How many tithes are mentioned in the Bible? What are the purposes for the tithes described in God's Word?
Many people are surprised to learn that God, in His Word, reveals seven annual festivals (Leviticus 23). These special times of the year have been set aside by the Creator God as "holy convocations" (verses 2-4), sacred meetings or gatherings at which God's people are to assemble together. Like the weekly Sabbath, God set apart these festivals as sacred to Him.
God shows us in His Word that these holy festivals are times dedicated for group worship and abstention from normal work. They serve to enlighten God's people regarding His marvelous plan of salvation for all mankind. They are remind-ers of God's intervention for His people and foreshadow significant events in the fulfillment of His divine plan (Colossians:2:16).
God's people have observed these feasts from ancient times. Jesus observed them during His lifetime (Luke:2:40-43; John:7:37), and His apostles and the early Church of God continued to do so after His death and resurrection in obedience to God's commands (Acts:2:1; 12:2-4; 18:21; 20:16; 27:9; 1 Corinthians:5:8).
The Bible records that on several occasions—when a righteous leader led the people of God back to Him out of periods of deception and neglect in their relationship with Him—God's festivals were zealously observed as a prominent part of that spiritual reformation (2 Chronicles 30; Ezra 3, 6; Nehemiah 8).
Bible prophecy shows that the time is coming when God will see to it that the inhabitants of the earth are brought to the point of obediently observing His festivals (Zechariah:14:16-19). (For a thorough explanation of the significance of these days, be sure to request your free copy of the booklet God's Holy Day Plan: The Promise of Hope for All Mankind .)
Once we come to see the need to observe these festivals as God commands, a question naturally arises: Where do we get the financial resources to attend them?
The gathering together of God's people for group worship often involves significant expenses: temporary lodging, meals, transportation and the cost of providing a suitable place to hold worship services. Does God give instruction on how these festival expenses should be paid? Indeed He does. God gives instruction regarding a tithe of one's annual increase to be used for festival observance. Let's examine the Scriptures to understand this.
A tithe for the work of God
Elsewhere in this publication we explain from the Scriptures the first tithe. The first tithe, which is holy to God, is used to finance the mission of the Church of spreading the gospel and caring for those God calls to be a part of the Church. As was noted, this tithe is to be given by God's people so the commission of the Church can be carried out. To withhold it is tantamount to robbery from God (Malachi:3:8).
The first tithe is "holy unto the LORD" (Leviticus:27:30). Under His covenant with Israel, God commanded His people to give His tithe to His representatives at the time, the Levites (Numbers:18:21). God gave the tithe to the Levites to support them in carrying out their commanded role of properly leading the people in worship. The people of the other 11 tribes were not to use this tithe for any personal purposes—it was to be given in its entirety to the Levites.
Jesus affirmed that those who serve God should continue to give this tithe, a 10th of their increase, since it belongs to God and not to them (Matthew:23:23). He confirmed that tithing continues. But now God, through Jesus Christ, is making a "new" and "better" covenant with His people (Matthew:26:28; Hebrews:8:6-13), no longer limited to the physical nation of Israel.
The group God is working with is now expanded to those of all nations, the Church of God, the spiritual "Israel of God" (Galatians:6:15-16; 3:26-28). This change has required administrative revisions, including who should receive His tithe. No longer is it to be given to a physical tribe of Israel, the Levites.
The priesthood was changed (Hebrews:7:12) when Christ was crucified and resurrected to become our High Priest. Now, under the New Covenant, it is understood that this tithe is to be received by those set aside by God as the ministers of Christ for carrying out His work.
A tithe for observing God's festivals
The first tithe was to be given in its entirety to the Levites. The individual giver was not to use any of it for personal consumption. This is important to keep in mind when we examine God's further instruction regarding tithing.
Notice that God commanded His people to come as a group to the location He would choose for them to observe the annual holy festivals (Deuteronomy:16:16). In coming to this place, they were commanded to bring their tithes (plural—Deuteronomy:12:6).
One of these tithes, as we have already seen, was set aside entirely and exclusively for the use of the Levites. But God gives further instruction that another tithe (singular) was to be eaten by the individual, but not at home. It was to be set aside and consumed at the central festival worship location exclusively during the annual festivals (Deuteronomy:12:17).
This prohibition of personal consumption at home would be unnecessary if there were only one tithe, the "first" tithe already discussed above. God had already made it clear that the first tithe was to be given in its entirety to the Levites (Numbers:18:21). Yet, in Deuteronomy:12:18, the individual was given the right to eat the tithe being specified as part of his joyous festival observance.
This tithe for personal use in festival observance is an additional or second tithe, quite distinct from the first tithe given to the Levites. In Deuteronomy:14:22-26 God gives further explanation of the purpose of this second, or festival, tithe. It is to be used by God's people to enjoy the physical abundance He provides, at His feasts, as they worship Him and learn to honor and obey Him in a manner that is pleasing to Him and a blessing to them.
The Jewish historian Josephus, who lived about the time of Christ and came from a family of priests, documented the understanding of his time regarding this festival tithe. In Antiquities of the Jews, we find the following statement summarizing and paraphrasing God's commandments given through Moses: "Let there be taken out of your fruits a tenth, besides that which you have allotted to give to the priests and Levites . This you may indeed sell in the country, but it is to be used in those feasts and sacrifices that are to be celebrated in the holy city: for it is fit that you should enjoy those fruits of the earth which God gives you to possess" (Book 4, chapter 4, section 8, emphasis added).
Although the need for physical sacrifices ended with Christ's one perfect sacrifice of Himself, God expects us to continue to observe His festivals, as shown by the practices of the apostles and early Church.
Today the members of the United Church of God, an International Association, understand and observe God's deeply meaningful annual festivals. They also practice the method God has revealed in His Word to finance these observances. Members save a 10th of their annual increase to be able to attend the feasts.
The members who are able also contribute a portion of their festival tithe to defray the costs of the Church in observing these feasts, including providing meeting places and financial assistance for people otherwise unable to afford to attend. They gather in locations around the world to rejoice before God and learn, out of His Word, about His marvelous plan of salvation.
A tithe to care for the poor
We have seen the instructions found in God's Word for the financing of the work of the Church and the observance of God's annual festivals. The Scriptures, however, contain additional financial instruction: how we are to care for the poor. God does not forget them.
Jesus acknowledged that conditions would always be prevalent that would lead to some people being truly poor and in need (John:12:8). But He also said it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts:20:35). His apostles taught the same, that Christians have an obligation to help others who are truly in need (Galatians:2:10; 1 Timothy:5:3).
The teaching of Jesus and His disciples is a continuation of the commandments found in God's Word regarding the obligation of those more blessed to help those truly in need. Twice in the Scriptures, in Deuteronomy:14:28 and 26:12-13, God gives instruction regarding a tithe that is to be saved and distributed every third year.
The "first" tithe and festival ("second") tithe were to be saved every year. The first was taken to a central place of worship for distribution and the second for consumption (Deuteronomy:12:6, 17-18; 14:22-27). The special tithe of the third year, however, was handled quite differently. It was to be set aside locally and stored within each city or town (Deuteronomy:14:28; 26:12) for the use of the Levites and the poor of the community—the stranger, fatherless and widow.
Historical sources describe three tithes
Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, clearly states that this tithe collected for the poor was different from the other two: "Besides those two tithes, which I have already said you are to pay every year, the one for the Levites, the other for the festivals, you are to bring every third year a third tithe to be distributed to those that want [i.e., lack]; to women also that are widows, and to children that are orphans" ( Antiquities of the Jews, Book 4, chapter 8, section 22).
In the apocryphal book of Tobit, which many scholars date to about 200 B.C., the writer states: "I, for my part, would often make the pilgrimage alone to Jerusalem for the festivals, as is prescribed for all Israel by perpetual decree. Bringing with me the first fruits of the field and the firstlings of the flock, together with a tenth of my income and the first shearings of the sheep, I would hasten to Jerusalem and present them to the priests, Aaron's sons, at the altar. To the Levites who were doing service in Jerusalem I would give the tithe of the grain, wine, olive oil, pomegranates, figs and other fruits.
"And except for sabbatical years, I used to give a second tithe in money, which each year I would go and disburse in Jerusalem. The third tithe I gave to orphans and widows, and to converts who were living with the Israelites. Every third year I would bring them this offering, and we ate it in keeping with the decree of the Mosaic law and the commands of Deborah, the mother of my father Tobiel; for when my father died, he left me an orphan" (Tobit:1:6-8, New American Bible).
It is important to note that a seven-year cycle was in place. The seventh year was a year of rest for the land during which no crops were planted (Leviticus:25:1-7, 18-22), so there was no "increase" every seventh year. God promised to provide His faithful people with enough bounty in the sixth year that they could let the land rest in the seventh year. We can conclude, then, that the tithe to be set aside every third year was actually set aside in years three and six of a seven-year cycle.
Were this not the case, there would be a problem in the 21st year. The two laws (a tithe of the increase every third year, and a land rest with no increase every seventh year) would be in conflict in year 21. The flow of Deuteronomy:14:28-29, dealing with the special tithe for the poor every third year, immediately followed by instructions dealing with the special nature of every seventh year in Deuteronomy:15:1, further indicates that the "third" tithe applies to the third and sixth years of a seven-year cycle.
In modern times the tendency of national governments to institute mandatory taxes for social welfare and care for the poor has led to a dilemma. If the government taxes a person's income through social security and similar welfare taxes, and uses those funds for the care and maintenance of the poor, is a Christian obligated to pay the special tithe in addition? If we pay taxes for this purpose—at rates far higher than a 10th of one's increase two years out of seven—must we still set aside a tithe two of every six years, also for the care of the poor?
What about today?
In addressing this question, the Council of Elders, the primary governing body of the United Church of God, has examined the matter and concluded that, when Christians are forced to pay social welfare taxes at high rates common in many countries, it is appropriate to provide relief from such double payments for the same purpose. As an administrative matter, the council has issued the following statement:
"The Council of Elders has resolved that where governments provide programs, the intent and purpose of which is to provide for the needs of those that the biblical third tithe was designed to assist, and that where such programs are funded by an annual rate of taxation greater than the biblical third tithe, members are not obligated to pay what amounts to an additional third tithe to the Church.
"The Council of Elders further resolves that since there will always be members of the Church whose needs will not be adequately provided for by national government social programs, and since the clear example in Scripture is that the Church care for its members in need (Leviticus:19:9-10; Isaiah:58:7; Matthew:25:35-40; Galatians:2:9-10), that those members of the Church who are able are encouraged to contribute to the Church Assistance Fund so that the biblical injunction to care for the needy within the Church can be fulfilled."
This represents the understanding and application of the third tithe in our day and age by the United Church of God.