Background Scripture: Exodus 20: 3-17
Focus Passage: "Dear children, keep yourselves from idols." 1 John 5:21
We might as well cut to the chase. The very first commandment tells us not to allow anyone or anything to come before God. And, most of us most of the time, feel pretty smug about this one. We don't have a statue of Baal in our living room that we bow down to daily and we don't have a picture of Ashtoreth on the wall in our office either (although either of these could take the form of a flat screen TV). We are all caught up with our "One-year Bible Reading" and our prayer life, while not fantastic, is limping along nicely.
Then it happens! We are plodding through Deuteronomy, and we run across this verse in 14:23 - “The purpose of tithing is to teach you to always put God first in your lives.” Deuteronomy 14:23 (TLB) So, there it is. It's bothersome to think that God wants to come ahead of our money, but we can overlook it in Deuteronomy. That's so "old school!"
But, then we read Matthew 6:24 and 22:37 and we begin to realize that this is not just an Old Testament thing. Come to think of it, is it possible that, even though we say God has first place in our life and yet has last place in our budget...is that a contradiction? Perhaps that is why Ray Comfort, in his Evidence Bible, calls tithing "the Final Frontier" of Christian living.
All of this brings us right back to the Ten Commandments and the fact that we are living under Grace and not the Law. So, what is to be our attitude toward money and how do we keep God first even though we have needs and how do we view this LAW/ GRACE conundrum as New Testament Christians?
The issue is never the dollars. The issue is devotion. Yes, the Israelites were to give a tenth of their gross income to support the priestly ministry and, yes, they were also commanded to give another 10% to support festivals, feasts, and holidays, and, yes, they were to give another 3.3% to the poor and gleanings on top of that (remember Ruth?), and occasional additional offerings as needed such as funding the temple, etc. So, the average Israelite was giving closer to 27% of his gross income, not 10%.
By comparison, the average American Christian gives 3-4% of his or her income to church or para-church ministry or anything else for that matter. Which brings us back to the enigma of keeping God first with our money while celebrating our Christian freedom from the Law. After all, whenever tithing is mentioned in the Gospels, it is usually in a negative light as in the Pharisees giving because it was on their list of things-to-do today to look good.
If you really, really want to know the answer there, is perhaps no better place to find it than 2 Corinthians 8-9 and no better New Testament example than that of the Macedonians.
I highly encourage you to read those two chapters later, but allow me to summarize for you here the bullet points version:
The church in Jerusalem, the very birthplace of Christianity, had fallen on hard times.
The three churches Paul had planted in Macedonia (Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea) had given to the Jerusalem church generously through grace even though they were poor.
The Macdedonian churches had given sacrificially, meaning that they had to adjust their lifestyle in order to do this. In other words, they felt it.
They gave with overflowing joy.
They gave with grace (the word grace is found 4 times in the first 9 verses of ch. 8)
Paul was using their example to encourage the church in Corinth to put aside their differences, to unite in love, and to carry their act of giving to completion.
If you do read the entire passage, slow down when you come to chapter 8, vss. 8-9 (in fact highlight them) and then again in chapter 9 vs. 6. I can add nothing what Paul has said here to explain the New Testament act of giving. He was not "commanding" them to give, he was just asking them to be more like Christ who, though he was rich (had it pretty good in heaven, you know), he became poor so that we could be rich.
Now, before you take that last phrase out of context, let me say that I think it is a tragedy that some American churches and pastors are exporting the so-called "prosperity gospel" not only to Americans but to Africa and Asia and that I agree with Pastor John Piper that it is no gospel at all. With that statement, we have come full circle back to the 1st Commandment since the "prosperity gospel", I firmly believe, is the most sophisticated and modern form of idolatry but idolatry none the less.
Keep and Defend the Faith,