Haddon Robinson tells the story of a missionary in Africa by the name of Dan Crawford who served in the early 20th century.
He was returning from Africa to the United States and to do so he was leaving the inner part of the country, where he worked, to go out to the coast to catch his ship. So he would not have to make the trip alone, four of the men to whom he had ministered to and with walked with him. As they walked, Crawford told his friends about the glories of the coast. He told them about the light that did not have flame, about wagons that did not have animals, and about storing their food so that it would not spoil.
As he walked and talked, three of the men entered into the conversation. The fourth man, however, seemed strangely unimpressed. After a few days, as they were sitting around their fire, Crawford found it irritating that this one man did not seem at all excited about getting to the city. He said to him, “Aren’t you eager to get there? I mean, don’t you want to see all these things?” He said, “Mr. Crawford, to be better off is not to be better.[i]
The measure of a person’s life is not determined by what he acquires in life, but what he gives to it. What we gain from God and pass on to others is the real test of a godly life. In Jesus’ well-known address, known as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus focuses on the issue of genuine discipleship. There is both a cost and a commitment to following Jesus Christ. In contrast to the hypocritical approach toward righteous living in his day by the Pharisees, Jesus challenges his followers in every generation with other subtle spiritual battles for our hearts. In these texts from Matthew 6:19-24, Jesus is addressing the issue of worldliness and idolatry. Worldliness is an attitude that is reflected by our warped affections for this world’s values in place of God’s values. Idolatry is simply putting something or someone ahead of God in our lives.
The bible reveals three areas where the spiritual battle is being waged against the believer: the world, the flesh, the devil. Here Jesus is focusing on the world. Jesus gives three pictures or metaphors of the conflict that is waged against our souls to help us understand the nature of the battle. Jesus is calling us to undivided loyalty to his kingdom and the values of his kingdom which is ultimate to live a life worth living.
THE FIRST PICTURE THAT JESUS GIVES US IN A LIFE WORTH LIVING IS THE METAPHOR OF A TREASURE
Treasurers are those people, times or things that we value above all else. It is what has captured our hearts. Jesus is dealing with the main objective of our lives. D. A. Carson points out:
…for the things we treasure actually govern our lives. What we value tugs at our minds and emotions; it consumes our time with planning, day-dreaming, and effort to achieve.[ii]
What is it that we are pursuing? Our treasures reflect the nature of our hearts. Have our hearts been truly captured by the love and grace of Christ, or are we still pursuing what these current cultural values are offering us? Jesus warns us as His followers not to make earthly riches our pursuit.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.
But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.[iii]
F. W. Filson wrote regarding this concept:
If a man divides his interest and tries to focus on both God and possessions, he has no clear vision, and will live without clear orientation or direction. A life not focused on God’s claim and command is lost in spiritual darkness.[iv]
A. There are several ways that a person could misunderstand what Jesus is saying here.
The first is that we ought to give up all of our earthly wealth. A person may read that we are not to store up, and may conclude that we are to divest ourselves of all our earthly resources. Though there have been some who have done so, notably Francis of Assisi, that is not what Jesus meant. There are other parables that teach the proper use of earthly wealth. What Jesus is saying is that we should not make the acquisition of earthly goods our goal.
Another misconception is that we ignore the warning and are guilty of the very thing Jesus is warning us of. We should not be living to store up for ourselves earthly treasurers, which frequently blinds our hearts and minds from spiritual pursuits. Why is this such a temptation in our affluent society? We make earthly treasurers our pursuits, as a source of our security, rather than learning to trust God. Our response to our earthly losses say much about where are hearts are at.
When a fourth-century desert Egyptian monk named Macarius returned to his monastic cell one day, he found a thief stealing the few possessions he owned. He reacted calmly, though: he even helped the thief load his donkey with the objects from his cell. As the thief departed, Macarius said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’
Macarius may not be a literal model for us, especially those who own possessions for the sake of family and loved ones. But his freedom toward his possessions—that they come from the Lord, that they could be taken away without any effect on his disposition—is surely an attitude that all Christians can strive to imitate.[v]
How do we handle losses? Our response is an indicator of how attached we become to that which is ultimately temporal. Jesus in the parable of the ‘Sower and the Seed,’ warns against earthly goods becoming the object of our affection and attention.
Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.[vi]
How then are we to respond to earthly wealth? What are we to do with God’s earthly blessings? We can utilize them as tools for greater heavenly purposes.
Have you ever wondered what would have happened if the rich young ruler that came to Christ would have said yes, rather than turn sorrowfully away from Christ because he chose the treasurers of this world, rather than the treasure of knowing Christ and spending eternity with God? We have an example of such a life. In the early 1700s, a young and devoted count by the name of Nicholas Zinzendorf was traveling in Europe when he came to the art museum in Dusseldorf where he saw Domenico’s work of Christ entitled, “Behold the Man.” It is a portrait of the thorn-crowned Jesus, and reading the inscription below it- ‘I have done this for you; what have you done for me?” Zinzendorf said to himself, ‘I have loved Him for a long time, but I have never actually done anything for Him. From now on I will do whatever He leads me to do.[vii]
And from that came the most extraordinary life of motivating and serving others. Zinzendorf, whom most church historians recognize as a leader of the Moravians, helped refugees staying on his estate in Germany to build a Christian community called Herrnhut.
He encouraged and sent common laborers around the world to preach the gospel. Within ten years, more than 70 Moravian missionaries, from a community of not more than 600 inhabitants had answered the call…. within thirty years no fewer than 226 missionaries had been sent out.[viii]
Missiologist, Hebert Kane points out,
Their amazing success was due to two strong convictions: (1) that world evangelization is the prime obligation of the church; and (2) that this obligation is the personal responsibility of every member of the Christian community. The early Moravians were, for the most part, men with little or no formal education; but that was no great hindrance. What they lacked in knowledge, they made up for in piety and passion. When they went out with their wives and little ones, they were on their own prepared to live, die, and be buried in the land of their adoption.[ix]
B. Jesus points out the dangers with earthly treasures.
They can deteriorate over time or be stolen. Either way, there is a sense of loss. The tragedy is what are we giving our life to? Is it something temporal and can be easily taken from us?
The preacher of Ecclesiastes can help us here. Ecclesiastes pictures the construction of buildings, the work ethic, sex, reputation, power, various philosophies, and then dismisses each of them as vanity and a striving after the wind. Dr. Harold Dressler translates ‘vanity’ not to mean that all these things are equally useless, but that all these things are transient. They are vanity in the sense that they are non-enduring, they are temporary.[x]
Wealth is therefore not to be eliminated on principle but rather used according to the needs of the hour: ‘make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon Jesus tells us in Luke 16:9. The problem, of course, as Clement well knows, is that those who seek to use wealth for good ends so often become not its master but its slave. As it says in Luke 13:22, ‘the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word.’ Bernard of Clairvaux wrote of the rich man in Matthew 19: he ‘did not own his possessions: they owned him; if he had owned them, he could have been free of them’ (Commentary on the Song of Songs 21.4(8)). So, according to Clement, what is demanded of the faithful is neither ascetic renunciation nor acceptance of a communistic ideal but freedom for obedience, that is, the freedom to do what God ‘wishes, what he orders, what he indicates’ (Who Is the Rich Man? 26). The rich typically do not have such freedom-whence the hyperbole in Matt. 19:24: ‘it is easier for a camel, to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ The so-called perfect, however, do have such freedom; for while they neither hate wealth nor love poverty, they are profoundly indifferent toward worldly goods; and such indifference, generated by a consuming love for God and spiritual things (cf. Matt. 6:33), enables them to do what the rich man could not, namely, respond in wholehearted obedience to the demands of Christ.[xi]
THE SECOND PICTURE THAT REVEALS A LIFE WORTH LIVING IS THE METAPHOR OF THE EYE
The eye is the avenue in which light comes into the body. An unhealthy eye distorts one’s vision. Here Jesus utilizes this idea and challenges our spiritual vision. A healthy or good eye was single in its focus.
The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light.
But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness![xii]
“But this adjective translated ‘healthy’ and in other translations, ‘good’ is a little perplexing. The word in the original was used in the Septuagint [the early Greek translation of the Old Testament] to mean ‘singleness of purpose, undivided loyalty’, which is why the King James version translated it single. …The good eye [or as we have seen, the single eye] is the one fixed on God, unwavering in its gaze, constant in its fixation.[xiii]
A contemporary way of saying it would be like this, “I only have eyes for you.” That’s the question that Jesus is raising and challenging us with. When you only have eyes for a person, you are not looking elsewhere. I love the story told during the Middle ages of a prince and his family who were captured by an enemy king.
When brought before the enemy king, the prisoner was asked, ‘What will you give me if I release you?’
‘Half of my wealth,’ was the prince’s reply.
‘And if I release your children?’
‘Everything I possess.’
‘And if I release your wife?’
‘Your Majesty, for her I would give myself,’ said the prince. The king was so moved by the prince’s devotion to his family that he freed them all. As they returned home, the prince said to his wife, ‘Wasn’t the king a handsome man!’ With a look of deep love for her husband, she said to him,
‘I didn’t notice. I could keep my eyes only on the one who was willing to give himself for my sake.[xiv]
If we consider how Christ sacrificed for us, should not our eyes be only upon Him, desiring to live and please Him?
One picture of someone who would fit the category of an eye that lacked singleness of purpose was Lot’s wife (cf. Genesis 19:15-26). As they were fleeing Sodom, after being warned not to look back, Lot’s wife turned around and became a pillar of salt. Sodom is a picture of our world, about to be destroyed. The question that we must ask ourselves is, where is my heart in all of this? We cannot live for two kingdoms, God’s kingdom and that of our world in rebellion against God. The issue is the heart. That which captures our affections will determine our destiny.
THE FINAL PICTURE THAT JESUS GIVES US IN A LIFE WORTH LIVING IS THE METAPHOR OF SLAVERY
What does it mean to be a slave? A slave is someone that is not free. It is someone that is trapped in a way of life that they are unable to get away from. There are many people today who are free in some respects but are in slavery to their passions and addictions. Whatever we give ourselves to, ultimately enslaves us. What we are enslaved in then determines and defines our lives. The book of Romans explains that we are either a slave of God or a slave to sin. There is no other ground in which we can live. The idea of serving more than one master at a time is a myth. Jesus destroyed the illusion that we can do both.
No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.[xv]
In the King James version, money was translated mammon, which meant gain. We cannot serve God or live for earthly gains. Moses had warned the people entering the promised land of the great temptation of a life of prosperity and the ensuing traps that would lead them from God.
When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you.
Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day.
Otherwise when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.[xvi]
A careful look at the history of the nation of Israel reveals the truth of this issue. The reason for the Assyrian captivity and later the Babylonian captivity was that Israel had succumbed to the pleasures and pressures in her world. They began to worship the gods, the idols of the peoples that they had earlier conquered. As Elijah, the prophet pointed out, they were trying to both worship God and idols. The whole confrontation on Mt. Carmel was over this issue of trying to live a life with two loyalties.
Elijah went before the people and said, ‘How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.’ But the people said nothing.[xvii]
Idolatry is worship of anyone or anything other than God. The apostle Paul described idolatry as a strong desire in which we covet.
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.[xviii]
Paul was writing to believers, warning and instructing them and us toward our responsibility to address these issues in our lives. We must set our affections on things above, and not on things below (cf. Col. 3:1).
Jesus made it clear that a right attitude toward wealth is a mark of true spirituality. The Pharisees were covetous and used religion to make money. If we have the true righteousness of Christ in our lives, then we will have a proper attitude toward material wealth.
Nowhere did Jesus magnify poverty or criticize the legitimate getting of wealth. God made all things, including food, clothing, and precious metals. God has declared that all things He has made are good. God knows that we need certain things in order to live (Mt. 6:32). In fact, He has given us ‘richly all things to enjoy’ (1 Ti. 6:17). It is not wrong to possess things, but it is wrong for things to possess us. There are many warnings in the Bible against covetousness.[xix]
The real point of materialism is not how much we have, but what has us. It’s not what we hold, but how tightly we hold it. Not what we have, but how we got it. The test of materialism is whether our goods have made us proud or grateful, self-sufficient or God-sufficient.[xx]
German pastor and theologian, Helmet Thielicke, tells the following story to warn us against choosing the fleeting aspect of material gain.
A young child who was raising a frightful cry because he had shoved his hand into the opening of a very expensive Chinese vase and then couldn’t pull it out again. Parents and neighbors tugged with might on the child’s arm, with the poor creature howling out loud all the while. Finally there was nothing left to do but to break the beautiful, expensive vase. And then as the mournful heap of shards lay there, it became clear why the child had been so hopelessly stuck. His little fist grasped a paltry penny which he had spied in the bottom of the vase and which he, in his childish ignorance, would not let go.[xxi]
That’s a picture of our childish approach when we choose to serve the wrong master. We forfeit what’s of real value and end up gaining the trifles of this life.
[i] Haddon Robinson, “A Good Lesson from a Bad Example,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 56.
[ii] D. A. Carson, The Sermon On The Mount: An Evangelical Exposition of Matthew 5-7, (Grand Rapids, Mi: Baker Book House, 1978), 77.
[iii] Matthew 6:19-21, The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.
[iv] F. W. Filson, A Commentary on the Gospel according to St. Matthew (London, 1960); as quoted in Leon Morris, The Gospel According To Matthew, “The Pillar New Testament Commentary”, (Grand Rapids, Mi: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), 154.
[v] Mark Galli, editor, Christian History; ‘Alone in the Desert’; also see “St. Antony and the Desert Fathers,” Christian History, Issue 64, Vol. 18, No. 4, 1999.
[vi] Mark 4:18-19.
[vii] W. Carey Moore (ed.), “The Rich Young Ruler Who Said Yes,” Christian History, (Vol. 1, No. 1, 1982), 9.
[ix] J. Herbert Kane, Christian History, (Vol. 1, No. 1), 6.
[x] D. A. Carson, The Sermon On The Mount: An Evangelical Exposition of Matthew 5-7, 77; paraphrased.
[xi] Dale C. Allison, The Sermon On The Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination, (New York, N.Y.: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1999), 141.
[xii] Matthew 6:22-23.
[xiii] D. A. Carson, The Sermon On The Mount: An Evangelical Exposition of Matthew 5-7 Carson, 79-80.
[xiv] Unknown source.
[xv] Matthew 6:24.
[xvi] Deuteronomy 8:10-14.
[xvii] 1 Kings 18:21.
[xviii] Colossians 3:5.
[xix] Warren Wiersbe, Meet Your King, (Wheaton, Il: Victor Books, 1980), 46.
[xx] Joseph Stowell, “Preaching for Change,” The Big Idea of Biblical Preaching, edited by Keith Willhite and Scott Gibson (Baker, 1999), 138.
[xxi] Helmut Thielicke in How to Believe Again. Leadership, Vol. 6, no. 2