I admit it’s a little odd, chopping up the last chapter of 1 Timothy like this; but we have to in order to keep Paul’s thought together. Remember, he wasn’t sitting at a desk writing these letters—he dictated them; and maybe it’s just projection on my part, but I’ve always imagined him walking up and down the room, waving his arms, talking faster when he got more excited. Though for the letters he sent from prison, he was chained to two Roman soldiers, one on each side, so I have no idea how that worked.
In any case, this gives his letters a certain stream-of-consciousness quality, including Paul remembering he’s forgotten something and doubling back to pick it up. I think he did this in chapter 3, interrupting himself for a moment to add a note on women in leadership, and we see it here as well. Paul makes his comments about the false teachers in Ephesus, then goes on to give a personal charge to Timothy—and then suddenly realizes that his comments in verses 9-10 could be taken as an attack on the rich in general, which isn’t his point at all. To prevent that, he changes course for a minute to add say a few more things to those who are rich about how they should handle their riches.
The key thing here is that money is not the problem, and being rich is not the problem; the problem is one’s attitude toward wealth, and that’s something that can be as much of an issue for the poor and the middle class as for the rich. The issue isn’t having money, but wanting money, desiring riches, until that becomes the most important thing in your life, and the dominant factor in your decision-making. That is the kind of attitude Paul is talking about here; that’s the attitude which was the downfall of the false teachers, which led them to their ruin. Remember, these were people who had earned the respect of the congregation, whom the church had trusted enough to accept as leaders; clearly, they were people of great gifts and considerable wisdom—until they went off the rails.
By the time Paul writes this letter, of course, the false teachers have fallen a long way; their wisdom and understanding have faded to clueless foolishness, they’ve grown conceited, and they’re the sort of people who start arguments for the fun of it, simply because they enjoy making trouble, especially if they can make other people look silly in the process. And what was the root of their fall? Greed. They wanted to use the church to get rich. The irony of it is, they were probably being paid by the church—they were already making money off their position. It would be bad enough if some of our elders and deacons started doing this—not that I can imagine it—when they put a lot of blood, toil, tears and sweat into this church, and we don’t give them a whole lot back; but these folks were drawing a paycheck for being leaders in the church, and that still wasn’t enough for them. They wanted more; they wanted to be rich. And following that desire, following their greed, led them away from Jesus, and to their ruin.
But then, as Paul notes, if the desire to be rich is driving your thinking, if that’s what’s controlling your decisions, you’re going to wreck yourself sooner or later. The proverb he cites in verse 10 has often been misinterpreted, as if he were saying that the love of money is the source of all sin, or as if money were the root of all evil, neither of which is the point; indeed, letting ourselves be captured by any sort of strong desire, whether for wealth, power, praise, sexual pleasure, revenge, or anything else, will lead us into ruin. Paul’s point here is simply that greed falls into that category, and that the love of money doesn’t lead to good things, but only to evil. If we seek true wealth, and a truly good life, we must put aside the desire for money and look elsewhere.
This isn’t always easy for people to believe, especially with the current economy; but last fall’s crash underlines the truth of our text from Proverbs that financial security is really just an illusion, because material wealth is all too likely to disappear before your eyes. It’s simply too vulnerable to the vagaries of this world for us to count on it. Jesus doesn’t promise us that we’ll have a lot of money, or that we’ll be rich in things—instead, he promises that we’ll have enough in this world, and that in him we will find true gain, something this world can’t take away. As Paul defines that here, the true gain offered in Christ is godliness combined with contentment.
That word “contentment” is an interesting one, because in its normal Greek usage it meant “self-sufficiency” of the sternest kind, the ability to rely completely on one’s own internal resources Paul defines it in Philippians 4, where he declares, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” What Paul means by “contentment” is not self-sufficiency but Christ-sufficiency; it’s the power Christ gives us to trust him completely to meet our needs, rather than relying on our own efforts and abilities and possessions. Contentment is living free, emotionally, from our circumstances, whether we’re rich or poor, married or single, powerful or powerless, praised or scorned; it’s depending wholly on Christ, trusting wholly in him that he is with us taking care of us, that he knows where he has led us, and why, and what he is doing in and through our lives.
This, Paul says, is true riches: to be content in Christ, to know that Christ is sufficient for us in all circumstances, and to be living in accordance with his will. Anything else is less, and to spend our lives pursuing anything else is not to enrich our lives, but to impoverish them. Thus in verse 17 Paul turns to those in the church who are rich, and whose help in supporting the church is no doubt of great importance, and applies it specifically to them. There’s nothing wrong with their being rich; indeed, what they have, God has given them to enjoy, and to use to help others, as he gives us all good things. There is no moral status either to wealth or to poverty; but both create certain responsibilities and challenges. The rich must be careful not to look down on others, and they must be careful not to put their trust in money instead of in God. They must remember the words of Jeremiah, who warned us not to take pride, or put our stock, in earthly things: “Let not the wise boast in their wisdom, nor the strong boast in their might, nor the rich boast in their riches; but let them boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the LORD.” That’s the only thing, really, that matters; the rest are just tools God has given us to use in his service, nothing more.
And so, to the rich, Paul says, be diligent to use your riches in that way—do good works with your money, and be generous to others, and in that way, store up treasure for yourselves in heaven, which is the only treasure that will last. They need, as we all need, to be able to say to God—and mean it!—“Take my silver and my gold; not a mite would I withhold. Take my life—take all of me, everything I am—and may it be ever, only, all for you.”