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Worship and Service

Tithing

Who Is Lord of Your Finances?

No subject is as delicate for the preacher as tithing - after all, we're talking about his salary here. But the Sunday School teacher has no such compunctions. The subject is worth the time and trouble. Our particular local church does not include offertory messages, simply passing the bag and collecting the envelopes. This is unfortunate, for tithing (and its counterpart, offering, which we will not be discussing here) is an important part of worship. Tithing is the way in which we recognize that God is Lord of our finances - and to most of us, our finances are of at least some minor importance. We see virtually all there is to see about tithing in the Old Testament - but what a sight it is.

Importance of Tithing in the Old Testament

Melchizedek

Mention the name Melchizedek to the average Christian today and you'll get a blank stare. You certainly would not get a reaction that concerns tithing - yet this is the first instance of tithing in the Bible. It may also be the most important.

(Gen 14:14-20 NIV) When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan. {15} During the night Abram divided his men to attack them and he routed them, pursuing them as far as Hobah, north of Damascus. {16} He recovered all the goods and brought back his relative Lot and his possessions, together with the women and the other people. {17} After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King's Valley). {18} Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, {19} and he blessed Abram, saying, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. {20} And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand." Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

Any Christian scholar would know one thing about Melchizedek: he is a picture of Christ, as shown in the New Testament.[1] The author of Hebrews argues for the superiority of Christ over Abraham in this sense. But here we can see some of the symbolic aspects of tithing.

·         Melchizedek - as a picture of Christ as priest - receives tithes. This is the clear indication that God is to receive our tithes, and that (somehow) Christ, as our high priest, is receiving them. The matter is mystical in a high degree - and therefore extremely important.

·         Melchizedek brings out bread and wine - which can be nothing but a picture of the Lord's Supper to come, i.e., the sacrifice on the Cross. Therefore, our tithing is somehow bound up in Christ's sacrifice on the Cross, for without that sacrifice our tithes would not be acceptable to God.

·         Melchizedek blesses Abraham (Abram in this text). As the author of Hebrews points out, the lesser is blessed by the greater among men. But it also shows that tithing comes after being blessed by God.

·         Melchizedek also blesses God, praising his name. So then tithes are in some way associated with our praise..

·         Only after all this is done does Abraham present a tithe. So there is a past tense nature to tithes - they are a reflection of what God has done. (Offerings reflect the present joy or future benefit).

So, in our time, we should see tithing as a way of acknowledging that Christ, our High Priest, has already made the sacrifice that brings us the blessing of eternal life. To tithe is to say to the world, "God has already blessed me - I am saved!"

Jacob's Ladder

Many of us are familiar with the story of Jacob's ladder:

(Gen 28:10-22 NIV) Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. {11} When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. {12} He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. {13} There above it stood the LORD, and he said: "I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. {14} Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. {15} I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." {16} When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it." {17} He was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven." {18} Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. {19} He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz. {20} Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear {21} so that I return safely to my father's house, then the LORD will be my God {22} and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God's house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth."

In the story of Abraham and Melchizedek there is a hint of the importance of the place in which the tithe is given[2]; here Jacob is sure of it. God promises to bless him; so he calls the place Bethel - the Hill of God. So we see that simply giving the tithe is not sufficient; there must be a place for it.

It is also the sign of something else: a covenant relationship. One who tithes to God is in a particular relationship to Him, acknowledging Him as the source of blessing.

The tithe belongs to the Lord

In the Levitical law we see the explicit statement that the tithe of everything belongs to the Lord.[3] The law gives some details which explain much about tithing:

·         A tithe was to be given of everything "from the Land." The Land, meaning the Promised Land, was the gift of God, so again we see the principle that God gives first.

·         Interestingly, the tithe from the Land could be redeemed by adding a fifth of the tithe to it. If you really liked the apples from that tree, you could redeem them. But you could not do so for animals - they could not be redeemed. Why? Because they were also used for blood sacrifices, for which there is no substitute. Just as there is no substitute for Christ's sacrifice on the Cross.

·         You were to tithe a tenth of your produce (i.e., income in our terms today) and a tenth of your flock (i.e., your capital on the hoof.) Thus you acknowledged the source not only of what was given to you but also the increase upon it.

In specific ways

It was not sufficient just to round up your stuff and bring it in. God insisted it be handled in particular ways:

·         Tithes from the land (grain, fruit) were to be brought into the storehouses once every three years.[4] So we see an early form of "steady giving."

·         They were eventually to be presented only at a particular place, the Temple - where the "Lord would place His Name." Just anywhere would not do.

·         A man had to be ceremonially clean whenever he gathered his tithe and when he presented it.

·         And of course our Lord makes it clear[5] that tithing itself is no substitute for true worship and service.

What God does with the tithe

The tithe is for the use of the kingdom

God gives the tithe to the Levites, those who were set apart for his service.[6] There are reasons given for this:

·         First, because they received no inheritance in the land of Israel. Therefore, unlike the other tribes, they had received no blessing in the form of land, thus they were to be blessed by the tithe from the land.

·         Next, because they were to do the work of the "Tent of Meeting" - and later the Temple itself. It is a very practical point. God wants them to do his work; to feed them, God takes the tithe that belongs to him and gives it to the Levites. God takes care of his own.

·         Finally, he gives them the tithe because they are responsible for "offenses against the tent of Meeting." They have a spiritual responsibility which in this time is discharged with sacrifices - and for that sacrifice, God provides. So it is that God provides the sacrifices his people will need.

The Levites themselves were to tithe - to the descendants of Aaron, the first priest. Their tithe was to be the best of all they received - indicating the honor which is to go to the priest. Today we might hear the echoes of the old hymn, "Give of your best to the Master."

Aliens, widows and orphans

Also entitled to share from the tithe were widows, aliens and orphans - and so we see that the tithe was used for the work of God. It is used to feed those who are under the particular protection of God Almighty.

Restoration

The tithe is also associated with the restoration of the worship of Israel. When Israel returns to God, one of the first things done is to restore the practice of tithing. Hezekiah did it;[7] so did Nehemiah.[8] So it is that tithing is seen to be an outward sign of the restoration of the right relationship between God and his people.

Indeed, Nehemiah tells us that when the tithe is not brought in, the House of God is considered to be neglected.[9] Malachi tells us that to fail to bring in the tithe is equivalent to robbing God:

(Mal 3:8-12 NIV) "Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. "But you ask, 'How do we rob you?' "In tithes and offerings. {9} You are under a curse--the whole nation of you--because you are robbing me. {10} Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this," says the LORD Almighty, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. {11} I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit," says the LORD Almighty. {12} "Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land," says the LORD Almighty.

So we see that tithing carried with it more than monetary implications. What does it mean to us today?

Principles in our own time

That tithing continued into the early church is well known. No specific commands are given to this effect in the New Testament, but we can work from the example given to bring forward some general principles which affect our daily lives.

Recognize that God has already blessed you.

The tithe looks backward; it is a recognition that God has blessed you. In tithing, you proclaim these things:

·         First, that God is the source of all my blessings.

·         Next, that you have already received blessings - not that you just anticipate them.

·         And, in tithing, you recognize the "New Covenant" based upon Christ's blood - the covenant anticipated by Melchizedek.

So comes the question: do you see tithing as an obligation to God, based upon his sacrifice and blessings upon you - or as an investment gambling for the future?

God's work - and our tithes - are sacred things

The rules around acceptable tithing were strict, to show us that tithing is a sacred thing, not to be taken lightly.

·         In the handling of our finances, in preparing our tithes, we ought not to be careless - or attempt to "shave a point."

·         For those who handle the monies so received, they should recognize them as sacred things - not just checkbook entries, but the tithes received from a covenant people.

·         We must be careful not to rob God - but return to him that which is His.

The importance of sound financial stewardship

Throughout Old and New Testament the importance of sound planning - and regular giving - is stressed. We are to be good stewards.

But more than that, we must give in the right way. Our tithes are not acceptable worship if they are given as a substitute for true worship - and service. Worse, we should not attempt to use tithes as a form of atonement. They were strictly separate in the Old Testament, and in our times Christ is our only atonement.

Good news and bad news

Let me ask you three questions:

·         How do you feel when your stock brokerage tells you that the stock you purchased at their advice has just increased greatly in value?

·         How do you feel when the bank makes an error in your checking account - and your checks begin to bounce?

·         How do you think God views your handling of blessings he has entrusted to you?


[1] See Hebrews chapter 7 for a more complete explanation.

[2] Melchizedek is King of Salem, which later becomes Jerusalem.

[3] Leviticus 27:30-33

[4] Deuteronomy 26:12

[5] Matthew 23:23

[6] Numbers 18:21-32

[7] 2 Chronicles 31:2-11

[8] Nehemiah 10:37-39

[9] Nehemiah 13:11

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