The following is a lightly edited transcript.
Before I say anything about that text, I want to try to answer a question, namely, why, when Paul in the New Testament, endeavored to motivate Christians to give money to the cause of Christ, did he never use the command to tithe as part of that effort? I want to begin by giving three things that are not the answer to that question.
Not Abolished, Out of Place, or Unneeded
First, it is not because Jesus abolished the tithe. You never read anywhere in the teachings of Jesus: “You have heard that it was said to you, ‘Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse,’ but I say to you 5 percent will do, or two or one.” In fact, what you do read in the gospel writers is Luke 11:42.
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.
In other words, what Jesus said was never use tithing for a cloak or cover of injustice horizontally, or lovelessness vertically. Rather, do those great things without neglecting tithing. So Jesus never condemned or wrote it off. He said, it’s not the most important thing, but do it.
Second, Paul chose not to command tithing to his churches, not because proportionate giving is out of place in the New Testament. It isn’t out of place. It’s precisely in place. First Corinthians 16:2: “On the first day of every week,” Paul said, “each of you is to put something aside and store it up as he may prosper.” That’s just another way of saying proportionately. If you prosper a lot, lay more aside, if you prosper a little lay less aside, but what’s that, but tithing? That is, there is no contradiction between tithing and proportionate giving because all tithing is, is a particular proportion. And so that can’t be the reason. It’s not as though proportionate-ness is out of place in the New Testament, and therefore tithing is out of place since it’s proportionate. That’s not the reason he didn’t command tithing.
Here’s a third reason he didn’t. It isn’t because the ministry needs are smaller in the New Testament church. In fact, I think we could show that they are greater. Let me just list off some of the costs Paul mentions in the New Testament church. He says, for example, in Galatians 6:6, “Let him who teaches or let him who is taught, share all good things with him who teaches.” In 1 Timothy 5:18, when he talks about the payment that full-time preachers and teachers should receive, he says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when he’s treading out the grain,” and, “the laborer deserves his wages.” Not only that, Paul expects that the poor in the church ought to be sustained by the financial resources of the people in the church. He shows that very clearly for elderly widows in 1 Timothy 5, and he also shows it with regard to the poor saints in Jerusalem in Romans 15:26.
Not only that, Paul teaches that the missionary enterprise of the church is to be supported by the giving of the people of God. He makes this plain because when he writes to Rome, he asks that they would help support his mission to Spain. And he says in 1 Corinthians 9:7, “Who serves as a soldier at his own expense?” In other words, teaching, preaching, caring, and missions all cost money, and they’re all to be paid for by the believers in the church. And probably the cost was greater than in the Old Testament because the mission to the unreached peoples of the world lay much heavier on the hearts of the people in the New Testament than it did on the people in the Old.
So the reason that the tithe was not commanded by Paul in any of his letters is not because Jesus annulled it, nor because proportionate giving is out of place. It isn’t. Nor because the need is smaller. It isn’t. Well why? Why didn’t Paul take this dominant Old Testament command with regard to money and use it when he was trying to raise money among the churches?
Willingness, Liberality, and Generosity
I’ll suggest three reasons. Number one, he didn’t command the tithe because he wanted to emphasize willingness over constraint. Second Corinthians 9:7 says:
Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion for God loves a cheerful giver.
There’s a principle there. The principle comes out again in the book of Philemon, this little one chapter book where he’s writing to this fairly wealthy man who has a converted slave now, Onesimus, that he would send him back to Paul, give him up in other words, be generous. And here’s what he writes in Philemon 8–9:
Though I am bold enough to command you, Philemon, to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you.
Here’s another illustration of the principle. Second Corinthians 8:8, he’s trying to stir up the Corinthians to give as generously as the Macedonians. And he says,
I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others, that your love also is genuine.
In other words, Paul is playing down the commandment in order to play up willingness, freedom, authenticity, joy in giving. That’s the first reason I think he didn’t use it.
Here’s the second reason. He didn’t use the command to tithe in order to emphasize liberality rather than limitation. I get this from 2 Corinthians 8:3 where he’s commending these poverty stricken Macedonians, who were such a model to all the other givers. He said, “They gave according to their means” — that’s proportionate giving — “as I can testify, and beyond their means of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.”
In other words, Paul wants to play down commanding, not in order to limit giving, but to unleash liberality that will go beyond strict proportion, like the Macedonians.
Here’s another illustration of that. Second Corinthians 9:6 says:
He who sows sparingly will reap sparingly. And he who sows bountifully will reap bountifully.
In other words, the issue for Paul was not how to get people up to an acceptable minimum. The issue for Paul was how to unleash maximum liberality and the command to tithe just didn’t fit. It was too narrow. It was too limiting. It strove for a minimum, and Paul didn’t want to strive for a minimum.
I think the third reason he didn’t use this command is because he wanted to stress the idea that all of our getting and all of our earning should be designed for giving. I get this from Ephesians 4:28. I preached on this about a year ago.
Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his hands, so that he may be able to give to him who is in need.
In other words, for Paul, the alternative to stealing was not working so that you might get in order to have. The alternative to stealing was working so that you might get in order to give. And they’re two totally different approaches to life. You see most Christians, or I don’t know if most, I don’t think it’s true at Bethlehem of most, but might be true in general. I don’t know. Many Christians seem to think that the only sin relating to money is stealing, and that’s not the main sin. The main sin is just working to have, instead of working to have to give. Instead of making yourself a channel, you become, like a Germans call it a sackgasse — a dead end street, a cul-de-sac. That’s the worst sin with regard to money.
Now let me sum up why I think Paul didn’t use the command to tithe. He didn’t ever use it because in his effort to motivate people to give, he wanted to stress willingness over constraint, and he wanted to stress liberality over limitation. And he wanted to stress that all of life, all of the earning and getting and working and spending should be for the building of a platform from which we then give, love, serve, and pour out. And tithing just didn’t help him that much in that regard.
Connection to Malachi
Now, what does all this have to say when we go to Malachi 3 and I have to preach on a text on tithing? That’s what I’m faced with this morning. What would you do if you had to give a lesson on these verses? Malachi 3:7-12. It says in Malachi 3:8 that not tithing is robbing God. Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, “how are we robbing thee?” In your tithes and offerings. And then Malachi 3:10 makes it very explicit. It’s a command. Bring all, or the full tithes, into the storehouse.
Now, how does Paul’s approach that we’ve seen help us handle this command? Do we set it aside or do we keep it? Is there a New Testament way of setting aside this commandment and a wrong way of setting aside the commandment? Well, I have deduced from Paul’s handling of this issue of giving, two guidelines that I’m going to use and commend to you for how to set aside this commandment. All right? I want you to follow Paul’s guidelines for how you set aside this command.
Guideline number one goes something like this. I’ll illustrate it and then I’ll state it in a sentence at the end of the point.
First, if we are going to set aside the commandment to bring tithes into the storehouse, because it sounds legal and slavish, and because we want to foster willingness and freedom, then let us beware of jumping out of the frying pan of legal slavery to a command, into the fire of carnal slavery to greed and fear.
You see sin is an extraordinarily deceptive being. He lurks behind many doors and there are two in relation to tithing. There is a door called self-righteousness and there is a door called self-indulgence, and sin lurks behind them both. He lurks behind this door of self-righteousness, and he sees the command to tithe coming and he approaches him and says, “Come in, come in, come in.” And then he boasts in his piety that he has made tithing a guest and fulfilled this command to the letter: mint, dill, and cumin.
If that’s not your problem, don’t think you’re off the hook because there is another form that sin takes over here behind the door of self-indulgence, and it sees this guest coming and it says, “Excuse me, we’re full here. You go down to the legalist’s house, so that I can justify my purchases and my worldly pleasures.”
Paul’s aim, however, in trying to minimize the constraints of New Testament givers and elevate their willingness — his effort was aimed at stirring up holy affections, not comforting us with worldly affections. So let me state the principle. It goes like this. This is a principle for how to set aside the command to tithe. Don’t set this commandment aside, except to awaken a deeper freedom from the love of money. Don’t set this commandment aside, except as a means of awakening a deeper freedom from the love of money. If setting this commandment aside plays into the hand of your love of money, it is a sin to set it aside. That’s principle number one.
Second, don’t set aside this commandment in order to serve greater limitation, but only to serve greater liberality. Let me say that another way. If your motivation in setting aside the commandment to tithe is so that you can feel content not tithing, your motivation is wrong. I’ll say that again. If your motivation in setting aside the command to tithe is so that you can feel content not tithing, your motivation is wrong. You see Paul set this commandment to the side, not to condone the cords that bind us to the love of money. He set the commandment aside to break those cords and free us for greater liberality. Therefore, the manipulation of this commandment off to the side in order to bring peace to our consciences while we do less, is not a New Testament motivation for setting this commandment aside.
And what I’m saying is this, the logic that I have heard so many times never makes sense to me. Let me try it out on you. It goes something like this: “We live in the New Testament. We have seen the love of God for us at Calvary. We have seen the power of God for us on Easter morning. We have been filled with the Holy Spirit of grace and sonship. We are secure and nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38). We have the promises of the Almighty that he will supply all our needs, according to his riches and glory in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19). Therefore, we may be content to give less than Old Testament saints.” I’ve never understood that logic. It has never made any sense to me. And I actually hear it.
It’s like saying, “There’s no commandment that I have to kiss my wife every day. And so, to show my freedom, I will kiss her once a week, and be free.” It’s like saying, “There’s no law that says I have to spend an hour playing with my sons in the evening. And so, to magnify my freedom in the responsibility of fatherhood, I will play with them for five minutes on Tuesday, or Thursday if I feel like it, because I’m free.” Or like saying, “There’s no commandment that I have to take a walk when the leaves turn gold in the fall, or when the first snow falls. And so, I will sit in my room and pull down the shades, and show slides on my new super-duper dissolver of last year’s leaves.”
I have never understood this logic. I don’t think God understands it. The logic that says, “I have Christ, not commandments, so I can be content not to give what people gave, who never knew the son of God, nor tried to reach this world for Christ.” Does it make sense to you? You come to me after the service and explain that logic to me, if you can. But someone might object, now wait a minute, John, all those analogies you just used. I mean, kissing your wife and playing with your sons and walking in the new fallen snow. Those are pleasant. Tithing is not pleasant. It won’t work. To which I answer, on the basis of 20 years of personal experience, on the basis of dozens of testimonies, and more importantly, on the basis of Malachi 3:10, 11, and 12, tithing is like that.
That’s the point of the text. Isn’t it? It is like kissing your wife. It is like playing with sons. It is like walking through new fallen snow. I mean, do you hear the mercy in this text, or does tithing just sound to you like a weight? This text is all mercy. Let me show you, if you don’t see it. Do you know who he’s talking to? He’s talking to people who question the love of God. Remember that five weeks ago? “How has thou loved us?” He’s talking to people who despise his name. “How have we despised your name?” He’s talking to people who brought him broken-legged, mangy, blind sheep, because they loved the profit of their sheep selling more than they loved their God. He’s talking to people who teach what is false. He’s talking to people who break their covenants and oppress the hireling. How does he come to them in Malachi 3:10, 11, and 12? Like a judge?
Let me paraphrase the way this person, this God, talks to you this morning. All you non-tithers. Listen. He says, “Test me. Test me. Prove me. Try me. I will open heaven. I will stop the destroyer. I will cause your vines not to miscarry. Test me. Test me.” Does that sound like a judge? Have you ever heard God pleading with you to let him bless you and make you happy? Are you listening? That’s what Malachi 3:10–12 is doing. The outstretched hands of a bountiful God pleading with a money-loving people — “Let me bless you with heaven, with power.”
The reason that God pleads with you this morning to make tithing the launching pad of your giving and your liberality is because he wants you free like ravens and lilies from the love of money and from the fear of need (Matthew 6:25–30). Do you not know that your father knows that you need these things (Matthew 6:31–32)? He wants to open heaven. Stop the destroyer. Make the vine bear. Yes, yes, yes.
Tithing is like kissing your wife and playing with your sons and walking in the snow, because it comes back to you in years of wifely faithfulness. It comes back to you in sons who grow up in righteousness. And it comes back to you as the snow and the white and the quiet take the frenzy out of your heart. “Test me,” says the Lord of hosts. Tithe, at least.