Friday, March 11, 2011

Tithing, Levites and the New Covenant High Priesthood of Christ

This is going to be kind of a long post because I wanted to provide lengthy Scriptural references so please bear with me.

I was thinking more about the idea of tithing and how that principle has been carried forward and linked into the local church and clergy system. I think a lot of the confusion and misapplication of the tithe to the New Covenant people of God is a result of Christians not really taking the time to examine the whole tithing system, why it existed, what purpose it served and why it has been annulled. Combine that with the general difficulty many Christians have in differentiating between shadow and fulfillment, between the Old and the New, and it becomes apparent why this question of the tithe is so often misapplied in the church.

It sometimes seems that the idea of tithing in the Old Testament is seen as essentially the same thing as offerings on Sunday morning at your local church.

In the Old Testament, God’s people brought their tithes and offerings to the temple and the priests lived off part of that while ministering.

In the New Testament church, God’s people bring their tithes and offerings to the local church and pastors live off part of that while ministering.

Simple, right? That sounds dandy but here is the problem. Nothing could be further from the truth. God commanded tithing very purposefully. It was not done in a vacuum but rather had a substantive purpose for a particular time that was intertwined with the entirety of His commands to His people. The tithe was both a sacrificial act of obedience and served a practical purpose in supporting the Levitical priests.

“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. (Deuteronomy 18:1-5 ESV)

The Levites of the Old Covenant were a particular subset of God’s people, set apart out of all of the people of Israel for a specific purpose. They were not counted in the census God ordered but instead they were called to serve in the tabernacle:

But the Levites were not listed along with them by their ancestral tribe. For the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Only the tribe of Levi you shall not list, and you shall not take a census of them among the people of Israel. But appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of the testimony, and over all its furnishings, and over all that belongs to it. They are to carry the tabernacle and all its furnishings, and they shall take care of it and shall camp around the tabernacle. When the tabernacle is to set out, the Levites shall take it down, and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up. And if any outsider comes near, he shall be put to death. (Numbers 1:47-51)

The Levites were not given an inheritance like the other tribes of Israel because the offerings were to be their inheritance…

To the tribe of Levi alone Moses gave no inheritance. The offerings by fire to the LORD God of Israel are their inheritance, as he said to him. (Joshua 13:14)

God did not give the tribe of Levi an inheritance. Because of this, the tithe was given to the Levites and they were largely dependent on the offerings…

“To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting, so that the people of Israel do not come near the tent of meeting, lest they bear sin and die. But the Levites shall do the service of the tent of meeting, and they shall bear their iniquity. It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations, and among the people of Israel they shall have no inheritance. For the tithe of the people of Israel, which they present as a contribution to the LORD, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance. Therefore I have said of them that they shall have no inheritance among the people of Israel.” (Numbers 18:21-24 ESV)

The tithe served sort of a dual purpose. It was a commandment, a sacrifice to God and it also served as material support for the tribe of Levi who was commanded to serve God in the tent of meeting. It is a brilliant system.

So all well and good. What is the problem?

Just this minor little point. The Levitical priesthood is gone, done away with, obsolete, kaput! The tithing system where the first-fruits were brought into the storehouse and given to the Levites served the purpose of providing them sustenance as the priests who ministered in the house of the Lord and served as intercessors for the people is over. It was not intended as a permanent system and the old priesthood of the Levites has been replaced by a new, infinitely better High Priest…

Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.” But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second… In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. (Hebrews 8:1-7, 13)

Under the New Covenant, Christ Himself is our great High Priest and He has made propitiation for sins, once for all time. He is our intercessor and believers have access to the throne of grace through Him directly without the need for a human intercessor. Because of that the Levitical priesthood has expired and is shown to be a type and shadow of Christ as High Priest. We don’t have a separate, set apart subgroup of Christians who should live off the offerings of the rest. We are all a royal priesthood and the example we have from Scripture is of even the apostle Paul working for a living so he could support his own needs as well as give to the poor.

The tithe and the subsequent bequeathing of the tithe to the Levitical priests was specific to them and it did not transfer to Protestant ministers. How can I make that assertion? Quite confidently as it turns out. There simply is no linkage unless you assume the professional Protestant ministry and then read that back into the text. The New Testament certainly doesn’t make the connection. Even the Apostle Paul in his oft misquoted treatise in 1 Corinthians 9 was more interested in why he did not seek the financial support of the church rather than a defense of why he deserved it and he was an apostle, not a local church pastor!

The world of offerings being brought to a central place and used to financially support that place and those who were “employed” there is from a time and situation that changed forever with the cross, as did so many other practices from the world of the Old Covenant. We force these practices onto the church to our peril and the history of the church has proven this over and over again. Merely teaching Christians that they should tithe because the Old Testament references it, without also studying and explaining the what, how and why of tithing, does a disservice to God’s people.

Tithing is a word that is thrown about and misapplied all the time in the church. Many men in ministry, men who have studied the Scriptures and should know better, frequently use “tithing” to describe giving to the local church, creating an equivalence in the minds of many Christians that is unwarranted. Giving to the needs of others and proper stewardship of money are such vital topics in the church. This doctrine of money deserves to stand on its own and not be blurred by a misapplication of an Old Covenant practice. Honesty and faithfulness to the Scriptures demands nothing less.


Aussie John said...


Excellent words. The early church knew that all that they were, and possessed, belonged to Christ, hence their willingness to part with what they had in service to others.

Tim A said...

Very well said.

Arthur Sido said...

Thanks Tim and John!