When it comes to encouraging tithing among the faithful, the “go-to” text for the vast majority of preachers and pastors is Malachi Chapter 3 verse10 where God’s word says:
3:10 Bring the whole tithe into the store-house, that there may be food in my house, and test me now in this," says Yahweh of hosts, "if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough for.
The question before us is this: Is it proper for a Christian pastor to use this verse as a way to encourage tithing and promise blessing in return based upon the promise given in Malachi 3:10? Before I answer the question, I feel I need to preface what I say with a couple of important points.
1: This essay is in no way intended to imply that people should not give. While I strongly disagree that this passage is being used in its proper context, I firmly believe that the Bible teaches that Christians should be bringing their gifts and offerings to the table and that they will be blessed for doing so. However, the tithe, or exact ten percent figure, is a function of the old covenant law, not the new which has a radically different outlook on giving. I am not alone in this view.
John MacArthur in his "Commentary on the Book of Romans 9-16“ (Moody Bible Institute) has this to say:
".......Christians are not under obligation to give a specified amount to the work of their heavenly Father. In none of their forms do the tithe or other Old Testament levies apply to Christians." page 233.
To add weight to Macarthur’s position, I would add the likes of John Piper in our modern day all the way back to Martin Luther at the dawn of the reformation. Theological institutions such as Moody, Wheaton, Dallas, Talbot and Masters Theological Seminaries also hold and teach this point of view.
To be clear, none of these men or institutions would object to anyone giving ten percent. As a matter of fact, I am certain that all would urge you to give until it hurts, and the New Testament would back them up on that. So I pray that by the time I am done here, one does not leave feeling relieved of his or her Christian duty to give, because quite the opposite is true. The question at hand is this and only this: Are pastors fishing in the wrong pond by using the passage in Malachi in an erroneous way and by promising a blessing from God to the tither that is no longer available…and does it matter?
2: This is NOT an issue that should divide. There are many pastors that I love and respect that use this passage in regards to tithing. Reasonable men and women can disagree on issues of interpretation without division or contention erupting.
As we examine this passage in Malachi, I will be approaching it from two different angles. The first is the hermeneutical angle, in order to see if that passage is being properly applied to Christian individuals who are a part of the new covenant initiated by Christ Jesus.
Secondly, it’s important to examine the ramifications of ripping a passage out of its God-intended and ordained context in order to demonstrate a principle, even if it’s a Godly principle that the teacher wishes to promote. It is my firm belief that the misuse of this passage, no matter how well intended, results in the stumbling of tens of thousands of Christians every year. I believe that the misuse of this passage is the “gateway” to the prosperity gospel, if not the prosperity gospel itself in an embryonic state as it can unintentionally promote a “give to get mentality” among those who adhere to it. How many preachers have said “Begin to tithe and then keep your eyes peeled for the blessing,” to which I can only reply “Sir, my eyes have seen as far as Mars on a darkened night, but they are in no way so sharp that I can peer into Heaven, as my heart and the treasures that I desire are all stored there.” ( Math 6:21)
For many, for some reason when it comes to this verse, the well-established rules of hermeneutics — the art and science of interpreting scripture — seemingly become irrelevant. It is as if all the hermeneutical principles that have served the man of God so well for so many years are sidelined or tossed out the window altogether. What is the context? When was it written? To whom was it written? And what does the blessing from Heaven and filling the store-houses actually refer to? I have listened to numerous sermons on this passage in person and recorded, and in every single instance the text has been isolated, ignoring altogether these very important contextual questions.
The overall theme of the book of Malachi is a call to repentance. God had made a covenant with His people, and they had failed to live up to it. Blemished sacrifices (1:8), abominable priests (2:1), an unfaithful Judah (2:11), corrupt employers, injustice, oppression (3:5) and a general failure to keep the whole of the law and fulfill the covenant. Despite all of this, God was faithful to His people. He was calling them back as He says, “Return to me, and I will return to you…” (3:6) For this breach of contract they had been cursed. (Deut27:16 )
The “when” question is critical to the understanding of the passage. The book was written while the old covenant was still in effect. More on this critical point when I tie it all together.
To whom was it written:
Malachi was written to the nation of Israel. Another important point. Most teachers as they preach the verses preach it as though it was written with the individual believer in mind. Clearly we can see that this is not the case. God is speaking at this point to a nation. (3:9) Another important distinction that I will expand on.
What is the problem, the blessing and the store-house?
Many commentators agree that Malachi likely wrote during a time of drought, and if that was not bad enough, what little crops they did have were being destroyed by insects. (3:10-11) This is likely one of the reasons they were withholding a portion of the tithe as the conditions required them to give from the flesh as opposed to fat, an admittedly difficult thing to do.
Considering the conditions that they were facing, the blessings that the Israelites were being promised was not likely a general blessing but a specific blessing. The blessing was most likely rain -- “I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need ” -- and removal of the crop-destroying insects -- "I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear.”
I have heard it preached that if you as a Christian bring your whole tithe to the local church, that God will overflow your “store-house.” However, the “store-house” in the passage does not refer to the barn of an individual. It refers to the Temple store-house where the crop offerings were kept. “"Bring the full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.” (3:10)
Tying it all together :
With that basic background information in mind, let’s tie it all together and find out what God was getting at.
1: God’s promise was to a nation under a specific covenant, not an individual. The nation of Israel had turned their back on what they had promised God, namely that they would keep the whole of the law which included tithing, in effect turning their back on God himself. Do not miss this point: God was dealing with a nation according to the terms of the old covenant contract that was still in effect. It is critical that we understand that as Christians we are not in that covenant.
2: As the command and the promise was to a nation, it was the nation as a whole that must bring the full tithe and the nation as a whole would receive the blessing. Even if this passage was to be brought forward for our time, to stay consistent the correct teaching would be that the entire body of Christ would have to tithe in order to be blessed.
3: A major problem with trying to cash in on the promise of this passage is that it requires you to be in the old covenant, under the law to receive the actual blessing promised to Israel. Implicit in the text is a return to keeping the whole of the law. God had just rebuked them for many different infractions. He was in no way making a deal that says “forget all the other stuff, fulfill this one requirement and all will be well.” Due to the crop failure, this was perhaps one of the hardest commands for them to keep, requiring the most faith, implying that if they did this they would uphold the rest of the law as well. God ends Malachi saying, “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.” (4:4) He is in no way instructing the hearers that one rule or one statute would suffice. Let us also not forget the words of Paul to the Galatians where in chapter 3 verse 10 he quotes Deuteronomy 27:16, "For as many as are of the works of the law are under a curse: for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone that continues not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them."
3: Some may argue reasonably that the single act of tithing was a sign of repentance; therefore, God could bless them for it. And that very well may be true. However, we still must acknowledge that:
A: They were repenting for not keeping the laws of the old covenant, so giving their tithe was an indication of their intent to return to the law.
B: The promise then becomes, in effect, keep the laws of the old covenant and you will be blessed.
4: Contextually then, the intended result that God desired from the promised “promise” was a return to the terms of the old covenant, a covenant that God no longer desires to draw us to as he has instituted a new and better one. The desired effect of the promise is no longer desirable, making the promise in itself counterproductive. (More on that point in part 2)
5: At the time this promise was made, if one did not tithe he would be under a curse. Mal 3:9 and Deut 27:16) If one is to preach the “blessing” to those who do tithe, to remain consistent he must also preach the “curse” to those who do not. This then becomes very convoluted in the Christian context because when the non-tither begins to tithe he is blessed, but how? The blessing is the removal of the curse. Are we seriously to believe that new covenant Christians are cursed for neglecting an old covenant requirement?
6: Even if one did tithe 10% faithfully, week in and week out, that in and of itself would not fulfill the requirement to tithe. Why? Because to fulfill the requirement to tithe one must include the “third year tithe.”
God established a tithe for the poor, the widow and the orphans, etc., but it was only every third year in the Sabbatical cycle. (A sabbatical cycle is a seven-year cycle revolving around the Sabbath rest for the land.)
Deut. 14:28: 'At the end of every third year you must bring out all the tithe of your produce in that year, and shall deposit it in your town.' Deut. 14:29: 'The Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance among you, and the stranger, the orphan and the widow who are in your town, shall come and eat and be satisfied, in order that Yahweh your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.'
The third year tithe came twice every seven years and would refresh with each new Sabbatical cycle. This tithe would be for the poor, the widow, the orphan, etc., and God commanded that it would be placed in the town or city to come and take as they needed. This was God’s way of providing for the poor to His glory and honor.
But remember What God says one must do to receive the blessing, "Bring the FULL tithe into the storehouse…” (3:10) You cannot bring the full tithe without the “third year tithe.” Interestingly, but not surprisingly, I have never heard the third tithe preached by those who use God’s promise to Israel as a means of promised blessing to the faithful tither.. If God requires the “full” tithe in order to receive the blessing, that is no small detail to leave out.
7: Jesus talked about money a lot; however, in all of his talking about giving never did he link the giving activities of the believer to the passage under discussion. Not only Jesus, not a single New Testament writer does either.
Inevitably one cannot escape the fact that this is a specific promise, given to a specific people, under a specific covenant, due to a breaking of that specific covenant, during a specific time of specific hardship, with a specific remedy.
To be continued…