How to Lay Up Treasures

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So far in our series on Jesus' famous Sermon on the Mount and in chapter 6 of Matthew's Gospel, there has been a common theme, namely that of hypocrisy. That has been in terms of how you give to others, how you pray, and how you fast. However, in our passage for tonight, under the title How to Lay Up Treasure, Jesus is dealing not with hypocrisy but with the temptation from material wealth.

So let me now say two things by way of introduction. First, a question. Do you immediately shut off at this point because the subject relates to wealth and money? Some people do! It worries them that something might challenge them personally. A couple of Sundays ago in the morning at our Holiday Club family service Andy Gawn had Mark's account of Jesus and a Rich Man for his talk. Because he was very moral and upright, Jesus had to say to him, something very challenging. He said:

"you lack one thing: go sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come follow me" (Mark 10.21).

But the Rich Man found that particularly hard and refused to follow Christ, because for one reason or another his wealth meant so much to him. So Jesus' comment was simply: "How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" (Mark 10.23). But that famous incident and comment should challenge most of us in the West. For even if poor, we are rich, for example, compared with a majority in sub-Saharan Africa, for example.

True, we need to remember Jesus didn't ask all his hearers to sell all of their property and give the proceeds away. Yes, his inner circle of twelve disciples appear to have left all and followed him. But there were rich women (Luke tells us), who provided for Jesus and those disciples "out of their means" (Luke 8.3). They were not asked to sell all and give it away. And when Zacchaeus, the tax collector, said to Jesus, "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor," Jesus did not tell him to give up the other half as well, and give up tax collecting! No! Jesus in fact said: "Today salvation has come to this house." You see, it is not impossible for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. But it is difficult, said Jesus. So how we all need to be challenged by Jesus' teaching on money and seek God's help by his Holy Spirit to overcome the temptations from money and wealth.

And, secondly, by way of introduction, something on what "treasures" meant in Jesus' day. We have to realize that before modern banks, richer people in the ancient world could save by acquiring various domestic goods, including cloth, grain, lands and houses. So selling possessions as the Rich Man was asked to do, was a key way of raising funds and contributing to the work of God's kingdom. That is how and why it seems the early church was not communistic as many think. Rather, as there were needs individuals took action. So, Acts 4.36-37, tells us that "Barnabas … sold a field … and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet." And Acts 5 tells us that Ananias with his wife Sapphira did the same, with dire consequences because of their shocking hypocrisy. Well, that's enough by way of introduction.

Will you now turn to our passage for tonight, Matthew 6.19-24. And as you will see from the back page of your service sheets I have three headings: first, Jesus' Command; secondly, Serious Consequences, and, thirdly, Your Choice.

So, first, Jesus' Command.

Look first at Matthew 6.19-21:

"Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

So Jesus is not now talking about how we should give – though what he says has a great influence on our giving. But he is talking about, yes, our "world view" – how we think about money and possessions. What, then, is Jesus saying? Let me list five things.

First, there's a clear and important command.

"Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth" (verse 19).

Literally, "don't treasure your treasures on earth". And this is a pretty blunt command (or prohibition) because it is so important. And it is important because it is all too easy to be tempted by money and possessions. For treasure in terms of wealth is not bad in itself like murder or adultery. So its temptation is subtle. It is the "love of money" the Bible says is bad. Used well and for God, it is a virtue; but that is hard to do.

Also Jesus' teaching is obviously important when we consider how much he taught about money and riches. It's been estimated that 15 percent of everything Christ said relates to this topic – more than his teachings on heaven and hell combined. That is what Randy Alcorn says in his little classic, The Treasure Principle – a book based on these verses 19-21 and which verses, he says, contain "one of Jesus' most neglected teachings." So Jesus' command is important.

Secondly, Jesus' command is for everyone, not just for one or two rich individuals. "Yourselves" in verse 19 is plural – "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth". It was addressed to his close disciples and all the people on the mountain where Jesus was teaching who want to overhear what he said.

Thirdly, Jesus argues that earthly treasures should not take pride of place in your life as they have only a short shelf-life. So it is foolish to lay them up, in comparison with treasures in heaven. Jesus no doubt had in mind wealth in terms of clothes and other physical things that are destroyed one way or another by moths or rust (or vermin as some translate the word). Then others may take whatever counts as your wealth by human force - by theft (in the ancient world by digging through mud houses) or by conquest (by invading armies).

And now in the modern world, you can lose your wealth by exorbitant taxation or by human financial markets and the decline in the value of currencies. The extreme was some years back in Zimbabwe when the Zimbabwean dollar was at the ratio of 1012 to 1 (1 with 12 noughts) and so there were produced at one stage 100 Trillion Dollar notes (1 with 14 noughts)! I thought Zimbabwe was back to having a more stable currency. But the internet told me this afternoon that mid-July 2019 inflation had sadly increased to 175%.

And Jesus advises us to lay up treasures in heaven not only because treasure on earth might be lost one day being destroyed. It is that we (ourselves) will certainly lose it. If we don't lose it while we live, we will certainly lose it when we die. As Job in the Old Testament, said: "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return" (Job 1). And that verse goes on, "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" – words we repeat regularly at funeral services.

By contrast, fourthly, Jesus argues that treasures in heaven will never corrode or be stolen or be devalued. They are incorruptible and a brilliant investment. So,

"lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal."

We can't, of course, apply an earthly time frame to our future existence, but by analogy, think of an earthly investment in terms of thirty years. Then think of your heavenly investment in terms of zillions of years – that is an infinite number of noughts (apparently)! So how foolish not to invest as Jesus suggests.

And, fifthly, we have Jesus' teaching in verse 21:

"For where your treasure is there your heart will be also."

This is why we must obey his command. Where or what your treasure is, will motivate you. For example, if you give significantly to a Christian charity, you will want to read its news and pray for it and help it, not just with money but in other ways, too. But as Jeremiah so clearly put it:

"the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick" (Jeremiah 17.9).

That is why we need to follow Jesus teaching about the heart. Don Carson, a Canadian theologian, puts it like this:

"If a man wants above all else to make a lot of money, buy an extravagant house, ski the Alps or sail in the Mediterranean, head up a company or buy out his competitor, build his reputation or achieve that next promotion, advance a political opinion or seek public office, he will be devoured by these goals, and the values of the kingdom will get squeezed out."

And we can scale that down, or even up – like Boris and "want to be Prime Minister." And none of these things are bad. But once they are our treasure and have our hearts, they will push out the things of God. Now, of course, we want politicians like William Wilberforce for legislation that is genuinely liberal and for human flourishing. And, of course, we want businessmen like John Laing to fund Christian work as he remarkable did. But, tragically, they are the exception, not the rule. And that is not surprising, for, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Treasures on earth are a great seduction.

So, one, Jesus' command is very important. Two, it's for everyone. Three, it underlines the fact that earthly treasures are corruptible and have a short shelf-life. Four, it underlines the fact that heavenly treasures are incorruptible and forever. And, five, it is given because, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

We must now move on to our…

second heading, the Serious Consequences of not obeying Jesus' command and verses 22 – 23:

"The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness."

This is the fundamental reason why it is so sensible to lay up treasures in heaven. The alternative is darkness with a capital "D".

And remember the light from the kingdom of heaven (which is another way of saying "the kingdom of God") is shining now. For the gospel is that God's reign, which the Old Testament prophets waited for, had started with the coming of Jesus. The king himself has come. The death and resurrection of Jesus and the spreading of the good news around the world has meant that the Old Testament promises are being fulfilled with Christ being the great light. However, we await their complete fulfilment at the return of Christ for final judgment. So, one way of laying up treasures in heaven now, is as we help fund the process of the kingdom's advance by church growth, evangelism, pastoral work, missionary work, and mercy ministries. They all spread the light from the good news about Jesus and the kingdom of heaven. And why that is so necessary is that it is a matter of light versus darkness. For to be outside the orbit of the kingdom of heaven is darkness. Jesus Christ, as he says, is the one and only light of the world and so the one and only light for individuals in that world.

If you are in a room in the middle of winter or in a train (as happened last week) and the power fails and you are in a tunnel and it is pitch black, not to try to find the light switch or switch on the torch on your mobile phone (if you've got one), is utterly foolish. Jesus is implying it is similar, if people treat life like that. For without his light there is darkness, although people don't realize it until it is too late. That is why these verses are so important.

I won't go into all the discussion about the exact meaning of a "healthy eye" and a "bad eye" and its relation to "the body". There are many different views. The great Puritan commentator Matthew Henry, simply says: "the expressions are somewhat dark because concise." And then he lists three possible interpretations of the "eye" as: one, the eye as the heart; two, the eye as human understanding; and, three, the eye as a person's aims and intentions.

Be all that as it may, what is crystal clear is those last words of verse 23:

"If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!"

But Jesus also said in John 8.12:

"I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."

I remember well 2nd February 1970 and for this reason. What is known as the "Sixties Revolution", that overturned many moral norms and traditions and increased the spread of secularism and godlessness in the West and further afield, was well under way. And fundamental to this revolution through his books (including Why I am not a Christian) and through his broadcasting, was the hugely influential atheist, the philosopher Bertrand Russell. But on 2nd February 1970 I heard on the lunchtime radio news that he had just died. However, I had just been reading extracts from his autobiography. Let me read you one of these on how he saw the meaning of life and the universe without God and not trusting in Christ. He writes:

"The mental night that has descended upon me is less brief and promises no awakening after sleep. Formerly the cruelty, the meanness, the dusty fretful passion of human life seemed to me a little thing, set, like some resolved discord in music, amid the splendour of the stars and the stately procession of geological ages … But all this has shrunk to be no more than my own reflection in the windows of the soul, through which I look out upon the night of nothingness … There is darkness without and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendour, no vastness, anywhere; only triviality for a moment, and then nothing."

As Jesus so truly says, "if then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness." Contrast Russell's vision with that of John's vision of heaven in Revelation 21:

"And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life."

We may have to wait for heaven to know how that is true. But that it is true we may be assured by the fact that Jesus Christ really and truly rose from the dead. And we need to share the light of that good news – of forgiveness for our sins through his Cross and new life for now and eternity through his Resurrection – in contrast to Russell's despair and darkness. Doing that we will be obeying Jesus' command to lay up our treasures in heaven.

And doing involves two things – first of all admitting that earthly treasures at the end of the day are "vanity" – as our Old Testament reading from Ecclesiastes 2 and Psalm 49 reminded us. They disappear, but Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever. So why not trust him and then obey him, in all he teaches? Who here tonight, or watching on Clayton TV, has never done that yet – sought his forgiveness and new life, by God's Holy Spirit? Can I say, to do it, is as sensible as switching on a light when all is dark.

And, secondly, following Jesus' teaching and laying up treasures in heaven, of course, involves praying and working and giving as you are able for the gospel and having your priorities right while still on earth and waiting for heaven.

That brings us to my final heading (and briefly) Your Choice.

Matthew 6.24:

"No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money."

Jesus is clear again. He is not saying, "no one should serve two masters." He is saying, "no one can serve two masters." The service of money and service of God are mutually exclusive – so the servant of money is an idolater.

Many people think they can serve both God and money. Jesus says you can't. He is emphatic. So there is a fundamental question and choice for everyone: "are you living for God or for money?" You can't live for both.

Common sense says, "live for God who is our great giver – he supremely gave us his Son to die for us. He will surely give us all we need." And Paul promises that is so in Romans 8.32.

Indeed, Jesus concludes this section of the Sermon on the Mount with these words; speaking about our current material needs – Matthew 6.33 – he says (and with this I close):

"Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you."

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