The New Levites

Numbers 18:

21 See, I have given the Levites all the tithes in Israel for an inheritance, for their service which they perform — the service of the tent of meeting.

22 No longer may the Israelites approach the tent of meeting, or else they will bear their sin and die.

23 But the Levites must perform the service of the tent of meeting, and they must bear their iniquity. It will be a perpetual ordinance throughout your generations that among the Israelites the Levites have no inheritance.

24 But I have given to the Levites for an inheritance the tithes of the Israelites that are offered to the LORD as a raised offering. That is why I said to them that among the Israelites they are to have no inheritance."

25 The LORD spoke to Moses:

26 "You are to speak to the Levites, and you must tell them, 'When you receive from the Israelites the tithe that I have given you from them as your inheritance, then you are to offer up from it as a raised offering to the LORD a tenth of the tithe.

(NET Bible®)

Many Christians believe in giving 10% to their churches based on passages such as the one above. If this 10% goes towards paying preachers/priests and building church buildings, then what should go towards supporting the poor?

Under the Old Testament, there were other provisions for the poor: the gleaner laws, the jubilee laws, and laws concerning zero-interest loans. These laws placed obligations on top of the commandment to tithe to the Levites.

But is this the correct model for Christians today? Are Christian priests/preachers the replacements of the Levites of yore? Note verse 23 above: the job of the ancient priests was to “bear the iniquity” of the Israelites. Jesus has taken over that job:

1 John 2:

1 (My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. ) But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous One,

2 and he himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins but also for the whole world.

3 Now by this we know that we have come to know God: if we keep his commandments.

4 The one who says "I have come to know God" and yet does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in such a person.

(NET Bible®)

1 Timothy 2:

5 For there is one God and one intermediary between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human,

6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, revealing God's purpose at his appointed time.

7 For this I was appointed a preacher and apostle — I am telling the truth; I am not lying — and a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

(NET Bible®)

Jesus’ death upon the cross has taken the place of the animal sacrifices performed by the Levites. (Perhaps I should say the animal sacrifices of the Levites were simply a foreshadowing of Jesus’ sacrifice.)

The book of Hebrews goes into a detailed argument describing how Jesus has taken over the office held by the Levites. The argument goes through multiple chapters. I strongly suggest that you read the entire book to see this argument in depth. Some portions of the argument are:

  1. An imperfect priest cannot truly do the job.
  2. Animal sacrifices can only serve to purify the flesh. Jesus’ sacrifice purifies the conscience.
  3. The office of priest, including the reception of the tithe, preceded the Levites. The Levitical priesthood was a transient incarnation of a more permanent principle. Before Levi was born, Abraham gave a tithe to Melchisedec. Today Jesus is the high priest. Perhaps we should give our tithe to him…

The book of Hebrews makes is clear that Jesus is the new high priest. God has validated this via history by allowing the earthly temple to be destroyed, and attempts to restore the temple have been thwarted to this day. So, even the Jews who do not believe in Jesus have discontinued the animal sacrifices.

So, Jesus is the high priest, but are there any priests underneath him? In 1 Timothy 2:5 Paul says that there is one mediator between God and men. Paul says he is ordained preacher to preach this fact, but makes no claim of being an intercessor between men and Jesus. During much of his mission, Paul was not always a religious professional! At times, he had a day job as a tent maker [Acts 18:3]. (However, during times of traveling on church business did he ask for personal financial assistance [Romans 15:24, 2 Corinthians 11:8]. In fact, Paul repeatedly states that he deserved far more payment for his preaching than he actually received [1 Corinthians 9:7-13, 2 Timothy 2:4-7], but frequently opted not to collect in order to set a good precedent [1 Corinthians 9:12-19, 1 Thessalonians 2:5-9, 2 Thessalonians 3:8-9, Philemon 1:17-20]. I will have more to say on this later.)

Peter had this to say about priests to serve under Jesus:

1 Peter 2:

5 you yourselves, as living stones, are built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood and to offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

6 For it says in scripture, "Look, I lay in Zion a stone, a chosen and priceless cornerstone, and whoever believes in him will never be put to shame."

7 So you who believe see his value, but for those who do not believe, the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,

8 and a stumbling-stone and a rock to trip over. They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.

9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

(NET Bible®, underlining mine)

If St. Peter was addressing the Church in general, then he was calling all Christians priests. St. John penned a similar theme in Revelations:

Revelations 1:

4 From John, to the seven churches that are in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you from "he who is," and who was, and who is still to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne,

5 and from Jesus Christ — the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, the ruler over the kings of the earth. To the one who loves us and has set us free from our sins at the cost of his own blood

6 and has appointed us as a kingdom, as priests serving his God and Father — to him be the glory and the power for ever and ever! Amen.

7 (Look! He is returning with the clouds,

and every eye will see him,

even those who pierced him,

and all the tribes on the earth will mourn because of him.

This will certainly come to pass! Amen.)

(NET Bible®, underlining mine)

Revelations 5:

8 and when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders threw themselves to the ground before the Lamb. Each of them had a harp and golden bowls full of incense (which are the prayers of the saints).

9 They were singing a new song:

"You are worthy to take the scroll

and to open its seals

because you were killed,

and at the cost of your own blood you have purchased for God

persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation.

10 You have appointed them as a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth."

11 Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels in a circle around the throne, as well as the living creatures and the elders. Their number was ten thousand times ten thousand — thousands times thousands —

12 all of whom were singing in a loud voice:

"Worthy is the lamb who was killed

to receive power and wealth

and wisdom and might

and honor and glory and praise!"

(NET Bible®, underlining mine)

Revelations 20:

5 (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were finished.) This is the first resurrection.

6 Blessed and holy is the one who takes part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.

(NET Bible®, underlining mine)

Once again, these quotes appear to refer to all Christians – at least those Christians deemed worthy of the first resurrection. While Peter refers to a “spiritual house” and “spiritual sacrifices” John refers to something more concrete during the Millennium. It is possible to interpret these passages as meaning all worthy Christians are to become priests at the first resurrection, or that all Christians are already priests now, at least in some spiritual sense. Either way, I see no justification for a special priesthood within Christianity to act as intercessors between God and men or between Jesus and men.

Either way, we have the same question: to whom do Christians tithe? If Jesus is currently the sole priest, then we should give our tithes to him. If all Christians are part of a spiritual priesthood, then what? Does this exempt Christians from tithing? Take a look back at Numbers 18:26. While the Levites received a tithe from the rest of Israel, they were also supposed to tithe themselves. This was done as a “heave offering.” We cannot tithe this way because we have no temple with altar into which to heave an offering. (I am assuming that a “heave offering” meant heaving into a fire; I could be wrong.) Even as priests, perhaps we should hand off our offerings to the high priest, to Jesus, to offer up in the heavenly temple.

Either way you interpret the current priesthood status of Christians, the logic points to giving tithes to Jesus. So how do we give to Jesus? In Matthew 25 we have:

Matthew 25:

31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.

32 All the nations will be assembled before him, and he will separate people one from another like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,

36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'

37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?

38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or naked and clothe you?

39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?'

40 And the king will answer them, 'I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me.'

41 "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels!

42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink.

43 I was a stranger and you did not receive me as a guest, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'

44 Then they too will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not give you whatever you needed?'

45 Then he will answer them, 'I tell you the truth, just as you did not do it for one of the least of these, you did not do it for me.'

46 And these will depart into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

(NET Bible®)

When Christians give to the poor, the sick, or those in prison, they give to Jesus. The logic of New Testament tithing leads to the same conclusion as the passages referring to “treasures in heaven.” Christians should be giving heavily to the poor. In a sense, the needy serve the role that the Levites did of old. They are the proxy for God though whom we give to God. The poor are the new Levites!

So, if the law of tithing is still in effect, Christians should be giving at least 10% of their incomes to the poor. And if we follow the Old Testament model, this 10% should be on top of any redistribution of ground rent by the government.

I say at least 10% for several reasons:

  1. There was a third tithe mentioned in the Old Testament that applied on the “third year” which was supposed to go to the poor – at least in part [Deuteronomy 26:12].
  2. Under Old Testament Law, the well off were obligated to make zero interest loans to the needy.
  3. If you have any post-baptism sins you want forgiven, you need to do some forgiving yourself. Forgiving trespasses or debts qualify. If you simply donate to the poor, that is effectively forgiveness of a debt.

This solves part of the economic problem of caring for the poor: spread the message above to Christians and a bigger pool of charitable money becomes available. But in the process of coming to this conclusion, we have stumbled across a facet of the New Testament message that has potentially profound implications for religious practice.