Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19–21)
We have to fight to treasure Christ above all else. Deep satisfaction in Jesus comes with an increasing dissatisfaction with all that the world offers us and all that Satan uses to tempt us. Of all the sins against which we fight, few are so well-disguised as greed and covetousness. These are sins of the heart. They are reflected in outward realities, but they reside in our hearts. You don’t have to be fabulously wealthy to be incredibly greedy. You don’t have to be dirt poor to covet what other have. The fight we wage begins first and foremost in our hearts, as we struggle to be released from the grip of greed.
Though every Christian is caught between treasuring Jesus and chasing earthly treasures, there is no true middle ground. We cannot cling to the stuff we have and hold on the Christ at the same time. We have to let go of the world in order to fully embrace Jesus. The Lord tells his disciples,
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)
Jesus does not say that you can be pursue him partly and still cling to earthly things. He says you must serve either him or money. But what does it mean to “serve” money, and how are we to make sense of this either-or statement given the reality that we all still battle greed and covetousness to one degree or another?
Paul’s words on sin and slavery can help us to understand what it means to serve Christ rather than remain slaves to material goods. There is a connection between the promises of freedom (bolded) and the commands to fight sin (italicized).
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin… So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:6-7, 11–14)
Paul says that “we know” that we have died to sin and been set free from sin. We are free from sin – that includes all manner of sins related to money and possessions. He also promises that sin will not rule over the followers of Jesus. That’s a powerful promise. But in between he says that we must “consider” ourselves “dead to sin” and that we must not hand our “members” (i.e. eyes, ears, hands, etc.) over to sin to serve sin. Instead, we should hand our members over to righteousness and live like people who are now alive and are no longer dead in sin (see Ephesians 2:1).
In other words, who we are in Christ should drive what we do in this world. The fact of our freedom means that we need to live as if we are free from the love of money. Indeed, whether we live out these imperatives will give evidence of the genuineness of our faith and show that we really do serve Christ. Paul warns Timothy:
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Timothy 6:10)
Loving money leads many to abandon Christ. All of us will struggle with greed or covetousness at some time. Some will fail the test and wander away. This is why Jesus warns us about “those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful,” (Mark 4:18–19).
It is imperative that we choose our master: will we serve Christ or material goods? Will we follow Christ or follow after worldly possessions? Will we lay down our lives for Christ, or live our lives for earthly gain?
Our handling of money reveals who we are. Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” (Matthew 6:21). The implication is that our “treasure” can be in something other than money or the things money can buy. That’s actually the point of the verses leading up to this statement. Jesus lays before us an alternative to worldly treasures: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, …but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven,” (Matthew 6:19, 20). We shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that Jesus doesn’t want us to pursue the things that will satisfy us. What he opposes is us settling for things that don’t bring real, lasting satisfaction. Earthly treasures fade, but there are treasures that never fade, never grow old, and never fail to satisfy those who pursue them.
Jesus doesn’t elaborate on what exactly these “heavenly treasures” are that we are to pursue. As we said last week, God will not reward us with anything that will detract from our satisfaction in Christ. So, whatever possessions and pleasures await us in his presence will only increase our enjoyment of him.
This means that we have a choice. We can pursue earthly pleasures and possessions that are temporary and fleeting because they don’t point beyond themselves; or we can pursue heavenly treasures that are lasting and satisfying because they point us to Christ.
The treasure that we pursue reveals the state of our hearts. If we have genuine, deep faith in Jesus we can lose everything in this world and still be joyful in Christ because we look to a greater reward.
Using Earthly Treasures to Gain Heavenly Treasures
Because we live in America, most of us have never experienced deep poverty or gone without the basic necessities of life. Comparatively, we are all wealthy! And this is not a problem. The possession of riches is never condemned in the Bible; the pursuit of riches and the hoarding of wealth are condemned. In reality, possessing riches brings both greater temptation and greater opportunities.
The measure of whether we have misspent our earthly treasures or leveraged them in exchange for heavenly treasures is seen in how we serve others. James offers a sobering warning to those who are rich in this world:
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you… You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you. (James 5:1, 3b–6)
We shouldn’t ignore this warning. We need to examine our use of the money God has given us. Have we “lived in luxury”? What is the measure of such a thing? It is how we respond to the needs around us. James speaks of withheld wages and fraudulent behavior. Do we ignore the needs around us in order to secure greater comfort for ourselves? Or do we surrender our comforts in order to serve others? Doing so is more difficult than you may imagine. This is why Jesus says, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:24). Our possessions are powerful, and if we are not careful, they will soon possess us, and we will fail to leverage them for lasting treasures.
On the other hand, heavenly rewards are reserved for those who use their money for the good of others. Jesus asks the question, “If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” (Luke 16:11). The assumption is that those who are faithful with worldly wealth will receive “the true riches.”
Though Paul warns us about “those who desire to be rich” and who are capture by “the love of money” in 1 Timothy 6:9-10, he also gives these instructions to wealthy believers a few verses later:
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, 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. (1 Timothy 6:17–19)
Paul says that God “richly provides us with everything to enjoy.” The Apostle is not opposed to wealth; he credits God with giving some believers wealth “to enjoy.” But the only way to truly enjoy this blessing is “to be rich in good works.” Generosity leads to “a good foundation for the future.” We can store up heavenly treasures by using earthly treasures to do good. When we share with others and are generous toward the needy, we are able to genuinely enjoy God’s blessings and the future rewards purchased by them.
THE DISCIPLINE OF STEWARDSHIP
The key to being freed from the dangers of wealth and able to use “unrighteous wealth” for the glory of God and your own future good is to remember that God gives us good things for his own glory. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights,” (James 1:17). When we recognize how much God has given us, we will better know what is required of us. When God entrusts us with any good thing (the Gospel, a particular ministry, influence, wealth, etc.) he expect us to be good stewards (1 Corinthians 4:2). We are not owners. We are stewards and managers, and one day we will be called to account by the Owner of all things.
Tithing and Stewardship
Christians have debated the “tithe,” which means ten percent for centuries. Some believe this Old Testament requirement remains binding upon New Covenant believers. According to the Law of Moses, every Israelite was to give a tithe of all his produce: “Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the LORD’s; it is holy to the LORD,” (Leviticus 27:30). The Prophet Malachi sharply rebukes Israel for failing to follow this command:
Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need. (Malachi 3:8–10)
A failure to give back to God what he requires is robbery. When we keep from God what he has commanded we give him, we show that we believe we are owners rather than stewards. God promises a curse for those who think and operate in this manner.
On the other hand, he promises blessing for those who give back to him. The language of Malachi sounds surprisingly similar to Jesus’ promise of future rewards for those who use the wealth God gives them to serve others.
Of course, with the shift to the New Covenant, we know that the more literal rewards of Malachi are replaced by future, spiritual rewards. None of us should expect God to reward our generosity by giving us earthly riches any more than we expect God to fight literal, physical wars on our behalf now. The church is not a political nation, so we do not expect political or military protection. We are not an earthly people, and so we do not expect an earthly reward.
I believe that this shift from Old to New also means we need to shift our perspective on tithing. We are not under the law (Romans 6:14, 15; Galatians 5:18), so we are not bound by all of its rules and regulations. However, two realities need to be acknowledged. First, the Law continues to teach us what love looks like. We need to identify the underlying principle of a given commandment and determine how to apply that principle now. The principle of the tithe is to recognize that we are stewards and that God demands the first and best of all that we have. This means that we should continue to give but that we should not focus on giving ten percent in order to fulfill our obligation.
Second, Jesus and the Apostles call us to give all that we have in a sacrificial and faithful manner for the advancement of the Gospel and the good of others. Jesus commends the widow, who “put in everything she had, all she had to live on,” (Mark 12:44). Jesus is not concerned with a percentage; he demands a willingness to give all! Most of us will not literally give away everything we have (but some will; see the rich, young ruler). Instead, we need to be willing to sacrifice and give in ways that stretch our faith and strain our checking accounts.
Paul speaks of the priority of giving for the sake of others and indicates that we are to give in proportion to what we have received:
Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem. If it seems advisable that I should go also, they will accompany me. (1 Corinthians 16:1–4)
On the first day of the week (Sunday), the Corinthian believers were to set aside and store up a collection intended for Christians who were suffering in Jerusalem. Paul is not commanding all Christians to follow this exact pattern, but he is giving us insight into his application of the basic principles of Christian stewardship. We should give to God first to advance the Gospel. We should give in order to help others, especially other Christians.
Are we free from the Law of the tithe? Yes. Are we free from serving others and being faithful stewards? No. The principles of first fruit giving and sacrificial service remain even if the math turns out a little differently (and often it will turn out to be more than ten percent!).
Because we no longer have a clear yardstick (the tithe) by which to measure our progress, we will have to assess our hearts in other ways. We can to test our motives by asking the following questions:
- Do I view myself as steward and God as the owner of all that I have?
- Am I storing up treasures on earth or giving to others to gain a better treasure?
- Is Christ my supreme treasure or have I begun to value the gifts over the Giver?
- Do I show that I trust God to be a rewarder of the faithful or am I looking for excuses to avoid financial sacrifices?
- Do I live as a pilgrim passing through this world, or as a permanent resident, holding on to what I have as though it lasts forever?
- Do I give sacrificially to the church and to individuals and ministries committed to the spread of the Gospel?
- Do I rejoice in giving to others or do I half-heartedly and with regret give to others?
The discipline of sacrificial stewardship is not easy, but it is rewarding. It both reveals our hearts and transforms our hearts. In the end, what matters most is that we treasure Christ above all earthly treasures. God will use our sacrificial giving to sanctify us and create a greater dependence upon him. He will use the discipline of stewardship to cause us to treasure Christ more fully.