How you handle your riches is in many ways the mark of the character and quality of your Christian faith, the measure of your Christianity. –John MacArthur
Because the way we handle money & possessions is so closely tied to the core of our spiritual lives, the Bible spends a great deal of time explaining how we should handle them. One of the key passages on riches is 1 Timothy 6:17-19(ESV):
As for the rich in this present age, charge (or command) them not to be haughty (or proud), nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 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.
Here in 1 Timothy Paul is writing to Timothy, his protege who is a young man pastoring the church at Ephesus. Throughout the letter Paul has been giving Timothy specific instructions on a wide variety of topics, both for himself and his congregation. In fact, Paul actually uses the Greek word for “command” five times in this letter, more than in any other letter he wrote.
So, here his last command to Timothy concerns people who are rich. Earlier in the chapter he addresses people who desire to be rich (v. 6-10), but finally he turns his attention to people who aren’t desiring to be rich— they already are!
Ephesus was a prosperous Roman city, and like most cities of the time had people who were both very poor and those who were very rich— who basically did not have to work for a living and had their own slaves.
Probably the best way to think of how to apply who qualified as “rich” in Paul’s mind is to go back to verses 6-10, where he describes “food and clothing” as what is truly necessary to be content. Not a house, not a car, not a job, not a phone— just clothes on your back and enough food to eat— those were Paul’s necessities, and for much of his life that is basically all he owned. Anything more he would likely have qualified as “riches.”
Before he gets to his commands to the rich, he takes special effort in verse 17 to point out that these people should realize that they are only rich “in the present age.” He starts by focusing them on the eternal, and that material wealth or lack of it is only temporary and fleeting. In this he echoes Christ’s teaching of the rich landowner in Luke 12:13-21.
Verses 17-19 are actually one long sentence in the Greek— Paul essentially is saying, “Command the rich 1,2,3,4…” So in verse 17 he gives two commands as warnings, in verse 18 four commands to follow, and verse 19 explains the result of following God’s path.
Paul’s first two commands in verse 17 are warnings to the rich to not allow money to change their heart attitudes. Paul well knew how easily riches corrupt, as did Christ when he taught the disciples that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God in Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25, & Luke 18:25.
Paul first warns to not let riches make a person proud. Pride is a wrong heart attitude towards people, and having riches will easily enflame our heart to look down on others. Instead, the Bible encourages the heart attitude of humility and treating all equally, as in James 2.
Second, Paul warns to not put hope in riches. This is a wrong heart attitude towards things, again illustrated by Jesus in the story of the rich landowner. He contrasts the uncertainty of riches with the certainty of putting our hope in a good and loving God, who provides us all things that we need to enjoy. (see also Matthew 7:11 & James 1:17) Instead of trusting in riches, the Bible tells us to have the heart attitude of deep trust & gratitude towards God.
Next, Paul gives a series of positive commands, different ways those who are rich can lead a truly “rich” life in the Kingdom of God. He enjoins them to do good, then amplifies that by making a play on words, telling them “to be rich” in good works. The Greek word “to be rich” here is the exact same one used earlier in the chapter in verse 9 when Paul was warning people NOT to desire “to be rich” in material things. He then asks them to be generous givers, and to share with others.
In verse 19 Paul concludes by explaining that in heeding his commands the rich will lay up treasures that will be a good foundation for their eternal future. The Greek word here for foundation is the same one that Christ used in the Sermon on the Mount in his parable of the two men who built on the two foundations. By avoiding pride, by trusting only in God, by doing good, by sharing, by giving, we lay hold of what is truly life. This is a forceful grasping in the Greek— the same word that described Jesus grabbing Peter out of the sea when he was drowning.
So what is this “life that is truly life” that we should grab & hold on for dear life? It is life in the Kingdom of God, alive with the presence and joy of Jesus. As we follow Jesus, as we lead generous lives, our hearts and our lives become transformed. Even though it sometimes seems more difficult than passing a camel through a needle’s eye, through the grace of God we can lead this life. Through Paul’s instructions we clearly see the pitfalls we must avoid and the path we must follow. All we have to do is follow Jesus & walk with Him in His Kingdom. This is the way to lead a truly rich life.