A sermon by Rod Benson
Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle; when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.
Nineteenth-century Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon wrote likewise: “If you are not seeking the Lord, the Devil is seeking you.”
It’s not enough to wake up. It’s not enough to wake up and “smell the roses.” God calls each of us to run, to exert effort, striving to become more like Jesus, reaching for excellence in the practice of godliness.
That is the heart of Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 6.
But first, he has something to say on employment relations, and on false teachers. Verses 1-2 refer to slavery. It is an enduring embarrassment, for many today, that the Bible does not explicitly outlaw slavery and demand that Christians everywhere oppose the despicable practice of buying and selling people, and treating them as expendable property.
We all know intuitively that slavery is wrong. It is unjust. It is a form of tyranny. It leads to many secondary wrongs. It dehumanises both slave and master.
This is not the place to fully explain the apparent gap in Scripture between the ideal of universal freedom and dignity, and the terrible reality under which millions of innocent people have struggled for millennia.
My brief response here is that the New Testament writers understood the marginal social status of the new Christian communities, and probably imagined that to denounce such a central pillar of social and economic life, and to call for its immediate abolition, would be foolish and would lead to crushing suppression of all they stood for.
In Paul’s day, in the Mediterranean world, up to one third of the total population existed in some form of indentured labour or servitude.
What would you do in such a situation? You might encourage both slaves and their masters to treat each other with respect and dignity, hoping for incremental change, and praying for justice to be done.
That is, in fact, what we observe those first Christian leaders doing.
Here, in 1 Timothy 6, Paul urges Christian slaves to treat their masters with respect (cf 1 Peter 2:17), as employers should also treat their employees or slaves.
This was especially important advice in a church where both slaves and their masters were members, sharing fellowship and communion as equal brothers and sisters in Christ, and where perhaps a slave exercised spiritual gifts or was appointed to a position of leadership in the church. And so Paul sets forth the general principle of mutual respect (vv. 1-2).
In verses 3-5, Paul returns to the problem of false teachers in the church. They are described as arrogant, ignorant and divisive, apparently convinced that godliness is not an end in itself but a means to financial gain (v. 5b).
The temptation to commercialise religion and spirituality is as old as human civilization. I think of the sad story of Simon Magus (Acts 8:9-24); or Paul addressing the problem at Ephesus (Acts 19:23ff; Eph 5:3); or the established church during the Middle Ages; or many televangelists today.
Three questions we should ask of all teaching in the church:
- Is it compatible with the apostolic faith as set forth in the New Testament?
- Does it tend to unite or divide God’s people?
- Does it promote godliness with contentment, or covetousness?
Until Jesus returns, there will always be weeds among the wheat: leaders who appear to be Christian, and to have the mission of God and the glory of Jesus as their goal, but whose real aim is to make money from religion.
The solution to this problem lies in faithful biblical teaching, conscientious discipleship, and Spirit-empowered exhortation.
In verses 6-10, Paul further expounds the problem of being controlled by money, for all of us, and how to be free. Tom Wright observes:
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that this famous passage is an indictment of modern Western culture. Never before in history has there been such a restless pursuit of riches, by more and more highly developed means.
Never before has the love of money been elevated to the highest and greatest good, so that if someone asks you, ‘Why did you do that?’ and you responded, ‘Because I could make more money that way,’ that would be the end of the conversation.
Never before have so many people tripped over one another in their eagerness to get rich and thereby impaled themselves on the consequences of their own greed.
The greatest irony of it all is that it’s done in the name of contentment – or, which is more or less the same thing, happiness.
In chapter 4, as you may recall, Paul taught about right attitudes to food and sex. Here, he widens his scope, reminding us that the material world (the created order) is replete with a seemingly endless variety of wonderful, enjoyable, happiness-inducing, God-glorifying good things – not least among then food and sex!
But money is not one of God’s creations – it is “a human invention to make the exchange of goods [and services] easier and more flexible.” Credit cards, scratchies, and those “no-deposit, five-years-interest-free” purchasing plans for things we covet but don’t need, are not God’s creation either. There was no mint in the Garden of Eden.
Now obviously both Jesus and Paul want us to be happy and fulfilled, to enjoy life, to experience peace and tranquillity. In Romans 15:4, he writes, “I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another.”
In Philippians 4:12, he says, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”
What’s the secret? The secret is to avoid covetousness, and to actively pursue contentment in every area of life. Find your sufficiency in Christ, not in self.
Proverbs 28:20 says, “A faithful person will be richly blessed, but one eager to get rich will not go unpunished.” Addressing similar concerns, Jesus said in Luke 12:15, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Both biblical history and subsequent history tell the sad stories of people like Adam and Eve (Gen 3:6), Achan (Jos 7:20f), Judas (Jn 12:44ff), and Ananias and Sapphira (Ac 5:1ff), all of whom came to grief in one way or another – dramatically and devastatingly – by falling prey to covetous thoughts and greedy actions.
Paul gives further advice to those who have been blessed (or cursed) with significant wealth, in 1 Timothy 6:17-19.
Money itself is not evil. The love of money is the problem, according to Paul. Three of the greatest threats to community harmony, to the cultivation and maintenance of shalom, to personal peace and tranquility, which any of us will face, are the love of sex, the love of power, and the love of money.
Each of these things we so often desire may be good in itself, and may certainly bring delight, and enrich relationships, and enhance community – if respected and enjoyed within the boundaries that God in his wisdom sets for their use.
But one can become drunk on all three, and the consequences can be devastating. Paul says there is a different way: the way of godliness.
In 1980, a group of godly church leaders gathered in Lausanne, Switzerland, amid careful prayer and preparation, and drafted what came to be known as the Evangelical Commitment to Simple Lifestyle, which declares in part:
We resolve to renounce waste and oppose extravagance in personal living, clothing and housing, travel and church buildings. We also accept the distinction between necessities and luxuries, creative hobbies and empty status symbols, modesty and vanity, occasional celebrations and normal routine, and between the service of God and slavery to fashion. Where to draw the line requires conscientious thought and decision by us, together with members of our family.
On Friday night, I took my eldest son Michael out to a very special Sydney restaurant to celebrate his 18th birthday and the end of his formal schooling. The food was excellent, the service impeccable, and the experience will create a lasting memory for both of us. But we wouldn’t do that every Friday night, or even every year.
Always be aware of both the weaknesses of human nature, and your human nature, as well as its glories. Be vigilant, be realistic, pursue godliness. I close with a beautiful quote from Leonard Sweet:
You can’t download a soul or the software package for godly living. Growing a soul is a 24 x 7 x 365 deep-breathing lifestyle of soulful practices. The soul is forged over time through a patient and painful process in which everything that happens contributes to the soul’s identity. There is no such thing as “unproductive time.” All time is producing something. It takes all of life to fashion a soul.
Sermon 643 copyright © 2015 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 8 November 2015. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).
 Herb Caen, The San Francisco Chronicle [date unknown].
 Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters (London: SPCK, 2003), pp. 69-70.
 Ibid., p. 71.
 Quoted in John Stott, The Message of 1 Timothy and Titus (Leicester: IVP, 1996), p. 151.
 Leonard Sweet, Soul Salsa(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), p. 144.