Thursday, February 14, 2013

Does Jesus Teach Tithing in Matthew 23?

How do I write a post about tithing when my point is really nothing about tithing? The title probably didn’t help my case any. What I want you to take away from this is more a way of reading the Scriptures and less a principle of giving.

I’ll say up front that my view of tithing is very similar to that of Dave Miller outlined here. If you want to use tithing as a guide and talk about giving on top of it, by all means go for it. If we read an article like Dave’s and think “woohoo now I can give 7% instead of 10%”, then shame on us for being such greedy misers. We don’t get giving anymore than the next guy. But I’ll leave all the arguing about tithing for Dave’s post. My main concern is with how we read the Bible.

On to Matthew 23.

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. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (emphasis mine).

Here Jesus tells the Pharisees that they ought to have tithed their spice rack. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he praises them for their straining of a gnat, but he certainly affirms their dedication to tithing. Clearly Jesus affirmed tithing for these Pharisees.

Nail in the coffin. Case closed. Pry open that checkbook, grab your calculator, do the math and give your 10%?


In Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus speaks of the need to reconcile with our brother before “offering your gift at the altar”. Now when we read this we just gloss over it and think of that place at the front of the church building where we go to pray or ask Jesus to save us. But that is not what Jesus had in mind when he says, “altar”. He is talking about an offering that was tied to the sacrificial system. That “altar” isn’t a place to just pray. It’s a place where something is going to die.

We know that in order to follow this text we don’t need to “leave our gift at the altar”. We don’t have bloody-sacrifice-an-animal altars and nor should we (read Hebrews). His point is that reconciliation to our fellow man takes precedence even over person acts of worship. His mention of the altar is simply a reflection of his living in the time of the Old Covenant.

Back to Matthew 23

Jesus affirms the Pharisees in tithing their spice rack because they lived under the old covenant. They would have been sinning not to follow this command. Even Christ Himself was born under the law. He was circumcised just like every other Jew. He paid tithes. He did everything that was required of one that was born under the Law.

But when Jesus ushered in the new covenant all of those shadows disappeared. The Levitical priesthood is gone. As Tom Schreiner has noted, “The tithe is irretrievably tied to the old covenant, which is no longer in force”. Tithing is not taught in Matthew 23 any more than offering sacrifices is taught in Matthew 5. And this is not because these are unbelieving Pharisees but because this is a statement that belongs to the Old Covenant.

Now if you want to make an argument that the tithe belongs in the New Covenant go for it. But I do not believe you can use Matthew 23 (or Luke 11) in your defense. It’s important that we read the Bible in light of the fulfillment of Christ.

This has massive implications for the way that we consider the role of the OT Law for believers today. For help with this I would suggest two phenomenal books by Tom Schreiner. First, his less technical book 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law. Second, his more technical The Law and It’s Fulfillment.


  1. And when Jesus said, "You must be born again..." He was speaking to a Pharisee under the Old Covenant. And when Jesus said, "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's..." He was speaking to some Pharisees under the Old Covenant. And when Jesus said, "Upon this rock I will build my church..." He was speaking to His friend and disciple whose nickname was Rocky.

    No one believes in context more than I do, but let us take care not to exclude portions of Scripture that do indeed apply to us simply because of the audience. Jesus never spoke to American Christians in the Bible. Some of the stuff He said to others sure better apply to us. He did not abolish the law. He fulfilled it.

    I don't sacrifice lambs. I don't keep kosher dietary restrictions. But many, many Old Covenant teachings still apply today. I think there is room to embrace the tithe as a New Testament teaching of Jesus.

  2. Rick, the point isn't just that Jesus was talking to a Pharisee under the Old Covenant; it's that he was talking to a Pharisee under the Old Covenant on a subject about which the Old Covenant had much to say, with specific rules for obeying. The other examples you offer don't have that relationship attached to them.

    I tell my adult son that he has to follow the rules of my house if he wants to live with us. I don't tell him to follow the rules of the house down the street in order to live in my house. That's the difference, and the point being made here.

  3. To me this seems more like a doctrine looking for a proof text rather than sound exegesis. Like tithing, levirate marriage existed before the Law, in the law, was mentioned in the New Testament, and neither Jesus nor the New Testament writers ever negate it. I see no promoting that as obligatory

  4. With the story of the old widow, Jesus teaches a gift of 100%.

    When Jesus tells the disciples that they must get rid of all they own, otherwise they cannot be his disciple, he also teaches giving at 100%.

    That exposes us, doesn't it?



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