It is interesting to note that even before the institution of the Mosaic system, the practice of tithing was already a religious custom of the known world since the time of Abraham. Hence, tithing could be said not original to Israel since the pagan religions of the ancient world also practiced it. In Genesis 14:20, Abraham gave tithes to Melchizedek who was the king of Salem, from all the spoils of war that he looted from his enemies. Obviously, Abraham gave tithes as an expression of thanksgiving for the victory that God had given him. Yet based upon Genesis 14:18-21, the tithes that Abraham gave was a one-time event. The book of Genesis doesn’t have a record that Abraham gave tithes on a regular basis as a legal obedience to some sort of pre-Mosaic laws. Then, in Genesis 28:22, we will see Jacob promising to the Lord by saying,
“And of all that thou shall give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.”
Some believe that Jacob’s tithes here was not a one-time event but a continuous giving of the10% of his income; a pattern that later on believed to be adapted into the Mosaic law of giving. Thus, judging by the examples of Abraham and Jacob, the Patriarchal tithings of pre-Mosaic period was voluntary, not compulsory. It wasn’t on a regular basis but a symbol of thanksgiving and acknowledgment for the special blessings that were received from the Lord. But then, under the Mosaic Law, tithes became compulsory. It served as a tax for funding the budget of Israel as a nation particularly its religious tasks. It must be understood that Israel, during Biblical times, compared to other nations was theocratic. In other words, God was their King – the leader who dictates the state of the nation. Before the time of King Saul and David, Israel was politically theocratic and the Levitical priesthood acted as the civil government that receive and manage religious necessities as instructed and codified in the book of Leviticus, particularly in chapter 27 together with Numbers chapter 18.
The people of Israel, except the tribe of Levi, under the Mosaic Law were commanded to give 10% of their income to God. However, considering the 3 types of tithes in the Mosaic Law, the overall tithes of Israel was actually 20% not only 10%. They are the following,
- The Levitical or Sacred Tithe (Num. 18:21, 24)
- The Tithe of the Feasts (Deut. 14:22-27)
- Tithe for the Poor (Deut. 14:28-29)
Each of the tithes deserves a careful study but sufficient to say that failure to meet these tithes will greatly affect not only the Levites but all the religious transactions of Israel which is the center of their national life. That’s why it is compulsory – a legal tax to the people required by the theocratic government of Israel. This is the reason why in the Malachi controversy, the Lord chastened Israel for neglecting the needs of His temple. In Malachi 3:8-12, the Lord vigorously said,
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 (ESV)
That is the Mosaic theology of tithes in a nutshell. Obviously, it is addressed to Israel, not to all nations. But the relevant and controversial question is this: Does the Mosaic system of tithing still applicable to Christian today? Can we use Malachi 3:8-12 as a New Testament theology of giving? Admittedly, the answer to this question is theologically complex. But the simple answer is this: From a dispensational perspective, the Old Testament tithes and offering are not applicable for us today for we are not under the Law but under Grace (Romans 6:14-15). But then it needs explanation. Well, here are some introductory premises to consider.
- There is no single and specific passage in the New Testament that emphatically teaches tithing. You cannot read Malachi 3:8-12 being quoted by New Testament writers to support the manner of Christian giving. Of course, the word “tithes” is mentioned, like in Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42, and in Hebrews 7:5-9. However, the mere mention of the word doesn’t mean that it is a normative Church practice for today. For instance, in Matthew 23:23, when Jesus commended the Pharisees for their religious devotion to “pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin,” He was not implying that tithes is a New Testament regulation. Rather, in an ironic way, Jesus was actually rebuking the Pharisees for their religious hypocrisy because they were so committed to follow the rituals of the Law and yet they neglected the spirit of it (2 Cor. 3:6-7). It must be understood also that Jesus Himself lived under the Law dispensation and so when He spoke about the tithes of the Pharisees, he was addressing the historical and religious contexts of Judaism (Gal. 4:4). Thus, the sheer doctrinal absence of tithes in the New Testament as a rule and manner of Christian giving is loud enough to argue that it is not for the Church. This is supported by the second premise.
- Civil and ceremonial laws of Israel are not normative practice for the Church. As already mentioned, tithes in the Mosaic system was a civil and religious obligation. But then, the Church the Body of Christ as a spiritual organism is composed of Jews and Gentiles. And since the Lord of the Church redeemed His spiritual Bride from the bondage and shackles of the Mosaic Law, it is therefore not under it, but under the grace of God (Gal. 3:23). However, by saying that the Church is not under the Law but under Grace, we are not saying that we disregard the Law, but rather by faith in Christ we establish it (Romans 3:31), particularly the Moral law which is practically applicable for us today. Typologically and prophetically speaking, Christ fulfilled the demands of the Law (Romans 10:4). That’s why, for instance, in the New Testament, believers no longer offer animal sacrifices as meticulously instructed in the book of Leviticus. According to the book of Hebrews, Christ is the once and for all sacrifice for our sins. And with the same principle, the believers of the present dispensation of Grace don’t observe tithing as a regulative and normative rule, because it was addressed to a specific people, locally tied to the land of Israel, and administered by the Levitical priesthood who received and manage it (Hebrews 7). And since Jesus Christ is now the Great High Priest, the Levitical priesthood has been abolished
- Contrary to the tithes of the Old Testament which is Law-driven, the Christian giving of the New Testament is Grace-motivated. It is not enforced by the Law but inspired by the Cross. It is not compulsory, it is voluntary. The particular passage in the New Testament that clearly and emphatically teaches Christian giving is found in 2 Corinthians chapter 8 and 9:1-8. In these passages, it is interesting to know that there is no single hint or an implication of tithes. Paul solely appealed to Grace, founded on the theology of the Cross. In effect, these passages provide a vibrant refutation against the so-called Evangelicals today (particularly from the Charismatic Movement) who appeal to Malachi 3:8-12 as their proof-text key to abundant life. They even use the blessings and cursing of Deuteronomy 28 to convince and control the giving of their followers. But in light of the arguments presented above, their teaching is hermeneutically erroneous. For as they apply the Old Testament law of tithes to their followers, they lead them to fall into the pit of unbiblical, legalistic, and manipulative regulation for the filling up of their stomachs and for the building up of their own Church empire.