/10th of his possessions. Old Testament vows are not promissory oaths; they are conditional agreements to the effect of: “If you do this, I will do that.” As with Abram and Melchizedek, the Law was not established yet. All we have here is Jacob making a personal vow that has no prescriptive force on later passages.
OLD TESTAMENT TITHING UNDER THE LAW
In the book of Leviticus, everything changes. In Leviticus chapter 27 verses 30 and 31, Moses introduces a tithe system as part of the Law:
Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the Lord's; it is holy to the Lord. If a man wishes to redeem some of his tithe, he shall add a fifth to it.
Tithed goods are defined as holy, meaning set apart for God. If for some reason a person needed to keep, or redeem, his goods, there was an allowance for giving money instead. But the cash amount had to equal the tithe plus an extra fifth. So, whenever an Israelite tithed, they could give 10% in goods or 12% in cash.
Old Testament Israel was a theocracy. The nation of Israel was ruled by God. God’s rule was mediated through the twenty four courses of priesthood. The priests mediated the law of Moses to the people. The people were to supply funding for those priestly officers and also for all national aspects of theocratic Israel by way of the tithing system.
There were three main tithes that every Israelite was required to pay. The first is recorded in Numbers 18:21.
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,
This tithe was a 10% tax to fund the levitical priesthood system which was basically the national government of theocratic Israel. The tax was paid as 1/10th of whatever an Israelite earned throughout a year. It wasn’t necessarily paid in money. It was usually paid in commodities like grain, fruit or oil, or whatever you produced through your work. If you tithed cash, you had to pay the 2% penalty.
Deuteronomy 14:22-23 records a second tithe that funded the national feasts and festivals.
You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. 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.
This fund was also used for any event where all of the people came together. This would cover things like the national passover celebration.
Deuteronomy 14:28-29 records a third tithe that was only paid every third year.
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. 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, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.
This third fund was distributed to the poor and needy. It provided support for widows, orphans, and even people from outside of the community who were in need of help.
• The combination of the two yearly tithes and the three year tithe means that every Jew paid 23-1/3% of their income as a national tax. In addition there was a small temple tax and the provision that they were not allowed to harvest the corners of their fields. The corners had to be left to feed the poor. Also, if you dropped a bail of whatever you were harvesting off of your wagon you couldn’t pick that up. That would be God’s way of telling you to make that bail available to the poor as well.
• When you figure in the corners of the fields and the small temple tax, an Israelite was taxed about 25% of their yearly income to keep the nation of Israel up and running.
• Old Testament tithing was a taxation system to support theocratic Israel. The tax-tithes were not optional, they were mandatory.
OLD TESTAMENT TITHING AND FREEWILL GIVING
In Deuteronomy 12:6, after God tells His people where all of their tithing and giving is to take place, freewill giving is called out as a separate thing.
…and there you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, your vow offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herd and of your flock.
Freewill giving in the Old Testament was whatever you wanted to give… after you had paid about 25% in tithing taxation to the national government. The free will offerings were gifts that expressed an Israelites gratefulness to God by way of voluntary giving.
Exodus 36:2-7 records that even after paying the mandatory tithe-taxes, many of the Israelites were enthusiastic freewill givers.
And they received from Moses all the contribution that the people of Israel had brought for doing the work on the sanctuary. They still kept bringing him freewill offerings every morning, so that all the craftsmen who were doing every sort of task on the sanctuary came, each from the task that he was doing, and said to Moses, “The people bring much more than enough for doing the work that the Lord has commanded us to do.” So Moses gave command, and word was proclaimed throughout the camp, “Let no man or woman do anything more for the contribution for the sanctuary.”
Moses had put out a call for offerings so that they could get the tabernacle built. The Israelites gave such a massive freewill offering that Moses had to command them to stop giving.
Throughout the Old Testament, an offering was something you gave from your heart in response to your relationship with God. A tithe was a mandatory tax; it was something every Jew owed to God. The tithe belonged to the Lord and the Lord demanded it. Tithing was a system of mandatory taxation; tithing was not optional. Think about that in context of Malachi 3:8-9.
Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you.
During the time of Nehemiah, the Israelites had stopped paying the mandatory tithes. The temple staff abandoned the temple to go out and find work so that they could survive. God accused the Israelites of robbing Him of what was rightfully His. He pronounced a curse on Israel that was only lifted when the tithing-taxation system was reinstated.
• Israelites participated in a government controlled, mandatory tithe-tax system that demanded about 25% of their commodities be given to God every year.
• Freewill offerings were given above and beyond the tax system and were a matter of faith and faithfulness on the part of each individual Jew.
• If you believe that you should tithe by the Old Testament standard as your offering to your church, and you are tithing with money, then you are required to give about 25% of your total income every year. And, that 25% does not include the freewill giving that both the Old Testament and the New Testament call for.
TITHING AND TAXES DURING THE INCARNATION OF JESUS
• 400 years have passed since Malachi. The Romans have taken control of Israel and instituted their own tax system. The tax collectors at that time were viewed as scum because they were Jews who bought tax franchises from Rome and then abused the new system to get rich.
• The Romans would set a yearly fee for a zone based tax franchise. To motivate the tax collectors and to buy their loyalty, the Romans let them keep anything they could collect above and beyond the yearly franchise fee.
• The tax collectors would employ thugs to enforce their extortion schemes. That’s why the tax collectors are always associated with sinners and the riff-raff of society in the New Testament. That’s who we are dealing with in the persons of Zacchaeus and Matthew. They were extortionists collecting taxes for the pagan, idolatrous, Roman occupiers.
• Tax collectors were not allowed to go the synagogue and they were despised by most of the other Jews. That’s why it was so radical that Jesus went to the house of a tax collector for dinner.
Along with the Roman taxation system, the temple system was still in effect before Jesus’ death. He spoke directly about tax-tithing in Luke 11:42. Jesus said:
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.
The Pharisees were careful to pay their tithe-taxes on time and according to the letter of the law. In context of everything we have looked at so far, Jesus’ harsh attack makes sense. Jesus tells them: You pay your taxes. Well you’re supposed to do that, and, you are required to do that. But in your mechanical approach to God, you’re completely missing the point of the whole system. In Mark 12:41-44, Jesus addresses the the temple offering box and freewill giving.
And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.
The offering box was not for tithe-taxes, the offering box was for freewill giving above and beyond what was given yearly as taxes. Jesus was not impressed with the rich people offering large sums of money. By calling them out as rich people, the implication is that they were not offering enough to even make a dent in what God had blessed them with. The widow stepped out on faith and offered what little she had.
• In the Gospels of Luke and Mark, Jesus acknowledges the existence of the mandatory tithing-taxation system and the non-specified system of freewill offerings.
• The Old Testament system of mandated tithing-taxation was separate from and different from the Old Testament system of freewill giving.
When the Jewish authorities confronted Jesus about the Roman tax in Matthew 22:17-21, Jesus went a step further and foreshadowed the post-theocratic world they were all about to find themselves in. The Jewish leaders asked:
“Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar's.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Jesus told them: Pay your taxes to the civil government and handle the affairs that are between you and God.
In Matthew 5:17 Jesus says:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
Jesus was the final sacrifice under the Mosaic law. When Jesus died on the cross, the obligation to tithe to the Jewish theocracy was abolished.
NEW TESTAMENT FREEWILL GIVING
• There is now no Levitical priesthood to support; there are no national religious festivals we are biblically mandated to host; and there is no temple tax to pay.
• When Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead, the Old Testament temple system was put away forever. It is not possible spiritually to live by the Old Testament standard anymore.
Paul reinforces this reality in Romans 13:7.
Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
Even though there is no more theocratic Israel, pay your taxes to the governing authorities and be a good citizen wherever you find yourself. There is no religious tithing system in the New Testament. The New Testament only talks about freewill giving.
In 2nd Corinthians chapter 8, verses 2-4, Paul uses the Macedonian church to teach the Corinthian church what Christian freewill giving should look like.
…in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints,
The Macedonian Christians not only gave more than was expected of them, they begged to be included in whatever ministry effort was being funded. And they gave of their own accord. There is no mandated, set percentage they were supposed to give.
In verses 7 and 8 of 2nd Corinthians 8, Paul tells the Corinthians…
But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this act of grace also. I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine.
Spiritually mature Christians should know how and when to give. There is no command on how much to give. Spiritually mature Christians must work this out with God through prayer.
In chapter 9 verse 5 of 2nd Corinthians Paul reiterates that he is not commanding anyone to give.
So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance for the gift you have promised, so that it may be ready as a willing gift, not as an exaction.
There is no biblical mandate for demanding a certain amount or frequency of giving. No organization or minister has the authority to demand that you give any set percentage of what God has given to you back to God. How you engage freewill giving is between you and God.
Paul sums up New Testament freewill giving in 2nd Corinthians 9, verse 7.
Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:7)
Scripture, not tradition, is our rule and authority. Even though the Old Testament tithing-taxation system has been put away, the same principles are in force:
— Be a good citizen and pay your taxes to the government.
— And then, give to God whatever you think you should give.
• No one is to judge your giving, or apparent lack of giving… except God. Freewill giving is between you and God. The Bible makes it clear that we are not to judge each other in this regard. But the Bible also makes it clear that, as in all things, God is keeping score in His own way and He will judge your giving based on the condition of your heart.
• Like all other aspects of your walk with Christ, giving is supposed to be an ongoing, mindfully engaged, spiritual discipline. Running on spiritual auto pilot is always a bad idea. Mindless, mechanical, giving —whether 10% or any other number — without any ongoing reflection or consideration for your circumstances is not biblical nor is it spiritually healthy.
• How much you give, how often you give, whether or not you can give at any given time, is between you and God. As in all biblical blessings, there is no promise here of material or monetary gain in return for your giving. Engaging in freewill giving is all about understanding the relationship between blessings in this life and blessings in the life to come.
When you are wrestling with the spiritual discipline of giving, consider the words of Jesus…
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-24)
Give what you can, when you can. What you give and when you give it is between you and God.