Although I am not an economist or an accountant, I am going to begin by making a very ambitious financial prediction, even more ambitious than what Larry Burkett predicted in his book The Coming Economic Earthquake: you are going to lose everything you have. What is even perhaps more ambitious is that I can give you the probability with which this will happen: 100%. And yes, I am dead serious!
You might have heard the story of the millionaire who died; when his pastor came out of the room where he had just passed away to the gathered family, they were asking each other, “How much did he leave?” Of course they were thinking about the will. But the preacher wisely responded, “Everything! He left everything.” In the same way, when you die, you will leave everything, you will lose everything that you have gained of your earthly possessions.
Now when you realized that I was talking about what you lose at death, you might have breathed a sigh of relief. But why? Could it be because we don’t take seriously enough the reality that what we possess here is only fleeting? Given the fact that it is all going to pass away, should we want to be rich? The apostle Paul would say no, for in his letter to Timothy he warns about an attitude of covetousness that makes earthly possessions one’s treasure: “But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition” (ver. 9). The fact is most of us are far more serious about attaining and retaining earthly wealth and possessions than we ought to be. Especially in the West, where everyone is rich compared to 90% of the rest of the world, we are continually tempted to prize our money over Christ.
This was one of the problems of the false teachers in Ephesus. They had made earthly gain their treasure instead of Christ, for they supposed that “gain was godliness” (ver. 5). For the last time in this epistle, Paul explicitly confronts them, laying out the origin and development of their heresy. The ultimate problem is that they had abandoned Christ: they had abandoned him for false teaching (vs. 3-5) and they had abandoned him for the love of money (vs. 6-10) – and it could very well be that the latter was the cause of the former. In each case, Paul elaborates upon the consequences of this fateful exchange: abandoning the truth about Christ for heresy results in “perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth” (ver. 5), and abandoning our treasure in Christ for money results in falling into “temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition” (ver. 9).
Thus these false teachers were leading their followers down a path that led to spiritual disease and destruction because they had ceased to see the glory of Christ and had abandoned him for other things. The frightening thing is that this is not a unique experience and has occurred every time the church has left off following Jesus for the things of this world. In fact, I would argue that we can see these very things happening to the church today. Therefore, the question before us is how can we keep from going down this path, or, if we are already on it, how do we return to the right path?
The answer is obvious: we do it by perceiving more worth in Christ than we do in the glitter of material things. For the root of the problem is found in the middle of verse 3: the false teachers were not consenting to “wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul does not mean by this, “the words which Jesus spoke;” rather, he means, “the words which have the life and ministry and glory of Jesus Christ as their content: the words which are about Jesus Christ.” The failure to have this before their eyes and in their heart was the starting point of all their heresy and sin. But how do we keep Christ before our eyes? According to this text, one of the ways we keep his worth before our eyes is by perceiving the worthlessness of the things of this world. Therefore, I want to do two things with this text this morning: (1) negatively, I want to place before you the utter uselessness of doctrine and wealth unhinged from faith in Christ, and (2) positively, I want to try to show you why Christ should have your heart.
Abandoning Christ for Heresy
Paul had just told Timothy, “These things teach and exhort” (ver. 2). Paul is referring to everything he had been saying up to now and it includes the gospel and its implications for life in the church. The problem was that Timothy was not teaching these things in a milieu absent of opposition to the truth, so Paul immediately goes on to say, “If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness, he is proud, etc.” (ver. 3,ff). The phrase “teach otherwise” translates a Greek word which is also behind Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 1:3, “that thou mightest charge some that they teach no other doctrine.” To “teach otherwise” is to teach a doctrine different from Paul’s. And since Paul got his doctrine from Christ himself (cf. Gal. 1:11-12), the doctrine of the false teachers was ultimately not Christian.
What made it so bad was that it was not consistent with the truth about Jesus. The heart of all Christian teaching is the gospel of Jesus Christ, which teaches that the Son of God became man in order to take the sinner’s place before God, which he did upon the cross, where he “became sin for us who knew no sin that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21), and that he was then buried and continued under the power of death for three days, after which he was resurrected and ascended to his Father’s right hand, where he now awaits until all his enemies are made his footstool. The orbit of the Christian’s faith is centered upon these truths. However, the false teachers had denied some or parts of this for a hodge-podge of heresies.
It doesn’t matter how it’s packaged, or what good it might do in the short run, in the end heresy is unhealthy and spiritually destructive. Thus, Paul compares their teaching to the “wholesome words” – healthy words – of the gospel. In contrast, those who abandon the truth about Christ are “proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings [slander], evil surmisings [suspicions], perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth” (vs. 4-5). The word for “doting” denotes illness – these men had a sick craving for unhealthy teaching. It is sick because it comes from a corrupt mind and leads to corrupt practices. Though orthodoxy has had many detractors over the years, including those who claim that it is unnecessary to the life and health of the church, this text stands as an eternal reminder that truth is of first importance, especially the truth about our Savior.
First of all, abandoning the truth leads to arrogant ignorance: “proud, knowing nothing. . . destitute of the truth.” Any philosophy or religious teaching which denies the gospel is, in the end, empty of any real truth content. It may seem very sophisticated and it may have its intellectuals on its side, but it cannot save. Christ himself said, “This is eternal life, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3). The gospel is the only doctrine which is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16,17). It is that alone which is “able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15).
What the false teachers placed such great importance upon was really nothing more than “questions and strifes of words” – quibbling over pointless questions. It reminds me of the practice of students in medieval universities who, to practice their debate skills, would argue for hours over questions like, “Whether it is better to lead a pig to market by the nose or by the tail.” That’s sort of what Paul is saying these guys are doing. Of course, there are still those in the church who make mountains out of mole-hills, and who will make a man an offender over a word, who would debate you for hours over supralapsarianism versus infralapsarianism (or vice versa) and put a line through your name in their book if you don’t agree with them!
The result of this was predictable: envy, dissension, slander, suspicion, and wicked disputings. Far from leading to godliness (which is what many false teachings claim to focus on), heresy inevitably leads to ungodliness. It’s inevitable: truth will lead to holiness and error to sin. Instead of bringing harmony to believers, heresy brings friction [ESV translates verse 5 by “and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth”].
I cannot imagine an uglier picture that what Paul sets before us in these verses. I know that many people accuse the church of these things, and unfortunately, there are too many churches in which these things happen. But they are not the result of the gospel; they are the result of people in the church failing to take the gospel seriously. Moreover, the fact of the matter is that the world is full of these things, and often the people who accuse the church of envy and strife are themselves the worst perpetrators. The only way to really get out of the sludge is to follow Christ and believe the truth about him. He alone can transform us and make us into loving and kind and longsuffering and patient people.
Abandoning Christ for Money
Remember that the false teachers were not themselves duped by the heresy they taught: their lies were taught in insincerity (4:2) – they knew that what they were teaching was false. So what motivated them? Paul makes it very clear at the end of verse 5: “supposing that gain is godliness, from such withdraw thyself.” In other words, they realized that orthodoxy was not the quickest way to make a buck in the religious world so they improvised. They figured out what would draw the crowds and bring in the money and so that’s what they settled on. Greed, not godliness, ran their ministries.
Greed is so awful and destructive spiritually that Paul spends the next five verses talking about the danger of greed and the blessing of its opposite, contentment.
What is this contentment of which Paul speaks? The word was used by the Stoics to describe the self-sufficient man; the picture is that of a man bravely facing on his own whatever the fates had to throw at him. But this is not what Paul is talking about: for him, contentment is not about self-sufficiency, it is about Christ sufficiency. After all, when he spoke about contentment to the Philippians, he said this: “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4:11-13). Paul found his contentment in Christ, for godliness is just devotion to Christ; and Paul found his contentment through Christ, for the way he achieved this state was through faith in him.
The fundamental problem was not that the false teachers were going after gain: the problem was that they were going after the wrong kind of gain. For Paul, gain is not found in things but in Christ: “But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea, doubtless, and I count all thing but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things and do count them but dung, that I may win [gain] Christ, and be found in him, not having my own righteousness which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith” (Phil. 3:7-9). “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Christ alone can make that which causes the loss of all earthly possessions to be gain. Thus, in contrast to the greed of the false teachers, Paul prescribes contentment: “But godliness with contentment is great gain.” Whereas the false teachers saw godliness as a means to an end, Paul says that godliness with contentment is the end, and that it alone gives what the false teachers were seeking but missing.
Paul then gives three reasons why this is true.
First, in verse 7, he reasons, “For we brought nothing into this world and it is certain we can carry nothing out.” That is, the passing nature of earthly things ought to teach us to hold on to them lightly. Covetousness is unreasonable because it places a value on things which is worthy only of that which is permanent. We will lose everything earthly. None of our wealth, prestige, and place in this world will follow us into the next. Jesus told us that many who are first in this world will be last in the next. We are of dust and to dust we shall return. As Job put it, “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).
Paul is simply reiterating what Jesus himself said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:19-21). If we realize that nothing of this earth is sure, then our heart will value that which is truly worth our affections. In the same way, Paul is reminding us that we will not carry our things to heaven in order to take our heart off of greed and onto Christ.
Second, in verse 8, Paul says, “And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.” He is arguing that contentment is superior to greed because the fact is that God simply has not promised material wealth. Greed is often borne of an attitude which believes that God owes me a certain lifestyle. God has promised food and clothing (cf. Matthew 6:24-34), but he has not promised more than that. Though some say that the word for raiment in 1 Timothy 6:8 includes shelter, we must also remember that our Lord himself said that “the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).
Finally, in verse 9-10, Paul reminds us of the destructive end of covetousness: “But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” Those who “will be rich” – that is, those who inordinately desire it – plunge into an ocean of hurt. First, they expose themselves to special temptations (all men are tempted, so the temptations Paul speaks of here must be unique to greed) which then lead to a snare. Often, when Paul speaks of a snare, he has the devil in mind as the one who sets it, and this might be the case here (cf. 1 Tim. 3:7; 2 Tim. 2:26). The result is “foolish and hurtful lusts which drown men in destruction.” This is a sad description of men and women whose greed has led them to make choices that they otherwise would have viewed as both foolish and hurtful. The words for “destruction and perdition” are very strong and very probably refer to perishing eternally. In fact, this is almost certainly the case, for Paul is describing those who have abandoned Christ for other things. One is reminded of the words of the Wise Man: “Treasures of wickedness profit nothing: but righteousness delivereth from death” (Prov. 10:2).
Paul’s words remind me of a short story by Leo Tolstoy, entitled “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” It is about a Russian man named Pahom, which begins with his wife quarrelling with a cousin over the merits of country life versus city life. Pahom’s wife argued that the peasant’s life was better, and Pahom agreed, but thought that he would be better off if he just had more land. So throughout the story, Pahom acquires more land and more status, thinking that by the next purchase he will finally be satisfied. Satisfaction never comes, however, and when he is told of cheap land in another part of Russia where only some ignorant tribesmen live, Pahom leaps at the chance to get it. When he arrives to look over the land, he learns the amazing condition with which the land is acquired: he can have as much land as he can traverse in a day for only 1000 rubles. The catch is that you have to end where you start at the end of the day or you lose your money. So early the next morning, Pahom sets out to mark out his possession. Greed gets the better of him, however, and he ends up traversing too much land, so much that he has to run without stopping for the last few hours in order to make it back by the end of the day. The result was that he died of exhaustion as he reached the end. Tolstoy ends the story with these words: “His servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for Pahom to lie in, and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.” What irony! In the end, Pahom only needed six feet of land, and this was only necessitated by his greed for more land than he really needed. Tolstoy was trying to teach the same lesson Paul wants us to learn: that by seeking to possess all things we end up losing everything.
It’s not that money itself is bad, or even wealth. After all, Paul will later exhort the rich to enjoy their wealth, albeit with an attitude that is consistent with faith in Christ (6:17-18). And here, Paul does not say that money is the root of all evil, but that the love of money is the root of all [sorts of] evil. Poor people are just as susceptible to this as the rich. It’s not the possession of wealth that is wrong; it is the way we enjoy it. If we don’t make it our god, and see these things as gifts which are less than the Giver, we will be all right. But if we put God’s good gifts on the throne of our heart, we will err from the faith and pierce ourselves through with many sorrows (ver. 10).
There is a song that goes, “I'd rather have Jesus than silver or gold.” Every Christian should be able to echo this sentiment. Why? Because he alone can give us true satisfaction. Money and status and ease and comfort can never give you eternal life or forgive your sins. Things cannot fill a heart that was made for God. Gold rises and falls in price but Christ alone is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Riches can be taken away and lost, but the salvation that is in Christ can never be lost. Wealth cannot give you love – though it might win you many false friends – but Christ is a friend who sticks closer than a brother, who is with you to the end (Matthew 28:20). Therefore, should you not “flee these things” (ver. 11) and flee to Christ? May the Holy Spirit prompt you to do so, and if you have, may he enable you to continue to flee to him and away from the passing pleasures of sin.