Friday, January 27, 2012

How Should Christians Read the Old Testament?



One of the biggest questions that most Christians have when it comes to reading the Bible is in regards to how and what to apply to our lives today particularly when it comes to the Old Testament. It doesn’t take a Bible scholar to realize that many of the rules from the Old Testament seem difficult or impossible to follow or just downright strange in a modern context. So for many people the solution is to simply pick and choose which rules to follow based on what seems right or practical.

Usually Christians agree that following the Ten Commandments is a good idea and yet I don’t know of any Christians that really follow all ten. For the majority of Christians it is nine commandments because no one really follows Sabbath keeping the way that God had intended for the Israelites to follow Sabbath observance in the Old Testament (meaning refraining from all work at sundown on Friday and all day Saturday until sundown). The way that most Christians get around this one is to make Sunday the new Sabbath though a refrain from activities really isn’t practiced by most. And this reveals one of the most common approaches to how to apply the Old Testament – it’s simply a matter of finding functional equivalents to translate the ideas from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. This way of translating Old Testament into New Testament reaches into much of the way that people have come to understand church: the pastor becomes the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament priest, the church building becomes the New Testament equivalent of the temple, and tithes which funded the Old Testament priesthood and Temple (along with other initiatives to provide for the welfare of the poor and the stranger) easily gets applied to running it all.

Then there is another approach to the scriptures which often goes hand in hand with what I have listed above which is to apply the blessings and curses listed in the Old Testament to a New Testament context. This is demonstrated in preaching that urges people to give or pray or fast so that they will be blessed and not cursed. It is my opinion that these approaches to the Bible are built on a fundamental misunderstanding of the Covenants. In this post I want to offer what I see as a better way to navigate through these issues that both affirms the authority of scripture as well as one that will lead to flourishing and growth as people of the New Covenant.

So the first question I want to deal with is what was the Old Covenant? What were the terms of the Covenant? And what from that covenant is applicable in the New Covenant?

The Covenant God made with Israel was part of his rescue plan for humanity. The world had been caught in a downward spiral of sin since the fall (Genesis 3) but God was determined to have the world and his people liberated from the clutches of sin and rebellion. God’s rescue plan started with his promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 when God promised to Abraham that he would bless him so that all the nations of the world would be blessed through what God was doing in that relationship. It was Abraham’s descendants that became the people of Israel. They formed their identity under 430 years of slavery in Egypt until God was ready to move forward with the next phase – the Exodus. God raised up Moses as a deliver or his people who, through miracles, signs and wonders (the climax being the Passover) broke the Israelites out of slavery and set them on the path to the promise land. It was in the wilderness of the Exodus that God then made the Mosaic Covenant that would truly set Israel apart from all the nations of the world. This special relationship wasn’t just for the sake of being special but had at its core the continuing of God’s rescue plan begun with Abraham to bless the whole world. At one point God even tells them that they are to be a royal priesthood, a holy nation. In other words, their relationship with God was to show the other nations what God was like and to lead them to God.

This special relationship was codified as a Covenant which included the Ten Commandments as well as 600+ other laws that would govern everything from their diet to worship to the ways they cared for the poor. The Covenant was modeled after Suzerain Vassal Covenants of that day in which a weaker people would seek the protection of a lord or king in exchange for serving him. Though the set of laws governing the covenant was rather complex the underlying idea was pretty simple: if they obeyed the rules they would be blessed, if they disobeyed the rules they would be cursed. For the most part the blessing and curses had to do with land and prosperity. Blessings= land and prosperity while the curses= exile, lack and want. This is why most of the prophecies from the Old Testament tend to focus on either being rewarded for being faithful to the Covenant which meant prospering in the land God gave them or the judgment for not being faithful to the Covenant which would result in exile, want and lack (a failure of the crops to produce, or plagues of locusts etc.).

This simple understanding of the Old Covenant is immensely helpful in how to approach the Old Testament. To illustrate this I want to look at 3 passages from the Old Testament that seem very popular in modern Christianity.
The first is Jeremiah 29:11
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

I have seen this scripture on cards and bookmarks, as well as worship songs inspired by these words and the message is pretty clear – God has good plans for us. Yet if we read the verses in context we find that this scripture is about the Old Covenant.
Jeremiah 29:10-14
10 This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity.[b] I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

With an understanding of the Old Covenant we can see that this fits in the framework of the Old Covenant blessings and curses. As a father myself there are times when I have to punish my children. When I ground my son I tell him that I am punishing him because I love him and that when the punishment comes to an end he will have a fresh start with the hope that he learns to live life a better way. This is kind of what God is getting at in these verses. The Israelites had not obeyed the terms of the Covenant and were beginning an exile in Babylon. God tells them that this exile will be 70 years but closes by saying that he has good plans for them that they would prosper and that they would return to the land (blessings). When read in context we can see that the encouragement of 29:11 was directly related to the Old Covenant. I might add that reading this in context makes me a little reluctant to choose this as my life verse!

Another scripture that I have heard used quite a bit in my journey is 2 Chronicles 7:14
“…if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Again, if we take this verse on its own we miss the Covenantal language that frames it. Let’s look at it by including verses 13

13 “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, 14 if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

God is again speaking in the language of The Covenant. What is being said here is that if they find themselves in a drought, or with a plague of locusts it means they are not remaining faithful to The Covenant. What is then required is repentance and return to covenant faithfulness, which will be followed by God reinstating the blessings (healing the land).

Finally let’s turn to a very popular passage that I have heard cited in many a sermon on tithing – Malachi 3. I will cut to the chase and put this one in context from the beginning:

6 “I the LORD do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. 7 Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the LORD Almighty.
“But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’
8 “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.
“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’
“In tithes and offerings. 9 You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. 10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. 11 I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,” says the LORD Almighty. 12 “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the LORD Almighty.—Malachi 3:1-12

Do you see the pattern here? The Israelites were under a curse (God’s judgment) for not being faithful to The Covenant. The prophet is calling them back to covenant faithfulness as demonstrated in returning to God and following the Old Testament Law, which includes bringing the tithe to the storehouse. And as with the other verses we’ve looked at this if they choose to follow the Law they will be blessed (the land will bear fruit and the other nations will see the blessings).

Are any of the verses speaking directly to us as Christ-followers in a New Covenant? No. Theses blessings and curses were tied to following the Old Covenant. I will close by looking at a passage from Galatians written by a guy named Paul who used to follow the Old Covenant Law fervently before becoming a Christian.

Galatians 3:10-12
10 All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” 11 Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because “the righteous will live by faith.” 12 The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “Whoever does these things will live by them.”

In his letter to the Church of Galatia Paul is instructing the church on what place the Old Covenant Law has for followers of Christ. His conclusion is that unless you follow all of it you are guilty of all of it. So how much of the Old Covenant’s blessings and curses are for us? None. To try to follow any of the Old Covenant Law that Jesus himself has not explicitly carried over into the New Covenant is to step from freedom back into slavery. This isn’t simply a matter of grace verses works but of understanding that we are part of a whole new covenant based on God’s faithfulness in Jesus.

There are, no doubt, some questions that will be raised by this approach but I will turn to those in a future blog post.

Related Posts: Taking Care of the Temple
How Did the First Christians Read the Bible
The Bible Made Impossible - A Review
Book Review - God Without Religion

17 comments:

greenturtle said...

You have to admit, some of that old testament stuff can be pretty scary.

Atheists often quote the old testament, in an attempt to disprove modern Christian claims.

They claim, and in many cases they claim correctly, that most Christians really haven't read much of the bible-- because if they did, they would be shocked.

During my stint in the Catholic church, I was often told that "Catholics don't follow the bible." And my response was always "Neither do you; Nobody does."

And it's true! Nobody follows the entire bible literally, scripture for scripture, and anybody who claims to is... well, full of it.

And anybody who claims that whatever they say and do is always backed up by the bible, is also full of it.

After a few years in the evangelical and baptist churches, having heard so many conflicting opinions on what defines a Christian: what Christians should say and do, what they should not say and do, what standards they should and should not follow, who they should and should not associate with.

I finally asked God look, where do you draw the line? WHAT exactly is a Christian?

That's when I was led to Mark 12:28-31, which is echoed in Luke 10:25-28. In response to the question "What must I do to be saved?" Jesus said "You shall (besides) love the lord with all your heart and mind and soul and strength,(also) your neighbor as yourself".

So if one were to ask me if I am a Christian, well, that's a good question.

By Christ's definition, according to scripture, yes I am.

By the christian subculture's definition, which is very complicated and varies from person to person, generally no.

I don't go to church, nor carry a bible. I don't wear christian t-shirts or jewelry, nor have christian bumper stickers. I don't vote republican. I don't quote scripture in my everyday conversation. I don't "witness" or preach, or sing Christian songs in public.

I used to do all of those things, but still, I was never accepted by the christian subculture. I didn't "fit in", and frankly I'm not sure Jesus would either.

Today, some of my best friends are atheists, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

I can be a true friend to them, I can love them and pray for them, but that's all I can do.

Crispin Schroeder said...

Green Turtle, I think you bring up a good point about defining a Christian as one who loves God with heart, soul mind and strength and their neighbor as themselves. That is basically the only part of the Old Covenant that Jesus thought necessary to bring into the New Covenant.

If only Christians would focus on those two commands the world and individual Christians would be better off. I think, however, that it is much more comforting for people to settle into trying to follow a handful of Old Testament commands and then to define themselves against anyone else who does not follow those handful of commands (at least the way they interpret them). The sad thing is that when this happens not only do the Christians lose their freedom but they step into the role of the Pharisees who were always pointing their fingers at whoever did not measure up to their narrowly defined definition of righteousness. I have certainly lived that type of Christianity for much of my journey (I am still in recovery). But there has got to be a better way.

I think that a lot of this comes down to a way of approaching scripture and Christianity that is not based on the way that Jesus intended us to approach it. The truth is that if we concern ourselves with loving God and loving people then we won't easily fall into murder, slander, idolatry or any of the other ten commandments for that matter. We have got to learn how to live by the Spirit and in a new kingdom that is counter to the kingdoms of this world (as well as much of what we see in the churches as well).

greenturtle said...

The problem with adhering to "standards", is that everybody has different opinions on what those standards should be.

"Well then, just go by what the bible says!"

But how many people who say that, have actually read the entire bible?

And I've said before, the bible tends to mean what the individual person wants it to mean. It's like a cafeteria.

Some christians I've come across, are the most bitter and miserable people I've ever seen.

Sure they adhere to a moral code, they have bibles and "speak the language of the holy ghost". But they're just so rude, and very unhappy.

The christian subculture at best tolerated me on a superficially polite level, although some didn't even pretend to be nice.

I did my best to love God and be loving to everyone, but I was a nerd, and did not adhere to all of their standards all of the time.

See the moon? No one can go there on their own.

But suppose everyone in the church decided to try. Some would climb a 50 foot ladder, some would climb to the roof of a skyscraper, and some would climb mount Everest.

And the ones on mount Everest, well they certainly put forth the most effort, but they're still nowhere near the moon.

And they can laugh at me all they want, for being closer to the moon than I am. But they still aren't there, and can't ever make it on their own.

That's how I see people's efforts to be "great christians" by following a list of rules, and shunning me because I don't.

They're still no closer to God than I am, because nobody can get there by themselves.

Pi Man said...

Wow – so much to say and write about this that I can’t without writing another dissertation. So I’ll just make a couple general comments. Lonnnnng general statements – ha!

While I do read the bible for all practical purposes daily, I also am a student of the Word, and have been for years. I probably study the bible with more passion and thankfulness than I ever did my professional studies in undergraduate or graduate school. And I will continue to be a student of the Word, as it absolutely enriches and blesses my life, and it makes me a better servant of God. And by better, I mean better than I was before, not better than someone else. As you have often said Crispin, and as is biblically supported, we’re blessed to be a blessing. (And as a caveat to that, let me say that the mental healing and peace that I have received by God’s grace in seeking to continue to understand what the heck this infinitely magnificent work that we call the bible is all about has been and continues to be of immeasurable wealth to me.)

Ok, for the meat of my discussion: Jesus clearly explained that he did not come to abolish the Law, but instead, to fulfill the Law, and to establish a New Covenant with us. Works for me. So while I understand that studying the Old Testament can and sometimes does leave one shaking their head, it frankly doesn’t bother me. I know Jesus came to set the captives free, not enslave them to a new set of legalistic rituals and requirements. In my 50’s now, I’ve “been there and done that” having what I perceived to be countless intellectual and theological discussions, debates, and arguments over everything you can probably imagine. From the hot-button topics such as homosexuality and baptism by immersion versus sprinkling to various versions/translations of the bible, to the more exhausting discussions of trying to answer the unanswerable. This last one truly and ultimately must eventually lead you to two choices: believe in faith or walk away. The former the more desirable and which grows and is refined each time it’s stretched, and the latter exactly what the enemies of God want – for one to be estranged from the only One who can help (and from those of like minds and faith), full of (understandable) cynicism as with some of GT’s comments, and now not attending any body of believers church. (Believe me, I understand, GT. I was brought up a Catholic, then was a *member* (not just visitor) of the Baptist and Methodist denominations, as well as spent *significant* time in various “full-gospel-non-denominations,” Assembly of God, Church of Christ, etc. I say that to make sure my comments here are not taken as disrespectful or without a basis of understanding to your comments.)

Finally, I agree that verses can and often are taken out of context. And certainly anyone who has the title of “Pastor” has a more difficult time because I am sure you are continually asked your “opinion” of this and that, to explain the deep mysteries and apparent contradictions, etc., not to mention to clarify when misapplications of isolated verses take place. That said, I think that we can, if we choose to do so, make too much of that at times. If the principle of the isolated verse is biblically sound, that is, in accordance with the teachings of Jesus, and if by following said principle it does not violate any other generally accepted teaching/principle of God, and brings the individual into a closer and more meaningful walk with God, then I’m all for it.

We’re all at different points in our walk with God, and as we continue to “seek, knock, and ask,” we continue to grow. So again, while I think we should always take verses in context of the paragraph, of the chapter, of the book, of the Testament, and of the bible as a whole, I certainly think we can make too much of that at times. Thanks as always for making me think Crispin, and thanks for sharing how you continue to “wrestle” with God. Peace. TA

greenturtle said...

Pi Man, thank you for being understanding. A lot of people don't.

I've spent the last ten years trying to recover spiritual abuse, which means, any kind of abuse in the name of God.

In other words, to justify the abuse by scriptures, or claiming that "God told you" to do it. When God had nothing to do with it, but it took me years to actually figure that out.

To tell someone that God does not want them.

It's definitely caused me to not trust Christians.

"Even Christians?" ESPECIALLY Christians. "Even the most devout, spirit filled, in touch with God's voice Christians?" ESPECIALLY the most devout, spirit filled, in touch with God's voice Christians.

Then again, if they really were that "spirit filled and in touch with God's voice", they would not be so hateful to me. So, it must be just a show.

I've wanted to ask so many people, "How can you worship God the way you do, when you're so hateful to the people he loves?"

And I know what the answer is-- it's just a show.

It's tough to recover alone, yet I definitely avoid seeking help from "the body of Christ" because they're the ones who caused it in the first place!

Oh, I do occasionally try to put my feelers out, and see if anything has changed in the last ten years.

Only to find that to this day, they're still no different... but I am.

Although I'm not atheist, I can certainly relate to my atheist friends, many who have the same past experiences with church.

I guess to reverse my own question to others, what am I going to do, once I realize I will be spending the rest of eternity with these people?

Hey, I'm easy; If they decide they don't have a problem spending it with ME, then I guess I won't either.

Ben Davis said...

Crispin, great question you ask. Thought provoking as always. I think many people have these questions of how to rightly read and apply the Old Test. The first time I actually read through the entire Bible I remember wondering, "What does this have to do with anything?"

Slowly, as we consistently read through the entire Scriptures (It is ALL God-breathed and useful according to 2 Tim 3) we begin to connect the dots and see more clearly the redemptive story God has been writing. Crispin, you did a great job of recounting this, and I appreciate the framework you used in terms of Old Covenant and New Covenant. That is, I think, the very best way to read and apply both the Old and New Testaments (They are covenants!)

That being said, I believe every principle of the Old Cov applies, but in a NT way. God did not change His mind on what is right or holy, His purposes for the His people or the world. As Pi Man noted, Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it! God's original intention for us can now be realized because of Jesus, as the mediator of a new and better Covenant. (Heb 9:14-28)

Much of the NT is the early church working through these very issues (Old Coven vs New)...How do Gentiles become saved? Do they have to be Jewish (circumcised)? How do Jews relate with Gentiles? Can they eat with them (recall Peter's vision in Acts 10 and the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15)? The big question in the 1st century was: How has God included Gentiles in salvation, and at the same time kept His promise to Abraham's descendants? This is the "mystery" to which Paul so often refers.

“This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” (Eph 3:6...one of many examples...much of Eph 2 & 3 are about this, Col. 1:21-27; all of Romans!)

The point? God has been faithful to His promises. This has been His plan for all time.
This perspective becomes clearer when we keep in mind that much of the NT quotes the OT and does not NEGATE the principle, but rather shows how it is truly fulfilled and applied in the New Cov. All of the promises (covenant blessings) are YES in Jesus (2 Cor 1:20).

So, the principle of sabbath rest applies, but in a New Cov way. The principle of atonement and of tithing applies, but in a New Cov way (Note that all of these were in effect BEFORE the law was given...God finished his work and blessed the 7th day/Sabbath...God made coverings for Adam and Eve when they sinned/atonement...Abel brought a better offering to God than Cain because it was a tithe, his first and his best, Abraham tithed, Jacob tithed 400+ years before the law).

Context is very important, but we consistently see the authors of the NT using OT references in a New Cov way. The principles still apply...they are eternal, but in a new and life-giving way. I cannot ignore the way the NT points us to the OT. 1 Cor 10 tells us that the OT is an example for us to learn by. 2 Peter points us to the OT as proof that God's judgement is real. Hebrews is probably the best exposition on Old Cov principles applied through the New Cov reality.

Jesus said, "Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old."(Matt 13:52).

All of that to say that I think it's a mistake to ignore Old Cov principles. That's not what Jesus did in my opinion. We do, however, need to understand that because of the New Cov all of the Old Cov curses have been taken care of through the cross of Christ...If we are in Christ we don't need to fear any curse! Likewise, all of the New Cov promises are secured through Christ (2 Cor 1:20). It truly is not about following rules, but being in Christ.

Great conversation. Thanks for letting me chime in.

Crispin Schroeder said...

There is no doubt that the New Testament is chock full of references to the Old Testament. Certainly when Paul and the author of Hebrews talk of the power of the scriptures they weren't talking about the New Testament because it didn't exist yet. But we can learn something about reading the Old Testament by the ways that Jesus, Paul and other NT writers looked at it. One way that much of the OT is viewed by these New Testament authors is that Temple and the temple system, passover and other festivals, Sabbath observance etc. were to be seen as signposts pointing to what would ultimately be fulfilled in Jesus, the Messiah.

Northshore Vineyard has been going through the gospel of John for a few months. In the first few chapters we see Jesus compared to the passover lamb who takes away the sins of the world, the Temple (Jesus calls himself the temple), and the snake lifted up in the wilderness which took away the judgment of the Israelites and brought them healing. What the Gospel of John is showing us is that these Old Testament pictures were pointing to the reality of Jesus.

So for New Covenant people, Jesus is the passover lamb that takes away the sins of the world, he is the bread of life (as manna was to the Israelites in the wilderness), he is the high priest and mediator between us and God the Father, he is the temple (the very place where heaven and earth intersect), and he is the Sabbath rest of which Hebrews refers.

So in Jesus we have reached the destination that all of those signs were pointing. In light of Jesus the whole Temple system is done with. It is obsolete along with everything that was attached to it: priests, sacrifices, temple tax, tithes, and even the Temple itself.

So when Jesus says that he has come to fulfill the law that is very true. On the cross he ended that covenant and started a new covenant based on himself. So as noted the issue for first century Christians was how much of the Old Covenant Law do we have to follow to be New Covenant people? And Paul's answer- none of it! In fact to begin following things like circumcision was to step backwards into the Old Covenant or as Paul put in Galatians to step from freedom to slavery again.

As Paul wrote in Galatians 3 "Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by human effort? 4 Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? 5 Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by your observing the law, or by your believing what you heard? 6 So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”[Galatians 3:3-6)

What is he getting at? They had started by being lead by God's Spirit but had fallen back into following the law.

For the record, I think Christians should be generous with their time and money. As for tithing, I think it can be great as a discipline (I know if I don't set aside money in my budget to give I will spend it all on my own wants and needs). My issue is when people use passages like Malachi 3 so utterly out of context to argue as to why Christians should tithe. That is taking a step from freedom into slavery. I know because I have taken that step myself before. All we can see in the New Testament is that people gave out of love, sacrificially, and by the Spirit. If we aim at that then we truly hit the reality that the law was pointing to. Yet to try motivating people from the outside with the law and promises of blessings or curses is to fail to realize what Jesus did as well as our place in the New Covenant.

Crispin Schroeder said...

I ran across this bit by Greg Boyd on the subject of tithing.

There is no fixed percentage given in the New Testament about what percentage of a person’s wealth they are allowed to keep. (The 10% tithe in the Old Testament was part of Jewish taxes and doesn’t apply to people under the New Covenant — despite how frequently it’s preached as law in some churches). But given that most of us Americans are the wealthiest people on the planet, and given that we’re surrounded by people who are starving to death, we need to seriously question whether we’re really listening to and obeying God if we’re keeping 97% of our wealth for ourselves.


I think what Boyd wrote hits at a very "kingdom" way of thinking through the issue of tithing.

greenturtle said...

I used to set aside 10%, and sometimes I would give it to the church, but sometimes give to charities or just individuals who needed it at the time.

I got the most personal blessing out of helping the individuals in time of need; In one case I saved a friend from being thrown from her home. And I would have done it again.

Giving to the church or to the campus ministries, I never got to see where the money was going; In some cases, something was bought that I thought was a wasteful use of resources, similar to how we as taxpayers feel when we see the government spend our tax money on stuff that isn't necessary.

I also didn't believe in putting my name on my offerings, so the church never knew whether or not I gave, or how much.

I wonder sometimes about the churches I've been banned from. I can't help but think, if all of my tithes had gone to them, with my name on them, would they have had more vested interest in keeping me?

After all, losing me was no monetary loss to them--on the surface, anyway. I'll never have proof of that, but it's something I wonder about.

As for the theology that "if you give to God, you will get rich", and sadly yes that is often preached.

I once got a letter in the mail from a well known minister, telling me that if I sent him $58, God would return that blessing to me many times over.

Sadly, I fell for it. After all, he was a "christian" and a well known minister, so certainly it's not a scam.

But, nothing ever came of it, except to make him $58 richer.

I mean, you can be richly blessed by giving, as I have been. It just won't be a monetary blessing.

Ben Davis said...

Interesting points here. Crispin and greenturtle, you both make some good observations. I know that when you start talking about money and the church there has been much abuse and many people are understandably jaded.

To the bigger issue of Old vs New Cov, make no mistake the Old Cov is obsolete! However, I do believe there are principles in the OT to be followed today. After all, a principle is a timeless truth. Many of the issues we've been discussing predate the law. They were clarified and prescribed in detail through the law, but nonetheless are timeless truths that existed before the law and continue.

I agree that Jesus is ultimate fulfillment, but I don't think it is completely accurate to say that the principle of the temple and everything attached to it has been done away with. There is still a priesthood (1 Pet 2:9). We do still offer acceptable sacrifices to God through Jesus (Heb 13:15; Rom 12:1). And there is still a temple (Eph 2:21-22; Rev 11:19).

As to no mention of a specific 10% in the NT, there are many references in the NT to things in the OT that point us back to the principle to be followed. For example, Paul quotes the law in his letter to the Corinthians that an ox should not be muzzled. Here's what he has to say about the principle:

Doesn't the Law say the same thing?9 For it is written in the Law of Moses: "Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain." Is it about oxen that God is concerned?10 Surely he says this for us, doesn't he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest.11 If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? (1 Cor 9:8-11)

Here is a clear example of Paul using an OT principle (from the law no less!) and showing that it should be applied to New Cov people. Just because something was in the OT does not render it null and void. Are we free to commit adultery because it was part of the law? Should children not honor their father and mother because it was commanded in the law?

Consider Eph 6:1-3 where Paul quotes another OT command to children AND INCLUDES the covenant promise of blessing! He did not make changes to it, nor did he suggest it would be legalistic to submit to this OT command, nor did he remove the stated blessing attached to it. The problem of legalism comes into play when we hold to our own goodness as a source of righteousness rather than the finished work of the cross, not when we simply obey God's commands with the grace and help of the Holy Spirit.

Tithing, in my opinion, is a timeless principle of honoring God with our first and our best. It is not the same as giving; it is returning to God what already belongs to Him. We see it before the law and it is much bigger than just our money. In Exodus 13, just after delivering God's people from Egypt, God says that all the firstborn (both man and animal) BELONG to him. This is why God was just in taking the firstborn as the final plague. This is why in Mal 3 God says it is stealing to withhold the tithe because you can't give what doesn't belong to you. How else could God make such an accusation? He then instructs the Israelites in Exodus 13 to sacrifice or redeem the firstborn of man and animal as a tithe. Why? As a reminder of salvation. Tithing is ultimately a picture of salvation. In a sense, Jesus was God's tithe. God gave His first and His best in faith before any of us loved Him to redeem all of us to Himself. (Much to say here but will run out of room)

While it may seem more personally satisfying to give to charities or whomever we feel needs money the most, our personal satisfaction is not the point. The point is to obey and honor God by offering our first and our best in faith. This is not legalism anymore than saying that a wife should honor and submit to her husband as head of the home. That is what God has ordained and commanded.

Anyone ready to take up an offering? Ha!

Crispin Schroeder said...

Ben,

You made some great points there. I really appreciate your input on this.

I think one of the best ways to understand how to view the Law in terms of the New Covenant would be what Paul wrote in Romans 13:8-10

8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,”[a] and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”[b] 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Paul, echoing the words of Jesus, gets at a fulfilling the law that is based on love rather than on externals. We can definitely see the idea of moral law running through the writings of Paul but yet he never falls back into framing it under the Old Covenant. He moves it forward into a new realm. Paul does this in amazing way in the book of 1 Corinthians when, after addressing the pride, arrogance, divisiveness, abuses of the Lord's Supper, as well as abuses of spiritual gifts, he sums up his argument with the Love Chapter (1 Corinthians 13). In other words if we let love for God and others rule our hearts we will get at everything the law was pointing to but failing to meet.

I would like to note that part of the purpose of the Law was as a covenant marker for the children of Israel. They were marked as a people namely by their diet, circumcision, and sabbath keeping (as well as observance of festivals). These markers functioned kind of like a wedding ring which told the other nations that they were taken. They were in a special relationship with God. But in the New Covenant there are no such markers. The only marker that counts is love. As Jesus said, "They will know you are my followers by the way you love one another" (love will identify us as followers of Jesus).

Certainly there is a priesthood in the New Testament but it is a priesthood of all believers under the great high priest Jesus. And there is a temple - again the people of God. But there is no functional equivalent in the New Testament for anything tied to the Old Testament Temple System. I say this because this is where a lot of Christians misunderstand things. I tell folks all the time that I am not a priest, I am a pastor. I am not the mediator between anybody and God. I am rather one that is trying to lead people to Him. The same can be said for our church building. It is not a temple! Rather it is simply the place where the church meets (but not the only place).

I find it interesting that in all of Paul's letters to his churches he never mentions keeping Sabbath or tithing. In fact, Paul didn't even accept money from the churches of Corinth or Thessolonica. The church of Philippi footed the bill for much of those endeavors. Why is this absent in the writings of Paul? Is it that Paul didn't believe in giving to support the church? Heaven's no! But he was far more concerned with them living from the inside out and not the outside in. Paul was even willing to risk his own financial well-being to see this happen.

I think it would have been ludicrous to tell the church of Acts 2 to tithe. Why? Because they were giving way more than a mere %10. There wasn't a need among them because they got very generous. Tithing would have been stepping backwards. I would much rather see the church spend time teaching people how to live by the Spirit of God and motivated by God's love and trust that when that happens generosity will follow.

Crispin Schroeder said...

Understand that I can see how it would be much easier for me to simply believe and teach tithing because the church I pastor is supported by financial gifts (not to mention I make my living from the contributions to the church). I have made clear my understanding of this issue on numerous occasions at our church since the early days and the truth is that it has not hurt the bottom line (we still pay our bills and are able to reach out to the community). In fact, I would say that I have seen a generosity that is I have rarely seen otherwise demonstrated every month.

My desire is that people give not because they have to or because they want to be blessed or because they are afraid of being cursed but because they want to, because God is doing something in their hearts, because they want to participate with the coming of his kingdom. If some day this approach means that I don't get paid to be a pastor then so be it. I didn't become a pastor because it was a lucrative career move. I will pastor because I feel that's what God has made me for.

I will close (for now) with this question: If you think that tithing is part of the New Testament then what do you think will happen to those who don't tithe? What are the consequences for not tithing?

greenturtle said...

I have heard it preached many times in church, that if you don't tithe, then don't bother complaining if you have financial difficulties.

Oh, and it better be "off the gross, not the net"!

But I've never seen anything in the new testament, indicating that it's a requirement, nor that bad things will happen to you if you don't.

You have to admit, atheists have a valid point, when they say "You do things because it's the right thing to do, not because you will go to hell, or be struck down by an outside force, if you don't."

I knew somebody who put every penny she had in the collection plate, and then didn't have money to pay her utility bill. I guess she thought God was going to repay her somehow, but it didn't happen.

On a parallel subject, giving of your time. Exactly what is required?

I had to pay my own way through school, and consequently, I had to work every weekend to make ends meet.

So I was often met with criticism, for not going to church on Sunday mornings.

I DID go to church, during the weekday. Just not on Sunday morning.

So, I allegedly was not a real Christian, for not "remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy."

And for "not having faith that God will provide for me."

My usual response was, "Some of us actually have to work for a living."

I simply never believed it was wise, to quit your job on the notion that God will somehow provide.

Nor to hand over ALL of your money, if you have a utility bill due next week.

And maybe that makes me a faithless fleabag, who knows.

But, I haven't seen any reference in the New Testament, indicating that either action is a requirement.

Crispin Schroeder said...

I want to say one last thing on the subject of trying to live the Old Covenant while following Jesus. I am not trying to be a contrarian on this subject just for the sake of stirring stuff up. To me this is a real issue of freedom in Christ. I have seen the destructive side of misapplying Old Covenant promises and curses to a New Covenant life.

I look back on my own journey and see so many years that I spent trying to impress God with my performance. I genuinely wanted to follow God but I wasn't living from the grace of Christ. I spent so much time thinking that if I would just pray more, read my Bible more, serve in church more, give more, then I would get the breakthrough that I needed. But the real breakthrough that I needed came when I realized that none of the stuff I was doing impressed God or increased my standing with Him at all. I had to have everything stripped down until all I could hold on to was the unconditional love of God. But since that day came I am ruined for anything else ;-)

I know I take a very minority position on tithing (I know only a few pastors personally that agree with me on where I stand and very few of them will actually share their beliefs with their churches.) But for me this issue is a part of much bigger theological issues that have to do with learning to live by the Spirit of God and learning to live in the freedom of God's grace.

In my opinion we can't just simply believe this doctrine just because the past several generations have held to it. We have to question it and wrestle with it. So I thank all of you for wrestling a bit on this topic. I really appreciate everyone's input. I am thankful that there can actually engage in respectful dialogues on this subject where all sides can learn something from each other.

May God's Spirit continue to lead us and guide us as we pursue Jesus!

greenturtle said...

I can see why most pastors would want to emphasize tithing, since their personal income depends on it.

We all get afraid when our own livelihood is threatened.

So out of that fear, they tell their congregation that God will be mad at them, cause them to have financial difficulty, and send them to hell if they don't pay up.

Or use the "promise for reward" approach and tell them that God will make them rich.

But from what you're saying, you don't require it from your congregation, and you do just fine.

I once got strange looks from my pastor, when I suggested that we should WANT to contribute to our own church, because it's OURS, and we should all chip in to keep it thriving.

"Rubbish! You give because God commands it!"

Whatever.

Ben Davis said...

Crispin, I know you well enough to know your heart, and I think you know me well enough to know mine. I too have spent many years wrestling with "church" issues. I don't in the least bit want anyone to be motivated by fear or coercion. God doesn't arm-twist!

God is after our heart, and in every situation God is wanting to transform us to look more like Jesus. I think you could frame just about anything as legalistic...for instance, God says that we must surrender to Him, that we must forgive others to be forgiven by Him, that we must not lie to one another. Those commands are not given to bring bondage but freedom. In my view, legalism is a spirit, an approach to godliness without God. It has less to do with a particular command and more to do with how one approaches God.

The identity markers for Israel you mentioned were also attributes of God's character. I know this is going to sound off at first, but follow me for a min...Loving God and loving others are the most important commands, but they're not the only commands. Yes, they fulfill the spirit of the law but people still need to be taught who God is. What I mean is this. Some who practice homosexuality would say they love God with everything and love others. And it is true that many homosexuals are very loving people. Are they living right before God? We know the Bible says they are not, even though they are very loving.

It is interesting as you noted that the NT does not mention tithing specifically (except that Jesus did tell the Pharisees that they should tithe AND not forget the weightier matters of the law...mercy and justice; also Hebrews talks about Abraham tithing). Is it possible that this omission means it should be continued since things that were clearly to be discontinued like circumcision and dietary issues are addressed at length?

What happens to a person who does not tithe? Forget the 10% part for a minute and just look at the principle of offering God your first and your best as an expression of faith and worship. Why is that important to God? Jesus makes it clear: Wherever your money goes your heart will follow (Matt 6). The thing that is seldom talked about with money/tithing is that God is not after our money, but our heart. He wants to turn all of us "takers" into givers like Himself. I think the "blessing" is a side benefit. One of the absolute most critical areas of trust is with our money. Jesus said it's hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom. He also said that if we can't be trusted with the small stuff like money, how can we be trusted with the true riches of heaven? God has better things to entrust us with than money!

When we first come to God the question we ask is: Can I trust God?
As we mature in Christ I believe we start asking a different question: Can God trust me? Am I being faithful with what He has entrusted to me...time, talent, treasure?

To answer your question, I think the person who doesn't tithe is missing a key principle in their lives. I believe it is the biblical pattern given to dethrone money as our god, change our heart, remain focused on Him for our provision, and release God's blessing. I believe it is important because of money's intrinsic connection to our heart.

I know the next question...Is someone cursed for not tithing? Honestly, I don't know how to answer that. I do know that money is spiritual. There is a spirit of mammon. Ananias and Sapphira were killed by the Holy Spirit b/c of how they handled their money. Why wouldn't we want to give God our first and our best? Why wouldn't we seek to be completely faithful in every way, growing in dependence upon Him and in generosity? Obviously, as with anything in Scripture, you can abuse this and become legalistic. Again, money is not the REAL issue. The real issue is our heart. Money is just the avenue to our heart.

Thanks for making me think! God help us all to be like Jesus.

Crispin Schroeder said...

Ben,

I really think we are much closer on this issue than may appear. I see no problem with tithing as a principle. As a principle I follow it. Part of this is practical because I know if I don't make room in my budget for giving to the church then I will spend every last bit that I have on myself. I definitely see the benefits of setting aside money to give and I agree that this is a spiritual discipline that helps wage against greed, consumerism and trusting in the kingdoms and gods of this world.

I think regularly giving is as important as regularly praying, serving, reading the Bible, and experiencing community. But I don't know any churches that see praying, reading the Bible or serving as issues of law. These activities/disciplines should be from the heart like giving.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:7
7 Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

What Paul is getting at is that we should give and that giving is a spiritual matter. We should seek God on how to give and not because we are guilted into it or afraid of getting cursed.

As for the passage on Abraham tithing, the only time that we read of Abraham tithing is after he won a battle and had lots of spoils of war. This could be seen as giving God ten percent of stolen merchandise;-) The point of Hebrews wasn't tithing but of the supremacy of Jesus as high priest.

On several occasions we have done reverse offerings at our church where we have asked people to take envelopes of money. The catch is that we ask them to ask God for direction on how to spend the money in helping someone else. The testimonies we have had when we have done this in the past are amazing as people begin inviting the Holy Spirit to show them how to bless others. The people who give the money end up being more blessed than the ones who received the money from them. This is a good example of pastoring people in how to listen to God concerning money. My hope is that as a pastor I can help folks treat money as a spiritual thing and to live with open hands, open eyes, and open ears concerning how they should spend it.

So, for me this can never be a law issue but it is definitely a spiritual formation issue. If we learn to live with open hands there will be times when God has us give way more than ten percent of our income but if we simply just drop a tithe check in every week without learning to listen to God about our money then we miss opportunities to grow and be used by God to further his kingdom. So, in the end I very much believe in generosity and giving but as a pastor I cannot think only in terms of meeting the bills of the church and my salary but rather of how to see kingdom life formed within the people I pastor.

My question is if we are agreed on all of the reasons for giving and why it is necessary in the life of a Christian then why does it have to be ten percent? Why not major on the principle without making it law?