“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.” Matthew 23:23 (ESV)
Matthew 23:23 (along with Luke 11:42) is the primary New Testament verse that people point to to support the idea that New Covenant believers should tithe. Jesus Himself approved of the scribes and Pharisees tithing. But, unfortunately, many who use this verse in this way are not considering the theological and textual context.
The first thing to note is that these verses occur in the context of the Old Covenant and were directed to people who were still under the Old Covenant. Jesus was born under the Old Covenant, under the Law of Moses, as were all the Jews who were alive during Jesus’ life. The New Testament tells us that it was necessary for Jesus to be born under the Law and to keep it perfectly so He could serve as the perfect sacrifice to pay the penalty for sin.
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons (Galatians 4:4–5).
The New Covenant did not come into force until after Jesus died and rose again. Therefore, the Israelites—and anyone who professed to worship the God of Israel—were supposed to keep all the laws of Moses. So, commending the scribes and Pharisees for tithing their mint, dill, and cumin was the correct thing for Jesus to do. Jesus never undermined God’s Law.
If you examine the context of Matthew 23, you’ll see that Jesus is giving a continuous discourse to the Jews, including His comments on tithing in verse 23. In verse 2 Jesus says, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you.” Clearly Jesus was talking to the people in terms of the Old Covenant laws of Moses. Certainly New Covenant believers should not “do and observe” all that the Pharisees would tell us to in keeping the Mosaic law.
Jesus did commend the scribes and Pharisees for tithing, but he also told them that certain things—justice, mercy, and faithfulness—are more important (“weightier”) matters of the law. Why? Because justice, mercy, and faithfulness are moral principles and part of God’s eternal character, while tithing was merely a ceremonial statute, or ordinance, of the Law which was of lesser importance (not as weighty).
Also, those who say that NT believers should obey the tithe need to realize that only those Israelites who earned a livelihood from farming and herding inside Israel were required to tithe under the Mosaic Law because their increase was considered as coming directly from God’s hand. (See Leviticus 27:30–32; 2 Chronicles 31:5–6.) The law never commanded a tithe of one’s monetary income of for other goods and services. So most Jews would not have tithed. Jesus, being a carpenter, would not have tithed; nor would Peter as a fisherman. They surely gave other offerings and contributions, but they would not have been required to tithe according to the Old Testament law.
If, as many preach today, the 10% tithe is an obligation for New Covenant believers, then it seems that Peter or Paul or James or another apostle (or the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15) would have repeated that command somewhere in the New Testament—but it is nowhere to be found.
There is freedom when it comes to giving for New Covenant believers. The New Covenant principles of giving are far better than the tithe. We give willingly, cheerfully, and sacrificially as God has prospered us (1 Corinthians 16:2; 2 Corinthians 9:7). We recognize that all we have comes from God and that we are but stewards, or managers, of His treasures. The Old Covenant tithe of 10% might be a good guide for us—a starting place in our giving—but we are free to give more if we wish, and there may be times in life when we give less due to our circumstances. But the motivation for our giving is the indescribable gift of Jesus Christ Himself.
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).
For more on giving, listen to the message, “How Does God Want Us to Give?” at this link.