Updated: Apr 26, 2021
You cannot love both God and money.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 1 Timothy 6:6-19
Even the secular world has realized that “the wealthiest person is not who has the most, but who needs the least”. Paul says that this must be the attitude of a good pastor, but further that every Christian (particularly those who are rich) needs to live by that. We should love godliness, not money.
Instruct those who are rich in the present age not to be arrogant or to set their hope on the uncertainty of wealth, but on God. 1 Timothy 6:17
[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
If I Won the Lottery...
Though most of us don’t think of ourselves as being wealthy, I remind my kids that anyone who makes $30k+ per year is in the top 1% of earners in the world (which is different from wealth—you have to have $770k in net worth to be in the top 1% of wealth in the world). That said, no matter how much we make, we always want more because we always desire something we can’t currently afford. It’s the very basis of the American economy, but more about that inside. Start your class with a fun discussion of “what I would do if I won the lottery”. There are lots of websites about this—here are some representative answers. Just about everyone says they would start by paying off their student loans. Some people said they would pay off friend/family student loans, too. From there, it’s a lot of things like fancy car, private jet, personal driver, personal chef, trip around the world, mountain home, beach home, real estate in Manhattan, private ranch, or a yacht. And then it gets ambitious—stake in a professional sports team, lifetime of needs for every family member (usually houses for mom), funding startups, cancer research, devoting my life to end childhood hunger.
Paul has great things to say about wealth in this passage that apply equally if you worked hard for a lifetime, inherited money, or won the lottery.
(By the way, what should you do if you won the lottery? Here's what the experts say. First, pay off all your debts. Second, don’t make a sudden lifestyle change and don’t make a major purchase (assuming you can stay anonymous). Third, hire a reputable lawyer, accountant, and investment banker to help you with a wise investment strategy, estate plan, and asset protection plan. Finally, set a budget and live within it.)
Facts about the Lottery and Lottery Winners.
I don’t know how useful this would be to you, but I think it’s interesting. The national lottery has been around since 1994. Just that lottery has produced 4,000 millionaires. The odds of winning the powerball jackpot are 350 billion to 1. The odds of winning other prizes do not change based on the prize amount. We spend more money on lottery tickets than all other forms of entertainment combined. Millionaire winners gave away more than half to family and friends. They took a vacation averaging $11,000. They bought more than 3 homes (!). They bought 4.5 cars. 52% quit their jobs. About 70% (!) had spent all of their winnings within 5 years. 99% still play.
What’s the Most Generous Nation in the World?
Gallup does a “most generous countries” review every year that is very interesting (to me, at least). Americans donated $410 billion in 2017 (that sounds amazing, but it’s only 2.1% of the GDP), but Gallup also takes into account volunteer hours and helping strangers. 1.4 billion people donated money to charity in 2017; 1 billion volunteered time; 2.2 billion helped a stranger. That’s great! Indonesia and Australia have the highest index, followed closely by USA and New Zealand. The least generous countries are Yemen, Greece, China, and Palestine.
This Week's Big Idea: Mo Money, Mo Problems
Either Paul had a unique window into the 21st century, or money has been creating the same problems for people since we invented it. The phrase “mo money mo problems” is the title of one of the most popular hip-hop songs in history, by The Notorious B.I.G., which was released after his death (in a shooting related to his wealth and success). It’s a truism in our culture that money doesn’t buy happiness, and it’s an assumption among many that having more money does indeed lead to more problems. Here are some data points to consider:
Divorce rates go up the higher the corporate ladder one climbs, almost always because the demands of the job cut into relationship and family time.
Parenting becomes more difficult. Kids believe and act as if they are entitled to the money (which can be devastating to their early adult years). Parents can still teach financial responsibility, but it takes much more effort.
Friends and relatives aren’t always trustworthy. There are plenty of stories about rich people not having any close friends because they think that everyone just wants a piece of their wealth.
Always being judged. Many super-wealthy people have super-wealthy relatives, which makes every gathering another opportunity to look down on you.
Always under competition. Finding a competitive business advantage is almost impossible; keeping that advantage is impossible because everyone else is out to “steal” it from you. The moment you make a mistake or decide to take it easy, some upstart is there to take whatever they can from you.
This leads to a whole lot of stress:
Based on annual income, here's the percentage who experiences workplace stress
$200k+ : 68%
$75-$200k : 52%
$51-$75k : 38%
$35-$50k : 47%
More property means more maintenance and security. Think keeping up with your car and home is expensive now? Try adding more cars and homes to the list. And because they are probably more valuable, you have to add security measures to them (and also pay a monitoring agency).
The very skills that enable someone to accumulate a lot of money can be detrimental to the ability to actually enjoy what that money can buy.
The author of the book Fables of Fortune: What Rich People Have that You Don’t Want said something startlingly profound: “The wealthiest person is not who has the most, but who needs the least.” Is that not the very definition of being content that Paul offers us in our passage? (Interestingly, the author quotes our focal passage in the book, though I haven’t ever heard him to claim being a Christian.)
But there’s a critical caveat to this idea: not having money actually leads to even more problems. Not being able to pay the bills, put food on the table, or provide safety for your children is by far a bigger deal. The real issue is this: do you have what you need, and are you content with what you have? Most of us could “downsize” our lives without sacrificing anything that we really need. Consumerism is where money gets us into trouble. All of this was equally true in Paul’s day, and that’s why his words are so practical today. There’s nothing wrong with earning money; there’s a whole lot of problems with loving money.
Our Context in 1 Timothy.
One last lesson in 1 Timothy. This was a letter that Paul wrote to Timothy to help him wrest control of the church in Ephesus from false teachers. The nutshell of Paul’s words was “teach the church members to observe the behavior of their leaders—by their fruits you will know good from bad”. A good leader will be characterized by prayer, respect, purity, orthodoxy, and consistency. But here at the end of the letter, Paul goes back to one of the key identifiers of a false teacher: greed. Greed hidden by spirituality. Greed hidden by bad Bible interpretation. Greed hidden by charisma. Paul has told church members that they need to take care of their leaders financially, but here on the back end Paul clarifies to Timothy that a good leader will not demand money from a church. That demand, that expectation, that window to greed is just another way of loving the very money that creates a rival to God (as warned by Jesus).
So, while we may think of the final verses of 1 Timothy as being a summary of Paul’s guidance to Timothy, it’s definitely and clearly focused on money. The question you can ask your class at the end of the lesson is this: if a pastor is worried about money, can he be a very effective pastor? If a pastor asks for a raise, how can a church know the difference between a pastor that is underpaid and a pastor that is greedy? One thing you need to make clear to your class—particularly if you have members of your budget or personnel committees!—is that Paul is not giving churches the right to be stingy with their paid staff by telling staff to be content with what they have. The attitude of every Christian church should be one of generosity toward their paid leaders. Paul is just trying to weed out those staff members who are in church leadership for the money.
Aside: What Exactly Is Money or Wealth?
In sales of any kind, there is a basic rule: something is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it. Why is a diamond ring so much more expensive than cubic zirconium? Because we will pay more for it, not because it is intrinsically more valuable. Money is a representation of that value. It’s a record that is acceptable as currency to pay for goods or services (cash, bonds, even IOUs are kinds of money) or to establish an agreed-upon value. But it’s all fuzzy—the same house by the same builder can be thousands of dollars different in price based on street or month, the same car can be thousands of dollars less if you wait one more month to buy it, etc. Frankly, the concept of money is quite confusing. The value of American currency is determined by government fiat—they tell us that a $5 bill is worth $5. But the government cannot determine what $5 is worth (if that makes sense), or that everyone will even agree roughly on what that means. We can take that $5 bill and buy a speck of gold. But we cannot be guaranteed that we can sell that speck of gold for $5! In other words, money (which is a measurement of wealth) is entirely a human construct. All the money in the world isn’t worth anything if you don’t have access to water (in 2008, Zimbabwe started releasing 100,000,000,000,000 (one hundred trillion) bills because their cash supply was worthless; people used their small bills as firestarter because firestarting materials were more expensive than the bills). That’s likely why money is so captivating to us fallen humans—it represents our value or creation. It serves as a scorecard for our accomplishments. But’s it’s fickle and fleeting!
Part 1: True Contentment (1 Timothy 6:6-10)
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out. If we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation, a trap, and many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
You probably want to back up a few verses to explain how Paul got here. Remember that Paul had given rules for how to treat specific groups of people, and most of those had to do with money: how to take proper financial care of widows, how to take care of pastors, and then (verses we skipped) how slaves should show respect to their masters. This brings Paul back to the issue that kicked off the letter: false teachers who are in it for the prestige (and money). Now that Paul has gone through his full list of proper behavior for a pastor, he can tell Timothy that the clue people should be on the lookout for is godliness. Not godliness as a means to making money (playing the role of the good pastor) but godliness that leads to true contentment.
Ask your class this important question: is it possible to profit off of Christianity? Of course it is! It’s harder than you might think to make good money as a “professional Christian”, but if you write or preach or sing, you can absolutely make a decent living. And as I hope I’ve said, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to make a living. But Paul gives us an important red flag: not being content. This is the person who writes the books or preaches the conferences or releases the album for the purpose of growing the brand (and making more money). It is fairly impossible to know someone’s heart (if you have a good idea for a book, you should write the book!), but those are the sorts of clues for someone who is not content with their finances.
So, how much is too much? Sometimes churches don’t pay a pastor what he needs to support his family fully. I think for Paul, it is obvious the pastor who is in it for the money. (To point to the people I mention below, Kenneth Copeland is worth $760M, Benny Hinn is worth $42M, Joel Osteen is worth $40M, Creflo Dollar is worth $27M, and Joyce Meyer is worth $8M. Billy Graham and Rick Warren also make this list. Note: there are more than 1 million households in the USA who are worth more than $10M, so the Christian numbers are pretty small potatoes. The median household income in the US is $60k. Do with that what you will.) For example, Creflo Dollar owns 3 multi-million dollar homes. To us (and to Paul), that’s a big red flag. To him, that’s proof of his prosperity gospel.
Paul gives us an incredible breakdown of why we shouldn’t be obsessed with money.
You can’t take it with you. Consequently, it isn’t really ours. Everything actually belongs to God. (Job 1:21, Rom 8:21)
There is a difference between needs and wants. If we have what we need (like food and clothing), we should be content. “Content” means “sufficient” or “satisfied”. (Matt 6:24, Heb 13:5)
Wealth leads into temptation. People who want to be rich will discover that they will never have what they want. There is always someone wealthier. There is always a possession you don’t have. (Titus 3:3, Luke 5:7)
If you’ve been through Financial Peace or any of Dave Ramsey’s materials, you know that he blames materialism for the failure of many small businesses. They bought a boat or a camper (or the like) and other unnecessary things and then weren’t prepared for a market downturn. Your class members probably know of at least some celebrities whose spending habits led them to financial ruin (some names that come to mind: Johnny Depp, Toni Braxton, David Cassidy, Mike Tyson, Allen Iverson, John Daly). In other words, we all know that what Paul is saying is true. But why?
The answer is one of the more misunderstood passages of Scripture: “the love of money is the root of all evils”. The CSB translation softens this to “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil”. Here’s a literal translation: “the love of money is a root of all the evils”. In other words, there is not a sin humans commit that cannot be traced back to a love of money. This does not have to mean currency as we know it—remember that money is just a representation of what it can purchase—this can refer to the power and prestige that comes along with having money. Just make sure your class understands this: money itself is not the cause of all evil. Money is just a financial tool that makes human society possible. Loving money leads to evil. And loving money isn’t just something to be frowned upon; it is a root of evil and the antithesis of God Himself. Paul is putting this into very clear terms. Loving money leads people into their own destruction (and takes them from the church). “Money” and “the love of money” are different.
Aside: How Pervasive Is the Prosperity Gospel?
“Prosperity Theology” is the belief that God wants human beings to be healthy and wealthy, and all a Christian has to do to receive that blessing is believe in it. In one branch, it is called the “Word of Faith” movement because it teaches that if you speak a word to God in faith, He must do what you spoke. Today, we tend to think of it in terms of its most outrageous practitioners, the televangelists Oral Roberts and Kenneth Copeland and their spiritual descendants: Creflo Dollar, Benny Hinn, TD Jakes, Joyce Meyer, and Paula White. But the truth is that many, many churches teach some form of prosperity, including almost every neo-Pentecostal church. Tim Challies says that “red flags” to look out for are the words “victory” or “abundant” or “overcoming” in the church name, as well as a picture of the pastor in the church’s advertisements. This belief is very appealing in low-income areas or underdeveloped countries because it gives people hope that there is a quick fix to their basic financial needs (while rarely delivering, of course).
The problem with this "gospel"? In its best form, it tells people to be content with their possessions while they seek more. But most often, it completely ignores the biblical doctrine of suffering and has no answers for the hard facts of human existence. Its leaders flaunt their wealth in almost comical disobedience to these verses in Paul. And then its believers have a very flawed understanding of why Jesus came to die; they believe that poverty is a sin that He atoned for, and His death granted believers the power to make demands of God.
Who believes it? Among American self-identifying evangelicals, 15% of whites, 42% of blacks, and 25% of Hispanics believe that prayer can make you wealthier (for reasons we can talk about another time, black churches have been much more heavily influenced by the modern Pentecostal movement). In 2006, a Time poll reported that 17% of all American Christians identify with the movement. Big numbers.
Part 2: True Riches (1 Timothy 6:11-16)
But you, man of God, flee from these things, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of eternal life to which you were called and about which you have made a good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God, who gives life to all, and of Christ Jesus, who gave a good confession before Pontius Pilate, I charge you to keep this command without fault or failure until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ. God will bring this about in his own time. He is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings, and the Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see, to him be honor and eternal power. Amen.
The rest of these verses are pretty understandable. They mean what you think they mean. Draw a chart: have your class list behaviors associated with “the love of money” on one side, and “godliness” on the other (focus on our passage). The difference between those two lifestyles is stark, and we should be able to identify in ourselves where we are. Because the love of money is so bad, Paul doesn’t just tell Timothy to avoid it, he tells him to flee from it. It’s the sort of thing that would disqualify an athlete from a contest. How pathetic to go through all the hard work of training only to throw it all away at the end! “Fight the good fight” literally means “compete in the good competition of the faith” all the way to the finish line/final bell. And the prize that keeps the athlete training is eternal life (many athletes have a picture of the trophy/medal they hope to win near where they train as motivation not to give up). And if all that isn’t enough, Paul reminds Timothy that he made a public promise to “be a pastor” or perhaps “be a Christian” (it’s possible that Paul was talking about Timothy’s baptism). This is basically why the married couple makes public promises at their wedding, or the deacon makes public promises at his ordination—it gives us another reference point to persevere. And if that wasn’t enough, Paul remind Timothy that Jesus Himself made such a good confession before Pilate. Pilate gave Jesus the chance to let Himself off, but Jesus stayed the course.
Now, what “command” was Paul telling Timothy to keep? Some scholars say Paul was talking about the entire letter. Some say Paul’s overall command of “pay close attention to your life and teaching” (4:16). I think it’s the command Paul just gave Timothy: “take hold of eternal life”. Really, they’re all related. God’s charge to Timothy in Ephesus is to be a good pastor there, which is what Paul is trying to help him do throughout this letter. How will Timothy “take hold of eternal life”? By finishing his pastorate well. I think that leads to a great question for your class: how does a pastor finish his pastorate well? Certainly, it means not to be fired in scandal! (Think about it: the four most common reasons pastors get fired are (1) sexual impropriety, (2) plagiarism, (3) financial “mistakes”, and (4) bad use of social media. Paul actually talks about each one of those in this letter!) But I encourage you to take it further: what does it mean to finish your time as a Sunday School teacher well? or as a deacon well? We’ll have a chance to talk about this again in 2 Timothy, but this can get the wheels turning. “Without fault or failure” is a very, very high bar. But what happens if we don’t set it that high? We excuse or even downplay our failure in sin.
Instead of saying “until you die or retire”, Paul says “until Jesus returns”. That gives Timothy a sense of urgency—a reminder that one day Christ will return and we will find out what sort of “treasures” each pastor stored up for himself. It will happen, but it will happen at God’s good timing. Paul breaks out into another song of praise, as is right to do any time we talk about God—the only true Ruler, the King of all kings and the Lord of all lords. John discovers that heaven has given this title to Jesus for when He returns. But unlike Jesus, God With Us, God cannot be approached—He is too holy. And yet, because of Jesus Christ, He listens to our prayers and will one day allow us into His presence in the new heaven and earth. That is a reason to celebrate!
Aside: Great Money Quotes
Proof that more people respect the Bible than you think…
“Too many people spend money they earned...to buy things they don't want..to impress people that they don't like.” --Will Rogers
“A wise person should have money in their head, but not in their heart. “--Jonathan Swift
“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” --Epictetus
“Money often costs too much.” --Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.” --Charles Dickens
“Money never made a man happy yet, nor will it. The more a man has, the more he wants. Instead of filling a vacuum, it makes one.” --Benjamin Franklin
Part 3: Stewards of Good Works (1 Timothy 6:17-19)
Instruct those who are rich in the present age not to be arrogant or to set their hope on the uncertainty of wealth, but on God, who richly provides us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do what is good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and willing to share, storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of what is truly life.
These verses are why we know it is not sinful to be wealthy. But it is difficult (Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to pass through a needle than for a rich person to be saved!). If a person has access to whatever medical care he needs, whatever personal services he needs, whatever security he needs, why would he think he needs God? (We know the answer: because both wealth and health are fleeting.) That sort of arrogance is incompatible with the Holy Spirit.
Instead, a rich person is to realize that God wants him to share his material blessings (a rich person can do things a poor person cannot, right?). Just so long as their wealth is not leading them into temptation but instead is seen as a means to serve God, a wealthy person can absolutely be a committed and growing Christian.
But there’s one phrase in there I like a whole lot: “God who richly provides us with all things to enjoy”. Life is to be enjoyed! God meant for this world to be enjoyed! Ask your class if they ever feel guilty for enjoying parts of life (other than the sinful parts, of course—sin is still sin). No—we can enjoy life! However, we should always remember that this life is only a fleeting shadow of the true life that is to come. That sort of priority is an excellent nutshell of Paul’s message.