This past Sunday evening we studied Malachi 3:7-12, the passage in which God through His prophet rebukes His people for their failure to give to Him tithes and offerings. It is perhaps hard to see what these words from the mid-400s B.C. have to do with how we spend our money today, so I want to reflect on and apply this passage to Christians living in the 21st century. First, the text:
From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts. But you say, 'How shall we return?' 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. Bring the full tithe 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. I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the LORD of hosts. Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the LORD of hosts.
Malachi calls God's people to repent in regard to their breaking the 8th commandment - but notice that he accuses them of stealing, not from man, but from God Himself, by bringing less than the full tithe into the temple storehouse. There is much in these verses, but several things stand out:
1. The tithe belongs to the Lord, and withholding it from Him is robbing Him. A tithe is a tenth part of our income. For the Israelites, an agricultural people, this meant that they tithed seed, fruit, wine, oil, vegetables, oxen, cows, sheep (they would just line them up and count them, and every tenth one would be the Lord’s, no matter if it was the best or the worst – Lev. 27:30ff.; see Jer. 33:13). Today, as our economy has changed, we tithe money, not goods or produce. But why did God command the tithe? He did it to remind His people that all of our wealth comes from Him and is given to us as a stewardship – just as He sets one day in seven apart to remind us that all our time is His. The tithe and the Sabbath day are His in a special way, they are set apart/holy to Him. Israel was called to repent of robbing God and keeping for themselves what was rightfully His.
2. The tithe was for the provision of the work and worship of God, “so that there might be food in God’s house.” In Numbers 18, God commands that the tithe is to go to the Levites, and they in turn would tithe the tithe to the priests. The Levites had no inheritance in the Promised Land, so the rest of the people were to provide for them. God had the people of God provide for those who led the people in worship and taught them, so that the priests and Levites could devote themselves to God’s work without distraction (see Nehemiah 13:10ff.!). Israel was called to repent of keeping from the work and worship of God what was necessary for its maintenance – and the existence of a “storehouse” (a savings account) was not to stop them from making their tithes and contributions.
3. Even in the Old Covenant, the tithe was just the beginning. Israel was expected to bring tithes and contributions. A "contribution" or "offering" was a general term ranging in meaning from the tithe itself (Num. 18:24) to the part of the tithe set apart for the priest (Num. 18:26) to the offering for the priest's consecration (Exo. 25:2), to offerings for the building of the tabernacle (Exo. 25:2). It was sometimes a commanded offering, and sometimes a voluntary contribution to the Lord. So even in the days of Moses, the tithe was only a starting point for giving to the Lord. And if that was the case in the Old Covenant, how much more under the New Covenant!
It’s sometimes said that the tithe was merely a part of the Mosaic ceremonial law, no longer binding on believers after the coming of Jesus, in the New Covenant. But the first instance we see of tithing in the Bible is Abraham, who gave to Melchizedek, a priest of God Most High (Gen. 14:18-20). The OT also records Jacob as saying that he would give a tenth to God (Gen. 28:22). From the beginning of God’s people, giving a tenth to God has been a part of worship.
So often, people go to the NT and say, “See, it doesn’t say anything about tithing there.” I disagree: There are two passages that I believe clearly carry the tithe commandment into the new covenant: Matt. 23:23, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.” And I Cor. 9:13-14, in which Paul argues for paying pastors on the basis of the OT principle that the tithe should provide for the needs of those teach and labor for the Lord as a vocation. Now, someone may raise the objection, "But doesn’t Paul say in II Cor. 8:8, 'I am not speaking this as a command, but as proving through the earnestness of others the sincerity of your love also.'? And doesn’t he say in II Corinthains 9:7, 'Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.'?" Yes, but II Corinthians 8-9 refer to a voluntary collection that he was making for the poor saints in Jerusalem; it’s an offering over and above the tithe given for the sustenance of the ministry in Corinth, as opposed to the obligatory tithe.
The reason you don’t see a lot about the tithe in the NT is because in large part the NT presupposed the tithe. And it urges Christians to be even more generous than the tithe, and even more generous than the saints in the Old Covenant. When I hear people ask, “Is the standard of giving in the NT still the tithe?” (isn’t it interesting that those who ask this are almost never looking for an excuse to give more than the tithe), my answer is, “Of course! And even in the OT they gave more than the tithe!” But my answer is also, “Of course not! Our standard is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ!” II Cor. 9:8 tells us that the Xn’s motivation and model for giving is the sacrifice of Jesus – “you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.” Does it make any sense to think that the standard of giving after Jesus’ death would decrease from what it was before His death?
What we see in the New Testament is that the better we understand the gospel, the more generous we shall be – like Jesus, we will become poor that others may become rich. God doesn’t merely want your tithe – that’s the minimum for us like it was for OT saints – He wants your heart, your generosity and sacrifice. If you aren’t tithing, you are robbing God. God’s word to you is clear: repent! Return, humbly confessing your sin and asking God to change your heart and your financial habits. And see that repentance must start with at least a tithe.
R.C. Sproul tells of a denominational stewardship program that prompted "the crisis that awakened him from his dogmatic slumbers." The program was based on the theme, "Take a Step Toward Tithing." The idea was simple: if a person was currently giving 1% of their income they were urged to increase it to 2%, and so on down the line. Sproul said to my ministerial comrades, "I can't implement this program." Some said, "Why not? It sounds like a practical way to get people to move in the right direction in a less than severely painful way." He objected on the grounds that the program contained two serious errors: 1) it made tithing an ideal that only super-committed Christians ever reach, a zenith point of sacrificial giving; 2) it gave the tacit blessing of the church to people robbing God. It was like saying "Last year you robbed God of 9% of what you owe Him. This year please rob the Deity of merely 8%."
God expects His people to continue to tithe in the New Covenant. But we must never forget that it is possible to tithe and still be robbing God. Consider: the Pharisees tithed too – but they were unconverted, and didn’t care about the poor and needy. Their giving was all external formalism and hypocrisy; they didn’t give God their heart. You can tithe and not be converted. In addition, for some of His people, 10% isn’t much of a sacrifice. You don’t really start to feel the pinch. The question to ask is, What percentage of my income is a sacrifice? Give that. Saying to God, “Okay, here’s my 10 percent, and not a penny more” is not an acceptable offering. So repentance will be costly. Some Christians will have to sacrifice just to get to the minimum that God requires of His people. There will have to be a change in our standard of living. For increasing our giving may well mean decreasing spending somewhere else. Yet God is faithful and will work in us to will and to do according to His good pleasure; as Paul writes in II Corinthians 9:8, 11, “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having a sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed…[Y]ou will be enriched in everything for all liberality, which through us is producing thanksgiving to God.”
I haven't answered every question about tithing, or even about Malachi 3:7-12. Yet I pray that what I have written will spur you on to love and good deeds. May the Lord enable us to give generously, sacrificially, and obediently!