Never has the disparity in the distribution of wealth in the world been so evident as in modern times. It is not simply that most of the wealth is in the hands of a few. In the Western world salaries and disposable income have escalated across the board. The sad truth is that the relative wealth of Christians in the West does not seem to have affected the conditions of needy Christians in other parts of the world.
Paul's readers also knew economic disparity. The Ephesian church consisted of slaves, poor widows, well-to-do women and householders, and some of these could be categorized as "the rich." To the latter Paul has left important instructions. They come at the end of the letter because of the preceding discussion about the false teachers' greed. He has written already of the dangers of wealth. Now his concern is for the spiritual state of wealthy believers. He focuses on the responsibility and proper attitude toward wealth that comes from a proper understanding of God.
Christians must not put their hope in this world's wealth. Money in this world means power and security. Those who have it often rely upon it. Arrogance or pride is a warning sign that one is taking oneself or one's wealth too seriously. With the way the world looks up to the affluent, it is easy to believe the illusion it projects and trust in one's accomplishments or acquisitions. But there is great danger in this. First, hope in wealth undermines trust in God. There is no clearer statement of this truth than Jesus' words: "You cannot serve both God and Money" (Mt 6:24). Reliance on material goods or worldly status is antithetical to reliance on God.
Second, the wealth of this world is uncertain. Today's gains are tomorrow's losses. Even on the best of days, the value of this world's wealth is extremely limited; it pertains only to this present world (v. 19).
We can avoid this danger only by being properly oriented to God. Paul defines this orientation as hope in God. How can the rich believer hold on to God in this way? It can only be done by recognizing that one's wealth has come from God (2 Cor 8:15). Gifts from God are things to be "enjoyed," for Paul states clearly that God gives richly for this reason. But the gift is not to be confused with the Giver; it is rather to point the recipient back again to hope in God. Hope, which acknowledges the Giver, releases the recipient of the gift to "enjoy" or make use of it in ways that mirror the divine Giver.
The sentence continues in the Greek as the thought now turns to the observable lifestyle of the wealthy. First Paul calls them to service, much as he does any believer. To do good, as Paul quickly translates into their vernacular, is to be rich in good deeds. The two expressions are equivalent, each describing the observable outworking of genuine faith (2:10; 5:10). The readers are to strive to amass spiritual wealth, and as the command continues, it is clear that they are to put their material wealth to use in this effort.
Their material blessing involves a special responsibility. For them, the normal Christian life of good works must include practical expressions of generosity and the willingness to share. The principle of economic equality in the Christian community that Paul enunciated explicitly in 2 Corinthians 8:13-15 implicitly undergirds this instruction. Since all they possess has come from God (v. 17), the rich are to assume a healthy attitude of detachment toward their wealth and use it to help the needy. Paul envisions a stewardship of the world's goods, and those blessed with this wealth are to be responsible administrators of it (Lk 16:8-9).
This responsible use of wealth promises tremendous benefits. Paul first draws on Jesus' similar teaching in Matthew 6:20. But he goes a step further to incorporate into Jesus' teaching the actual use of material wealth in the process of "storing up treasure in heaven." For the continuation of the Greek sentence in verse 19 links the "laying up of treasure" immediately to generosity and willingness to share. Rather than evidence that Paul was more moderate than Jesus in this matter, we probably see instead Paul's practical application of the earlier principle.
When rich believers share, what they actually lay up (as if it were a treasure) is a firm foundation for the coming age. The building metaphor with the time reference communicates an important truth. Responsible living in this life is a necessary building block or stepping-stone to the coming age. For the rich, responsible use of wealth (sharing, giving) is evidence of genuine faith. In this way they "work out their salvation" in this age. This practical evidence of new life provides unshakable certainty that one's future hope is secure. Thus it becomes possible for them to take hold of the life that is truly life, which is the same possibility held out to Timothy (the faithful minister, the faithful believer) in 6:12. It is true of each that responsible behavior is closely tied to realization of the Christian hope of eternal life. In the case of wealthy Christians, by exchanging temporary material wealth for spiritual wealth, they may exchange this fleeting life for eternal life.