September 17, 2006
While tithing was established as the basic pattern of giving in the Old Testament, the New Testament neither legislates nor dismisses the tithe. Pulling from the whole Bible’s wisdom, Alistair Begg explains how the grace of giving supersedes the particular percentage of a tithe. The Bible’s guidelines encourage Christians to practice a personal pattern of regular and proportionate giving based on God’s ownership of all we have. Beginning with the local church and expanding outward, our sacrificial gifts will honor God.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to take your Bibles, and we’re going to read together, first of all from Psalm 24, and then from 1 Corinthians 16.
The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it;
for he founded it upon the seas
and established it upon the waters.
Do you realize what an incredible statement that is in twenty-first century America—how it runs virtually countercultural to everything that is thrust upon us in the scientific and educational world? Indeed, it stands all of that up on its heels.
The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it;
for he founded it upon the seas
and established it upon the waters.
Who may ascend the hill of the Lord?
Who may stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to an idol
or swear by what is false.
He will receive blessing from the Lord
and vindication from God his Savior.
Such is the generation of those who seek him,
who seek your face, O God of Jacob. …
Lift up your heads, O you gates;
be lifted up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The Lord strong and mighty,
the Lord mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, O [ye] gates;
lift them up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is he, this King of glory?
The Lord Almighty—
he is the King of glory.
And then in 1 Corinthians 16:
“Now about the collection for God’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem. If it seems advisable for me to go also, they will accompany me.”
Father, help us now as we just briefly, again, look at this whole matter of our giving. Challenge and enable and equip us, we pray. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
I know by now you must’ve grown tired of me saying, “I would like just to treat this briefly this evening,” ’cause I’ve never been successful, but I honestly would, for more reasons than one—not least of all, the fact that my five-minute address to the six o’clock annual meeting became a thirty-minute ad hoc dissertation, which I never planned for, and I’m quite frankly a little bit weary. But I also don’t want to steal my own thunder from next Sunday morning, and yet I don’t want to do a disservice to us this evening. So let me get at it straightaway, this whole matter of the grace of giving.
We began the day by noticing that any consideration of giving has to begin with the fact of God’s giving. And when we consider God in both his work of creation and in the work of redemption, we realize that God is a God who takes the initiative and gives with wonderful generosity . And this morning in 2 Corinthians 8 we saw that, and you get it again in 2 Corinthians 9, to which we’ll come, God willing, next Sunday morning.
The foundational element of that is important, because it allows us to lay down as axiomatic this: that when we have given to God all that we are and all that we have, we have simply given him what is his own. That’s why, by the time Paul gets to the end of Romans 11, he asks the question, “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?” It is inconceivable that we, as mere mortals—that as created beings, even as his children by adoption in Jesus—that we could ever somehow put God in our debt. And so, when we consider the resources that we have and the responsibilities that come with those resources, it is imperative that we keep in mind those three g words: grace, gratitude, and giving.
Now, I said this morning that I managed to make my way through the material without really ever mentioning the word that is usually uppermost in people’s minds when it comes to the matter of giving within the framework of a local church, and that, of course, is the question of tithing. And having said that I would say something of it, I’m duty-bound to do so. Let me treat it as briefly as I can, not for any other reason than that I think much of the material is familiar and probably does not need to be gone over very much at all.
Our question is, essentially, What does the Bible teach about tithing? And we can say two things. First of all, that tithing was the basic pattern of giving in the Old Testament. Now, just so that we’re absolutely clear, a tithe is a tenth part—a tenth part of anything. And it may well be that it was used simply because human beings have ten fingers and ten toes, and they counted largely in tens. And God, perhaps accommodating himself to those circumstances and making it easy for individuals, established this particular process. And, as we’ve read in Psalm 24, men and women were to give both that which God had provided in creation and in their lives, because “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.”
And from the very beginning, the Jewish people were instructed to bring tithes to God. They were to bring tithes of their cereal and of their fruit crops and of their livestock. So if you, for example, imagine going out to Middlefield—going out to the market there at Middlefield—whether you were purchasing fruit or vegetables or whether you were participating in one of those wonderful livestock auctions, if you could’ve imagined it within a Jewish context, if somebody was about to bring ten calves for auctioning, then one of the ten would be set aside to be given to God. Of all the material that would be brought for purchase, a tenth of it would’ve immediately been set aside for the well-being and the purposes of God. The people of God were then to pay their tithes to the Levites. I’m not giving you a bunch of cross-references. I can do it for you, if you are taking notes; I’ll maybe throw them out to you. For example, you can read of this in Numbers chapter 18, and my previous reference is in Leviticus 27. But they were to bring their tithes to the Levites. Those Levites, then, in turn were required to give a tenth of their tithe to the priests. And so the principle worked on top of itself.
When you read the Old Testament, you discover that this pattern was firmly and fairly established, but in times of spiritual indifference it fell into disregard. And as a result of that, God had to come to his people and speak to them concerning their indolence as it related to these things. For example, in 2 Chronicles 31: “Hezekiah assigned the priests and Levites to divisions—each of them according to their duties as priests or Levites—to offer burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, to minister, to give thanks and to sing praises at the [gate] of the Lord’s dwelling.” And then it goes on to identify the role of the priests and the Levites, and how
the men of Israel and Judah who lived in the towns of Judah … brought a tithe of their herds and flocks and a tithe of the holy things dedicated to the Lord their God, and they piled them [up] in heaps. [And] they began doing this in the third month and [they] finished in the seventh month. [And] when Hezekiah and his officials came and saw the heaps, they praised the Lord and blessed his people Israel.
By the time you’re reading the book of Nehemiah, after Nehemiah has done his initial work and has gone away, he comes back and is distressed to discover that the people who had made these great affirmations about their devotion to God had slipped up on their commitment. And so, for example, in Nehemiah and in chapter 13, Nehemiah says,
I also learned that the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them, and that all the Levites and singers responsible for the service had gone back to their own fields. So I rebuked the officials and asked them, “Why is the house of God neglected?” [And] then I called them together and stationed them at their posts.
[And] all Judah brought the tithes of grain, [and] new wine and oil into the storerooms.
And then they were in turn “made responsible for [the distribution of] the supplies to [the] brothers,” and so it went on.
Now, that is just to acknowledge the absolute and established pattern in the Old Testament. What does the Bible teach us about tithing? It teaches us, firstly, that tithing was the basic pattern of giving in the Old Testament.
It also teaches us, secondly, that tithing is not stated as an obligation in the New Testament. It is a pattern in the Old, but it is nowhere an obligation in the New. In fact, if you look for tithing—if you take a concordance and look for tithing in the New Testament—you’ll be hard-pressed. You will find, for example, the references made by Jesus in Matthew 23, as well as in the other Synoptic Gospels, to the Pharisees who set their commitment to tithing above acts of justice and of mercy, and Jesus chides them for that very thing. Not directly related to tithing, but nevertheless, it is a mention of the same.
When we have read the New Testament together, we’ve said that there is a development in thought in Scripture, and that what we have in the Bible is often best read from the back going forward. Because as things unfold and as they’re developed, you would expect to find that what is present in the Gospels will then be worked out in the history of the church as recorded for us in the Acts, and then, by the time you get to the letters either of James or John or Peter or Paul, that these individuals will be providing for us the inscripturated truth of the essential, abiding, significant elements of biblical theology and of Christian living. All of that to say this: when you read the letters of the New Testament looking for the question of tithing, you are confronted by an eloquent silence on the matter. Bottom line, it is just not there.
Now, this must surely be significant. After all, someone like Paul—who was brought up in a strictly monotheistic and Jewish home, who was by his own designation “a Hebrew of [the] Hebrews”—we might expect that such an individual, in writing to the churches of his day, would have laid down an ongoing, abiding place for the Old Testament pattern, or at least have alluded to it as a tangential reference to the principle as it would be applied. But in fact, he doesn’t. He doesn’t.
Now, let me just pause and say something regarding this. Don’t think ahead of me here and say, “Begg has decided to take on some kind of anti-tithing posture.” You’re running ahead of me. But I have a ton of stuff in my files, written by people whom I really respect, that tells me that this stuff is where it isn’t. And that gets me annoyed! That gets me concerned! Because if they’ll tell me that stuff is there when it isn’t there about this, maybe they’ll tell me something’s there that isn’t there about that. And maybe they’ll tell me something’s missing when it isn’t missing about something that is present. That’s why I say to you, “You’re sensible people; you need to read the Bible and see if these things are so.”
So some of you—I can tell by your eyes—you already can’t wait to get out of here, ’cause you were convinced that tithing was all the way through the New Testament, and you’re unsettled already by my comments.
Let me quote to you someone that I admire, David Jackman; he says, “The New Testament emphasis on generous giving militates against the idea of a percentage levy, since some would be able to give far more than ten percent, and others, for a time, may not even be able to give that.” ’Cause if you think about it, the 10 percent lets a lot of people off the hook, depending on the nature of their disposable income—creates the notion that instead of everything belonging to God, only a tenth of it belongs to God, so nine-tenths of everything belongs to me. “Well, that’s wonderful! Because I can cope with that,” we might say. “But I don’t like the idea of God invading all of my rooms, all of my finances, all of my bank balances.” So I think Jackman makes a very important and helpful point.
Now, in saying that, we’re not saying something else. In other words, the New Testament does not—and you must check for yourselves—lay down the principle of the tithe. But neither, it must be said, does it set it aside. In other words, you can’t find a verse that says, “And by the way, the tithe is out of here forever and for good.” So it doesn’t establish it as a principle, but nor does it, in any overt and straightforward way, set it aside. Therefore—and I think this is where most of my friends would be coming from, and indeed where I come from—therefore, it is not unreasonable to assume that the New Testament presupposes that the giving of God’s people would be more than equal to the standard pattern under the old covenant. Now, let me say that to you again so that no one misunderstands me. The New Testament does not lay down the principle of the tithe, but neither does it set it aside. It is therefore not unreasonable to assume that it presupposes that our giving will more than equal it. But that’s all that can be said. And when you set it in those terms, you realize how important it is, as I mentioned this morning, that nobody adopts a legislative position in relationship to this or lays any stricture on the back of any of God’s people’s necks in relationship to their own personal giving.
Now, that’s why we read in First Corinthians 16, and I’ve just a mention or two on it, and then I think I’ll just wrap it up. First Corinthians 16 follows First Corinthians 15; you’ll notice that, won’t you? And First Corinthians 15 is a phenomenal chapter on the resurrection. Paul is soaring the heights of biblical theology. He wraps it up with an exhortation in 58: “Therefore,” he says,
my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
Now about the collection for God’s people.
See? The glory of the resurrection, scaling the heights of theology, descending very quickly and straightforwardly to the elements of practical administration. It is a matter of significance and concern.
The collection was being made for the poor in Jerusalem. This collection—we like to use the word offering, but “collection” speaks to the mechanism; there had to be some means whereby money was collected. It’s one of the hard things, just in passing, about how we do what we do even as a church—you know, passing things by. It’s good insofar as it is clear and an obvious way to go, but it also is an embarrassment to people who didn’t come prepared to put anything in the plate, and we’re not trying to obligate them to do so. But, of course, if you put a little bucket at the back, history has proved that some of the most devoted people manage somehow or another to miss it on the way out, and therefore deprive themselves of the privilege of contributing in the way that they said they would.
The collection was simply some mechanism that would provide resources for God’s people, and he is now reminding the Corinthians of what he had told the Galatian churches to do. That’s verse 1. And what were they to do? Well, they were to set aside the money in a manner that was regular: “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income.” First of all, notice the regularity of it: it was to be “on the first day of every week.” By this time, you see—by the time Paul is writing to the Corinthians—the first day of the week has been established unequivocally, despite what Dan Brown says in that jolly book. But the first day of the week has been established unequivocally as the day of worship and the day of sacrifice and the day of praise. And you can read that right from the get-go at the end of Mark’s Gospel, and then you find it in Acts as well.
But the sense of the importance of it all was in the regularity of it. And I think there is something there for us to pay attention to. The needs of people are regular needs, and if giving is not regular in its approach, then there will be an irregularity in the way in which funds are provided, and therefore, perhaps, a discrepancy in the way in which needs are being met. For myself, I just find it very, very helpful to—I speak both for myself and for my wife—I just find it helpful to operate in this kind of way. Because I am by nature rather poorly disciplined; I operate very easily on a subjective basis. And so it’s a helpful rod for my back to say that in this way and at this time this is what I will endeavor to do. And whether that is weekly, or monthly, or whatever it is, nevertheless, the instruction was for regularity.
Secondly, it was to be proportionate. It was to be “in keeping with [their] “income”—“in keeping with [their] income.” Well, that, of course, you see, leaves the burden very much with the person, doesn’t it? I don’t know what your income is, and you don’t know what mine is, and it’s probably best left that way. God does. And God really is the one with whom we need to deal, because he’s the one who searches our hearts, and he knows whether my giving is in keeping with my income. It may appear good to some; it may appear bad to others. Your giving may appear to be quite spectacular—unless, of course, we knew your income, and it wasn’t in keeping with your income.
This, of course, is where the idea of a starting point comes in, and when people come and ask me a question: “What is in keeping with my income, pastor? Where would I start?”
I say, “Well, you know, in the Old Testament the pattern was a tenth, and that is a good starting point. If you’ve never given regularly and proportionately to God, here is a good way to begin: take a tenth part of what you have and set it aside for God. But set it aside first. If you don’t—if you wait till the end of the month—there’s no guarantee that you’ll do it. And if you do it on a weekly basis, then you will be able to do it, perhaps, far more consistently.”
Regularly, proportionately, and also administered properly—administered properly. “Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem.” And the importance of propriety and integrity in relationship to funds is absolutely essential, both for the confidence level of all who give and also in order that we might be certain that what we give will reach its destination.
Now, this makes clear the place of the local church, doesn’t it? Because Paul here is speaking to Corinthian believers within the gathered company of them. The same would be true of the Galatians and so on. And the pattern that we have always thought to be wise and helpful is the pattern that’s established back in Acts chapter 4, where it says that the people in Jerusalem brought their gifts and brought their substance and laid it at the feet of the apostles, trusting that God would order the apostles in such a way that they could be relieved of the burden of having to decide what to do with everything and where it goes, in order that these individuals would take on that charge.
Well, we no longer have apostles at whose feet we may leave our gifts, but we do have the church as it has been established, and we have elders of the church who have been given the responsibility to exercise oversight, and spiritual oversight covers the financial affairs. And for those affairs, as well as others, each of us will give an account to God.
But let me say this to some of you, from whom I hear this coming back: “Well, I don’t give to Parkside anymore, because I was at the meeting, and I saw how much money they have. They don’t need any more money. So I’m going to give it to people who do need money.” I understand the logic of that. But you’re wrong. You’re wrong. Because the place of giving is first and foremost the local church.
For example—and this may seem self-serving, but there’s no other way to quote the verse without quoting the verse—Galatians 6:6: “Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor.” In other words, where we are fed is where we first contribute. That’s not necessarily the only place, but it is the first place. That is why, in 1 Timothy 5, Paul is able to say that “the elders,” who take care of the church and do a good job at taking care of the church, “who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,’ … ‘The worker deserves his wages.’ Do not entertain an accusation against an elder,” and so on. “I charge you, in the sight of God … to keep these [things].” The local church is the place to give adequate and generous financial assistance, in its own immediate borders and then far beyond its borders. All of these things, and more besides, happen, continue to happen, and may happen in greater measure as a result of the steady, consistent, regular, proportionate, sacrificial giving of each of us in and through the local church.
And when on our radio program we mention the needs, we always say the same thing. If you listen sometimes, you’ll hear, “This is a listener-supported radio program. After, and only after, you have fulfilled your commitment to your local church, consider the possibility of partnering with Truth For Life in the cause of the gospel.”
Ultimately, you see, this is a personal thing. In some ways it really is a private thing; that’s why it’s not particularly easy to talk about or to reference. And it always is a spiritual thing. The writer to the Hebrews says it this way: “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.”
You know, I’m tempted, really, to say in conclusion what Augustine said when he was asked for advice in various practical matters. This is a scary response, I know, but it was Augustine, so you can blame him. He used to say, “Love God and do what you want.” “Love God and do what you want.” What should I do about my giving? Love God, and then do what you want. Because you know what I’ve discovered in fifty-four years of life? People do what they want to do. And our wanting, if it is subsumed under a genuine love for God, will change everything —not least of all, the release of our finances for the concerns of the gospel.
Now may the Lord bless us and keep us. May the Lord make his face to shine upon us and be gracious to us. May the Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon us and give us his peace, tonight and until Jesus comes or calls us to himself, and then forevermore. Amen.
 Romans 11:35 (NIV 1984).
 Psalm 24:1 (KJV).
 See Leviticus 27:30.
 See Leviticus 27:32.
 See Numbers 18:24.
 2 Chronicles 31:2–3 (NIV 1984).
 2 Chronicles 31:6–8 (NIV 1984).
 Nehemiah 13:10–12 (NIV 1984).
 Nehemiah 13:13 (NIV 1984).
 See, for example, Matthew 23:23.
 Philippians 3:5 (NIV 1984).
 See Acts 4:34–35.
 1 Timothy 5:17–19, 21 (NIV 1984).
 Hebrews 13:15–16 (NIV 1984).
 Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John 7.8.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.