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Instructions to Comfortable Christians about Wealth

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Oct 29, 2000

1 Timothy 6:17-19

I Timothy 6:17-19
Instructions to Comfortable Christians about Wealth

If You have your bibles, I'd invite You to turn with me to First Timothy, chapter 6. That picture from Vaughan Williams, of the thousands upon thousands “streaming from ocean's farthest coast, into the gates of pearl between the Father, Son and Holy Ghost,” never ceases to grip me, and to move me, and its something for which I long, and I know you long for it as well.

This morning will be thinking about the subject of the stewardship of life. The session of this church has never asked the minister to become a fund raiser, and for that I am thankful; and, indeed, the goal of our session is for the congregation to become so committed to our churchly stewardship responsibilities that there will come a day when there is no longer a need for a stewardship season. Nevertheless, the stewardship committee has seen a wider pastoral use for the stewardship season, and for that I am also thankful. The stewardship committee sees this time, not only a time to draw your attention, to draw your support to the church's work for the coming year, but to address the broader issue of 'stewardship of life' - those 'stewardship of life' issues that all of you need to face as Bible-believing Christians. And, that is what we are going to do today, as we look at Paul's words here, in First Timothy 6, verse 17 through 19. So let's hear God's holy and inspired word:

"Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God , who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed." Amen.

And thus ends this reading of God's holy and inspired word. May He add his blessing to it. Let's pray.

Our Lord and our God, we bow before You and we ask that You would enable us to submit ourselves to the lordship of Jesus Christ even in the area, and especially in the area, of our stewardship of possessions - all of our possessions - to Your praise and glory. Help us to understand what your word says to us. Give us the grace of obedience to these things. Enable us to say, O Lord, "Search our own hearts to see if there is any unclean thing in us." And then, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, change us, transform us, renovate us so that we might be pleasing in thy sight, and bring glory to Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Now, there are a number of important reasons for why we ought to address the issue of stewardship. Stewardship of life is a standing Christian concern, and I'd like to share a few of those reasons why it is important to address the matter of life stewardship. By the way, by life stewardship I'm not simply referring to what you do with your possessions. I'm asking the question of the stewardship of your whole life: what you do with your time, what priorities you make, what commitments You make in terms of your energy and your talent. I'm asking a total life stewardship question. And though this passage today focuses specifically on money, on financial resources, on wealth, I'm not simply talking about what You give to the church. I'm asking questions, with Paul today about what you do with everything that you have; not just what you contribute to church, to Christian causes, or to charitable organizations, but what you do with everything that God has given you in regard to wealth.

There are several reasons why it is important to address an issue like this. First of all, we are among the richest Christians who have ever lived. This congregation is among the richest churches that have ever existed in the history of the world. That is very important for us to remember. We may not think of ourselves as well off. Individually, we may see ourselves with lots of financial struggles, but we are among the richest congregations that have ever existed. We are probably well into the 99th percentile. It is important for us to remember that even in this world, today, as we verge on this new century and millennium, most Christians are in poverty. Numerically, most Christians are very poor and marginal. We, however, have been singularly blessed by God, and therefore, the issue of our stewardship of life and of our wealth is a very important issue as Christians for us to face.

Secondly, we live in a day and age which oozes materialism. Even if we don't buy into the philosophy that the things of life and the wealth of this life are what make life, even if we don't buy into the philosophy that he who dies with the most toys wins, we are impacted by that philosophy, and we even unwittingly imbibe that philosophy, even if we reject it formally. I suspect that if I, this morning, we were to ask each one of you to stand and state your philosophy of material possessions, there would be very few, if any of you, who would stand up and say, "Well, I think that money is the most important thing in life, and getting money is my most significant endeavor." I don't think that there would be many people who would stand up and say that, even if we were all speaking absolutely honestly. Nevertheless there would also be no one who has not been impacted in any way by the materialism of this culture, and unwittingly, thus, been giving in to alien ideas.

We live in a day and age when you cannot get away from the consumer culture. Doug McDaniel, in his report, mentioned the way that commercial advertising works to appeal sometimes to our worst instincts, in order to get us to buy things that we do not need, and to think that having those things will make us to be happier, better human beings, and so gives in to a very alien concept of life, a way of life very different to Christianity. Now, let me just give you an example about just how much we are bombarded by this kind of stuff. There is an interesting book that has just been published called Lead Us Into Temptation, which is a study of the impact of consumer culture on this earth over the last century or so, especially here in America. In 1900, we are told, during a period of a week, you would come into contact with three advertisements, or images, during the period of a week. Today, in 2000, in the United States of America, you come into contact with 3,000 separate commercial advertisements or images every day, whether it be through a bill board, whether it be through radio advertising, whether it be through television, or through print media, we are bombarded with consumer, commercial, advertising. That, in and of itself, apart from their content, puts us in a dangerous position to unwittingly give in to the thought forms and the mind set of the age. And so the issue of stewardship of wealth, as a part of the stewardship of life, is a very important issue for us to think about as Christians.

Thirdly, your approach to money is an important index of whether the gospel has taken hold of your heart. And, again, I am not just talking about what you give to the church, what you give to Christian causes, what you give to charitable organizations. I'm saying your total approach to money is an important index of whether the gospel has taken control of your heart. Many of you who have been around long enough here at First Presbyterian Church to have heard John Reed Miller, would have heard him say on more than one occasion, "If you really want to see if the gospel has taken control of a man's heart, then touch his wallet." You can see a great deal about a person's profession of faith through their stewardship of their wealth, because stewardship is a lordship issue. Stewardship is one of those practical issues that allows you to show whether you really have submitted yourself to Christ, as Lord, in all of life.

Fourth, while I would rather not talk about money, its interesting to me here in First Timothy 6:17, that Paul explicitly instructs Timothy to talk to the congregation in Ephesus about money. Now, Timothy was a timid soul, and we would surmise that he would have been less than enthusiastic about the issue of addressing money matters to wealthy people. But Paul explicitly commands him to address this issue to that congregation, and through Timothy, he commands all faithful preachers to do so. So if I fail to minister God's word to you in this area, then I fail.

I was speaking to the staff not long ago, and I said "Given that we minister to a congregation that lives in a materialistic age and which, by and large, has a great deal of personal resource, if we fail to help them in this area, we fail." We get a failing grade in terms of ministering. We have a fairly comfortable or wealthy congregation, and we live in a very affluent society. Even secular sociologists are talking about the impact of affluence on us as a culture. If we fail to address these kinds of questions to Christians in this congregation, then we fail.

Now, let me pause and say, I know that not everyone here is, or thinks, of themselves as wealthy. Very often, even those who are wealthy don't think of themselves as wealthy, and so I've used the word "comfortable" in the sermon title. Now, I know that many of you don't think you're comfortable! You think that if you could only add an extra $10,000 every month, you might be able to make it work! And so I recognize that not everyone here thinks of himself as comfortable, and I also recognize that there are some who are genuinely struggling financially in our congregation. We are not all alike, and we may not even be like the stereotype of First Presbyterian Church. We are a rather diverse bunch, actually. But there are still further issues there. For instance, You may be struggling financially because of certain life style choices that you're making. Some of those choices may be legitimate, and some of them may not be legitimate. And then, there are others who may be struggling not because of life style choices. So there are all sorts of factors. But those are very legitimate things. Those are things about which I have had conversations with many people here at First Presbyterian Church. It's gratifying, in fact, for me to see Christians wrestling with those kinds of issues. So if you want to talk about those things, I'd love to have an opportunity to talk with you.

Sometimes there are Christians who want to do right, not only in their giving to the church, but in their total stewardship of funds, but they are in such a mess, financially, they don't even know where to begin. And those people perhaps need a little extra help and council and encouragement. So if You want to talk about those things, I would be delighted to talk about those things with you, as would the rest of our pastoral staff and our elders and deacons.

But today, I want to focus on what Paul says here in First Timothy, chapter 6, verses 17 through 19, about our use of wealth. For sake of argument, let me just say that all of us, all of us, even those who are on the lower end of the socio-economic scale here at First Presbyterian Church, fit into this category of those who are comfortable - those who are wealthy with regard to this present age, because, even those of us who are on the lower end of the scale here in Jackson are on the upper end of the scale amongst Christians today. And therefore what Paul says is for each of you, and not for someone else. It's very important that you have that attitude in mind as we approach this passage together. Paul, here, gives both negative and positive instruction about the use of wealth. I'd like to look at those positive and negative instructions with You and then draw your attention, especially, to three important ideas that we get from this passage. Let's begin in verse 17.

I. The negative consequences of wealth.
First Paul deals with the negative consequences of wealth, and He says this: Christians, whom God has blessed with means, must be on their guard for the negative consequences of wealth. Look what he says in verse 17: "Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited, or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riche." Paul knows that there are two temptations that comfortable Christians have; that is, those Christians who are relatively comfortable financially, and because of that relative comfort, have a tendency to fall into these two particular sins.

The first sin is conceit, or pride, carnal security; comfortable because of the specific benefits that we've received in terms of wealth. The second sin is fixing our hopes not on God, but on worldly wealth. Look at how he addresses these things. In verse 17, he says, "Instruct those who are rich in this present world, not to be conceited." Now, did you notice in the very first sentence that Paul speaks in this section, he is already emphasizing the difference between true riches and worldly wealth? Look at his language: "Instruct those who are rich in this present world," Paul doesn't even say, "Instruct those who are rich." He has to say they are rich in this present world. Why? Because richness in this present world does not count as richness, necessarily, in the eyes of God. We, as Christians, live in two ages, the "now" and the "not yet"; the kingdom which is and the kingdom which is to come. And we are looking for a city which has foundations, whose architect and maker is God, and therefore, the rewards that we are striving after are not ultimately the rewards that will pass away. And so the apostle begins by making the distinction between true riches and riches of this present age.

In doing so, in making that distinction, Paul is actually supplying the directive to this problem. Paul knows that those who are wealthy, in fact the more wealthy they are, tend to accrue to themselves a great deal of power and influence. I'm thinking of a man right now who had accrued such an amount of wealth that he treated people horribly, because he didn't need people. He was just absolutely horrendous. He was rude to them, he would interrupt them, he would badger them. He had so much wealth, he didn't care what they thought of him. And Paul is pointing out the fact that those who are rich in this present world are, and often, tend to be arrogant, and to feel a power from their riches which is not a power that derives from godly riches.

Paul recognizes the potential for arrogance because of riches and power. In fact, Paul is reflecting an idea which you will find in the old testament. Turn back to Proverbs, chapter 30; Psalms, then Proverbs, then the book of Ecclesiastes. At the very end of Proverbs, in Proverbs 30, verse 7 through 9 we read this: "Two things I ask of Thee. Do not refuse me before I die: keep deception and lies far from me, give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is my portion, lest I be full and deny thee and say 'who is the Lord?', or lest I be in want and steal, and profane the name of my God." Wealth, or comfort, or earthly security can lead a person to deny their need for the Lord. Paul knows that, and he emphasizes that we must be aware that there is a difference between riches and true riches. And we cannot amass riches on this earth that translate into those true riches, from those things that are going to pass away.

Secondly, Paul says that wealthy Christians must not fix their hope on the uncertainty of worldly wealth. Paul knows the temptation of the rich to fall in, or to find their security in, temporal blessings. And again, notice that Paul supplies the remedy to this problem even in his announcing of it. "Instruct those who are rich." Verse 17; "Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches." Paul reminds us that earthly wealth is uncertain. He tells us that it is uncertain and it is, thus, worldly by its very nature. We can't take it with us. And so in these two ways he argues with us to be conscious of the negative consequences of wealth. There is no trial like prosperity. There is no trial like affluence. People who bear up in times of leanness and need, often stumble when they are given much, and become secure with what they have been given, and forsake the God of their youth. That's why the writer in Proverbs prays, "Give me neither poverty nor riches, lest I say, ‘Who is the Lord.’” Paul is warning against precisely that in this passage. Christians who have been blessed by God with means must be on guard for the negative consequences of wealth.

II. The positive consequences of wealth.
And then, again - verses 17 through 19 - Paul goes on the positive side, and says several things about the Christian's use of wealth. In fact, he says that those Christians whom God has blessed with means must endeavor to use their wealth 'christianly', and he gets very specific. He says 7 things in this short passage, from the second half of verse 17 down to verse 19, about how Christians who have been given means are to use their wealth.

First of all, he says that we must make every endeavor to fix our hope on God. He has said, "Don't fix your hope on worldly wealth." Now look at the second half of verse 17. He says, "Instruct those who are rich in this present world to fix their hopes on God." Now, Christians who have been made comfortable by God's blessings may have a harder time of doing this and may have to work harder at this than others, because when you have been given means there is a temptation to become comfortable because of your situation, rather than to be comfortable because of God; God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy.

Isn't it interesting. Even as Paul is trying to balance out some of the struggles of those who are wealthy, those who are rich in this present age, does not do so by denigrating wealth. He doesn't try to demonize wealth. He doesn't engage in class warfare. “Wealth is bad; poverty is good.” No, God richly supplies these things for us to enjoy. Wealthy Christians must remember that all good gifts come from God. His solution to their problem of fixing their hope on wealth is not to say that wealth is bad, but it is to recognize that God is the source of wealth. Wealthy folks tend to think of themselves as self-made. They are people who have made their fortunes. They have accomplished this. And the apostle Paul says, "No, these things come from God."

But I want you to note here, especially, this appreciative attitude toward wealth. Remember I said in the beginning that not all of us think of ourselves as wealthy or even comfortable? Well, Paul knew that was the case in Ephesus as well. But he still tells Timothy to address those Christians who are relatively better off. But, those words to these wealthy Christians are words that are important for every Christian in Ephesus to understand. Now, that's an amazing thing, isn't it? Most early Christians would have been poor. Some of them would have been slaves. Some of them would have been ex-slaves, just freed, and therefore with very few financial resources. And yet, in this congregation, You have both poor people, and You have wealthy people. But you know, the poor people in that congregation could have learned from what Paul just said. It would have been very tempting for them, wouldn't it, to have looked to those in the congregation who had more, and resent it. "Well, you know Lord, I'd like to have some of those blessings." "Well, Lord, I'd like to have some of those challenges of affluence." "Well, I'd like to have the trial of prosperity." "Come on, Lord, test me!"

My wife was in a Bible study back in Columbia with a group of ladies who were getting into their late twenties and early thirties and as yet unmarried. They studied together and prayed that the Lord would give them husbands, and one of them said, "I'm never going to leave Columbia. Don't want to leave Columbia at all." She met a fellow from Memphis and she lives in Memphis now. Anne said, "I'm going down to Jackson to study, but I'm coming back to Columbia. I'll never marry someone from Jackson," and she married me and she is here. Another one said, "Why I'm never going to marry a doctor. That's not the kind of life I want to live," and she married an orthopedic surgeon. Well, the fourth girl in the group said, "That's it. I'm never going to marry a millionaire. Not going to. No, not going to do it!" She wanted to experience the trial of prosperity. Now, that reverse prayer I don't think has worked yet. But she wanted to experience the trial of prosperity.

A lot of us can look up and say, "Well, look, I'd like to have that kind of problem, Lord. I'd like to have that prosperity. I'd like to have that affluence." But you can also begin to resent those who have it, and Paul doesn't foster that kind of an attitude. He doesn't foster the attitude where those who are poor in the congregation resist those who have these things. Now, these things come from the Lord. You praise the Lord, and you pray extra hard that wealthy Christians will not squander those resources on things of no value, but will use them for the kingdom. That's what you do.

Thirdly, notice what He says here in verse 18: "Instruct them to do good." Wealthy Christians must use their resources to do good. "To whom much is given, much is required." That is a dominical principle. Jesus sets that principle down. Paul reiterates that principle. "To whom much is given, much is required." You instruct them to do good. Those who have been given resources have been given those resources to do good.

And again, my friends, I'm not just talking about that which you give to the church. All of what we have is to be used with the view to glorifying God, doing good, helping our family, but being a blessing. Paul makes that very clear. Those who have been given a special temporal blessing have an especial responsibility to do good with those means. And again, my friends, that means training our children in that habit and pattern, as well.

One of the challenges that is specifically ahead of us, my friends, as the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of the world begins to occur, is training our children in how not to use that wealth for themselves, but for the sake of the kingdom. That is easier said than done.

Fourthly, the apostle goes on to say, in verse 18. Look again. "To be rich in good works." Wealthy Christians, those Christians who have comfort and means, must strive to be rich in good works; not just in earthly riches, but to be rich in righteousness, the only kind of wealth that heaven sees. They need to be aiming to be counted as wealthy in the realm of righteousness if they want to be rich.

And again, what is Paul doing? He is reminding us of the difference between true riches and earthly riches. If you look in verse 18: "To be generous and ready to share." Those Christians of means need to cultivate generosity. They have a greater responsibility than others to share with and care for those who are less fortunate. Now, that's an interesting thing. Paul definitely says that comparatively - by the resources that God has given us - we have a comparatively greater responsibility to care for those who are poor. Now, that's interesting and you know what? The fact of the matter is, statistically, ever since we have been keeping statistics on these kinds of charitable things - I would say the last two centuries - those who are poor, percentage wise, give more to charity than those who are wealthy. And Paul is saying, "Brethren, in the Christian Church it should not be that way. Those who have more, ought to be leading the way in generosity." Not only because they have a responsibility to help those who are without, have lesser means, but because of the comparative temporal blessing that God has given to them. They attain to a greater responsibility in giving. That's a very important point to remember. That's even worked out statistically, recently.

You've seen the index on charitable giving. Mississippi, that is not at the top of the list of states in terms of personal income, is at the top on the United Sates in personal charitable giving. Now, its still not much. I think its something like $2,000 per person, per year, given by Mississippians to charitable causes. But you know what? It doesn't surprise me that Mississippi leads the way. This is probably the most churched state in the union. There are a lot of Christians, a lot of evangelical Christians in Mississippi and it doesn't surprise me that Mississippi leads the way in charitable giving, even though its not one of the richest states. But again, that simply shows up that often times charitable giving does not correspond, in kind, to the wealth that the Lord has given us. Paul is challenging those with much to give much.

Furthermore, look at what he says in verse 19: "Storing up for themselves a treasure of a good foundation for the future." This is the sixth thing that he says, that Christians must lay up treasure in heaven. Our tendency is that the more that we have, we pay more and more attention to the stock market, more and more attention to our earthly inheritance, more and more attention to our portfolio, more attention to our family fortunes, and not to give correspondent attention to the use of what God has given us for the needs of others and for his purposes. And Paul says, "Store up for yourselves of a good foundation for the future" - for that age to come, not just for this age, not just for retirement, not just for when you're not around, but for the age to come.

And finally, again in verse 19, he says, "So that they may take hold of that which is life, indeed." Christians are to take hold of real life, not just apparent life, not just that which appears to be the life. All of us have heard the joke about the man who was buried in his Cadillac. And the man's looking over the grave and they are filling in the dirt on him, and he says, "Man, that's living!" And we know what's being poked at there. Those who see life in their possessions. But, my friends, the apostle Paul is saying, "Don't be fooled by that. Don't be fooled that - if you only had a little bit more, You'd be happy". My father quoted many times, an old saying that his dad had said to him from the days of the depression. He'd say, "Son, the difference between a happy man, and a depressed man is 30 days - 30 days ahead or 30 days behind." And there's a lot of common sense truth in that.

Nevertheless, Paul is saying that real life is not in possessions. Its very easy for us to think, "I'm making $30,000. If only I was making $45,000, I'd be okay". Or, "I'm making $45,000. If I were only making $60,000." or, "I'm making $60,000. If I were only making $80,000, I'd be okay". Or, "I'm making $80,000." Or, "If I were only making $100,000." And look, you can keep on going up. Satan can keep holding that carrot out in front of you, thinking if there were just another $20,000 in my income this year, everything would be fine. It's not going to be fine. I promise you. There is always going to be something else. And the Apostle is saying, "Look, take hold of real life, not something that just appears to be life. It is in kingdom riches that contentment is found."

Now, look, most of us don't want to study to be content. I remember when I first pulled out Jeremiah Burrows' book, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment to do a devotional with Anne. Anne said, "Oh, no, not contentment!" And that's how most of us respond. Who wants to be content? "I want to be satisfied with a lot of stuff!" But Paul, here, is asking us to place our hopes in the riches that do not pass away, that are certain.

III. The use of wealth is a spiritual issue.
Now, I want to say one more thing. Paul talks negatively about what we need to be on guard against. He talks positively about what we need to do. Make it clear in your own minds. Paul considers the Christian's use of wealth as a function of, and a measure of, the lordship of Christ. It is a spiritual issue. That is the third and last thing I want to say to You today. The use of wealth is a spiritual issue. When we look at Colossians 3:23 and 24 next week, what you will see is that Paul continues to bring us back to this point: we do everything, we spend everything, we use everything knowing that Christ is Lord. Do we realize that is the measure of wealth? Are we using it in conscious submission to the Lord Jesus Christ? So everything that we have is used in such a way as to glorify Him. Certainly, to legitimately help our families, but ultimately for His glory. That is the measure of our stewardship. That is what it means to be a good steward in the eyes of God. That costs, especially, for you who have more. But Paul is calling you, according to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to be faithful in this area. May God help you to do so. Let's pray:

Our heavenly Father, Your word is practical, and its also piercing. Wound us today, O God, if we need to be wounded. Comfort us, encourage and strengthen us if we need Your strengthening. Help us, by grace, to live a life of willing and grateful and joyful stewardship. And we pray, O God, that in doing so, we would remember the Savior's dying gift for us, and we would give in light of His gift. These things we ask in His name. Amen.

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