- Interpretive Challenges We Face
- Lessons to Learn from Firstfruits and the Tithe
- Actions to Take
We recently finished the 10 commandments in Deuteronomy, where we discussed a few verses per week, all from the same chapter. Last week we heard how Jesus used truths from Deuteronomy to combat temptation. Next week, Daniel will be preaching from Deuteronomy 15 on care for the poor.
Today, we’re going to listen to what Deuteronomy tells us about how we should respond to God’s material provision for us. Remember, Moses is preparing the people of God for how they should live once they enter into the Promised Land. He wants them to remember God’s deliverance and provision once they get settled into their new settled lifestyle. They have been a nomadic people, both historically, and especially for the last 40 years. But God is about to lead them into the land of milk and honey, or provision and sweetness. God knows many of the temptations that they will face as they get settled in the land.
God knows that his people face special temptations when they are prosperous. Certainly there are temptations for us in difficult, challenging times. But, we should also recognize the risks of prosperity.
Proverbs 30:8–9 (ESV) — … give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the LORD?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.
The author here knows there are challenges in being poor as well as being rich.
We are occasionally aware of the particular temptations that face us as a culture. Certainly, we are aware of the eroticism of our age and the ever present reality of pornography and sexual immorality. We are aware of Satan’s attacks on the nuclear family as a foundation for human flourishing. We are concerned for the secularism of our postmodern age, where our culture is trying to erase the acknowledgement of our God and Creator from every public space.
Our texts in Deuteronomy today have medicine for an ailment that we may not even acknowledge that we have. Moses knew that the Israelites would face this temptation once they had settled in the Land. If that were true of the Israelites 3500 years ago, it is certainly true of us today, living in perhaps the most prosperous time of the most prosperous nation in all of human history.
The topic this morning is about money and giving. More specifically we are going to talk about “firstfruits” and “tithing.”
It can be a bit awkward for preachers to talk to their churches about giving, so I want to say a few things up front.
First, we’re teaching on this because it’s here in our text. This is one of the great benefits of preaching through books of the Bible—we teach on topics that we might otherwise skip. Well, here it is for us to consider today.
Second, I’m not preaching on tithing because of some financial crisis at the church. God has been very gracious to us over the last year. The church’s income has remained steady and above the budgeted expectations, even through a time of Pandemic. Of course, we don’t know what the days ahead hold, but we are confident that God will be with us.
Third, I really do believe that you are a generous people. Though the elders as a rule do not see how much individuals give, we do see the trends and financial reports, and we also observe the ways that you all generously meet the needs that are brought your way. As an example, there has been around $55,000 given over the last 10 months for alms needs. This is above your regular giving.
Having said all of that, it is good for us to look at what the Word of God says about giving. Each of us has room for either repentance or growth in this area. We are all bombarded with the world’s view of possessions and materialism. We are all tempted to make an idol out of money or the comforts that money can buy.
Billions of dollars are spent annually for the best science and best analytics and best creatives to try to convince you that stuff can make you happier.
Just as one example, in 2019, there were 43 commercials during the Superbowl. They averaged $5.3 million dollars each. That is $227,900,000 spent during one sporting event to convince you that you need more or different stuff.
Of course the biggest problem with our materialism is our own hearts.
There is more to a biblical understanding of money and possessions than simply how we give and tithe. For instance, we could talk about borrowing, or risky investments, or saving for the future. But the topic of tithing is a huge means of grace to help turn our hearts away from the world and toward the Kingdom of God.
There are three sections to the sermon today.
- First, we’ll look at some interpretive challenges for approaching giving in the Old Testament law.
- Second, our largest section will be 9 lessons we can learn from Firstfruits and the Tithe in Deuteronomy.
- Finally, we’ll reflect on some New Testament exhortations for giving and possessions.
As a main idea, I’d be thrilled if you could work hard today to understand that though biblical giving accomplish ministry and bless others, it also helps turn your own heart toward God in worship, gratefulness, and faith.
Let’s pray toward that end.
- those suffering with COVID-19
- Fred Wolfe’s father possibly on his deathbed.
- help us move toward a more biblical understanding and practice of giving.
I. Three Interpretive Challenges We Face
There are at least three difficulties in understanding and applying the teachings on tithing from the Pentateuch.
How many tithes are in the Old Testament law?
There are a limited number of passages in the Bible that talk about tithing. Here are all the Old Testament locations.
- Leviticus 27:30-33
- Numbers 18:8-32
- Deuteronomy 12:5-14
- Deuteronomy 14:22-29
- Deuteronomy 26:1-15
- 2 Chron
It’s not obvious how many different tithes are mentioned between Leviticus, Numbers, the passages in Deuteronomy.
Do more recent ones replace older ones? Are they added to the older ones? Are they simply re-explanations of previous tithes? Specifically, do the descriptions of tithing in our passages in Deuteronomy further explain the giving of commands for tithing in Leviticus 27 and Numbers 18?
As we’ll see in our main passage today in Deuteronomy 14, there are at least two separate tithes mentioned there. Let’s read the passage now.
Deuteronomy 14:22–29 (ESV)
- (22) “You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year.
- (23) And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always.
- (24) And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the LORD your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the LORD your God chooses, to set his name there,
- (25) then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses
- (26) and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household.
- (27) And you shall not neglect the Levite who is within your towns, for he has no portion or inheritance with you.
- (28) “At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns.
- (29) And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.
As you can see, there are two separate, distinct tithes mentioned here.
- Deuteronomy 14:22–23 (ESV) — “You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose.
- Deuteronomy 14:28 (ESV) — “At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns.
So, we have a tithe that is to happen yearly, and another one that happens every three years. It’s not really obvious if the three year tithe takes the place of the yearly tithe or if it is in addition to it. The commentaries go either way on this question.
Then there is the additional difficulty in deciding how these tithes relate to the the other feasts and offerings mentioned throughout the Law in Leviticus and Numbers.
Though I don’t believe it’s necessary to come up with a percentage of income that is represented by these different tithes and offerings, it is important to realize that it wasn’t just ONE tithe—a clean 10% of income.
Should we consider the tithes in the Old Testament as part of the moral or ceremonial law?
In our Reformed understanding of the Law, we separate the laws of the Pentateuch into Moral, Civil, and Ceremonial. The Civil laws primarily had to do with the Nation State of Israel and how it should be governed. The ceremonial laws had to do with the sacrificial system of Judaism that was fulfilled and satisfied by Christ and done away with. The Moral Law, we believe, is still binding and applicable to the Christian.
Where should Firstfruits and Tithing fit? They were part of the distinctives of the nation of Israel. They were also part of the religious ceremonies and feasts. But are they limited to those applications only? These answers are not simple, but the way I am approaching this question in this sermon is that there is a moral component to tithing that transcends mere ceremony or civil law and order. Certainly, there are specific aspects to how the Israelites tithed that were specific to their culture and situation, but there is a broader principle that carries on before and after.
I say before because there were examples of Tithing before Moses. We see examples from Abram and Jacob.
When Melchizedek King of Salem comes out to bless Abram, Abram gave him a tenth of his spoils.
- Genesis 14:20 (ESV) — and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.
After Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28, he builds and altar and vows to give a tenth of all of his increase.
- Genesis 28:22 (ESV) — and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.”
These examples are significant because they show the tithe principle predating the Mosaic Law.
I’ll also insert here that Jesus, when speaking to the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:23, affirms that they should indeed be tithing, though they shouldn’t neglect the weightier matters.
Matthew 23:23 (ESV) — “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.
If we accept that the Old Covenant patterns and commands are for the church today, now what?
This is a slightly more practical question. If we grant that the tithe is a moral obligation for Christians what exactly are the correlations between the Old Testament and the New?
- What is the “place that the Lord chooses?”
- Do the Levites and Priests correspond to vocational ministers in the New Testament church?
- What is the regularity supposed to be of our giving?
And even one step further, if we make the connections between the OT and NT, we still have to make practical application for moving from an ancient, agrarian society to our modern, technological one.
To put it as plainly as I can, am I saying that we all need to be farmers or shepherds and bring 10% of our produce or our flock to Jerusalem for a feast and a sacrifice once per year?
So, I do want to make the point that the principle of the tithe applies to us today, though the working out of how, when, and to whom we give is better explained to us in the New Testament.
Now let’s turn to the lessons we should learn from Deuteronomy.
II. Lessons to Learn from Firstfruits and Tithing
Understanding that we are not an ancient, agricultural society, there are still some lessons we should learn and seek to apply to our own situations from God’s instructions about giving. I’ve listed nine, but we’ll go through them quickly.
1. Give at least a tenth
In some sense, this is the crux of the disagreement over whether or not Christians are obligated to tithe. Are we obligated to give 10%?
This is fairly basic, but a very important point to make. Let’s look at Deut. 14:22 again.
Deuteronomy 14:22 (ESV) — “You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year.
The word “tithe” means “tenth.” It doesn’t just mean, make an annual offering to the sanctuary. I have friends who will tell me that they tithe, but they only give 3% of their income. What they mean is that they give regularly to the church (which is admirable), but this actually isn’t a tithe. A tithe would be 10%.
In the examples above with Abram and Jacob, it’s clear that they gave 10% of their increase. That is what Moses is requiring here.
We actually ask this question in our interview for prospective members… “Do you tithe? If not, are you working toward that goal?” As I stated earlier, we are not interested in checking up and doing the math. But, there is a biblical pattern to follow.
I named this lesson #1 “Give at least a tenth.” Why did I say it that way. Well, first, as I’ve stated, there were multiple tithes in the OT, but it’s relatively difficult to see how they all relate. But more importantly, Christians should see 10% as a starting point for giving, not a ceiling.
J.I. Packer made this point in an article. He passed away at the age of 93 on Friday, by the way.
It may be a good idea to practice tithing as a crutch until we get used to giving larger sums than we gave before, but then we should look forward to leaving the crutch behind because now we will have formed the Christian habit of giving more than 10 percent. When the amount to give is in question, the sky should be the limit, and the word of wisdom, “Go for it.”
- J.I. Packer, “4 Truths About Christian Giving”
2. Give regularly
We see this in vs. 22 as well. “Year by year.” This was not just a one-time gift. It was each year based on how God had blessed. It included grain, wine, oil, and the firstborn of the herd and flock. This yearly tithe makes sense for the agrarian culture and the annual feast when the tithe would be taken to the place that God would choose.
In the New Testament, Paul calls on the Corinthians to set aside money each week for a need.
The principle is that giving should be regular and intentional, based on how God has blessed you financially, not haphazard or irregular.
Practically, there are different ways to approach this as a Christian. I know some of you out of principle give weekly when we meet together as a part of your worship. Others of you tithe monthly or whenever you get a paycheck.
3. Give while celebrating with others
This was a new thought for me, connected to the tithe. Look at v. 23 again.
Deuteronomy 14:23 (ESV) — And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always.
The tithe was not just something they mailed in a check for. Part of the giving of the tithe for Israel was a feast together with others eating what God had provided. Perhaps you can see it more clearly in vs. 26.
Deuteronomy 14:26–27 (ESV) — and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household. And you shall not neglect the Levite who is within your towns, for he has no portion or inheritance with you.
Part of the way Israel was supposed to give their tithe to the Lord was to take the firstfruits from it and have a big party together, remembering God’s goodness to them. This is described again in Chapter 26.
Deuteronomy 26:11 (ESV) — And you shall rejoice in all the good that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you.
When is the last time you took a portion of God’s provision for your family and set it aside for a worshipful celebration feast of how good God has been?
4. Give to support the work of the church
This is one of those areas where it is a little tricky to know exactly how to correlate the Old Testament model to the New.
The “Levite” and the “Priests” are mentioned in 14:27 and 29, as well as a whole section in Chapter 18:1-8.
Deuteronomy 18:1–5 (ESV) — “The Levitical priests, all the tribe of Levi, shall have no portion or inheritance with Israel. They shall eat the LORD’s food offerings as their inheritance. They shall have no inheritance among their brothers; the LORD is their inheritance, as he promised them. And this shall be the priests’ due from the people, from those offering a sacrifice, whether an ox or a sheep: they shall give to the priest the shoulder and the two cheeks and the stomach. The firstfruits of your grain, of your wine and of your oil, and the first fleece of your sheep, you shall give him. For the LORD your God has chosen him out of all your tribes to stand and minister in the name of the LORD, him and his sons for all time.
Thought there is not a 1 to 1 correlation between Levites and Priests on one hand, and on New Testament church pastors on the other, there are some similarities. They are both charged with leading and facilitating the worship of the people of God, as well as teaching and explaining the scriptures.
Furthermore, Paul makes a strong case that those ministers who preach the Gospel should have the right to get their living by the Gospel in 1 Cor. 9:14.
5. Give to support the needs of others
I don’t know if you caught it or not, but the third-year tithe wasn’t just for the Levite. It was also for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow within the towns.
Deuteronomy 14:28–29 (ESV) — “At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.
This triennial tithe could be in addition to the annual or possibly a replacement in years 3 and 6 of a seven year cycle. Daniel will talk about the 7th year, the year of release, next week.
But the typical annual tithe is taken to a central location. Not so in the 3 year. That tithe is stored up in the nearest town to share with those in the community who didn’t own land. This could be the Levite (who were not allotted land) or orphans, widows, or sojourners. These groups were not necessarily poor, but this was a way for them to enjoy God’s abundant provision apart from an inheritance of land. But the reality is that these groups often would be poor.
Care for the poor was structured into the regular economic life of the nation. It was not left to private charity. Rather, it was a public duty that the weakest and poorest should also be enabled to eat and be satisfied from the blessing of Yahweh on the whole nation. Only thus, indeed, would that blessing abide (v. 29b). Only by sharing the blessing would the blessing continue—a central spiritual and ethical principle (cf. 15:14, 18).
- Christopher Wright, Deuteronomy, p. 184.
6. Give while acknowledging God’s deliverance
Chapter 14 describes the annual tithe and the triennial tithe.
Chapter 26 goes into a bit more detail about the religious practice of these feasts. Moses tells them that when they come into the land and get their first harvest, that they should put some of it in a basket and come to the priest. Then, they recite how God brought deliverance for them.
Deuteronomy 26:5–8 (ESV) — “And you shall make response before the LORD your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders.
It may seems that Israel’s deliverance from Egypt was far removed from this particular harvest. But Moses wants them to see the connection, and to acknowledge it. Their offering included a proclamation of how God had delivered them.
How much more this should be true of us. We should remember that God’s blessings on our lives didn’t start with this year’s paycheck. It began with the good news that Jesus came and gave up his life that I might receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life. This gives much more meaning to a tithe. I’m saying more than, “thanks for the groceries.” I’m at a much deeper level acknowledging that I have no good apart from Christ my Deliverer.
7. Give while acknowledging God’s provision
But, they were not to stop with the distant deliverance from Egypt. They were to acknowledge that this very harvest was a gift from God as well.
Deuteronomy 26:9–10 (ESV) — And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O LORD, have given me.’ And you shall set it down before the LORD your God and worship before the LORD your God.
Our giving should be a regular opportunity to acknowledge God’s faithful provision in our lives. We should not arrogantly believe that all that we have came by our own hand.
8. Give as an act of worship
We just read this in vs. 10, but the result of bringing this basket of firstfruits before the priest and reciting and acknowledgement of God’s provision was to lead to worship.
Deuteronomy 26:10-11 (ESV) — And you shall set it down before the LORD your God and worship before the LORD your God. And you shall rejoice in all the good that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you.
Worship goes beyond thinking about the gift and looks to the One who gave it. And this worship is not just private or personal. It is corporate.
I realize we practice many of these elements of worship on a weekly basis. We sing, declare, praise, and acknowledge God’s deliverance and faithfulness to us. The point we should remember here, is that in Deuteronomy it is connected to their faithful tithing.
This can be challenging for us when our giving is so separated from our corporate gathering, not to mention that our giving is often a simple financial transaction, not a feast.
9. Give with petitions and expectations of blessing
There is one more lesson tucked away at the end of our passage in Chapter 26:15
Deuteronomy 26:15 (ESV) — Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey.’
One final giving activity is remembering to pray for God’s continued blessing on his people.
How should we as Christians adjust this prayer? We’re not praying for the “Land” promised to us, at least not the Land in the Middle East. I think it is appropriate to pray that God would bless the work of our hands—to bless us financially.
III. Actions to Take
Some actions to take
- Put into practice some of the lessons from Deuteronomy that may be missing from your giving.
- feasting (with family, friends, fatherless, widows, and sojourners)
- proclamation of deliverance
- prayer for future blessing
- Consider (and discuss with your spouse) whether or not you should make adjustments to the regularity or amount of your tithe.
- Are you actually giving 10% or more? When is the last time you actually did the real math to adjust how you give based on how God has blessed you?
- Tithe first, not from what’s left over at the end of the month.
- Consider whether you’ve been viewing the tithe as a ceiling instead of a beginning of what you should give. Can you even imagine a life where you’re living on 80% or 50% of the money you make? Randy Alcorn can help us here in his great little book, The Treasure Principle.
Tithing is God’s historical method to get His people on the path of giving. In that sense, it can serve as a gateway to the joy of true grace giving. It’s unhealthy to view tithing as a place to stop, but it can certainly be a good place to start. Tithing isn’t the ceiling of giving; it’s the floor. It’s not the finish line of giving; it’s the starting blocks. Tithes can launch us into the mind-set, skills, and habits of grace giving.
- Randy Alcorn, The Treasure Principle, p. 64
- To put this into practice, consider the next time you get a raise or bonus at work, or some other financial windfall—consider whether you should increase the percentage you would give, not just the amount.
- Discuss with your family, or perhaps even more boldly—with others in your small group—whether your financial decisions show a joyful generosity toward God’s Kingdom or a slavish addiction to the comforts and pleasures of this world.
- Ask God to give you the spiritual gift of giving (or generosity) in Romans 12:8.
- Pursue paths that will lead you to greater faith, greater dependence on God, greater love for his kingdom, greater generosity to others. This could mean:
- working harder or changing jobs
- getting out of debt to free up more to give
- intentionally lowering your standard of living
- adjusting your preparations for the future
Conclusion / Application
As we close, let’s look at a warning, a promise, an exhortation, and a gospel truth.
Jesus warns us.
Matthew 6:19–21 (ESV) — “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Jesus promises us.
Luke 6:38 (ESV) — give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”
Paul exhorts us.
2 Corinthians 9:6–8 (ESV) — The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.
Finally, Paul reminds us that it’s not our gifts to God that open up heaven to us, but God’s gift to us.
Titus 2:13–14 (ESV) — waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
Tithing isn’t merely for the good of the Sanctuary, the Levites, the poor, or the Church. It is for OUR good. It is part of God’s plan for us to experience dependence, contentment, and joy in Him.
Thank you Father for being a gracious, generous, Giver. We are so grateful that our salvation is not dependent on us or our giving, but rather on you sending Jesus, your most precious Son, to die for us that we might inherit eternal life.
Help us, Lord to acknowledge that all we have belongs to you. Help us life our eyes above our wants, possessions, and comforts to see the glory of your Kingdom, and ways that we can be investing in it.
Give us, your people, hearts of generosity and faith so that we might find our ultimate and lasting joy in you, and bring glory to your name.