The Sacred Tenth - God's Perpetual Expectation
The Sacred Tenth: God's Perpetual Expectation (Genesis 14:20; 28:20-22; Leviticus 27:30-33; Matthew 23:23)
Is the tithe a novelty, a modern innovation of church finance? Does it have to do with buildings and budgets, but nothing really central in the perpetual purposes of God? Is the tithe a part of Old Testament legalism that New Testament Christians should disregard? Where did the principle of the tithe begin? Does God really expect me to tithe? These are questions not be answered by human supposition, but by a careful scrutiny of Scripture.
The Very Earliest Men of Faith Accepted the Tithe as an Established Duty
The first categorical reference to tithing in the Bible relates to Abram (Gen. 14:20).
The great patriarch paused after victory in battle to give one-tenth to Melchizedek, the native priest of Salem (Jerusalem). Clearly Abram does not consider this an offering, but rather an obligation. This same passage contains the first temptation not to tithe. King Chedorlaomer invites Abram to split the spoils of battle with him. Abram refuses to give the sacred tenth to anyone but God. That Abram tithes is one of the few patriarchal acts named in the New Testament (Heb. 7:4).
Abraham lived until the boyhood of Jacob. The latter adopted Abraham's faith personally, including the practice of habitually giving God the sacred tenth (Gen. 28:20-22). It is beyond question that the tithe became the practice of the earliest men of faith.
Tithing is nowhere specifically commanded in Genesis. For that matter there is no specific command against murder or adultery, but Cain was held responsible for the former and Tamar for the latter. Abraham was given statutes, commandments, and laws (see Gen. 26:5) of which we have no record, but to which he was faithfully obedient. Tithing must have been among these commands. In fact, the ancient peoples of whom we have record universally practiced the tithe or more. Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Phoenicians, Arabians, Ethiopians, Greeks, and Romans practiced giving a tithe or more to their deities. Where did they get such an idea? Was it not that God originally spoke to the first man not only that we should sacrifice, but also how much? There is likelihood that Cain's offering was rejected because it was the wrong proportion (Heb. 11:4).
The Old Testament Law Amplifies and Continues the Practice of Tithing
The tithe is introduced in the Law of Moses as an already established practice and proportion (Lev. 27:30-33). The law spelled out that every Israelite was to bring 10 percent of all produce, both grain and fruit. Further, one out of every ten cattle born each year was to be given to God. No entire single chapter in the Law of Moses speaks of tithing. The subject is introduced incidentally, without solemn preamble. That is to say, it was taken for granted. What Abraham practiced and what Jacob vowed was household knowledge in Israel of the exodus and afterward.
There is strong evidence that the Old Testament called not for just one tithe, but for three during some years. Beyond the tithe for the priests, there was to be a festival tithe (Deut. 14:22-27) in which the giver participated by eating of the tithed material. Also every third year there was to be a tithe given for the poor of the land (vv. 28-29). Thus, the divine expectation for Old Testament persons could approach 30 percent some years.
Jesus Christ Called for the Tithe as Only the Beginning of Giving
Jesus specifically enforced the payment of the tithes (Matt. 23:23). Jesus did not promulgate afresh for Christians, as from a New Testament Sinai, the law against murder, adultery, or any other law. But to show the binding and spiritual nature of the Mosiac law, and its far-reaching principles, He taught that these Commandments may be broken by an angry word or a lustful look. Neither did our Lord reenact that His followers should pay a tithe. He demanded much more: "Whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:33, KJV). For Him the tithe was only the bare beginning.
Jesus lived in the most tithe-conscious generation of people ever to practice the sacred tenth. The Pharisees' chief criteria for service to God was the giving of the tenth.
We should note that the Pharisees watched Jesus constantly. They accused Jesus of many things. Yet not once did they accuse Him of failing to tithe or teaching against the tithe. The Lord Jesus suffered many controversies with the Pharisees, but there was never a controversy about the tithe.
Likewise, Jesus judged the Pharisees for many things, but He never criticized them or condemned them for giving the tithe. Just the opposite is the case. The Lord Jesus commended them for giving the sacred tenth. The Lord Jesus told believers that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees we cannot be part of His kingdom (Matt. 5:20). In light of that, how could any Christian honestly doubt that the beginning point of giving is the tithe?
There are some issues of Christian living that need to be settled never to be changed. Surely giving God the tenth of all He gives you as the beginning point is such a commitment.