By Adam Brown –
This fourteenth instruction, that we are to set our hopes on God and not on riches, is a parenthetical thought that came to Paul while he was writing to Timothy.
The mainline of his thought flows through 1 Timothy 6:3-5, 11-16, and 20-21. If we were to remove verses 6-10 and 17-19, Paul’s letter would read smooth.
This means that 1 Timothy 6:6-10 and 6:17-19 are additional thoughts that, in many ways, stand alone from the main thrust of the letter. Of course, the ideas expressed in these verses are born out of the grander context.
The idea that initiated this bunny-trail is the end of 1 Timothy 6:3-5, which reads:
3 If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, 4 he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, 5 and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.
It is this last part, “imagining that godliness is a means of gain,” that besets Paul’s thinking about riches.
Initially, it is difficult to know which kind of gain Paul is referring to. Within the broader context of the letter, it is possible that Paul has a works-based salvation in mind. That is, these depraved and deprived people think that they might actually earn (gain) salvation by their deeds. Or, it might be that unsaved people identified themselves with the church and demonstrated a pretended godliness in order to take advantage of the church’s material generosity. Or, a third option is that false teachers were more interested in making money than in making true disciples.
Whatever Paul’s original intention was, he breaks away from it to assure Timothy that there is a particular kind of gain that comes with godliness.
This aside can be broken into two halves. The first half (1 Timothy 6:6-8) addresses the gain of godliness. The second half (1 Timothy 6:9-10) addresses the ruin of riches.
The Gain of Godliness (1 Timothy 6:6-8)
6 But godliness with contentment is great gain, 7 for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. 8 But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content (1 Timothy 6:6-8).
Gain in godliness is only achieved with contentment. In other words: godliness + material contentment = gain.
The gain is not materialism. Nor is it contentment. The gain is godliness itself. The problem with the depraved and deprived people from verse 5 is that they thought that godliness was a means to some greater gain. But, godliness is not a means to gain, godliness (with contentment) is great gain. Godliness is the end, the gain itself. So long as a person enjoys material contentment, this gain of godliness can be fully enjoyed.
Paul underscores his point by reminding Timothy that just as we brought nothing material into the world, so we can take nothing material out of it. We can, however, take godliness with us when we die. Between birth and death, then, all that we really need is food and clothing, and with these we are to be content.
By contrast, materially discontent people injure themselves in their pursuit of wealth, thus missing any gain they might have had in godliness.
The Ruin of Riches (1 Timothy 6:9-10)
9 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs (1 Timothy 6:9-10).
The worst part of being materially discontent is that when faced with a choice between faith and riches, these people choose riches.
Jesus has made this exact same point with, perhaps, even greater bluntness, when He said:
24 “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money (Matthew 6:24).
Either God and godliness will be the goal or material riches will be the goal. If God and godliness ever becomes a twisted means for attaining material riches, then such people are depraved and deprived, just as Paul warned in 1 Timothy 6:5.
Of course, this is difficult for most Westerners. How many of us are truly content with food and clothing? How many of us choose riches over a radical commitment to Christ, over regular involvement at church, or over a proper devotion to family life? This is a sin for which our generation at-large is exceptionally vulnerable and often palpably guilty. Thank God for his richness toward us in mercy and grace!
Now, Paul is not saying that all money is the root of all evil. It is the root of all kinds of evil, which simply means that many different sins emerge from the same greedy source. Nevertheless, a person can be materially rich and devoted to the faith, to Christ, to the church, and to family all at the same time. Paul spells this out for us when he comes back to his parenthetical thinking in verses 17-19.
Set Your Hopes on God – Not on Riches (1 Timothy 6:17-19)
17 As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life (1 Timothy 6:17-19).
The problem with riches is that we can feel secure in our own self-provision; our steady income, our luxurious spending power, our well structured retirement plans. When this happens, we begin to feel as though we don’t need God.
Of course this is absurd! God grants us every measure of anything we receive, including breath to draw and a heart to pump. Without God, there is nothing to be had. So much for self-sufficiency.
Paul affirms this thinking by stating that God is more reliable than any form of riches, which are always uncertain. There is no guarantee that they will be there tomorrow. But God will be there tomorrow, guaranteed. God is more reliable than our current employment, the balance in our bank account, or the saving in our retirement plans.
When we put our trust in God, we can actually afford to spend our material wealth on the kingdom of God. Paul gives four exhortations to the rich in this age:
- Do good with your money.
- Be rich in good works by investing time away from money making ventures.
- Be generous by giving your money away.
- Be ready to share so as to use your money for the good of brothers and sisters in the church.
By doing these four things, the rich in this age are wisely investing their wealth in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and where no thief can break in to steal (Matthew 6:19-21).
This instruction is plain and wise. And, for us, it is very difficult. May we all seek the grace and kindness of God, asking Him to strengthen us so that we might trust in Him instead of our riches.