The God Who Provides
James Montgomery Boice
It is not difficult to find examples of people who have allowed the love of money to ruin their spirituality and to nullify the effect of their witness. History is full of such examples, and they come from our time also. In the book of Joshua we are told of the sin of Achan that caused the defeat of the armies of Israel at Ai. Israel had just been victorious at Jericho and had dedicated the spoil of the battle to God, as God had indicated. But there was a scar on the victory. During the battle a soldier called Achan had come upon a beautiful Babylonian garment, two hundred pieces of silver and an ingot of gold. Because he coveted them, he took them and hid them in his tent. It was a small thing, but it was disobedience to God. Thus Israel was defeated in their next engagement, and judgment came upon Achan and his household.
Solomon allowed the love of money and women to ruin his spiritual life. Ananias and Sapphira lied to the Lord about money, pretending that they had given the full price of a sale to the church while actually keeping back a portion. They were struck dead. Paul wrote in one of his letters about a young man named Demas, who, he said, “hath forsaken me having loved this present world.” We see the same problem today when people put their home and the care of it above the need for biblical teaching and mow the grass on Sunday when they should be at church, or when they direct all their efforts toward amassing a fortune (or part of one) while neglecting their families and the essential spiritual life of their home. No wonder that Paul wrote to Timothy to remind him that “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10).
Remember that the Bible nowhere teaches that money itself is evil. It is not money or possessions that are at fault; it is the men who use them. Before God created men and women He created a vast world of pleasant and useful things for them. They were meant for man’s use in every joyful and constructive way. But when man sinned, the things that were to be helpful to him came to usurp a place in his heart which they never meant to have. Soon men began to fight and steal and cheat and do countless other things to possess them. Today, when a man surrenders to God and allows Him to redirect his life, a process begins in which money and things are removed from the center and God once again is reinstated on the throne.
There have been sensitive souls in the history of the Christian Church who have recognized the evils that accompany possessions and who have sought to eliminate the evils by doing away with the possessions collectively. Using the example of the early church in Jerusalem, which pooled its possessions and distributed to those who had need, these Christians have argued against the right of private property among believers and have sometimes even advocated a form of Christian communism. That is not right. If some Christians are led of the Lord to sell their possessions and give to others and they do so, particularly in a time of need, this is a great blessing. But it does not therefore follow that all Christians must follow their example.
Actually, if you examine the Bible carefully, you will see that far from condemning the possession of private property the Bible actually assumes the rightness of it. For instance, the eighth commandment says, “Thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20:15 KJV). However, that verse teaches not only that I am not to take those things belonging to another person, but that neither is he to take mine. In the story of Ananias and Sapphira mentioned earlier, Peter said when speaking to the husband, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God” (Acts 5:3-4). Peter was stating that God recognizes the right of private property and does not force any Christian to dispose of his money.
Now, someone will ask, “Didn’t the Lord Jesus instruct the rich young ruler that he was to sell all that he had and give to the poor?” Yes, He did. But we must also note that He did not say it to Mary or Martha or Lazarus or to John the evangelist or to Zebedee. He said it to “the rich young ruler” because his chief obstruction to a life of following Christ lay in his possessions. He proved that by turning away. For such a person — and there are many today —the loss of their possessions would be the most significant blessing of their lives. The best thing they could do would be to give them away. This does not mean, however, that possessions in themselves are wrong or, for that matter, that poverty is a particularly blessed form of Christianity.
In this as in all other areas of the Christian life the true solution does not lie in abstinence or withdrawal. It lies in the proper use and proper estimate of the things which God has provided. In other words, we are not called upon to relinquish things but rather use them under God’s direction. We are to use them for the health and well-being of our family, for material aid to others, and for the great task of proclaiming the Gospel and promoting Christian verities.
That is precisely what Jesus Himself was teaching in the verses concerned with money in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus was not speaking against possessions. He was speaking against a ruinous preoccupation with them. He said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).
These verses also take us one step farther, for they contain the first of the reasons given by Jesus why worldliness in regard to our possessions is foolish and detrimental to our spiritual lives. The reason is that one day all earthly possessions will perish and will be gone forever, and since that is the case, a man who has spent his life accumulating them may himself be saved, but he will have nothing to show for what should have been a lifetime of profitable service. Thus, Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Now if any man builds on this foundation [Jesus Christ] using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light…. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Corinthians 3:12-15). This means that it is only as a man uses his possessions for spiritual ends that he is able to accumulate true treasure.
Then, too, there is another reason why a preoccupation with material things is foolish for the follower of Jesus Christ. Jesus said that if a man’s treasure is on earth, his heart will be on earth also, and therefore things will rule him. There is a great illustration of this in the linguistic development of the Hebrew word mammon [translated as “money” in the NIV] which occurs several verses farther on in this chapter, where it says, “Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24, KJV). Mammon was a word for material possessions, but it had come into Hebrew from a root word meaning “to entrust,” or “to place in someone’s keeping.” Mammon therefore meant the wealth that one entrusted to another for safekeeping. At this time the word did not have any bad connotations at all, and a rabbi could say, “Let the mammon of thy neighbor be as dear to thee as thine own.” When a bad sense was meant an adjective or some other qualifying word was added. So we have the phrase “the mammon of unrighteousness” or “unrighteous mammon.”
As time passed, however, the sense of the word mammon shifted away from the passive sense of “that in which a man trusts.” In this case, of course, the meaning was entirely bad, and the word mammon which was originally spelled with a small “m” came to be spelled with a capital “M” as designating a god.
This linguistic development repeats itself in the life of anyone who does not have his eyes fixed on spiritual treasures. Is that true of you? Have things become your god? Don’t forget that these things are written to Christians, and that they are therefore meant to make you ask whether the Lord God Almighty occupies the central place in your life or whether things obscure Him. If you think most about your home, car, vacation, bank account, clothes, or investments, then you are building your treasure on earth; and, according to Jesus, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
The third reason why Jesus Christ warns his followers about an improper concern for possessions occurs in verses 22 and 23. It has to do with our spiritual vision. Jesus said. “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”
William Barclay writes of these verses:
“The idea behind this passage is one of childlike simplicity. The eye is regarded as the window by which the light gets into the whole body. The color and state of a window decide what light gets into a room. If the window is clear, clean, and undistorted, the light will come flooding into the room, and will illuminate every corner of it. If the glass of the window is colored or frosted, distorted, dirty, or obscure, the light will be hindered, and the room will not be lit up…. So then, says Jesus, the light which gets into any man’s heart and soul and being depends on the spiritual state of the eye through which it has to pass, for the eye is the window of the whole body.”
Let me ask you a question. Do you see spiritual things clearly? Or is your vision of God and His will for your life clouded by spiritual cataracts or near-sightedness brought on by an unhealthy preoccupation with things? I am convinced that this is true for many Christians, particularly those living in the midst of Western affluence. Now and then people like this complain to me that they cannot understand the Bible, or that God seems far away. Sometimes they are confused about the Christian life or about God’s will for them. Well, it is not surprising. And, what is more, it always will be this way for one who knows his way around a supermarket or a brokerage house more than he knows his way around the New Testament. Although Jesus did not direct us away from possessions themselves, He did warn us against losing our spiritual vision because of them.
There is another thought in this section in verse 22. It comes from the word which the King James’ translators rendered “single” The translators of the Revised Standard Version, Phillips, and the New English Bibles rendered “sound”; the New International Version uses “good.” It is the word haplous, related to the noun haplotes. In some texts the words mean “simple” or “simplicity,” but there are other texts in which the only possible translation is “generosity.” The translators of the New Scofield Bible recognized this truth when they came to the twelfth chapter of Romans, verse 8, for in that verse the word simplicity (used in the King James Version) is changed to “liberality” so that the text now reads: “He that giveth, let him do it with liberality.” In James 1:5 (KJV), we read, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men liberally.” The word occurs in this same sense at least three times in 2 Corinthians (8:2; 9:11, 13) and once in Colossians (3:22).
I believe that it is this sense of the word that is present here in Christ’s teaching. The “single eye” is the “generous eye.” And if that is the case, then Jesus is promoting a generous spirit in regard to our money. How can you tell whether riches have clouded your spiritual vision? The answer may be determined by the extent to which you are generous with the goods which you have been given.
Do not tell me that you cannot be generous this year because it is a bad year financially or because your stocks have declined. I once received a report of alumni giving to Harvard University for the fiscal year 1969-70. It was the second highest record of annual giving in the history of the university, and it occurred in a year in which the Dow Jones average dropped from a high near 1000 to below 700. No, liberality is not closely linked to affluence, unless it is an inverse relationship, and we all need to learn the secret of the Philippian Christians who out of “the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity” (2 Corinthians 8:2).
The final verse of our section (Matthew 6:24) deals with the mutually exclusive nature of serving God and riches. “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”
Nothing could be said more clearly, or be more obvious. It should be a heart-searching question for all Christians. Ask yourself this: Can anything be more insulting to God, Who has redeemed us from the slavery of sin, put us in Christ, and given us all things richly to enjoy than to take the name of our God upon us, to be called by His name, and then to demonstrate by every action and every decision of life that we actually serve money?
In discussing this verse in The Sermon on the Mount, Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones tells the story of a farmer who one day reported to his wife with great joy that his best cow had given birth to twin calves, one red and one white. He said, “You know, I have been led of the Lord to dedicate one of the calves to him. We will raise them together. Then when the time comes to sell them, we will keep the proceeds that come from one calf and we will give the proceeds that come from the other to the Lord’s work.”
His wife asked which calf he was going to dedicate to the Lord, but he answered that there was no need to decide that then. “We will treat them both in the same way,” he said, “and when the time comes we will sell them as I have said.”
Several months later the man entered the kitchen looking very sad and miserable. When his wife asked what was troubling him he said, “I have bad news for you. The Lord’s calf is dead.” “But,” his wife remonstrated, “you had not yet decided which was to be the Lord’s calf.” “Oh, yes,” he said. “I had always determined that it was to be the white one, and it is the white calf that has died.”
It is always the Lord’s calf that dies — unless we are absolutely clear about our service to Him and about the true nature of our possessions. Who owns your possessions? The Lord Jesus Christ tells us that either God owns them and you serve Him, or else your possessions own you, and you serve them. In any case, no one ever really possesses them himself, although many persons think they do. May God give us each the victory that comes when our gifts, wealth, time, friends, ambitions and talents are turned over to Him and we use them to establish indestructible riches in heaven.