I often hear people say that the New Testament does not talk about tithing or that Jesus never spoke about tithing. Typically, these kinds of uninformed statements are the lame attempt of someone trying to justify their belief that God doesn’t expect us to tithe because in their view, the Law from the Old Testament is null and void.
Likewise, I find this idea, that neither Jesus nor the New Testament talk about tithing, seems to stem sometimes from a desire to not only dismiss the Old Testament Law but to also minimize the practices of neglecting and mismanaging our wealth.
This kind of thinking and behavior seems to be rooted in a careless reading of God’s Word because the reality is that the New Testament and Jesus do actually talk about tithing. Imagine that! The Creator of our wealth actually does talk about tithing from our wealth not just in the Old Testament but also in the New Testament!
NEW TESTAMENT TITHING
In the New Testament there are three Greek words (apodekatoo, dekatos, dekatoo) that are translated into “giving a tenth, collecting a tenth, tithing, giving ten percent or paying a tenth” and all three of these words show up in the New Testament no less than ten times in reference to the topic of wealth (Matt. 23:23; Lk. 11:42, 18:12; Heb. 7:2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 9).2
So, there are three Greek words for “tithe or tenth” that appear ten times in three different books of the New Testament; three books, three different authors, one very important topic, mentioned ten times, with a bunch of heart application.
#1: MATTHEW 23:23 AND LUKE 11:42 || WHO OR WHAT DO I LOVE THE MOST?
In Matthew 23:23, the word for tithe shows up one time when Jesus says “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”
Likewise, in Luke 11:42, the word for tithe shows up again when Jesus says “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.”
These two references by two different authors point to the same conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders; the issue here, is that God’s people were more focused on spices then they were on loving God as their redeemer through their obedience.
The sense we get here is that God’s people were spending a lot of energy on tithing little things while neglecting the big things; they were more worried about tithing from the spice rack instead of simply tithing on their grain, oil, wine, and firstborn animals as God had instructed them to do (Deut. 14:22 – 29; Lev. 27:30); their love for tithing spices had led them to neglect the practices of caring for the poor, extending mercy to their enemies and living in loving faithfulness to the God who had redeemed them from Satan, Sin and Death. They neglected the weightier matters of following God because they loved their spices more than God.3
Do not miss the fact that Jesus does not instruct God’s people to stop tithing. There is absolutely no textual evidence here that Jesus is dismissing God’s people from obeying the Old Testament law. In fact, he makes it clear that we ought to obey the law regarding tithing without neglecting the law regarding caring for the poor, extending mercy and being faithful to God as an extension of our love for God as our redeemer. The issue in these verses comes back to what or who we love the most. What or who do I love the most?
#2: LUKE 18:9 – 14 || WHO OR WHAT DO I TRUST THE MOST?
In Luke 18:9 – 14, the word for tithe shows up one time when Luke tells us that Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
At first glance we may be tempted to see the Pharisee as the good guy with his list of good things that he has done and we might be tempted to see the tax collector as the bad guy who is in such desperate need of God’s mercy that he cannot even list a single thing done right.
The Pharisee is not like other sinners; he does not steal money, he does not cheat people, he does not sleep around, and he does not coerce people to pay taxes. The Pharisee has also gone above and beyond the commands of the law; he fasts twice as much as the law requires, and he tithes on his gross income.
At the end of the day, the Pharisee’s obedience has nothing to do with God’s mercy; he despises the tax collector as he trusts in his own self-righteous good works and he mentions himself in his prayer about five times more than he mentions God. Self-comparison and self-congratulation are always a good sign that I am trusting in myself instead of God’s mercy.4
The tax collector on the other hand, cannot even lift his eyes to heaven as he utters a simple prayer asking God to be merciful towards him because he is a sinner. The tax collector has no list of good deeds to trust in; all he has is God’s mercy and Jesus says that the tax collector will be the one who is exalted and justified because of who he trusts in.
Once again, Jesus does not say that we should not tithe. In fact, by way of implication, it appears that tithing is a very good thing to do. The issue here is that when we tithe, who are we trusting in? When we tithe, who are we thinking about? When we tithe, do we congratulate ourselves or compare ourselves to others? Who or what do I trust the most?
#3: HEBREWS 7:1 – 10 || WHO OR WHAT DO I BELIEVE IS SUPERIOR?
In Hebrews 7:1 – 10, the word for tithe (or tenth) shows up seven times when the author says “For this Melchizedeck, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever. See how great this man was to whom Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth of the spoils! And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to take tithes from the people, that is, from their brothers, though these also are descended from Abraham. But this man who does not have his descent from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. In the one case tithes are received by mortal men, but in the other case, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedeck met him.”
So, what are we to make of this passage with all of its weird names and its seven-fold mention of the tithe or the tenth? This is where a little bit of biblical history can be helpful. In this text we have a dude named Melchizedeck, we have Abraham, we have Levi and we have the priestly descendants of Levi. Who are all these characters and what do they teach us about tithing?
Melchizedeck is a mysterious man whom Father Abraham meets immediately following a victorious battle with some enemy kings (Gen. 14:17 – 20). Keep in mind that this meetup between Father Abraham and Melchizedeck happens long before Moses establishes the law where tithes and offerings become a requirement. Nonetheless, Melchizedeck blesses Abraham verbally as he shares some broken bread and wine with him and then Abraham gives a tithe (a tenth) of everything he had to this mysterious man.
In the historical lineup, Levi then comes into the picture many years later and his descendants would make up the Levitical priesthood who are responsible for the spiritual leadership of God’s people. These Levitical priests would receive or collect the tithes and offerings from God’s people to cover the cost of ministry including the living expenses of the priests (Deut. 14:22 – 29; Lev. 27:30). But keep in mind that none of this is established at the time of Abraham meeting Melchizedeck.
And now the author of Hebrews is tying all this history together around the practice of tithing. Abraham tithes to Melchizedeck. God’s people tithe to the Levitical priests. And at the end of the day, because the Levitical priests were descendants of Abraham (v. 10 still in his loins), they in effect paid tithes to Melchizedeck through Abraham.
Why does any of this matter and what does it mean for us today? The issue here is an issue of superiority. The author of Hebrews is trying to show us how Jesus is superior than any other person in all of history. And the Biblical principle of the tithe, dating all the way back to Abraham before the law was established, was meant to teach us that “tithing to another establishes the recipient’s superiority.”5 Melchizedeck was superior to Abraham and Abraham was superior to the Levitical priests but ultimately Jesus is superior to them all.
I could say so much more about these verses because the depth of meaning in the book of Hebrews goes on forever but suffice it say that the practice of tithing says something about who I believe is superior. At the end of the day, Jesus is superior; this is exactly the argument the author of Hebrews is setting up in the rest of the chapter.
But don’t miss the fact that when Abraham paid a tithe or a tenth to Melchizedeck, he was doing so because he recognized, not so much that Melchizedeck was superior, but that God himself who sent Melchizedeck was superior. When Abraham gave his tithe, he was giving to the Lord in anticipation of the promise of the cross, the empty tomb and the hope of heaven.
We have examined ten different instances of use of the Greek words for “tithe” or “tenth” throughout four different passages written by three different authors. We have witnessed what it looks like when someone loves their spice rack more than Jesus. We have witnessed what it looks like when someone trusts in their own works rather than God’s mercy. And we have witnessed what it looks like when someone believes that Jesus is superior.
When you and I give our tithe, we are surrendering our love of money and we are surrendering our trust in money to the One who is far more superior than any of the false security that money promises.
When we tithe from a heart that says I love you Jesus and I trust in you Jesus because of your work at the cross and the empty tomb, we are in effect, believing that Jesus is far superior to anything or anyone that demands our love or demands our trust.
My active obedience or disobedience says a lot about who or what I love and trust and believe to be superior.
So, who or what do I love and trust and believe to be superior to Jesus?
1 Unless otherwise specified, all Bible references in this paper are to the English Standard Version Bible, The New Classic Reference Edition (ESV) (Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, 2001).
2 John R. Kohlenberger, The NIV Exhaustive Bible Concordance, Third Edition, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2015), 1134, 1510, 1517.
3 Daniel M. Doriani, Reformed Expository Commentary: Matthew, (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing Company, 2008), 340.
4 Philip Graham Ryken, Reformed Expository Commentary: Luke, (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing Company, 2009), 259.
5 R. Kent Hughes, Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2015), 190.