Jesus’ life and teachings were revolutionary and controversial for the Jews under Roman rule. Instead of teaching Pharisaic obedience to the Old Testament laws – exaggerating them until they became codes of behavior based on tradition – he taught that there was something deeper and more important than the law. He said explicitly that he had no intention of doing away with the law (Matt. 5:17), but rather revealing a greater purpose to the law.
Tithing is one of the Old Testament laws Christ came to fulfill. That does not mean he came to do away with it, but rather to give it meaning. The Israelite practice of tithing should have encouraged generosity and care for the poor. Instead, the Jews of Jesus’ time had so distorted it that it had become an act of egotism to give money to the church, all the while ignoring the poor around them. Jesus was blunt with his criticism of this behavior: “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” (Matt. 23:23 NASB).
Using the law to help others
Christ showed a new way to observe the law while on Earth. The time He spent here was consumed by using the law to help others. He used the Sabbath as a time to heal the sick – defying Pharisaic rules – and he used the Passover as a time to fulfill His mission of intercession.
In the same way, He also showed a new way to give. He taught that the action of giving is not as important as the motivation. This can be seen in the stories of the widow’s mite (Luke 21:1-4) and the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-27). It can also be seen when He tells His disciples, “When you give to the poor, don’t be like the hypocrites. They blow trumpets in the synagogues and on the streets so that people will see them and honor them … When you give to the poor, don’t let anyone know what you are doing. Your Father can see what is done in secret, and he will reward you” (Matt. 6:2-4 NCV).
Tithing is not a tool to be abandoned, but rather to be used to open further avenues of generosity.
The Pharisees’ actions were good according the law: they tithed, kept the Sabbath and adhered faithfully to the rest of Old Testament laws, yet they missed the point of the laws because their motivations were misguided. They ignored the fact that people around them suffered while they pretended to be righteous.
Like many of the other laws the Pharisees followed, tithing is not inherently right or wrong. It is a tool given to us to spur something more sacred and powerful. If we tithe simply because “it is the right thing to do,” we should dig further into why we believe it is right. We may soon realize that tithing is not a tool to be abandoned, but rather to be used to open further avenues of generosity.
Tithing is not mentioned nearly as much in the New Testament as it is in the Old Testament, yet the New Testament is filled with passages asking us to give. As Christ’s life and teachings shifted the focus of the law from adherence to grace, the focus of tithing was shifted from duty to generosity.
This shift in focus was not an abolishment of the former, but rather a fulfillment, which is why tithing is still an important part of Christianity. It is a way for us to learn generosity. John Ortberg summarizes it well in Christianity Today when he states, “Tithing is to our possessions what the Sabbath is to our time—a concrete guideline that points beyond itself to the truth that every moment and inch and scrap of our lives come from the hand of God, and will be returned to God.”*