A Christian approach to material possessions (preaching resource for 9/25/22)

This post exegetes 1 Timothy 6:3-19 (the RCL Epistles reading for Sept. 25, 2022) drawing on multiple sources including commentary from John Stott.

"St. Paul Writing His Epistles" (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1 Timothy 6:3-19, the apostle Paul instructs Timothy concerning how Christ-followers should relate to material possessions. The instruction addresses several groups within the church at Ephesus: covetous teachers (vv3-5), Christian poor (vv6-10), Timothy himself (vv11-16), and Christian rich (vv17-19).

Instruction to covetous teachers (6:3-5) 

3 If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, 4 they are conceited and understand nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions 5 and constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.

Paul accuses the false teachers who were troubling the church in Ephesus with being covetous—pursuing godliness for *financial gain* (5b).  Sadly, such covetousness has reared its ugly head throughout Christian history. A case in point is Simon Magus who thought he could buy spiritual powers from the apostles. In contrast, Paul declared that he did not peddle the Word of God for profit (2Cor.2:17), and that he had never coveted anybody's silver, gold or clothing (Acts 20:33) nor ever used religion as a cloak for greed (1Thess.2:5). Today, traveling evangelists appeal for 'love offerings' that are never accounted for while televangelists promise ‘health and wealth’ to those who will send in enough 'seed money'. Such teachers are false because they are motivated not by a desire for godly gain but for financial gain.

Instruction to Christian poor (6:6-10) 

6 But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9 Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

To pursue godliness for material gain is wrong, but to pursue it for spiritual gain is the calling of every Christian (6a), provided that we add *contentment*. The REB puts it this way: 'They [the false teachers] think religion should yield dividends; and of course religion does yield high dividends, but only to those who are content with what they have.'  

Paul here reminds us that our true well-being is not dependent on external circumstances. 'I have learned the secret', Paul wrote, 'of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want' (Phil.4:12). This Christian 'secret' is not to be found within ourselves, but in Christ. 'I can do everything', Paul went on, 'through him who gives me strength' (Phil.4:13). Genuine contentment is 'not *self*-sufficiency but *Christ*-sufficiency'. This is why godliness plus contentment equals great spiritual gain. 

As Paul progresses with this discussion, he addresses the poor among the members in Ephesus. They fall into two categories: the contented poor and the covetous poor:

The contented poor (6:7-8)

Some poor are *content* with *food and clothing* (8). The word for clothing includes shelter. So the idea is being content with the material essentials of life: adequate food, clothing and housing. Note that Paul is not asking people to be content with destitution, but, as Jesus taught, we are not to store up for ourselves (that is, not selfishly accumulate) treasures on earth (Mt.6:19ff.). In that regard, a commitment to a simple lifestyle is worth consideration. 

The covetous poor (6:9-10) 

In contrast, the covetous poor 'want to get rich' (9) and are motivated by 'the love of money' (10). Scripture is full of warnings about this. We are told that 'whoever loves money never has money enough' (Ec.5:10). It is also stated that 'one eager to get rich will not go unpunished' (Pr.28:20). So we should pray to be given 'neither poverty [i.e. destitution] nor riches', but only our 'daily bread', i.e. the necessities of life (Pr.30:7ff.). In the New Testament, Jesus teaches us to beware of greed, and reminds us that our life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions (Lk.12:15ff.). 

Paul traces the downfall of the covetous: First, *people who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap* (9a). They lead themselves into multiple temptations like dishonesty and theft. And the 'trap' they fall into is surely the devil's, for through their greed he ensnares them in materialism and moral compromise. 

Secondly, covetous people fall *into many foolish and harmful desires* (9b). Of course greed is itself a desire, selfish and even idolatrous (Eph.5:5), but it breeds other desires. For money is a drug, and covetousness a drug addiction. The more you have, the more you want. Yet these further desires are *foolish* (they cannot be rationally defended) and *harmful* (they hold the human spirit captive).  

Thirdly, these wrong desires *plunge* them *into ruin and destruction* (9c)--disaster in this life and destruction in the next. The irony is that those who set their hearts on gain end in total loss, the loss of their integrity and indeed of themselves. For, as Jesus asked, 'What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? (Mk.8:36). 

In order to emphasize this warning, Paul quotes a proverb: *For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil* (10a). Note that the problem is not 'money' but 'the love of money'. Secondly, it is not 'the' one and only root of evil, but only 'a' root. Thirdly, money or the love of it is not the root of 'all evil' in the singular, but rather a root of 'all kinds of evil' in the plural. 

What then are the evils of which the love of money is a major root or cause? There are many, but Paul concentrates on two: First, *some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith* (10b). It is not possible to pursue truth and money, God and mammon, simultaneously. People either renounce greed in their commitment to the faith, or they make money their god and depart from the faith. Secondly, they have *pierced themselves with many griefs* (10c). What these 'griefs' are Paul does not elaborate, but they could include worry and remorse, the pangs of a disregarded conscience, the discovery that materialism can never satisfy the human spirit, and final despair. 

Comment: Some Christians have misused this instruction from Paul in order to exploit the poor—keeping them in poverty while promising them freedom in heaven. But Paul is not advocating such tactics. Paul is not for poverty and against wealth, rather he is for contentment and against covetousness.

Instruction to Timothy (6:11-16) 

11 But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14 to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 which God will bring about in his own time—God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen.

Here Paul addresses Timothy (the “man of God”)—exhorting him to be different than the covetous ones in his ethics, doctrine and experience:

Concerning his ethics (6:11) 

Timothy must both *flee from all this and pursue* other things. He is to flee the love of money, and all the many evils associated with it (9-10), together with everything else which is incompatible with the wholesome will of God. Instead, he is to pursue six ethical qualities, which seem to be listed in pairs, and which are particularly appropriate as an alternative to covetousness: First, he must *pursue righteousness* (justice and fair dealing with people) and *godliness* (for God, not mammon, is the right object of human worship). Next, he must pursue *faith* and *love*, a familiar couplet in Paul's letters. Perhaps in this context he means on the one hand faithfulness or 'integrity' (REB) and on the other the love of sacrifice and service which has no room for greed. Then Timothy's third goal is to have *endurance*, which is patience in difficult circumstances, *and gentleness*, which is patience with difficult people.

Concerning his doctrine (6:12a) 

Timothy is also to *fight the good fight of the faith*. In vv 10 and 21 Paul describes the false teachers as having 'wandered from the faith', meaning the apostolic faith. Since some have 'wandered' from it, it is all the more urgent that Timothy should 'fight' for it.  Just as Paul contrasts evil and goodness he now contrasts truth and error. Timothy is both to 'turn away' from false teaching (20b) (which often involves covetousness for material gain) and to 'guard' (20a) and 'fight' for (12) the truth of the gospel. 

Concerning his experience (6:12b)

Timothy is also to *take hold of...eternal life*--the life which Jesus defined in terms of knowing him and the Father (Jn.17:3). Consequently, this life is both a present possession and a future hope, though Paul here seems to have the present in mind because he describes it to Timothy as something *to which you are called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses* --an apparent reference to Timothy’s conversion and baptism.  

It may seem strange that Timothy needs to be exhorted to 'take hold of' eternal life.' Had he not been a Christian for many years? Had he not received eternal life long ago? Then why did Paul tell him to lay hold of what he already possessed? The probable answer is that it is possible to possess something without embracing and enjoying it. Thus Paul urges Timothy to lay hold of the eternal life he possessed, to make it completely his own, to enjoy it and live it to the full. A godly approach to material possessions is fundamental to living fully the eternal life we now possess.

Paul goes on to offer to Timothy three incentives to this faithfulness (13-16):  

  • God’s presence. We stand *in the sight of God....and of Christ Jesus* (13)—the God *who gives life to everything* and the Christ *who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made a good confession*. Thus the 'good confession' expected of us was first made by Christ. *I charge you*, Paul then concludes, *to keep this command without spot or blame* (13b-14a). The REB is perhaps best in translating this as, 'I charge you to obey your orders without fault or failure.'
  • Christ’s coming. The return of Christ is a reality and so Timothy is to keep the command without fault *until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ* (14b). It is evident that Paul is still as certain about the event as he is uncertain about its time. Yet he knows that this too is in God's hands, since he *will bring it about in his own time* (15a), or 'in his own good time' (REB). This assurance about the divine timetable is a notable feature of the Pastoral Epistles. Whether Paul is alluding to the first coming of Christ (past), the proclamation of the gospel (present) or his appearing (future), each event occurs in God's 'own', or 'appointed' time (2:6; 6:15).
  • God’s nature. Faithfulness is the appropriate response to the awesome God who is invincible, immortal, inaccessible and invisible—to him *be honor and might for ever. Amen* (16b). 

Instruction to Christian rich (6:17-19) 

17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

Paul next addresses the Christian wealthy—those 'who are rich in this present world' (17).  Paul does not direct them to divest themselves of their riches—instead, he warns of the dangers of wealth, and then sets forth the duties of being wealthy.

Concerning the dangers of being rich (6:17)

The first danger is false pride. *Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant* (17a). Wealth often gives birth to vanity. It tends to make people feel self-important, and so 'contemptuous of others' (JBP). Wealthy people frequently boast of their house, furniture, cars or other possessions and look down on those less fortunate.

The second danger is a false security causing them to forget God. *Command those who are rich in this present world not...to put their hope in wealth* (17a). To do so is foolishly short-sighted. For one thing, wealth *is so uncertain*. Jesus warned us of the ravages of moth, rust and burglars (Mt.6:19), and we would want to add fire and inflation as further hazards. Many people have gone to bed rich and awakened poor. 

Paul then adds that the proper object of our trust is not wealth but God, *who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment* (17b). Note that we are not to exchange materialism for asceticism. On the contrary, God is a generous Creator, who wants us to appreciate the good gifts of creation. If we consider it right to adopt an economic lifestyle lower than we could command, it will be out of solidarity with the poor, and not because we judge the possession of material things to be wrong in itself.

Concerning the duties of being rich (6:18-19) 

Timothy is to *command* the wealthy *to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share* (18), using their wealth to relieve want and to promote good causes. In doing so, they will be imitating God, who out of his riches *richly provides us* with everything we need. Since God is such a generous giver, his people should be generous too, not only in imitation of his generosity, but also because of the colossal needs of the world around us. 

If wealthy people are sacrificially generous, they will no longer be as wealthy as they were. *In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life* (19). This *treasure* is spiritual treasure, which is (literally) 'a good foundation for the future', enabling the generous rich to lay hold of the authentic life which begins now and ends in a new heaven and earth. 

It is a question of perspective and of proportion. Which is the more valuable? To be rich in this age (17) or in the age to come (19)? Is it to accumulate treasure on earth or in heaven? Is it to make a lot of money now, or to 'take hold of the life that is truly life?

Conclusion

Looking back over this whole passage we see the apostle's balanced wisdom concerning material possessions. Against materialism (an obsession with material possessions) he sets simplicity of lifestyle. Against asceticism (the repudiation of the material order) he sets gratitude for God's creation. Against covetousness (the lust for more possessions) he sets contentment with what we have. Against selfishness (the accumulation of goods for ourselves) he sets generosity in imitation of God. Simplicity, gratitude, contentment and generosity are the hallmarks of the Christian approach to material possessions.