Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42 Supporting the Old Covenant and Its Interpreters

An Exhaustive Examination of "Tithe," "Tithes" and "Tithing"

Should the Church Teach Tithing?

A Theologian's Conclusions about a Taboo Doctrine

Russell Earl Kelly, PHD

Section 14

Matt. 23:23 Woe to you, scribes [teachers of the law: NIV] and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law — judgment, mercy, and faith; these you ought to have done, without leaving the other undone.

Luke 11:42 But woe to you, Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God; these you ought to have done, without leaving the other undone.

Although they occur before Calvary, Matthew 23:23 and Luke 11:42 are the only “New Testament” texts available for those who teach tithing. In support of tithing, Eklund admits, “The New Testament does not record Jesus’ practice of the tithe. However we do read about the many accusations made against Jesus by the Pharisees. . . . If Jesus had been guilty of neglecting the tithe, obviously the charges would have been made publicly. . . . Jesus could have declared the tithe invalid. In fact it would have strengthened his condemnation of the Pharisees. Yet he made it very clear that the tithe was still expected. . . .”[1] Another pro-tithing author writes, “What do you say to people when they say that tithing is only in the Old Testament? Well, they haven’t read the Bible! They need to read [quotes Matt. 23:23].”[2]

However in rebuttal to New Covenant tithing, a seminary textbook on the principles of interpretation deliberately chose Matthew 23:23 to illustrate the opposite point. “The Scriptures themselves offer us a way of sorting out which commands have continuing relevance for our lives and which ones have been rendered obsolete by God’s having declared their usefulness to have ended. Even though the law is one, we are taught in the Bible to distinguish at least three different aspects in that one law. Jesus authorized such a stance when he used the concept in Matthew 23:23 that some things in the law were ‘weightier’ than others. It is this ranking and prioritizing within the law that establishes the moral aspect of the law as higher than its civil and ceremonial aspects. In this verse, justice, mercy and faithfulness are heavier and weightier than the rules for tithing spices, evidently because the former reflects the nature and character of God.”[3]

Even though uninspired persons designated the four Gospels as so-called “New Testament” books, most thinking Christians realize that, in reality, the New Covenant did not begin until the very moment Christ died on Calvary. The blood of Christ, the blood of the New Covenant, or testament, sealed and ratified the New Covenant and ended the Old Covenant or Mosaic Law once for all time. When Jesus cried “It is finished,” the veil in the Jerusalem Temple was ripped from top to bottom exposing the formerly Most Holy Place to the view of all who looked. At that very moment, in the mind of God, the entire sacrificial system with its laws, its priesthood, and its ordinances ceased to have relevance (Heb. 9:24-26). Thus Matthew 23 and Luke 11 are events in the context of the Old Covenant, not the New. They cannot properly be called New Covenant examples.

Luke 11:41 But rather give alms [charity: NAS; to the poor: NIV] of such things as you have, and, behold, all things are clean to you.

1.         In Luke 11:41 true cleanliness of the conscience is achieved through freewill giving to the poor as compared to mandated giving of the law.

Gal 4:4-5 But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.

2.         Jesus was BORN while full obedience to the Mosaic Law was required of Jews. Jesus LIVED while full obedience to the Mosaic Law was required. And Jesus was KILLED while full obedience to the Mosaic Law was still required from Jews! The time-context of Matthew 23:23 is purely Law and is not part of the New Covenant of grace for the Church.

Jesus was the perfect law-keeper. He perfectly obeyed all of the commandments, the judgments, and the ordinances which applied to him. He obeyed all of the social and ceremonial parts of the law as taught by Moses in the Old Covenant, and he commanded the crowds and his disciples to obey the scribes and Pharisees. By taking on humanity as a Jew under the jurisdiction of the law, Jesus encouraged other Jews to strictly obey the Mosaic Covenant. Thus he fulfilled every minute detail perfectly. Jesus had to be sinless in order to redeem those under the curse of the law. Compare John 8:46, Romans 3:20, and Hebrews 4:15.

Matt 23:1-2 Then Jesus spoke to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.

3.         Jesus was telling his disciples about the sins and the woes (curses) he was placing on the Pharisees (who did tithe). He was not addressing the church under the New Covenant. Verses 1 through 3 are crucial for a correct understanding of verse 23.

Matt 23:2-3 Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do …

4.         Jesus was condemning the scribes and Pharisees because of their evolved position as interpreters of the Law. Notice that the priests are out of the picture. This is the context of verses 2-12 before the woes on them begin. He was speaking TO his disciples ABOUT the dishonesty of their interpreters of the Mosaic Law. He was not discussing matters relating to the New Covenant church. He was “abasing” or “humbling” them with 8 woes from verses 12-36.

5.         “Woe to you, scribes [teachers of the law: NIV] and Pharisees …” Follow the word, “you” in verse 23. It is absolutely clear that the “you” of refers to the “scribes and Pharisees”!  “You” does not refer to Jesus’ disciples or to the church! The scribes and Pharisees were the ones sitting in Moses’ seat –not his disciples. They were the ones interpreting the Law –not his disciples.

The Pharisees were hypocrites concerning tithing! Alfred Edersheim explained how the Pharisees actually paid less tithe than did others. When John Hyrcanus (135-100 B.C.) enacted a new law which required the buyer to pay tithes rather than the seller, the Pharisees vowed to only trade within their own fraternities, or chabura. Thus, while others paid certain tithes every time produce exchanged hands, the Pharisees declared all except the first time to be “free” from subsequent tithing (p. 215). In addition to this, the rabbis had excluded themselves from Jewish local taxation. Thus, while the typical citizen paid at least an extra ten percent (10%) in local Jewish taxation, the Pharisees had that much extra to pay in tithes–and boasted about tithing (p. 52). Therefore, in reality, the Pharisee paid less tithes in two different ways than others who did not boast.[4]

6.         Hypocrites”: The scribes and Pharisees (the preachers of Jesus’ time) were the hypocrites –not Jesus’ disciples. They were the ones who had exaggerated the Law to make it a burden. And they were the ones who refused to obey the very laws they had exaggerated! Jesus was not disciplining his disciples!

7.         For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin …” The “you” is still the scribes and Pharisees from “woe is you scribes and Pharisees”! As interpreters of the Law they had exaggerated it to include ordinary garden spices which the Law had never intended. The Mishnah and Talmud (not the Bible) defined tithes as “everything eatable, everything that was stored up or that grew out of the earth.”

The Pharisees prided themselves with scrupulous obedience to circumcision, Sabbath-keeping and tithing. They wanted the Jews to think that they could observe these three rites even better than what was expected from the Law. Meticulously counting micro-small spice seeds was their way of boasting.

However, while quoting this very text in an attempt to prove that Jesus taught tithing to the Church, there is probably no church on earth which actually tells its members to literally bring tithes of garden spices.

8.         “And [you] have omitted the weightier matters of the law — judgment, mercy, and faith.” Jesus was telling the scribes and Pharisees that judgment, mercy and faith” are more important “matters of the law” than was tithing. Why? Because judgment, mercy and faith are all moral principles and part of God’s eternal character while tithing was merely a ceremonial statute, or ordinance, of the Law which was of lesser importance (not as weighty).

It is incredible how most Christian tithe-teachers quote this verse and omit its context of “the law.” They teach that Jesus taught tithing in a New Covenant post-Law context and omit the historical context of the verse, the chapter and the covenant.

In fact, ALL of Matthew 22 and 23 is in the context of “matters of the law.” The Herodians had asked, “Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” (Matt. 22:17). In the next discussion Jesus rebuked the Sadducees by quoting from the law (Matt. 22:32 cf. Exod. 3:6.). Next, one of the Pharisees asked, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” (Matt. 22:36). Matthew 23 continues the discussion of “matters of the law” from the current dialog.

9.         “These you ought to have done, without leaving the other undone.” Again I have never heard of a church which required its members to bring tithes “of mint and anise and cumin” and demand that they “ought to have done” so in obedience to Jesus’ command in Matthew 23:23. In context, the Pharisees “ought to have do so” because, as interpreters of the Law, they were the ones who had exaggerated the Law to include counting small spice seeds.

If this verse is supposed to be interpreted as Jesus’ command for Christians to tithe money (which the text does not clearly state) then it should also be interpreted as Jesus’ command for the church to tithe garden spices according to the Law (which the text does clearly state). Yet approximately 1600 years after the tithe was first limited to only food products this verse still limits the tithe to food products in Jesus’ time. The Law had not changed (Lev. 27:30-34). Therefore, contrary to our contemporary re-definition, tithes could come from grains of wheat, but not from grains of gold!

The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary  says, “The Mishnah includes everything eatable, everything that was stored up or that grew out of the earth. The Pharisees [not God] as early as the time of Jesus made the law to include the minutest kitchen herbs, such as mint and cumin.”[5]

The New Bible Dictionary agrees, “To these comparatively simple laws in the Pentateuch governing tithing there were added [by the Pharisees] a host of minutiae which turned a beautiful religious principle into a grievous burden. These complex additions are recorded in the Mishnic and Talmudic literatures. This unfortunate tendency in Israel undoubtedly contributed to the conviction that acceptance with God could be merited through such ritual observances as tithing (Luke xi, 42) without submitting to the moral law of justice, mercy, and faith (Matt. xxiii, 23).” It concludes, like Unger, by stating, “The New Testament reference to the tithing of mint, anise, and cumin (Matt. xxiii, 23; Luke xi, 42) illustrates a Talmudic extension of the Mosaic law, ensuring that ‘everything that is eaten . . . . and that grows out of the earth’ must be tithed.”[6]

Matthew 5:23-24 Therefore if you [Jews] bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave there your gift before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift).

Matthew 8:4 ” . . . go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded [Jews], for a testimony to them.”

10.        Jesus only commanded Jews to observe the Mosaic Law and present themselves to the priests. If Matthew 23:23 is going to be used by tithe-teachers to enforce tithing for the church, then 5:23, 24 and 8:4 should also be used to continue temple sacrifices. All three concepts are purely Mosaic Law.

11.        Jesus could not command non-Jews to present themselves to the priests after being healed, to bring sacrifices to the temple or to tithe. Why? He could not do so and still observe the Law! Gentiles were not governed by the Mosaic Law and it was not permitted under the Law for non-proselyte Jews to be circumcised or tithe. Tithes would not have been accepted even it Gentile Christians had attempted to bring them! In order to be legitimate, tithes must only come from full-fledged Israelites and only from inside Israel! Therefore Matthew 23:23 has no relevance to Gentile Christians or the Church.

12.        It is easy to demonstrate that ALL of the woes in Matthew, chapter 23, are directed against the scribes and Pharisees. Yet tithe-teachers today want to ignore every word of every woe directed against the Pharisees and burden the Church with tithing from Matthew 23:23. Such is very poor hermeneutics. The YOU of Matthew 232:23 is not the church!

13 Woe: YOU shut up the kingdom of heaven against men

14 Woe: YOU devour widows’ houses; make long prayers

15 Woe: YOU make a proselyte a child of hell

16 Woe: YOU blind guides; YOU fools

23 Woe: YOU pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin (gnats)

25 Woe: YOU make clean the outside of the cup

27 Woe: YOU are like unto whitened sepulchers

29 Woe: YOU serpents, generation of vipers

13.        In stark contrast to Malachi 3:9’s curse on Hebrew priests who had stolen the tithes they had vowed to give to God (1:14), the only three times that Jesus mentioned tithing was when he was CURSING TITHE-PAYERS!!! Even under the Law, if one’s life was not right before God, tithing profited nothing! Compare Mt 23:23; Luke 11:42; Luke 18:12.

14.        When Eklund wrote “If Jesus had been guilty of neglecting the tithe, obviously the charges would have been made publicly,” he revealed his misunderstanding of the definition of tithing as thoroughly explained in chapter one. The Pharisees did not accuse Jesus of not paying tithes because he did pay them; instead, they did not accuse him because he did not qualify to pay them. Jesus and his disciples were not required to tithe because they were poor. The gleaning incident recorded three times (Matt. 12:1-12, Mark 2:23-24, and Luke 6:1-2) is important. If a tithe were required from all persons and from all kinds of food harvested, then we could have expected the Pharisees to accuse Jesus and his disciples of not paying tithe on the grain they had just harvested and eaten. The lack of such an accusation proves that no such law applied to poor persons who harvested gleanings. Compare Leviticus 19:10.

True biblical tithing is narrowly limited to food and clean animals from land inheritance. Also, true biblical tithing was never extended to crafts, trades, and fish. Since Jesus was neither a farmer, nor a herdsman, he was not among those who were required to tithe. As a poor carpenter Jesus was only required to give freewill heave offerings –and he freely gave his all.


[1] Eklund, 76.

[2] Clifford A. Jones, Sr., From Proclamation to Practice, A Unique African-American Approach to Stewardship (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1993), 118.

[3] Kaiser, 279.

[4] Edersheim, Sketches, 52, 215.

[5] Unger’s, “tithe”

[6] New Bible Dictionary. (London: Inter-Varsity, 1962), “tithe”


From John Owen, Famous Calvinist Apologist’s Commentary on Hebrews, Chapter 7


Owen: [Matthew 23:23] 3. The precise law of tithing is not confirmed in the gospel. For that saying of our Savior’s approving the tithing of mint and cummin, evidently respects that legal institution which was then in force, and could not be violated without sin. And by his approbation of that law, and of the duty in observance of it, he did no more confirm it, or ascribe an obligatory power unto it under the gospel, than he did so unto all those other ceremonial institutions which both he himself observed  as a man made under the law, and enjoined others so to do. They all continued in full force “until the time of reformation,” which gave them their bounds and limits, Hebrews 9:10, and ended with his resurrection.