Receiving and Giving – Part 1

Peter Eng

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The practice of tithing among Christians is so well known that even people of other faith talk about it now and then. Like many things we know, there remains much we don’t know.

What is tithing? The very short answer is: “Tithing is returning one-tenth of our income to God in acknowledgement that he is sovereign over our life and earnings.”

This definition immediately raises questions in at least two areas:

(1) Why should we tithe?

(2) What does tithing look like in practice?

Why should we tithe?

Let’s recall the story of how God calls Abram to leave Ur and to go to a land he had promised Abram.  At this point, there is no indication that Abram knows who this God is. He may or may not know God as “Yahweh” at this point. He just knows some deity has spoken to him in a way he cannot ignore, and obeys that as a call from God. He eventually reaches Canaan and worships God the best he knows how.

Soon disaster strikes! His nephew Lot is captured by marauding invaders! Abram organizes his 318 men to rescue Lot. He sneaks up on the complacent armies, strikes them hard and rescues Lot. Not only does Abram rescue Lot, he returns heavy with the booty of the vanquished armies. (Genesis 14)

Melchizedek, the king of Salem (old name for Jerusalem), who is also a priest of the Most High God, comes to meet Abram. He gives Abram bread and wine to refresh him, and he declares to Abram,

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Creator of heaven and earth.
And praise be to God Most High,
who delivered your enemies into your hand.”

                                                   (Gen 14:19-20)

The term “God Most High” appears for the first time, and that is possibly the first time God reveals his identity to Abram. The God Most High lays claim to Abram’s success. We are not told how Abram knows, but he immediately submits himself to his God whom he now knows to be the God Most High, creator of heaven and earth. What a worthy and wonderful revelation!

Abrams also knows his successful rescue is due to the God Most High.  He immediately gives one-tenth of his spoils to Melchizedek, the priest of the God Most High, now the God of Abram. When Abram gives this tithe, he is submitting to the God Most High as his God and acknowledges that it is God Most High who gives the victory.

Herein lies the most compelling reason for tithing. Abram, our spiritual forefather started this. At the point of realizing who God is, and that he owes his success to God, he offers his tithe.  By this tithe, Abram is saying, “I acknowledge you as my God and I owe you the success I have. I gladly offer this as my act of worship.”

The second instance of the tithe comes from the mouth of Jacob. Jacob, the grabber the man does not know how to give, only to take. He is not a nice man. He has just cheated his own brother and is now fleeing for his life. On the way, he stops to sleep at Luz. There God appears to him in a dream telling him, he is the God of Abraham and Isaac. And the promise given to Abraham is repeated to Jacob.

In his moment of despair and possible reflection of his own evil deeds, God speaks to him. Not in reprimand that he deserves, but with goodness Jacob does not deserve — words of promise and direction. But Jacob is a stingy man in faith and in purse. He does not come outright to confess God. Instead he makes a conditional vow, “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 so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord [Yahweh] 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.” (Genesis 28:20-22).

God brings Jacob home with abundance after more than 14 years, and Jacob and his descendants are forever bound by the vow he makes to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and now also the God of Jacob. At the heart of the tithe is Jacob acknowledging God’s sovereign control and protection. It is worship in action. He is saying, “God is my king.” “This is the tribute I owe him.” Is the God or Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” also the “God of [insert your name]?

Israel then becomes a nation, and receives tithing regulations. There is a first tithe, a second tithe, etc. There are regulations on how the tithe(s)is(are) to be used. We will by-pass these as they apply to the nation of Israel after the flesh and we who live in Christ are the true descendants of Abraham, the spiritual Israel of God. There are, however, several principles to be noted.(Leviticus 27:30-33; Numbers 18:25-29; Deuteronomy 14:22-29).

The tithe is not optional. They are essential for the spiritual and material work of the Levites, priests and temple. This does not mean the people always obeyed. During the time of Judges, people did not tithe because nobody forced them to. This resulted in a desperate tribe of Levites willing to sell out their spiritual services to anyone willing to pay them.  But when a good king rules, tithes and offerings were collected by the king (2 Chronicles 31:5).

We tithe because

(1)   Like Abraham and Jacob, we acknowledge the Lord as our God. The acknowledgment of the Lord is not an empty acknowledgment. It is a commitment sealed with the tithe. The Lord Most High is my God, so I tithe as a spiritual child of Abraham.

(2)   National Israel declared the Lord as their God. In acknowledgment of God’s person and goodness they tithe. We are the Spiritual Israel of God and we ought to acknowledge God as our King with the tithe.

The commands to tithe are neither repeated nor repealed in the New Testament. There are some who argue strongly on the count that it is not repeated, that the tithe is repealed. I do not find the arguments convincing. At the same time, it is true that there is no reaffirmation of the tithe in the early church.

We come close to an affirmation of the tithe when Jesus addresses the Pharisees who tithe their herb garden, but neglect the most important aspects of faith. Jesus affirms their tithing is right, but their neglect of the weightier matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness contrasts so markedly against their scrupulous tithing.

23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (Matthew 23:23)

It is true that Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees, sons of Abraham in the flesh, and they have that obligation to tithe. But it begs the question that if the sons of Abraham in the spirit have received the greater blessings and inheritance, should they do no less?

I think the reasons for the lack of affirmation are quite understandable.  The first gentile Christians are not in the habit of giving one-tenth, but they are accustomed to giving offerings to the pagan temples. To make the tithe a requirement for Christian community from the get-go would pose a huge obstacle to faith. It will cause people to suspect the motive of preachers proclaiming the good news, and it will be a stumbling block on the path to faith.

Another reality is that many early Christians were slaves.  Imagine yourself a slave with no income and you are required to tithe. What will you do? You did not choose to refrain, you simply have no means. Do you become a second class church member because you cannot tithe?

Our situation today is much closer to national Israel than to the fledgling church. We don’t have slaves. We expect full-time people to serve our spiritual needs. We want to worship in nice buildings and have good programs. We are consumers in our faith. Someone has to pay for it. Even if we meet in homes, it is someone’s home. When we listen to the preacher, he has to take time out to prepare spiritual blessings for us.  If we want full-time preachers we need to support him as Israel supported the Levites.  The question is how they are to be supported.

The beauty and genius of the Christian faith is our flexibility. The Christian community can function on a shoe string with no full-time preacher, a self-supported preacher, or a paid full-time preacher.  In countries such as Singapore where our economy is developed, the full-time preacher is the norm—and rightly so. In addition, we demand preachers who are trained in what they do. In Singapore, there are additional laws governing where people can meet and how any church or society must be run. These require resources to comply. Someone has to pay for these.

In contrast, the underground church to this day meets in homes and often do not have full-time preachers. They don’t have the overheads of the Christian faith expressing itself in a developed society. And truth be told, many have tried to function like the early church, but they have not succeeded. The social dynamics of a free and stable country place the same demands on the Christian ministry as they did on national Israel.

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