A Commentary by John Stott
1 Timothy. 6:6-10. 2). A charge to the Christian poor.
The very notion that godliness could be a means to gain (5b) sounds preposterous. Yet Paul’s way of undermining it is not to contradict it but confirm it. ‘In an elegant manner and with an ironical turn he quickly throws back at his opponents the same words with the opposite meaning.’ (Phil. 4:12) ‘Godliness (*eusebeia*) is ‘gain’ (*porismos*), even *great gain* (6a), providing you mean spiritual gain, not financial, and providing you add *contentment*. Paul is echoing his earlier statement that ‘godliness has value for all things’, bringing blessing for both this life and the next (4:8). The REB expresses well this play on words: ‘They think religion should yield dividends; and of course religion does yield high dividends, but only to those who are content with what they have.’
Paul’s word for contentment (*autarkeia*) is the regular term used by the Stoics for a self-sufficiency which is altogether independent of circumstances. Christian contentment also does not depend on external things. Thus ‘I have learned the secret’, Paul wrote, ‘of being content (*autarkes*) in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.’ (Phil.4:12). This Christian ‘secret’ is not to be found within ourselves, however, as Stoics taught and New Agers teach, but in Christ. ‘I can do everything’, Paul went on, ‘through him who gives me strength.’ (Phil.4:13; cf. Heb.13:5-6). Thus genuine contentment is ‘not *self*-sufficiency but *Christ*-sufficiency’. This is why godliness plus contentment equals great spiritual gain.
Paul’s equation prompts him to extol the virtue of contentment and expose the folly of covetousness. He contrasts two categories of Christian poor, the contented who have the necessities of life (7-8) and the covetous, who love money and want to get rich (9-10).
a). The contented poor (6:7-8).
The people Paul is describing are not the destitute, who lack the basic necessities for survival. Nobody can be content with destitution. Rather they *have food and clothing* and *are content with that* (8).
How then does the apostle argue the Christian case for contentment and against covetousness? He reminds us of a fundamental (though often ignored) fact of our human experience, relating to our birth and death. It is that *we brought nothing into the world* (‘absolutely nothing’, as JBP expresses the emphasis), *and we can take nothing out of it* (7, ‘absolutely nothing’, JBP repeats). It seems probable that Paul is alluding to a salutary truth on which Israel’s wise men reflected. Here is Job’s version of it: ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall depart.’ (Jb.1:21; cf. Ec.5:15). That is, we are born naked and penniless, and when we die and are buried we are naked and penniless again. In respect of earthly possessions, our entry and our exit are identical. So our life on earth is a brief pilgrimage between two moments of nakedness. We brought nothing with us, and can take nothing away with us. As the officiating minister said at the funeral of a wealthy lady, when asked by the curious how much she had left, ‘She left everything.’ It is a perspective which should influence our economic lifestyle. For possessions are only the travelling luggage of time; they are not the stuff of eternity. It would be sensible therefore to travel light and, as Jesus himself commanded us, not to store up for ourselves (that is, to accumulate selfishly) treasures on earth (Mt.6:19ff.; Lk.12:16ff.).
What then, should be our attitude to material things? Paul replies: *But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that* (8, or perhaps it is an exhortation, ‘let us rest content’ (REB). He thus reverts to the topic of Christian contentment. Luxuries are not essential to it; but necessities are. These he calls *food and clothing*, the ‘what to eat’ and ‘what to wear’ which Jesus forbade us to worry about, because he promised that our heavenly Father would give them to us (Mt.6:25ff.; Lk.12:22ff.). Paul’s word for ‘clothing’ is *skepasma* (literally, a ‘covering’), which means ‘chiefly *clothing…* but also *house*’ (BAGD). So probably the couplet ‘food and clothing’ should be extended to include shelter, for these three are clearly essential for our journey.
Is this all? Probably not, for what Paul is defining is not the maximum that is permitted to the believer, but the minimum that is compatible with contentment. This is clear because he has already portrayed God as the good Creator, whose gifts we are to receive with thanksgiving (4:3ff.), and he will soon add that God ‘richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment’ (6:17). So he is not advocating austerity or asceticism, but contentment in place of materialism and covetousness.
This does not mean that we are free to go to the opposite extreme of extravagance. The Evangelical Commitment to Simple Lifestyle puts it well:
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.
Tomorrow: 1 Timothy 6:9-10. b). The covetous poor.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 Timothy. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.