Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 29, 2019
1 Timothy 6:6-19 Commentary
“Take hold of the life that really is life.” What a catching phrase. It’s one of those that you can feel the truth of deep in your bones, but whose truth you can’t simply explain in a few words. What is “the life that really is life?”
We’re at the close of Paul’s first letter to Timothy in Ephesus, and though the encouragement to “take hold of the life that really is life” is technically addressed to the people in the Ephesian church who are financially wealthy, the statement applies to every member of the community.
Knowing Paul, the “life that really is life” is the life of Jesus Christ. Paul described Jesus in this section of the letter with lots of “ultimate” language: Sovereign, King of Kings, Lord of Lords… the only immortal one who is so full of glory that we really have no idea of his greatness… the one who all honour and eternal dominion belongs…
If Jesus is the ultimate, why do we bother to try to reach even a pale comparison here on earth?
When we humans start down the road to become ultimate, we’re usually headed in the opposite direction of Christ and his kingdom. Our idea of “ultimate” and “the life” are most often tied up with our riches—riches that can take the form of wealth… or possessions… or having children… or pursuing a certain status… or vying for professional success… or pretty much anything that other people can be jealous of and will therefore give us a false, fleeting (but momentarily satisfactory!) feeling of power or worth or purpose.
When we hear someone say that their “living the high life” or that they want “the good life” it is highly unlikely that they are talking about the same kind of life that Paul is in our Scripture passage today. And it’s highly unlikely that Jesus has the ultimate place in their motivation for such a life.
At the time that Paul was writing this letter, the false teachers—who make up the bulk of the reason that Timothy was on site and Paul wrote to Ephesus—had shown their true colours regarding money. Not only was their doctrine off, but their lifestyle goals were too. They were leading members of the community astray for their own personal financial gain, most likely charging people for passing on their “wisdom.” (It’s important to keep in mind that Paul wasn’t opposed to ministry workers being paid for their work or service. What he did oppose was both the why and the how of these false teachers. Some scholars argue that the false teachers were using young widows in the church community to do their dirty work, taking advantage of a disadvantaged and vulnerable sector of the community. Instead of guiding these women to faithful living in their present circumstances and helping them make an honourable and god-pleasing way in the world, the false teachers were doubly taking advantage of them—charging them money the women didn’t have to waste on bad ideas and information they didn’t need, AND getting the women to spread their teachings to other parts of the church in the city as they visited and gossiped their way from house to house.)
Paul was concerned that greed had such a foothold in the church almost as much as he was angry about the bad doctrine being spread. It seems that the false teachers were twisting good truths to meet their needs, including connecting their financial prowess and success to God’s pleasure and acceptance of their group (and therefore undermining Paul and Timothy).
Was this just another form of the prosperity gospel—a doctrinal and lifestyle issue that hasn’t gone away? I was once in a discussion with some family members about a very famous business person who’s questionable practices were coming to the public attention and scrutiny. I was shocked to hear one of my attend-church-every-Sunday cousins say, “But he must be godly, look at how successful he’s been!” Did Timothy hear the same about these other teachers?
How easy it is for us to lose sight of God’s truth when there are bright and shiny toys dangled in front of us! The love of money, and what we think we will gain from it, has this crazy effective way of pulling the wool over our eyes and distorting what we know is true. Throughout Scripture, for instance, we are reminded that the unrighteous are just as likely as the righteous to receive the bounty and possess the riches of the earth. But we want it to mean something special about ourselves—so we earned it, we hustled for it, we made it happen, or, we deserved it, it’s God’s gifts to us for our obedience, we made God happy and so he’s making us happy. But the real truth is, bounty is simply part of God’s nature—along with the expectation that his people will share with one another as there is need. Contentment that is paired with trusting God’s ways, one without worry or hustling for gain, gets us closer to the picture of the “life that really is life” than any of those lies we tell ourselves to justify what we’re doing to gain what we can in order to have what we want. In that head and heart space, even godliness becomes a means to an end rather than the end result of a life transformed by Christ.
Scripture paints a grim picture for those whom wealth has become ultimate, the end goal and measure. We see Paul do that here. Paul described greed as a path further and further into an abyss that leads to destruction, a path we set ourselves upon as we give in to temptation (which by definition, means getting something in an unholy way). We further our journey down the path when we keeping giving in; the danger that Jesus warns us about greed is that it is never satisfied. Until eventually, we serve the thing and our desires for it, more than we worship and serve the ultimate God.
The other path available, however, is one where we don’t give in to temptation but give ourselves to godliness and “take hold of the life that really is life.” A life, it turns out, modelled on the ultimate God’s plans, designs, and even his incarnational example.
Whether we’re wealthy or not so wealthy, the invitation to take hold of this “life that really is life” is available to us. But Paul’s words are particularly pointed towards those people in Ephesus (and today) who find themselves with more than enough. In the Western church, that’s pretty much all of us.
What does godliness look like? It looks like doing good (for others), being rich in good deeds (done to others), and having a reputation of generosity and a willingness to share (with others). It’s a life that’s full of rich blessings in the forms of relationships and a spirit that mirrors the Spirit of the ultimate God, living in his economy of sharing as there are needs, and knowing contentment. Like Jesus himself taught in the gospels, it’s this sort of life that understands every material thing here on earth is fleeting and that true treasures are stored in heaven as we live rich towards God and his kingdom. True godliness is living a future reality where everyone has what they need (material and immaterial) as part of our present reality. True godliness is sticking to the truth, keeping the faith through word and deed, and seeking the way of Christ for his glory, never our own.
As Paul urged Timothy, “the life that really is life” is found in fleeing from all pursuits that put others under our thumbs, takes advantage of them, and seeks to improve our positions at their cost. “The life that really is life” is characterized in pursuing righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness. It is won by fighting the good fight of faith and taking hold and living the eternal life now for all the world to see.
Aesop’s Fables include more than one story about greed. The story about the mouse parallels nicely with Paul’s description of greed as a road to destruction: There once was a hungry mouse who noticed a basket full of corn. The corn was so tempting and the mouse really wanted to eat it! So he went to the basket to find a way in, and he was just able to squeeze in between some of the strips of the basket. Once inside, the mouse ate and ate and his belly grew and grew. After he was so full and he couldn’t eat anymore, he realized that he would no longer fit through the opening he used to get into the basket! All that would fit was his head. So he sat there in the basket groaning and moaning, because now his belly hurt from all that corn he ate, and because he was really worried about not being able to get out of the basket. A weasel came by and saw what had happened. “You’re stuck there because of what you’ve done,” the weasel said. “You’ll have to stay there until your belly gets smaller. Maybe tomorrow you’ll be able to get out.” The next morning, the mouse thought about getting out, but decided to eat some more corn. “I can always get out tomorrow, after I eat some more corn,” he thought to himself. After eating so much corn again that he was laying there with a belly ache in the basket of corn, a cat came by and noticed the mouse stuck in the basket… and that was the end of the greedy mouse.
John Wesley preached on the use of money; that sermon is widely paraphrased by its three main points: “Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” However, it’s easy for these truths to be twisted for ulterior purposes, making Wesley’s subpoints as equally important as the main ones. We make all we can in honourable professions that do not bring harm to ourselves or others and allow for a balanced life. We save all we can by not buying things we (or our dependents) do not need, thereby wasting our money on earthly pleasures. By saving all we can, we’ll have more to give away. He offers this very practical advice: “If, then, a doubt should at any time arise in your mind concerning what you are going to expend, either on yourself or any part of your family, you have an easy way to remove it. Calmly and seriously inquire,
a. In expending this, am I acting according to my character? Am I acting herein, not as a proprietor, but as a steward of my Lord’s?
b. Am I doing this in obedience to his Word? In what Scripture does he require me so to do?
c. Can I offer up this action, this expense, as a sacrifice to God through Jesus Christ?
d. Have I reason to believe that for this very work I shall have a reward at the resurrection of the just?
You will seldom need anything more to remove any doubt which arises on this head; but by this four-fold consideration you will receive clear light as to the way wherein you should go.”
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