A Word to the Wealthy, 1 Timothy 6:17-21
I don’t normally read novels. Frankly, I find genuine history more thrilling anyway. However, sometimes fiction can educate us. The novel, The Testament, is one of these. It contains perhaps one of the best descriptions of the futility of wealth as a source of one’s ultimate happiness. Though the man who speaks these words is a fictional character, the sentiments really are not fictional at all. The novel begins with the words of a dying billionaire, Troy Phelan:
Down to the last day, even the last hour now. I'm an old man, lonely and unloved, sick and hurting and tired of living. I am ready for the hereafter; it has to be better than this.
I own the tall glass building in which I sit, and 97 percent of the company housed in it, below me, and the land around it half a mile in three directions, and the two thousand people who work here and the other twenty thousand who do not, and I own the pipeline under the land that brings gas to the building from my fields in Texas, and I own the utility lines that deliver electricity, and I lease the satellite unseen miles above by which I once barked commands to my empire flung far around the world. My assets exceed eleven billion dollars. I own silver in Nevada and copper in Montana and coffee in Kenya and coal in Angola and rubber in Malaysia and natural gas in Texas and crude oil in Indonesia and steel in China. My company owns companies that produce electricity and make computers and build dams and print paperbacks and broadcast signals to my satellite. I have subsidiaries with divisions in more countries than anyone can find. I once owned all the appropriate toys-the yachts and jets and blondes, the homes in Europe, farms in Argentina, an island in the Pacific, thoroughbreds, even a hockey team. But I've grown too old for toys.
The money is the root of my misery.
That last sentence is almost a paraphrase of Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 6:10: “For the love of money is the root of all evil.” The experience of guys like Troy Phelan has been duplicated in real individuals over and over again. It gives one pause to think how much evil wealth has actually caused some people.
It is naïve, however, to try to remove the misery caused by wealth by saying that we should just all be poor. Unfortunately, at some points in its history the church has taught that there is a sort of saintliness to poverty. We sometimes think that a Christian with no money is somehow more holy than a Christian with a lot of money.
But that would be wrong.
You see, the problem with Troy Phelan was not that he had a lot of money. In fact, his last words are really a misdiagnosis of the problem. Though his words are close to Paul’s, they are in fact different. Paul didn’t say that money is the root of misery; he said that the love of money is the root of misery. It’s not the possession of money that is the problem, it is a wrong attitude associated with its possession that is the problem. Phelan’s problem can be summarized in the words of Jesus to another man consumed with the possession of wealth: “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” (Luke 12:15).
But how does a wealthy person who is a believer live a consistent Christian life, given the temptations that wealth brings with it? Now I think this is a very relevant question for all of us, because in the West, we are wealthy compared to most of the rest of the world. We are probably even wealthy compared to the wealthy in the first century church of Ephesus. So when we read these words, it is unhelpful to think of Donald Trump or Bill Gates, or even the millionaire neighbor who lives down the street. It doesn’t matter if you are considered middle class in America. The fact of the matter is that these words are for you and me.
It’s possible that Paul penned these words because he didn’t want people taking the wrong conclusion away from verses 5-10. Though it is wrong to set your heart on money or to use wealth in the wrong way, it’s simply not wrong to have wealth if you possess it in a way that is consistent with faith in Christ. And that is what Paul shows us in these verses. He shows us what we are to be – having a God-centered mindset, verse 17; what we are to do – embracing a giving lifestyle, verse 18; and why we are to be and to do in this way – expecting a gracious reward, verse 19.
A God-Centered Mindset
Paul exhorts Timothy in verse 17: “Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, which giveth us richly all things to enjoy.” There are two common sinful attitudes that often attach themselves to those who are wealthy: a false sense of self-importance and a false sense of security. Paul addresses both in this verse.
First, he warns against a sense of self-importance: “be not highminded.” Paul uses a similar word in Romans 12:3, when he warns Christians in general about thinking too much of themselves: “For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.” So though this is a problem for everyone, it is accentuated by wealth. Apart from grace, we would tend to think that our life does consist in the things we possess, so that the more we possess the better we are. We begin to think we are superior to others, that we get to play by different rules.
But God is not pleased with pride. “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18). The apostle John warns of “the pride of life” (1 Jn. 2:16). If we begin to let our possessions blind us into thinking we are something, then we are just setting ourselves up for a big disappointment. And if you belong to Christ, you can be sure that he loves you too much to let your wealth get in the way of worship.
Consider what happened to Enron, a huge corporation that collapsed into bankruptcy in 2001 through unethical practices and questionable accounting schemes. Thousands of shareholders lost everything they had as a result. One commentator has made the remark that “[t]hose who ran Enron to the position of becoming one of the most admired companies in America are referred to in book and film as ‘the smartest guys in the room.’ Apparently, they themselves thought the same thing. A culture of superiority permeated the Enron corporation, due in no small part to their success. But the reason for Enron's decline also has to do with that culture. Although Enron famously had a code of ethics in place, they just as famously ignored it. Enron's top priority was profitability. As long as even the illusion that money was being made held, nothing else mattered.” It was their false sense of self-importance that led to their demise. If we’re not careful, this same attitude can lead us into real spiritual problems.
Another problem that often comes with wealth is a false sense of security. Thus, Paul says that the rich are not to “trust in uncertain riches.” The irony here is that at the end of the day, everyone knows that wealth is uncertain. Nevertheless, if we are not careful, we will begin to put our trust in what we possess. We will begin to think if we just had a little more money, then all our problems would be solved. When we get to this place, we need to hear the words of the psalmist: “if riches increase, set not your heart upon them” (Ps. 62:10).
It is true that while some people lose it all, yet some people live and die wealthy. During this life, at least, money provided for all their needs. Nevertheless, we must not overlook the fact that in the end everyone does lose it all. Death is the great bankrupter. That’s why Paul prefaces his words with the phrase, “Charge them that are rich in this life….” The wealth that we possess now will not follow us into the age to come. Therefore, it just doesn’t make any sense to hold onto it.
The way we root these sinful attitudes out is by following Paul’s advice: instead of adopting an attitude of arrogance and finding our security in riches, we need to “trust . . . in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy.” We need to remember that, even if we have a lot of land, or money in the bank, or profitable investments, it is God who gives us everything that we have. God wanted the Israelites to understand that is was he “who fed thee with in the wilderness with manna, which they fathers knew not, that he might humble thee, and that he might prove thee, to do thee good at thy latter end” (Deut. 8:16). On the other hand, he did not want them saying, “’My power and the might of mine hand hath gotten me this wealth.’ But thou shalt remember the LORD thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth” (Deut. 8:17,18).
It is far more reasonable to trust in God than it is to trust in our wealth. For riches may depart, but God never forsakes those who belong to him and put their hope in him. The author of Hebrews exhorts you to “let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee or forsake thee. So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me” (Heb. 13:5-6). Ryken puts it well: “The only safe place to put our trust is in God himself. All prosperity comes from him. Daily bread comes from him, not from one’s paycheck. Tuition payments come from him, not from a scholarship fund. Security for old age comes from him, not from a retirement account. Thus, the only place to put all true confidence is in God, in whom we have everything we need.”
In fact, I think that the way to truly enjoy our earthly possessions is not to find our security in them but in God. We are often like a child who is given a toy as a gift, but because he doesn’t want to lose it to another sibling, ends up holding onto it or fighting over it instead of playing with it. It is very difficult to enjoy something onto which you place your security and sense of meaning. You will end up spending all your energy trying to protect your investment and worrying over it instead of enjoying it. I remember a man telling about his father-in-law who was so good at hoarding money and not spending it, that he died a millionaire, even though he never made a lot of money during the course of his life. Yet he never really enjoyed much of it at all. He spent all his time trying to keep it that he never really got to enjoy it.
It is only when we can say, “Lord, even if tomorrow you take everything that I have, I still have you, and therefore I will still have joy and hope and peace,” that we will be able to truly enjoy what God has given us. That is why Paul says that God is the one who gives us “richly all things to enjoy.” We are rich because God made us rich, and therefore we are free to enjoy those riches. But since our hope is in God and not in the riches, our hope is not destroyed when the earthly riches go away.
A Giving Lifestyle
John Wesley once said, “Get all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.” If you can do the last, you can do the first two without covetousness. Thus, Paul goes on to say that along with being a certain way, we are to be doing certain things and these things can be summarized under the banner of giving. He writes: “that they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate” (verse 18).
Notice that the first two items have little or nothing to do with money. Doing good is what characterized the ministry of Jesus (cf. Acts 10:38), and he certainly had little money! This is important because we so often equate doing good with throwing money at something. Sometimes all that is needed is your time and a willingness to invest your gifts in others. Everyone, regardless of where they fall on the pay-scale can do good and be rich in good works. But of course Paul is telling those who are rich in worldly goods to not forget that they also need to be rich in good works.
That being said, we should also be “ready to distribute” and “willing to communicate.” These two phrases do involve putting our wallets toward good causes. The ESV translates these two phrases by “to be generous and ready to share.” A giving lifestyle is the natural outflow of a God-centered mindset. If our hope is in God, and not in what we possess, and if we recognize that God has given us freely and richly all things to enjoy, then would it not be the greatest contradiction if our lives are not characterized by generosity?
I know that I am not as generous as I should be. I want to be more generous, to always be ready to share. That is going to take some intentionality on my part if this is to characterize all of my life. It will take some intentionality on your part as well. For some of us, it will mean that we think about how to spend our time more for others; for others, it will mean that we think about how to spend our money more for other. We need to be like the Good Samaritan and to hear the words of Jesus: “Go and do thou likewise.”
A Gracious Reward
In verses 17 and 18, Paul is telling us what we are to be and do. Now he tells us why: “Laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life” (verse 19).
It’s important to get this verse right. Paul is not saying that we can buy our way into heaven, or that if we give enough money to the poor or spend enough time doing good deeds, that we will earn enough points to get eternal life. That’s not the reason they should be generous. Rather, he is saying that those who put their hope in God and out of that hope give generously of their time and money are the kind of people who are setting their affections on things above and not on things on the earth (cf. Col. 3:1-3). These are those who are “looking for that blessed hope and the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ (Tit. 2:13). It is in this way that we store up treasure for ourselves for the future and take hold of that which is truly life.
So why should be generous? We should because no matter how much we give away now, our true treasure cannot be taken away. In fact, this kind of mindset is put on display by the author of Hebrews. Some of his audience had lost a lot of earthly possessions because of their care for other persecuted Christians. But they did it anyway. Why? We are given the reason in Hebrews 10:32-34:
But call to remembrance the former days, in which, after ye were illuminated, ye endured a great fight of afflictions; partly, whilst ye were made a gazingstock both by reproaches and afflictions; and partly, whilst ye became companions of them that were so used. For ye had compassion of me in my bonds, and took joyfully the spoiling of your goods, knowing that he have in heaven a better and an enduring substance.
Our hope is in God, who gives not only good things now to enjoy, but eternal life in his presence. And this gift is a gift of grace, given to us through Jesus Christ who purchased salvation and bestows it freely on all who believe on him. In other words, if you believe the gospel of grace, you are going to be a generous person.
And in the end, the gospel permeates everything we do. At least, it ought to. Perhaps that is the reason Paul ends this epistle the way he does: “O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called; which some professing have erred concerning the faith. Grace be with thee. Amen” (verses 20-21). “That which is committed to thy trust” – the deposit – is nothing less and nothing more than the gospel which Paul committed to Timothy. It is so important because it not only makes us wise to salvation, but it shows us how to live and why to live the way we ought.
Let’s be faithful to the gospel. Let’s live it out in lives of grace to others. Let’s tell it out to others in words and deeds. In so doing, we will find that God’s grace is truly with us.