Paul’s Advice to the Rich

Like so many others of the baby boom generation, I grew up in a middle class home. We weren’t poor-my father had a successful business. But we certainly weren’t rich — my parents had all the normal financial pressures. So in the late 1970’s when my own young business began to take off, I was faced with some real issues. Suddenly we were making more money than ever — and I felt guilty!

It was a legitimate, honest business, and I treated people fairly. “So why,” I wondered, “am I feeling so uncomfortable with this money?” I found myself wondering if maybe I should just give most of it away-keeping only enough to live on. Maybe I shouldn’t aspire to owning a home, or being able to eat in good restaurants, or driving a nice car. I was conflicted. I was miserable.

It wasn’t until one day when I was visiting with my friend, Dr. Rubel Shelly, that the dark clouds began to lift. He took me by the spiritual hand and shared God’s advice for people who have money:

“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.” (I Timothy 6:17-19, NIV)

Wow! What a clear, terse, concise teaching! It was as though the hand of God had lifted a huge load off my shoulders! With God’s Holy Spirit as his inspiration, Paul had laid out an entire doctrine of wealth management. In just a few sentences he had brought common sense and balance to an internal struggle that had sapped me of peace and joy.

This passage makes clear that there were a number of wealthy Christians in the Ephesian church where Timothy ministered. In the first century this city was vibrant and prosperous. As a matter of fact, the tourist trade was so successful that the city fathers opened the first world bank in Ephesus. Obviously, some of these wealthy Ephesians had accepted Jesus. So, the question for these new Christians was, how does one balance the calling for character with an abundance of cash? Let’s go through this gem of Scripture one point at a time:

1) First, Paul signals who he’s writing to: Those who “are rich in this present world.” It’s almost as though Paul is trying to keep some good first century Christian folk from misunderstanding him. He is not talking about heavenly or spiritual wealth here. No, in this case, Paul is speaking to people who have a lot of zeros on their bank accounts

And, before I leave this point, let me suggest that the “rich” people to whom Paul is speaking would probably include most of us today. Although you may not think of yourself as wealthy — compared to most of the world (especially in Paul’s time) we are all filthy rich! If you have a bathtub you’re better off than 70% of the rest of the world. Only 30% of the world’s population can read, and less than five percent own a computer! If you have never faced the horror of war, the pain of imprisonment, or the pangs of starvation, you are ahead of 500 million people throughout the world. If you have clothes in the closet, food in the fridge, and a place to sleep, you are richer than 92% of the rest of the world!

2) Next, Paul gives two “not to” commands. He says that those with money are not to be “arrogant” or to “put their hope in wealth.” Here he warns about some of the dangers that are inherent with money and material possessions. How many times have we all seen rich people who have arrogant, prideful, boastful spirits? This condescending attitude by the rich toward those of lower financial position is condemned over and over in Scripture. (Check out James 2:1-12)

Equally dangerous is the tendency to trust in money. Despite the phrase on our money that says “In God We Trust,” the cold, hard fact is that most people trust more in the money than they do in God. Money is deceptive. We become convinced that with enough of it all our problems will go away. Be honest, haven’t you ever fantasized about receiving a huge inheritance or winning a big sweepstakes and, never having to worry again?

Satan tells us that with enough money we can buy our way out of every problem, hedge against every risk, and insure for any catastrophe. So, we buy the lie, and gradually rid ourselves of any perceived need for God. This may be why Paul points out in the first letter to the Corinthians that not many wise, influential, or noble will come to Jesus.i They have glutted themselves on all the goodies and pleasures this world has to offer. They have “put their hope in wealth” and convinced themselves that they just don’t need God.

3) But, now Paul turns his attention to the positive side of wealth. Without any explanation or apology Paul says that it’s okay to have nice things. He says that God provides us with “everything” (presumably this includes financial blessings) for our enjoyment! Wait a minute, Paul. Are you saying that it’s not only okay to have money but, that it’s also okay to spend some of it on ourselves and have a good time? YES!!! Contrary to popular belief, our God is not a god of austerity and scarcity. Our Father has an abundance. And, if He has blessed you with financial resources, it’s all right to enjoy His blessings!

4) Paul’s last directive is a positive one: “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” Sure it is perfectly fine to enjoy some of your wealth personally. But Paul also reminds us of the greater good we can do with our wealth. Not just as a suggestion, but also as a command, Paul tells wealthy people to do good. Then, to drive his point home, he turns the phrase and tells rich people to “be rich” not just in money-but in good deeds. Instead of just being known for their wealth, they should also be known for their good deeds-their readiness to share what they have.

One of my heroes is a man named Bob Nash. Bob is low-key and sort of bashful. He would be the last person in the world to brag about himself. But I think he is a spiritual giant. Not because he can out-quote the preacher from the Bible, or because he has all the answers in a religious debate. No, his strength comes from a different direction.

You see, Bob has built a successful company that supplies an important service. He’s spent years learning the ropes and has put in a lot of long, hard hours when he would rather have been relaxing. Because of his diligence and God’s blessing, Bob has prospered financially. Today, Bob drives a nice car, wears stylish clothing, and can afford to do pretty much what he wishes. But the first thing that comes to my mind when I think about Bob Nash is his generosity. Bob is always ready to give when someone at church is hurting, or when one of our missionaries has a need, or whenever any other good work presents itself. In my mind, Bob is the man that Paul is talking about who has been blessed financially, and has become rich in good deeds.

5) Like a loving counselor, Paul seems unable to leave the topic without reminding his readers of the blessings that follow such a lifestyle. Notice how he promises that when we share our earthly prosperity we are setting aside eternal treasures in heaven.

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