Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church

Last week, we introduced the different views Christians hold regarding the rapture of the church. (If you aren’t familiar with these views, you might want to read this post first.) It may seem like we have a lot of work ahead of us to try to sift through all of these views. But if we ask the right questions first, we begin to see an important, clarifying distinction right away.

The pretrib, midtrib, and even pre-wrath views are all variations of the same basic viewpoint. While they may differ on the length of the tribulation, they all agree the rapture is an event that is distinct from the final return of Christ. Whether it’s seven years earlier, three-and-a-half years, or mere months or weeks, all of these views claim that Christ will first return for his church, and then later return with his church. Of course, those who hold the posttrib view would demur. This is the fundamental difference that separates the differing views of the rapture. So we’re going to spend the next few weeks answering this question:

Does the Bible teach that the rapture of the church and the final return of Christ are two separate events?

As we discussed last week, we find no pretrib view of the rapture in the first 18 centuries of the history of the church. Until 1830, nobody saw in Scripture the idea that the rapture will occur at a separate time before the return of Christ. This doesn’t mean we should simply dismiss the idea, but it does mean we should examine it very carefully before jettisoning the historical view of the church.

The primary question for us should always be: What does Scripture teach? And here we face a challenge to the pretrib view: There’s no passage of Scripture that describes the rapture as occurring at a different time than the return of Christ. We just don’t get this idea from a clear, unambiguous biblical reference. Instead, the case for the pretrib rapture is said to be built on other biblical truths that lead necessarily to the pretrib rapture of the church. Last week, we listed the three biblical truths that pretrib teachers claim point to a pretrib rapture. This week we’re going to examine the first of these claims:

Pretrib Claim 1
In history, God always works exclusively with either the people of Israel or the church. During the tribulation period God is once again focused on Israel, so it doesn’t make sense for the church to be here.

If you’ve attended pretrib Bible studies on the end times and the rapture, you’ve probably heard this idea emphasized as a sound principle for interpreting Scripture. Pretrib teachers see the church age as a kind of parenthesis or interruption in God’s working with his chosen people, Israel. When the church was established at Pentecost, God temporarily ceased working with Israel and devoted his attention to the church. But they believe that God will finish his work with the church at the rapture, and then once again focus his efforts on the people of Israel. Does Scripture bear this out?

The fulfillment of prophecy concerning Israel
We should first note that it’s not only pretrib believers who are anticipating God’s fulfillment of all the prophecies concerning Israel. We’ll look at some of these prophecies in greater detail in a future post, but most premil Christians—including pretrib and posttrib believers—expect God to keep all the promises he made specifically to the people of Israel. How he’ll do that and what that means for us today are questions for another study. But, even though they’re a little more cautious about speculating which current event matches which biblical prophecy, most posttrib pastors and teachers agree that God is not done with his chosen people, Israel.

Two peoples of God?
The early pretrib teachers believed that Israel and the church are completely separate and distinct—not only now, but for eternity. They believed we would eternally constitute two different peoples of God: Israel and the church.  This claim isn’t as common now, but we do still encounter it from time to time. What is the relationship between Israel and the church? Does God distinguish between his people, either in eternity or the current age? Let’s see what Jesus had to say to the Jewish people of his day:

I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd.

John 10:16

Who are the “other sheep” Jesus was describing to his fellow Jews? These are the Gentiles who would someday place their faith in him. Together with the Jewish followers of Christ they would be one flock with one shepherd. Compare this to what Paul wrote:

For Christ himself has brought peace to us.  He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups. Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death. He brought this Good News of peace to you Gentiles who were far away from him, and peace to the Jews who were near. Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us.

Ephesians 2:14-18

This reminds us of what Paul said in Romans 11:17:

But some of these branches from Abraham’s tree—some of the people of Israel—have been broken off. And you Gentiles, who were branches from a wild olive tree, have been grafted in.

He explained that God’s chosen people of Israel were like a cultivated olive tree, and the Gentile believers were like wild olive branches graciously, but unnaturally, grafted into the cultivated tree. We need to understand it was God’s will for the people of Israel to naturally progress from the Old Covenant into the New. God always intended for the church—the New Covenant people of God—to be the ultimate destination and home for his chosen nation, Israel. (Don’t forget that the original church was thoroughly Jewish.)

Yes, God is not finished with the ethnic people of Israel and, in the very end, he will fulfill his promises to them. But his plan for them is to bring them into New Covenant relationship with him, into the church, the body of Christ, so there will be one flock and one Shepherd. In one sense, the people of Israel are to come into the church; in another sense, we Gentiles have become part of the existing covenant people of God. This is why Ephesians 2:11-22 tells us:

Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. . . . In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far way from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ. . . .

So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family. . . . Through him you Gentiles are also being made part of this dwelling where God lives by his Spirit.

It’s wonderful that God will bring the remaining Jews into the New Covenant people of God, the church. (We’ll talk much more about this in a future study.) But it’s even more amazing he expanded his covenant people to include more than his chosen people of Israel, but to incorporate anyone who would believe in Christ. Yes, we should rejoice in the future hope for Israel; but, no, we should not seek to divide or separate Israel and the church into different peoples of God. He is making the two one. And what God has joined together, let no one separate.

A problem of timing
Another problem with this idea of God always working exclusively with either Israel or the church is it just doesn’t fit history. Most pretrib teachers would agree God dramatically established the New Covenant church at Pentecost. Most also agree that God judged unbelieving Israel through the destruction of Jerusalem. But Pentecost occurred sometime around 30 AD, and Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. So some 40 years after the birth of the church age, God was still dealing with the people of Israel.

It gets worse. The events in the Middle East over the last 70 years certainly seem to reveal the powerful hand of God behind the scenes of history. I don’t know any pretrib pastor or teacher who would deny this. History has witnessed an ethnic people wander without a homeland for almost two millennia, maintain their distinct identity and culture, then return to and reclaim their ancient homeland, and even resurrect their ancient tongue as their everyday language. This is historically unprecedented! To see this as simply a natural occurrence and not involving strong divine providence strains credulity. Most pretrib teachers would not only agree, they share an excitement in watching developments unfold in the Middle East.

The problem for them is that this powerful, historical testimony to God working once again in the national affairs of Israel is happening before the rapture. These events are occurring during what is supposed to be the church age, when God only works with the church, not Israel. So this claim that God works exclusively with either Israel or the church simply doesn’t fit what God is actually doing in history.

Where is it written?
Of course, the biggest problem with this idea is we don’t see this principle expressed anyplace in Scripture. There’s no passage that explains to us how God only works with Israel or the church, not both during the same period of time. The next time you hear someone teach this, I suggest asking them, “Exactly where is this principle taught in Scripture?”

So this first supporting principle for the pretrib view hasn’t fared so well under closer examination. But more emphasis is usually placed today on the other two supporting claims. We’ll examine the second principle next week.

The return of Christ series:

The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing

Millennial match-up

More on the millennium

Rapture 101

Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church [see above]

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Assorted claims

The posttrib rapture

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation)

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist)

The return of Christ: Odds and ends

Who should be baptized?

There’s an ancient saying you may have heard, and it expresses an important principle we seek to emphasize in our church:

In essentials—unity
In non-essentials—liberty
In all things—love

This is a healthy principle for any church to follow, but it’s especially appropriate for a church such as ours. Church without Walls is the only English-speaking church in our area. Because of this, we have people attending who come from very different church backgrounds. We don’t want to compromise our commitment to the historic, biblical gospel of Jesus Christ. But we also don’t want to exclude sincere followers of Christ by being overly narrow and dogmatic regarding secondary issues. We want to major in the majors, and minor in the minors. So we don’t form official church positions on non-essential doctrines unless it’s necessary for us to function together as a church body.

I deeply appreciate groups such as the Evangelical Free Church of America who strive to keep their association open to “believers only, but all believers.” Within this fellowship of churches you can find congregations that have differing views on predestination, eternal security, speaking in tongues, the rapture, baptism, etc. It’s not that they view these issues as unimportant; they study and discuss these scriptural teachings often and in depth. But they don’t see these as essential issues over which Christians should divide, nor do they refuse to fellowship with believers of differing views.

We too strive to be as open as we can. Everyone is welcome to attend our church services, and we want any sincere follower of Christ to feel they can be part of our church family. But an individual congregation must sometimes be more definitive about these issues than an association of churches. For instance, a church may welcome Christians who believe in speaking in tongues and those who do not. But each church is going to have to decide how they will handle the issue of speaking in tongues during the church service. They don’t have the freedom to not have a clear stance. When faced with such challenges, we have resolved to not automatically fall back on any particular church tradition; we listen carefully to all traditions, but seek the clear teaching of Scripture as our supreme authority and guide.

The issue of baptism has unfortunately been a divisive one in the history of the Christian church. All church traditions believe in the importance of baptism. (Some are dogmatic about the specific mode of baptism, although our church is not. See What is baptism? for more information.) All church traditions also believe in baptizing new believers in Christ. On this, there is no debate. But some churches baptize infants, and some do not. From time to time, we’re asked, “Will you baptize our baby?” When we explain that, no, we don’t baptize infants, but that we can have a special time when the parents and church dedicate themselves to the care and growth of the child, occasionally the response is a confused, “Why don’t you baptize infants?”

The purpose of this post is not to criticize churches who do baptize infants. It’s not to convince them they’re wrong, or to call into question those Christians who were baptized as babies. This is simply to explain why we don’t baptize infants. Why do churches such as ours not follow this long-standing church tradition?

We don’t find it taught in Scripture
There is no place in the Bible that directly teaches the baptism of infants. If the normal means of people entering the church community is to be baptized when they’re babies, it’s very surprising to see no mention at all of this in Scripture. Think about the incredibly important place the baptism of a child holds in certain church traditions, and then compare this to the silence of the Bible on the subject. Something doesn’t seem to fit, and throughout history many have questioned whether this practice comes from clear biblical teaching or from church traditions.

In the section below, I list passages describing baptism, some of which describe the baptism of whole households. Now, some assume these households would have included infants who, therefore, would have been baptized. The problem is the text doesn’t tell us this. Does every household include babies? Think about all the households around you. How many have infants? We need to be careful not to fall into circular reasoning. We can’t speculate that the households who were baptized in these passages included infants, and then try to use these passages to establish that infants were baptized!

So we don’t find any clear teaching or examples of baptizing infants in Scripture. But there’s an even more important reason why we don’t see the baptizing of babies in these passages.

Baptism always follows faith
Last week, we explored the significance of baptism in first century, Jewish culture (What is baptism?). We learned that baptism was a common way of publicly declaring one’s conversion to a new faith. Even with just this basic understanding, we see that infant baptism doesn’t fit the concept. Converting is something one must do for oneself; you can’t convert for someone else. An infant can’t convert.

Consistently in the Scriptures, the people who are baptized are the ones who believe:

Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all.

Acts 2:41

But now the people believed Philip’s message of Good News concerning the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ. As a result, many men and women were baptized.

Acts 8:12

Then he brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, along with everyone in your household.” And they shared the word of the Lord with him and with all who lived in his household. . . . Then he and everyone in his household were immediately baptized. . . . and he and his entire household rejoiced because they all believed in God.

Acts 16:30-34

Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, and everyone in his household believed in the Lord. Many others in Corinth also heard Paul, became believers, and were baptized.

Acts 18:8

Now, again, all Christian traditions practice the baptizing of new believers. But what we need to see is that it’s not just that believers are baptized in Scripture, but that these are the only people we see being baptized in Scripture. Over and over again, baptism is tied to belief. So not only is this the common sense understanding of the practice from its historical context, but it’s also the consistent biblical teaching. For these reasons, we practice what is known as “believer’s baptism”—we only baptize people who can testify to their personal faith in Christ.

The church is made up of believers
The biblical teaching of believer’s baptism is closely connected with the biblical teaching of a believers’ church. The differing traditions not only have a different understanding of baptism, but of the church community. Some Christian traditions see much more continuity from the Old Testament to the New Testament. They feel there is little difference between the Old Covenant people of God and the New Covenant people of God. (To read more on the differences between these covenants, see Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament Law.)

The Old Covenant people of God included all the physical descendants of Israel. The sign of becoming part of this covenant people was circumcision. Every male infant was circumcised, and therefore became part of the covenant community. But while every physical descendant was part of the covenant community, not every Israelite was in true covenant relationship with God. Paul says in Romans 9:6 that “not all who are born into the nation of Israel are truly members of God’s people.” So we have the entire covenant people—of whom all the male children bear the sign of the covenant; but we also have a remnant, a people within a people, the true covenant believers and followers of God.

Now, we can see baptism as, in some ways, analogous to circumcision. It’s a physical sign that someone is entering the New Covenant people of God. But then some assume that the New Covenant community of God works the same way as the Old Covenant community. They believe there are large numbers of people who are part of the New Covenant community, but that only a remnant within this covenant people are truly saved—a church within the church.

The problem with this is, again, we don’t see it anywhere in Scripture. We don’t see anywhere in the Bible where the New Testament church includes unbelievers. The Old Covenant was established with a specific nation, Israel, but the New Covenant is not. Where people were physically born into the nation of Israel, we don’t find in Scripture where anyone can be physically born into the New Covenant community of God’s people. Quite the contrary, to become part of the New Covenant community of Christ requires a new spiritual birth. We can’t find in the New Testament any distinction between members of the church and members of the body of Christ. The New Covenant community of God is the church, and the church is made up only of believers.

With no animosity intended toward other sincere believers, we must conclude that this idea of infant baptism comes from a confusion of the New Covenant with the Old. It rests more on tradition than it does the clear teaching of Scripture.

It’s interesting that throughout the Old Testament (and even a few times in the New) people are distinguished as either the “circumcised” or the “uncircumcised”—meaning those who were part of the Old Covenant people of God or those who were not. Corresponding to this, church traditions that baptize infants have historically distinguished between the “baptized” (those in the covenant community) and the “unbaptized” (those who are not). But Scripture never distinguishes people as the baptized or unbaptized. Not even once. Instead, over and over again in the New Testament, people are described as either believers or unbelievers.

We see baptism as beautifully symbolizing the spiritual reality of our salvation. We also understand it to be a public declaration to everyone of our faith in God. It is a sign that one has entered the covenant community of God—the church; but one must be spiritually reborn to be part of this covenant community. This covenant community includes only those who have thus been regenerated. So baptism is only appropriate for people who place their faith in Christ and commit to following him. Baptism is for believers.

I love Keith Green’s old saying: “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than going to McDonald’s makes you a hamburger.” In a similar sense, I would say

If you baptize someone who hasn’t placed their faith in Christ,
all you have is a soggy unbeliever.

“But what if I was baptized as an infant?” Churches who baptize infants also take their children through some form of confirmation. The culmination of this process is usually a time when they stand before the congregation, publicly declaring to all their faith in Christ. For some this is merely a religious ritual, a traditional rite of passage; but for others this is deeply meaningful, a profound, public expression of faith and commitment. Some Christians eventually feel the need to be baptized because they have never truly made a personal, public declaration of their faith, while others don’t feel this need because they have made such a public declaration. “Let each be convinced in their own mind.”

Baptism is meant for those who place their faith in Christ, but is it necessary for salvation? We’ll tackle this question next week.

Baptism series:

What is baptism?

Who should be baptized? [see above]

Do we have to be baptized to be saved?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

Every now and then in a class or Bible study, someone will emphasize that Christians must faithfully obey the Ten Commandments. Now, part of the job of the teacher is to challenge the people they’re teaching, to get them wrestling with vital concepts, to facilitate a certain amount of creative tension. Often we need to spend more time questioning answers than answering questions. And I certainly cause some head-scratching when I ask: “Are we supposed to obey the Ten Commandments?”

“Of course, we are!” a few people will say confidently.


This usually leaves the people more than a little nonplussed. Finally, someone will say, “Because it’s in the Bible. It’s God’s law.”

“So, you keep the Ten Commandments?”

“I do my best to, yes.”

“Do you keep the Sabbath?”

“Well, I . . . um . . . I try to reserve Sunday for worshiping God and spending time with my family.”

“That’s great,” I’ll say, “but that’s not keeping the Sabbath. If we’re going to follow God’s law, we can’t alter it or adjust it. The Sabbath is the seventh day, which is Saturday. And keeping the Sabbath didn’t have anything to do with going to church. It was having a day of total rest. No work, no chores around the house, not even any cooking or traveling. Nothing that would cause you to exert yourself. Do you faithfully do this every Saturday?”

At this point, another believer may jump in and ask, “But aren’t there passages that say we don’t need to observe the Sabbath anymore?”

To which I’ll often respond, “Yes, let’s take a look at a few of them.”

In the same way, some think one day is more holy than another day, while others think every day is alike. You should each be fully convinced that whichever day you choose is acceptable.

Romans 14:5

You are trying to earn favor with God by observing certain days or months or seasons or years. I fear for you. Perhaps all my hard work with you was for nothing. Dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to live as I do in freedom from these things, for I have become like you Gentiles—free from those laws.

Galatians 4:10-12

So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality.

Colossians 2:16-17

I also have them look at the example of the early church in the New Testament and see that there’s no place where Christian believers are taught to observe the Sabbath. Finally, I’ll ask, “So, are Christians required to keep the Sabbath?”

“No,” is usually the answer from everyone.

“Okay, then I guess that means that Christians are supposed to obey the Nine Commandments . . . right?”

And now they’re grappling with the issue again! Do you see where the confusion is coming from? We have a tendency to open the Bible anywhere and, because it’s all God’s Word, assume that everything applies to us. In previous studies, we’ve discussed how this causes a lot of confusion and error. We know instinctively that not all of the Old Testament applies to us now. But surely some of it does. Wouldn’t this include the Ten Commandments?

Some have tried to solve this by distinguishing between moral laws and ceremonial laws. There’s only one problem. We don’t find even one place in the Bible—either in the Old Testament or the New—where it categorizes the law in this way. Instead it consistently refers to “the law” in its entirety. To say ‘this isn’t a moral law, it’s a ceremonial law,’ is really just a fancy way of saying, ‘I don’t think this law should apply to me.’ If we don’t have any biblical basis for making this distinction, we’re right back where we started.  (And James is very clear that if we’re going to keep the Mosaic law, we have to keep all of the laws [James 2:10].)

So let’s apply some common sense here:

When were the Ten Commandments given?
When the people were at Mt Sinai, after God had delivered them from slavery in Egypt.

What was the context?
The Ten Commandments were part of a much more extensive law given to the people by God. This was part of God establishing his covenant with the people.

With whom was God entering into this covenant, and to whom was this law given?
The nation of Israel.

Are we part of the nation of Israel?
Many of us are not. We would fall into the same category as the new Gentile believers in the early church, who were not required to become Jews and obey the Old Covenant law.

So the Old Covenant is not our covenant,
and the Old Testament law is not our law.

But what of Jewish followers of Christ today? Are they obligated to observe the Old Covenant law? The Old Covenant (the formal relationship established between God and the people of Israel), with it’s laws and sacrifices, pointed forward to and anticipated Jesus. He established a New Covenant—a new way for any of us to enter into relationship directly with God.

This New Covenant in Christ fulfilled the Old Covenant (and its laws and sacrifices) and superseded it. All followers of Christ—Jews and Gentiles—are New Covenant people of God. We’ve been freed from the Old Covenant law and are no longer under its jurisdiction. (Some Jewish followers of Christ still observe their traditional laws and customs, but this is because they choose to; they don’t follow the old law to earn God’s favor.)

Do we see this in Scripture? The letter to the Galatians was written about this very issue, so let’s begin there:

Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised.

Galatians 3:19

Before the way of Christ was available to us, we were placed under guard by the law. We were kept in protective custody, so to speak, until the way of faith was revealed.

Let me put it another way. The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith. And now that faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian.

Galatians 3:23-25

Corresponding to Paul’s teaching in this letter are the many references to us no longer being “under law, but under grace.” The book of Hebrews also makes clear this change:

The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves.

Hebrews 10:1

When God speaks of a “new” covenant, it means that he has made the first one obsolete. It is now out of date and will soon disappear.

Hebrews 8:13

So, does this mean that we can do whatever we want? That we’re not bound by any law at all? Not at all! Paul makes this clear as well in 1 Corinthians 9:20-21:

When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ. When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law. Even though I am not subject to the law, I did this so I could bring to Christ those who are under the law.

When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ. But I do not ignore the law of God; I obey the law of Christ.

Did you notice how he clarifies this? He is not subject to the old Jewish law, but he is still under the law of Christ. James makes the same distinction in James 2:8-13 when he speaks of the “royal law” of love and the “law that sets you free.” Now we can see how significant it was for Jesus to tell his disciples that he was giving them a new commandment (John 13:34).

What is this new commandment of Christ? “Love one another.” When we truly love God and love each other—in faith in Christ and through the power of the Spirit—we fulfill the law. Not only that, but when we view the Old Testament legal instructions through the lens of Christ’s law of love, we’re able to distinguish easily between the unchanging moral requirements of God and the temporary civil and ceremonial laws for the people of Israel.

If you love someone, will you murder them? Of course not. In fact, Jesus says we won’t even have hatred in our hearts toward them. If you love your spouse, will you commit adultery? No. We won’t even entertain lustful thoughts about someone else if we’re truly loving. If we love God, will we worship something or someone in his place? Definitely not.

If we love God and others, will we keep the Sabbath? This isn’t simply a question of love anymore, is it? The Sabbath was intended to set apart the nation of Israel as God’s people. Keeping the Sabbath was a temporary ordinance, not an eternal moral imperative. The same is true of laws prohibiting the eating of pork, marking of one’s body and mixing different kinds of fabric. When we look at the Old Testament law through Christ’s law of love, we’re able to clearly distinguish between the eternal and the temporary, the moral and the ceremonial. But we’re not making this distinction purely on our own, but by seeing everything through Christ’s New Covenant law of love. And it’s not a coincidence that most of the unchanging moral requirements are reiterated in the New Testament, while the temporary civil and ceremonial codes are not.

So are we supposed to obey the Ten Commandments? We follow many of these same commands: we don’t worship other gods, we don’t murder, we don’t steal, etc. But we don’t follow them because they’re in the Ten Commandments. We follow them because we follow the way of Christ and his law of love. To fail to observe these laws would be to fail to love God and each other. But we must keep clear in our minds that we are not the nation of Israel, and we are not under the Old Testament law. We follow Christ and his New Covenant law of love.

We strive every day to love as Jesus loves, and hopefully we’re continually growing in this life of love. One day we will perfectly love as God perfectly loves us. Then we will be truly human as God always intended us to be. And when we are completely transformed by the love and power of Christ, then we will perfectly fulfill the law of God. Because all he requires from us . . . is for us to be who he created us to be.

Related post:

Are Christians supposed to tithe?

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law [see above]

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

The heart of the story: Jesus

Christmas is just a few days away. Could there be a more perfect time to discuss the New Testament Gospels? The biblical story begins with creation and ends with the restoration of God’s creation. But the heart of the story is the earthly life of Jesus Christ. Everything either points forward or looks back to this brief, but climactic, period of time. It’s ironic that our entire society measures history according to this one life. But what some observe merely because of the historical development of the modern calendar, we acknowledge in spirit and truth, realizing that everything we are as Christians, everything we believe, and everything we hope for is all rooted in what Jesus did in 1st century Palestine.

Four Gospels
Since this part of the story is so essential, it’s important that we understand how best to read and study the Gospels. Probably the first thing we notice about the New Testament Gospels is that there are four of them. Why four? Well, instead of having one official, tightly-controlled version of the life and ministry of Jesus, we have four. And these four accounts were written by very different authors. According to early tradition, Mark wrote his Gospel from the perspective of Peter, drawing on his personal accounts. Matthew and John were also eyewitnesses, but writing at different times with extremely different styles and perspectives. Luke wasn’t even Jewish. He was a Greek physician and understood the need for careful research (since he wasn’t an eyewitness) and detailed historical writing. These authors even arranged their material differently, some putting everything in careful chronological order, and others arranging the events and teachings according to topic.

But while these writers wrote at different times to believers in different settings and using different approaches (no sign of imposed uniformity here), it becomes very clear they’re recounting the same story, communicating the same message. The differences are real, but they tell us of the same Jesus, and the same faith and hope in him.

As you read the Gospels, it’s important to not fall into either of two extremes. The Gospels record the historical accounts of Jesus, his ministry and the responses of the people. But these books are much more than history. If you only focus on the historical details, you’ll miss the pulsing life of the story. On the other hand, these stories are more than inspiring myths or spiritual metaphors; they’re actual historical events. When these authors wrote the Gospels, they were writing what they knew to be true and authentic. We study the Gospels today because we firmly believe these things truly happened.

Variations among the Gospels
Now, for many thoughtful readers, the historical nature of the Gospels brings up a number of questions. I remember as a child reading the Gospels—with the words of Christ conveniently in red—and I noticed that the statements of Jesus often read differently in one Gospel when compared to another. These weren’t glaring contradictions, just variations in the wording. But I was an analytical kid, and it bothered me. How could this be? Wasn’t this the inerrant Word of God, recording the words of Christ? How could there be any difference between the Gospels?

I came to learn that the common, everyday language for Jesus, his disciples and the local Jews was Aramaic. When Jesus originally spoke the words we read in Scripture, he wasn’t speaking Greek, but Aramaic. Later, some of his disciples recorded these teachings for other believers. And they naturally wrote these accounts in Greek because it was the common language for Jews (and Gentiles) throughout the Roman empire and even beyond. As you might guess, whenever you have different people translating, there are bound to be variations in the results. They’ll convey the same meaning, but use different words. (Just imagine four different people independently translating a story from Spanish into English. Are they going to choose the same English words every time?)

It’s also helpful to know that the original biblical manuscripts didn’t include any quotation marks. They weren’t used in the ancient world, and the people then didn’t expect precise, word-for-word quotes the way we sometimes do. When you see quotation marks in Scripture (and the words of Jesus in red) this is the work of the translators and scholars, not the original writers. 1st century people were comfortable with conveying the essence of what someone had said instead of the exact wording. For instance, a child asks, “Mom, can we have some ice cream before dinner?” And she replies, “That’s a bad idea because it will ruin your dinner.” And the child reports to his waiting siblings, “No, she said we better not ‘cuz we won’t eat our supper.” Is this word-for-word? No. But is it accurate? Sure it is, and people then commonly summarized what someone else had said in a similar way. So we shouldn’t be surprised if we run across slight variations in the statements of Jesus.

Historical context
As with any other writing in Scripture, we need to understand the historical context of the Gospels. In many ways, the Gospels have a unique setting. Jesus came to establish a new covenant with his people, one based on his grace-filled sacrifice for us, and our faith in him. But most of the events recorded in the Gospels took place before Christ’s death on the cross. So these teachings and stories are still looking forward to and anticipating the death and resurrection of Jesus. They share much of the same perspective as the Old Testament.

Yet Jesus is right there in their midst, already telling them of how everything is changing. He’s fulfilling prophecies about the Messiah and the coming kingdom of God. He’s powerfully displaying his power over the enemy, casting out demons, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, even raising the dead. The ministry of Jesus was nothing less than light dramatically invading the darkness.

So this Gospel period is a time when the Old Covenant and the New Covenant overlap. Many of Jesus’ teachings and examples are given while the people are still in the context of the Mosaic Law, but he’s preparing them for a direct relationship with God, through him, based on grace and faith. In Jesus, the kingdom of God (or rule of God) had suddenly come upon them, but he was not yet ushering in the kingdom in its fullness as he one day will. This is what theologians call the ‘already, but not yet.’ The kingdom was already in their midst, but it was not yet all-encompassing as it will be in the future. Also during this time, Jesus was preparing the twelve for a special ministry as his personally commissioned apostles.

To whom is Jesus speaking?
What does all of this mean for us when we’re reading the Gospels? It means we have to ask ourselves, “To whom is Jesus speaking in this passage?” We can’t just assume that every statement applies to us. For example, in Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus gave these instructions:

So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God.

So, to whom is this addressed? To New Testament Christians? Not unless we’re still supposed to be taking sacrifices to the Jewish Temple. Jesus spoke this to people in an Old Covenant context. We can learn from this instruction, but it wasn’t given directly to us. What about these instructions from Luke 9:3:

“Take nothing for your journey,” he instructed them. “Don’t take a walking stick, a traveler’s bag, food, money, or even a change of clothes.”

Who was he talking to? Us? No, he’s giving these instructions specifically to his apostles (and he later changed these requirements even for them). Jesus gave many commands to the disciples that had a limited application during a unique period of history. If we try to fulfill these instructions now, we’ll just confuse and frustrate ourselves. So pay attention to whom Jesus is speaking. Thankfully, much of what he says applies to all of us the same way. Just make sure what the text says before figuring out what it means for you.

This is particularly important when reading the parables of Jesus. Many of his parables are so familiar to us, we naturally apply them to our lives today. But always take note of the setting, and just who is there listening to him. Many of the parables were meant specifically for the Jewish people of Jesus’ day; many more were intentionally aimed at the Pharisees. Again, this doesn’t mean these parables have no meaning for us, we just need to see what they meant to them then before we can know what they mean to us now.

No hidden meanings
As we talked about last week, look for the main point in the parables, not some secret, hidden meaning. We recently studied the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast in Luke 13:18-21. It used to be common to hear people teach that these parables were speaking of abnormal growth (a mustard seed into a tree) and the permeation of sin (supposedly represented by the yeast). Not only is this interpretation technically incorrect (mustard plants naturally grow 10-12 feet; yeast doesn’t only represent sin), but it completely misses the point of the parables. The kingdom of God begins small and inconspicuous, but grows and spreads to a surprisingly large scale, as it was intended. And notice, if we insist that these negative interpretations are correct, then this is apparently what Jesus was saying about the kingdom of God—not some corrupted, institutional church. Is this really what he was saying about the rule of God? The lesson here? Don’t seek strange, esoteric, coded meanings to the parables of Jesus. Instead strive to understand what the parables would have meant in their original context.

Finally, also be aware that Jesus was a creative, colorful communicator. He used common figures of speech, including hyperbole (intentionally exaggerating to make a point). We do this all the time too. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times!” “I’m so tired, I’m going to sleep for a week!” So when Jesus told the people (Matthew 5:29-30):

So if your eye—even your good eye—causes you to lust, gouge it out and throw it away. . . . And if your hand—even your stronger hand—causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.

they understood immediately he wasn’t literally telling them to starting gouging out and cutting off body parts. (Would gouging out your eyes really keep you from lusting?) They recognized he was dramatically making a deeper point. A healthy common sense can be very helpful here. And the more you really think about what Jesus is saying and what it meant to them then, the more you’ll often see an underlying humor in the words of Christ. Have fun with your Bible study!

Most importantly, don’t forget why the Gospels are the heart of the story. Don’t forget just who Jesus is, and what he’s doing in these accounts. At the time, the disciples couldn’t quite grasp the bigger picture. We need to make sure we have the deeper significance firmly in our minds as we read and study the Gospels.

[I’ll be out of town next week, so there will be no Taking Root study. I’ll have a new one for you the following week. Merry Christmas everyone!]

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus [see above]

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

[Updated November 19, 2020]

Some Christians—driven by a zeal to be faithful to Scripture—seem like they’re trying to escape the present day and somehow return to the 1st century. This can not only be frustrating for them and off-putting to those who love them, but it doesn’t really work. Like it or not, God hasn’t put us in the 1st century, but the 21st.

On the other hand, some believers take what the Bible says and reinterpret it to fit the latest trends in psychology, politics or cultural fads. This, too, can leave observers scratching their heads. Can the New Testament letters to the churches legitimately be used to teach pop psychology, Republican or Democratic party platforms, or ‘I’m-okay-you’re-okay’ spirituality? Clearly, we need some balance in how we approach the teachings in Scripture.

Thankfully, how we handle these historical or cultural differences can often be determined with just some healthy common sense. For instance, we read these instructions in 2 Timothy 4:13:

When you come, be sure to bring the coat I left with Carpus at Troas. Also bring my books, and especially my papers.

Is this an instruction we must obey? How can we? With a little digging, we learn this was written from Paul to Timothy. The more we think about these kinds of passages, the more we become aware of an important truth that can help us avoid error when reading the Bible:

All Scripture is written for us, but it’s not all written to us.

The above verse from 2 Timothy is a perfect example. The instruction was given to Timothy—not to us. We instinctively know this already. I’ve never heard of any Christian who sought to obey God’s Word by trying to get Paul’s books, papers and coat to him. We immediately recognize that this passage doesn’t apply to us. It’s impossible for us to apply this passage to our lives the same way Timothy did to his.

But then we read a passage such as Romans 12:2:

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

When we read this, we naturally assume it applies to us just as much as it did to those who first read these words. The behavior and customs of our 21st century world may look different than those of the 1st century, but we understand there’s a lasting principle being taught here.

For passages such as this one, the biblical principle and the way we live it out in our daily lives are essentially the same thing. When Jesus said to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind,” what is the biblical principle? It’s to love God with all of our hearts, souls and minds, right? And how do we live out this principle? By loving God with all of our hearts, souls and minds. Many passages are very straightforward this way. But others include an element in the instruction that reveals a cultural difference between their world then and ours now. When that happens, we need to:

Learn to distinguish between the biblical principle
and the way it’s lived out in one’s cultural setting.

The biblical principle doesn’t change, but the way we live out the principle often must change for the same principle to be consistently applied. Let me give you a classic example. Some of the letters to the churches include the command: “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” What was Paul’s primary concern in giving these instructions? That a lot of kissing would be going on? No, there’s a deeper principle here, isn’t there? In their culture, a kiss was the common way of greeting someone with both warmth and acceptance. The principle that Paul was establishing was that fellow Christians should greet each other in a way that communicated both warmth and acceptance. A kiss was the culturally appropriate way for them to do this in the 1st century.

In some cultures today, living out this biblical principle in our churches by kissing each other still makes sense. Here in Puerto Rico, it’s common to greet each other with a kiss. (Although men usually don’t kiss each other! So this would be one difference between our culture and theirs.) But in other churches, the culturally appropriate way to greet one another is going to be with a ‘holy hug’ or a hand shake.

Of course, we could insist on not merely observing the principle but following the 1st century application as well. We could go into a gathering of relatively reserved saints in Minnesota and immediately start kissing everyone. We’d definitely be communicating something to them(!), but would they interpret us as greeting them with ‘warmth and acceptance’? By woodenly adhering to the 1st century way of living out this principle, we’d actually be violating the biblical principle. Remember, the biblical principle doesn’t change, but the way we apply it to our lives will change from culture to culture. We can never just ignore the biblical principle, but we must seek to be wise in the way we live out these principles.

The more we understand what a passage meant to them,
the more we’ll understand what it means to us.

Last week, I referred to Paul confronting the Galatians. As you read through his letter to the Galatians, you’ll see there’s a repeated focus on the issue of circumcision. Some teachers were trying to convince the Galatians they needed to be circumcised, and Paul is strongly opposed to this idea. What did this exactly mean to them back then? To understand the significance of this book for us today, we need to know more about what it meant to Paul and the Galatians. (This is another time when a study Bible can be invaluable.)

If we do just a little digging, we learn that by accepting circumcision, the Galatians would be committing themselves to observing the Old Covenant Law. They were being taught they first had to become Jews before they could be disciples of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus. Paul vehemently opposes this teaching. He explains in his letter to them that the Mosaic Law has been fulfilled in Christ; the Old Covenant has been superseded by the New Covenant in Christ; what they are being taught is such a serious departure from the truth of Christ it amounts to an entirely different gospel; and if they seek to be accepted by God through obeying the Old Covenant Law, they will be denying Christ and the grace of God!

So what does this mean to us today? Do we have teachers trying to pressure us to be circumcised and become Jews in order to be disciples of Christ? Not very often (although some groups come close to this in the way they merge the New Covenant with the Old). But do we face comparable challenges to add something to the pure gospel? Absolutely. We have people telling us we need an additional experience to enter into a relationship with Christ, whether it’s baptism, being filled with the Spirit, or receiving sacraments from a priest. We also have people insisting we must follow their list of rules and regulations to be a child of God. In Galatians, Paul has shown us that any added requirements for salvation perverts the gospel and must be vigorously opposed. The principles we learn in this letter to the Galatians equip us to handle these challenges.

So whenever you run into a passage that seems to involve a difference in culture, ask yourself these questions:

What is the main biblical principle being taught in this passage?

How did they faithfully live out this principle in their cultural context?

How can we most faithfully live out this same biblical principle in our cultural context?

Exploring these questions can help us sort out many seemingly difficult issues. In 1 Corinthians 11, what’s the deal with people covering their heads when they pray or prophesy in the church gathering? And why were women supposed to do this, but men were not? Again, in order to understand exactly what biblical principle is being taught we need to do a little digging to see what this would have meant to the 1st century Corinthian believers. We learn that men covering their heads in prayer was a distinctive pagan practice. (It’s surprising for most of us to learn that 1st century Jewish men did not cover their heads when they prayed; they didn’t start doing this until centuries later, possibly to distinguish themselves from common Christian practice.) So for a Christian man to cover his head in prayer or prophesy would be to import a distinctively pagan practice into the church gathering.

We also learn that the only women who publicly uncovered their heads in Corinth would have been prostitutes or women who were brazenly promiscuous. It’s possible that women were becoming a little too comfortable with the home-like, family nature of the church gatherings and were uncovering their heads when gathering with their Christian brothers and sisters. But this was still a shameful practice in their culture and dishonored themselves and their husbands (or fathers).

So what’s the biblical principle being taught here? Is it that there’s something intrinsically evil about hats (or the absence thereof)? No, the principle is that we shouldn’t assume the freedom to import into the church gathering a practice that communicates something shameful in our cultural context (especially practices that have distinctively pagan connotations).

How did they live out this principle in 1st century Corinth? By men not covering their heads when they prayed or prophesied (unlike the pagans), and by women covering their heads when they prayed or prophesied (unlike prostitutes). Do these applications communicate the same thing today? No, they don’t. For a man to cover his head when he prays no longer has any pagan connotation in our culture. And head coverings for women don’t have any specific significance in our culture, either. In one class, I asked what they would think if they went into a Christian church and the women were wearing head coverings. One woman replied, “I’d think it was some kind of cult!” There just is no common understanding of what this practice is supposed to mean in our cultural context.

So, to rigidly use the same method of application today that they used then (wearing or not wearing head coverings) won’t fulfill the unchanging biblical principle (which is not importing into the church gathering shameful or pagan practices). Instead of woodenly, unreflectively copying the method of application followed in the 1st century, we need to prayerfully seek to faithfully fulfill the biblical principle. [This passage gives a restriction to the Corinthian women when they pray or prophesy in the church gathering. It’s ironic that most groups who still today insist on women covering their heads in this kind of setting also don’t allow them to pray or prophesy in the church gathering!]

God has sovereignly placed his people in different times and cultural contexts. And—regardless of our contexts—we seek to faithfully live out the truth revealed in his Word. But Scripture gives us both the core principles and also ways his people were to live out these principles in their 1st century context. So how do we most faithfully live out these unchanging biblical principles in our current context? The questions above give us a way of determining which methods of application are most faithful to the scriptural intent. They help us go beyond a mere religious, woodenly literal obsession with the letter of the law, and instead help us truly honor God by faithfully living out the actual principles he has given us.

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches [see above]

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

New Testament principles of giving

Our last Taking Root study explored the issue of tithing. We saw that tithing as a mandatory requirement is tied specifically to the Old Covenant Law. Since we aren’t under the Law of Moses, tithing as an obligatory standard doesn’t apply to us any more than dietary laws or laws on the Sabbath. (For more on tithing, see Are Christians supposed to tithe?) So we discussed the obligations that don’t apply to New Covenant believers in Christ, but we didn’t spend any time looking at how we should be giving. This is our focus this week.

Being a steward
To talk about how we give as Christians, we need to begin with the idea of a “steward.” Even if this isn’t a word you commonly use, we’re all familiar with the concept. Let’s say you own a business, and you hire me to run it for you. This doesn’t mean the business is mine to do with whatever I please. You are entrusting it to me so that I’ll run it the same way you would if you were there. It’s not my business, I’m just overseeing it in your place. I’m a steward of what belongs to you.

This is a key concept in the New Testament. Everything we have has been entrusted to us by God. Our gifts and skills come to us from God, and we’re responsible to use them in a way that’s pleasing to him. Our children don’t really belong to us, God entrusts them to us for a period of time. Even our very lives have been entrusted to us by God for a purpose:

You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price.

1 Corinthians 6:19-20

To see a good example of financial stewardship we can look at the parable of the three servants in Matthew 25:14-30.

[A man] called together his servants and entrusted his money to them while he was gone.

Later, we’re told:

After a long time their master returned from his trip and called them to give an account of how they had used his money.

Notice the money was still the man’s, and they were responsible for stewarding the money that he had entrusted to them in a way that would be pleasing to their master. To those who did this well, the master said:

Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!

Sometimes, we get the idea that we give 10% of our income to God—and then the rest is ours to do with as we please. But this isn’t a biblical attitude. Everything we have is entrusted to us by God, and we’re responsible to him for how we use all of it. This doesn’t mean we have to donate every cent to some Christian cause. Taking care of our regular needs, investing for the future, and even recreation and entertainment can all be legitimate uses of money according to Scripture. But we should make sure we’re not using the resources God has entrusted to us to do anything that would be displeasing to him. And we need to always remember that everything we have—and we ourselves—belong to him.

Giving voluntarily
In contrast to the Old Covenant law of tithing, the New Testament never gives us a required amount we must contribute. Instead, we’re told:

You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.”

2 Corinthians 9:7 

How much should you give? This is between you and God. You shouldn’t let anyone else pressure you to give a certain amount or percentage. And we also shouldn’t be applying pressure to anyone so they’ll give—no matter how subtle we try to be. Those of you who were in the adult study this Sunday, heard Clif Armstrong teach on some of these principles. You’ll also recall the story he told about the church leader who called out during a service: “All of you who are going to give $1,000.00, come up front. Now all of you who are going to give $500.00,” etc. We don’t want anyone to give because we pressure them. This is why we make our offering time as low-key as we can, and why we never have things like giant thermometers at the front to show how much the church has given toward a certain project. Just as with other forms of Christian service, financial giving needs to be prompted by the Holy Spirit—not us.

This also means we need to be careful not to establish an extra-biblical standard of giving for others. Just because giving 10% has worked really well for me, and I happen to think it would be beneficial for all Christians, this doesn’t give me the authority to establish another law or standard for other believers. I may feel that getting up at 3:30 am and praying for 3 hours every day is a wonderful thing to do (this is a hypothetical example; I don’t actually do this), and maybe it is a perfect model for me personally. But this doesn’t mean I should be urging everyone else to do the exact same thing. Some practices God leaves up to our individual consciences—between us and God; how much New Testament believers should give is one of these practices. Don’t try to take the place of the Holy Spirit toward your brothers and sisters.

Notice that God especially loves it when we give cheerfully. This makes sense doesn’t it? Would you enjoy receiving a gift if you had to pressure someone to give to you? What if they did give, but they gave grudgingly, wishing they didn’t have to? That ruins the gift for both of you, doesn’t it? You’d just as soon give that kind of “gift” right back! We need to give to God out of a deep sense of gratitude for what he’s given us, and out of love toward those who need our help. But we can’t try to regulate this process; gifts must come voluntarily from a willing heart.

Giving proportionately
While we don’t presume to set a percentage or amount for each other, the New Testament does teach us a general principle that we should give in proportion to what God has given us.

Give in proportion to what you have. Whatever you give is acceptable, if you give it eagerly. And give according to what you have, not what you don’t have.

2 Corinthians 8:11-12 

Did you see that we’re supposed to give according to what we have, not what we don’t have? This should challenge those who pressure other Christians to give even when they don’t have food on the table or gas in the car. It also shows this isn’t a matter of giving to God in order to get even more back from him. God isn’t some kind of Ponzi scheme. He doesn’t promise to give us a certain return on our investment. He blesses us, and we give in response and gratitude to his blessing. This doesn’t mean God may not at times direct us to give even though we don’t have enough money for our obligations—but this kind of extraordinary calling must come directly from God, not us.

At this point, some of you may be thinking, ‘Well, is 10% a good proportion of my income?’ And the answer is, ‘maybe.’ You need to prayerfully consider your own situation and see what God puts on your heart. 10% can be a great place to start for many of us. Some will be able to go on and give a higher percentage if God leads them to do that. RG LeTourneau is well-known for reaching the point that he could give 90% of his income and live off the other 10%. Some can’t give 10% right away, so they begin with $20 a week, or $10, or $5. I can’t tell you what dollar amount or percentage is right for you. You need to pray and see how God directs you.

Don’t forget that, whatever proportion we decide on, we need to give willingly and cheerfully. I heard of a man who was making $200 a week. He figured 10% was $20 and, though it hurt, he could commit to that. As time went by, he moved up the ranks in his company and received pay raises, and he continued to faithfully contribute 10% of his income. The man became very successful, now making closer to $2,500.00 each week. 10% of $2,500.00 was a lot of money, and he began to feel uneasy about giving so much each week. He went to one of his pastors to talk to him about the problem. He explained his whole history of giving, and the pastor said the solution was simple. Since giving his committed 10% was difficult for him now, but was something he was able to do when he was only making $200 a week, they could just pray together that God would reduce his income down to the point where he could give again!

Sometimes the more God blesses us, the more challenging proportional giving can be. This is because the more money we have, the more opportunities we have for acquiring possessions and experiences. And the more we get, usually the more we want. What seemed like an incredible luxury to me yesterday, is now an essential that I think I can’t live without. As the passage reads that Clif taught from Sunday:

Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.

Luke 12:34 

Proportional giving provides us with a regular check on the desires of our hearts, to make sure we’re not slipping into greed and hypocrisy (as the Pharisees were in Luke 12).

Giving sacrificially
There is a consistent theme of self-sacrifice running throughout the New Testament. Obviously the perfect example of sacrificing oneself is Jesus. John 3:16 is the classic verse that many of us learned as children:

For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

And while this is speaking more of the Father giving the Son, in John 10:18, Jesus said:

No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again.

But while many know John 3:16 by heart, not as many are immediately familiar with
1 John 3:16:

We know what real love is because Jesus laid down his life for us. So we also ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.

Scripture calls us to show our love for God and each other by giving our time and energy, and by giving financially. The healthy, biblical Christian life includes both kinds of giving. This doesn’t mean we should make ourselves guilty if we’re not giving away everything we have (either time or money). Notice again the instructions in 2 Corinthians 8:12-14:

And give according to what you have, not what you don’t have. Of course, I don’t mean your giving should make life easy for others and hard for yourselves. I only mean that there should be some equality. Right now you have plenty and can help those who are in need. Later, they will have plenty and can share with you when you need it. In this way, things will be equal.

These are a few biblical principles teaching us how believers should give. But the underlying principle we see everywhere in the New Testament is that we are to be like Christ. Sometimes our giving will cost us something. It will be a sacrifice. It was for Jesus, wasn’t it? Love, generosity and self-sacrifice should characterize our lives. As we freely receive all good things from God, so we should freely give in heartfelt, grateful response.

Are Christians supposed to tithe?

I can still remember the hair standing up on the back of my neck. I was sitting next to my father, listening to the pastor during a Sunday evening service. He had just finished reading Malachi 3:8-10 from the King James Version:

Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings. Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation. Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD 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 to receive it.

The look in the pastor’s eye told us that he was deadly serious. Do you want to be guilty of robbing God? Absolutely not! I don’t know what kind of effect he was having on the rest of the congregation, but I was one ten-year-old kid who was going to make sure he faithfully brought his 10% into the storehouse—whatever that was.

Next to the topic of prayer, most of the questions I’ve received since beginning our Taking Root emails have been regarding tithing. Are New Testament believers supposed to—according to Scripture—give 10% of their incomes to their churches? This is a question that requires us to explore some of the historical background and biblical context to really understand what we’re talking about.

What does “tithe” mean?
It’s not uncommon to hear people say that they tithe 5% of their income, or 20%.  While having a planned approach to how you give can be a good thing, this isn’t really a “tithe” the way the Bible uses the word. The word translated tithe in Scripture means “tenth.” So if we want to speak of the biblical idea of tithing, we’re talking about giving 10%.

Early examples of tithing
The first time we see tithing in the Bible is in the 14th chapter of Genesis. Abram’s nephew Lot had been living in the city of Sodom. Enemies had wiped out Sodom’s army, plundered their city and taken captives as slaves, including Lot and his family. God enabled Abram to overtake and defeat the enemies of Sodom, and to recover the captives and plunder. The king of Sodom offers all of the loot to Abram, but he refuses. He takes only food for his men to eat, a share for his allies, and he gives a tenth of all the goods to Melchizedek, who is described as the king of Salem and priest of God Most High.

We should first notice that Abram wasn’t giving a tithe of his own goods, but of the recovered plunder belonging to the city of Sodom. Was this tithe a one-time event, or a regular practice for Abram? We have no way of knowing from the text. And it also seems that Abram’s gift is voluntary, not in response to a command from God. So this story only tells us what happened in this one occasion, doesn’t show a command from God concerning tithing, and doesn’t even have to do with Abram’s personal possessions. This shows us an early example of someone voluntarily giving 10% but not much else.

The next example of tithing is found in Genesis 28. Jacob was on his way back to his own people to find a suitable wife. One night, in a dream, he sees a stairway going up to heaven, angels going up and down the stairway, and he sees God. Overwhelmed, the next morning Jacob vows that if God will be with him and protect him on his journey, provide him with food and clothing, and return him safely to his father’s home, then he would give back to God a tenth of everything that God gives him. The way this vow is emphasized in the story, it seems that tithing was not a normal practice at this time. (Notice that Jacob had not been tithing prior to having this dream of God.) And again, the tithing is voluntary, not in response to divine instruction regarding tithing.

Some have stressed that these examples come before the Mosaic Law, and this is true. But there is nothing in these passages instructing God’s people to tithe, or even showing that the people of God regularly tithed at that time. We don’t want to base a command to believers on unclear examples from narrative accounts. That’s not a proper use of Scripture. (Actually, there’s a clearer pattern in Genesis of returning to one’s own people to acquire a wife—but I don’t know of anyone suggesting this as a model we should follow today!) We can choose to emulate Abram and Jacob in their voluntary tithing, but this would be a personal choice, not a biblical command. For clear instructions on tithing we need to look to the Old Covenant Law.

Tithing under the Old Covenant
Many Christians have an idea the people of Israel regularly gave 10% of their income to God. This isn’t entirely accurate. There are actually three different tithes the Israelites were to observe:

Levitical tithe
Because the tribe of Levi was to be dedicated to serving the Lord and his temple, they were not allotted any land among the other tribes. Instead of actual land, the other Israelites were to bring a tithe of everything the land produced for the Levites (see Numbers 18:20-21). This would have included meat, crops and wine.

Celebration tithe
The people were to set aside another tithe of all their crops—grains, olive oil, wine, and the firstborn males of all their flocks and herds, bring this tithe to a designated place of worship, and “Then feast there in the presence of the Lord your God and celebrate with your household” (Deuteronomy 14:22-27). This tithe was set aside for a big feast! Eating, drinking and celebrating as a form of worship to God. What an idea! But don’t laugh this off as just an excuse for a big party. This was a sacred obligation, and the people still had to set aside this additional tithe for this annual celebration.

Charity tithe
Every third year, the people were to collect another tithe for the care of Levites, orphans, widows and foreigners living among them. (See Deuteronomy 14:28-29.)

So, rather than 10%, the combination of different tithes actually equals an annual 23.3%. This was essentially the early tax system for the nation of Israel to support their national priestly tribe and their poor. A couple of other things worth noting: The people didn’t give money; they gave a tithe of their crops and herds. These tithes weren’t voluntary as was the case with Abram and Jacob; they were mandated by Law. So the Old Testament idea of tithing looks very different from the traditional concept most of us have been taught.

Are we supposed to follow the Old Covenant practice of tithing today?
After seeing what the Old Covenant practice of tithing entails, most of us would respond: “How can we?” Are we supposed to all acquire fields and herds so we can set aside a tithe of our produce and bring it once a year to the, um, temple so that the . . . Levites can have food and wine? And should Christians today set aside another 10% of their crops and herds to gather with the people of Israel in a designated place and celebrate together? (If we’re worried the Malachi passage above is warning us not to rob God, then this is what we need to start doing because this is what the passage is talking about.)

Some who are reading this right now are thinking of ways to apply these ideas to the church, but be careful. We can’t change the Law that God gave to the people of Israel. It is very specific about the nature of these tithes, what was to be set aside and how it was to be distributed. We don’t have the right to alter these commands. But are these commands given to us?

To whom was this law given? To the nation of Israel. Are we part of the nation of Israel? No, we’re not. We still study the Old Covenant because it teaches us about God, how he interacted with his people, and how his grand plan developed in the Old Testament period. But the Old Covenant isn’t our covenant. We are part of the New Covenant people of God. Christ accomplished the purpose of the Old Covenant law (Matthew 5:17) and superseded it (Galatians 3:19-25; Hebrews 7-10). We are no longer under the Old Covenant Law of Moses, but the New Covenant Law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:19-21; Matthew 22:34-40).

In the New Testament, Jesus and the apostles affirm the unchanging moral requirements of God (not worshiping other gods, not murdering, not committing adultery, etc.). But the legal requirements that were peculiar to the nation of Israel are now obsolete (keeping the Sabbath, dietary laws, etc.).

The life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels is a time of transition, when the Old Covenant is coming to an end and the people are being prepared for the New Covenant. The New Covenant isn’t actually established until Jesus’ death on the cross (Luke 22:20). This is why, though Jesus seems to go out of his way to flaunt the traditions of the Jewish leaders, he never violates the Old Covenant law itself during his earthly ministry. We have to understand that his teaching to the Jewish people is still in an Old Covenant context. If we don’t realize this, we’ll misinterpret many passages.

This explains why Jesus would give instruction on offering one’s sacrifice at the Temple altar (Matthew 5:23-24), why he would tell those whom he had healed of leprosy to go show themselves to the priests (Luke 17:14), and why he would tell the people to listen to the Pharisees because they ‘sit in the seat of Moses’ (Matthew 23:1-4). This also sheds light on Jesus’ comment to the Pharisees that it was good for them to carefully tithe, but that they should be more focused on the weightier matters of justice and loving God. We have to remember he was speaking to people still under the Law of Moses.

But beginning with Acts and throughout the letters to the churches, we don’t find even a hint of tithing as a practice of the New Testament churches. It seems clear that mandatory tithing was an Old Testament requirement for the nation of Israel that is not affirmed as a requirement for the New Testament church. Instead, the principle seems to be, as expressed by Paul in 2 Corinthians 9:7:

You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.”

So is tithing wrong?
There’s nothing at all wrong with setting aside 10% of your income to give back to God. But it’s simply not biblical for us to teach that Christians must meet this requirement. Our monetary-based system is very different from the agrarian society of the Old Testament. Some believers today are not able to contribute 10%, and many others could be giving much more. Giving is a scriptural mandate, but it’s between the individual believer and God how much they should give. If we try to suggest a standard that all Christians must meet, we’re reestablishing the law for our brothers and sisters, and this is something we are not to do.

What of the common instruction to give to God first, before anything else, whether you’re in debt or not? I know many of you have amazing stories of how you committed to give a certain amount or percentage of your income to God and how he blessed you by meeting your needs. I’ve also heard stories from some of you how you honored your commitment to God, took money that was needed to pay bills and gave it to the church, and suffered serious consequences when the funds you needed didn’t miraculously appear. We need to be careful not to base our practices—or our urging of others to follow these practices—on anecdotes or even our own experiences, but on the clear teaching of the Word.

As a general principle, I would suggest that if you’re past due on money owed to someone else, then this is no longer your money to freely offer to God. It already legitimately belongs to someone else. Is God honored if we steal money from our landlord to give to him? Of course, if God has somehow, clearly directed you to contribute the money anyway, then he will provide the funds needed to pay your debts.

I realize this has been somewhat technical this week. I’ve tried to make it as painless as possible! We’ve discussed the intricacies of the Old Covenant practice of tithing, but we haven’t really looked at how we should give as Christians. There’s a lot more to discuss so, next week, we’ll look at New Testament principles of giving.

Related posts:

New Testament principles of giving

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law