Paul uses the root word “rich” three times in 1 Timothy 6:17 — rich, riches, and richly. Examining these three occurrences will help us think through Paul’s teaching about material things (1 Timothy 6:6-10, 6:17-19).
God richly provides us with everything to enjoy. God is the creator of wealth. He has provided an abundant, fruitful world rather than one of mere subsistence. These blessings are for our enjoyment. This rich provision makes riches a possibility, but Paul provides us with some legitimate cautions. The desire for riches and the love of money can lead to temptations and spiritual ruin. People may through hard work, good stewardship, ingenuity, and inheritance find themselves with abundance. But the proper response should be thanksgiving to God.
The uncertainty of riches is a reality. The financial news may report the stock market is down, and billions of dollars of value is wiped out. Hurricane Sandy hits the east coast and property loss is estimated at $75 billion. Proverbs warns of this: “Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle” (Proverbs 23:5, NIV). Therefore, our hope should be on God and not on riches.
Paul is warning us of the danger of worshipping the creation rather than the creator. That is why greed can be classified as idolatry (Colossians 3:5). Jesus had also warned, “You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24, ESV).
Paul gives a charge for the rich in this present age. The phrase invites a contrast with the age to come. If rich now, what will be the status then? Jesus, after all, told a story of the rich man and Lazarus in which there was a great reversal. The rich man of this present age ignored the beggar Lazarus. He became the beggar whose pleas were by necessity ignored, while Lazarus enjoyed the riches of being at Abraham’s side (Luke 16:19-31).
So how does Paul want the rich of this present age to prepare for the age to come? We must worship and put our hope in God. We must learn contentment when our basic needs are met (1 Timothy 6:6-8). In other words, more things will not necessarily make us happier. We must be humble (not haughty) towards others. We must not think that material possessions make us better than others. All are created in the image of God; all are precious in his sight. We must learn to be rich in good works and be generous. The only treasure we take out of this world is the treasure we lay up in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). We must take hold of that which is truly life, which is the life lived as a follower of Jesus Christ. We must all deal with material things. Paul’s instructions help us to live properly in this age and to have hope for the age to come.