The Sin Of Covetousness
Balaam met death because he was tempted with covetousness. He sold his gift for money, and thus paid the ultimate price. Covetousness is the desire of those whose minds are focused on the things of this world. When Paul wrote, “Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth,” he had the sin of covetousness in mind (Cl 3:2). Every time the collection plate comes by, many people have a brief struggle with the sin of covetousness. The emotion that encourages one to hold back in his contributions is the feeling of having to give up that which one can consume on his own lusts.
A. Definition of Covetousness:
The Greek word of covetousness is pleonexia. It is a word that has a wide variety of equivalents in the English language. It can mean greediness, avarice, a desire to take more than one’s share, or a desire to take possession of that which belongs to another. Those who do not give according to how they have prospered are certainly covetous disciples. They hold back on giving according to their prosperity because they realize that they are relinquishing the right to consume upon themselves that which they release to the church.
Throughout the Bible there are is a variety of subpoints that fall under the definition of covetousness.
1. Covetousness is a desire to possess more than one has. This was the problem of the rich man about whom Jesus referred in the parable of Luke 12:13-21. Jesus introduced His illustration of the covetousness of the rich man by saying, “Take heed and beware of all covetousness, for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things that he possesses” (Lk 12:15). The fact that Jesus cautioned the disciples about the sin of covetousness should be a warning to everyone that this sin can creep into our lives, bringing with it a desire to possess the things of this world. In the preceding statement, Jesus helped us to examine ourselves. We are covetous if we think that life is to be focused on possessions. Jesus’ explanation of covetousness is the love of possessions.
2. Covetousness is a desire to acquire material things in an evil manner. It is the desire to acquire through unfair, dishonest or unscrupulous means the material things of this world. Because of the temptations that come with covetousness, Paul reminded the Thessalonian Christians, “For neither at any time did we use flattering words, as you know, nor a cloak of covetousness …” (1 Th 2:5). Since his focus in life was not to possess the things of this world, his relationship with the Thessalonians did not have the ulterior motive of taking possession of their things. But this could not be said of some of the shepherds of Israel when the nation was in a state of backsliding from the Lord. God said of them, “For with their mouth they show much love, but their heart goes after their covetousness” (See Ez 33:30-32).
3. Covetousness is the love of money. This was the sin of the religious leaders of Israel during the time of Jesus. the Holy Spirit stated that the Pharisees were “lovers of money” (Lk 16:14). In the context of his statements in 2 Timothy 3, Paul seems to indicate that covetous religious leaders would arise within the body of Christ. “Know this also, that in the last days perilous times will come. For men will be lovers of themselves, covetous …” (2 Tm 3:1,2). We can understand why Paul was so cautious about this sin. Because of the covetous world in which he preached, he worked with his own hands to support his needs, even paying for everything that he ate. Such behavior seems to indicate that he wanted to shun all appearances of covetousness (2 Th 3:8). He reminded the elders of Ephesus that when he was among them that he “coveted no man’s silver or gold or clothes” (At 20:33). Peter also knew that covetous brethren would take advantage of the church. When in a state of apostasy, Peter warned, “And through covetousness they will with deceptive works exploit you” (2 Pt 2:3).
B. The curse of covetousness:
Paul wrote, “For the love of money is the root of all evils, by which some coveting after have strayed from the faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows” (1 Tm 6:10). No greater truth could have been said concerning what seems to be our natural desire to acquire and possess. This urge can be so strong that it can lead one to great dishonesty and the destruction of one’s integrity. It is not the money in and of itself that is evil. It is the love of the money that corrupts the very soul of a man. It is for this reason that the Bible is filled with exhortations to guard oneself from the sin of covetousness:
- “You will not covet your neighbor’s house. You will not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s” (Ex 20:17).
- “Incline my heart to Your testimonies and not to covetousness” (Ps 119:36).
- “He who is greedy for gain troubles his own house …” (Pv 15:27).
- “Woe to those who join house to house, who lay field to field until there is no place, so that they may be placed alone in the midst of the land” (Is 5:8).
- “Woe to him who increases that which is not his …” (Hk 2:6).
- “But now I have written to you not to associate with anyone who is called a brother if he is a fornicator, or covetous …” (1 Co 5:11).
- “But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints” (Ep 5:3).
C. The consequences of covetousness:
The insidious nature of covetousness is that the one who is covetous often has no idea that he is such. To consume upon one’s own desires has simply become the culture of his life and the life of his neighbors around him. Such people often judge themselves as nice people, for they are not drunkards or thieves. They are simply trying to maintain a life-style similar to their neighbors. They often present themselves as good community leaders, and often present before the church a cloak of piety and spirituality. They are faithful in being with the disciples for prayer and Bible study. But when the collection is made, they reveal their covetous culture. This is the one about whom John wrote. “In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not from God, nor the one who does not love his brother” (1 Jn 3:10). And how does one know he loves his brother. John further explained, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love the brethren” (1 Jn 3:14). But how does one know that he has passed from death to life, and thus, loves his brother? John explains, “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (1 Jn 3:17).
Now we understand why Paul was so hard on the Corinthians in reference to their fufilling of their promise to help their brothers in famine in Judea. But in reference to his personal needs, he reminded them, “And when I was present with you and in need, I was not a burden to anyone …” (2 Co 11:9). Paul simply suffered alone, but later in this and other statements, shammed the Corinthians for their lack of love toward him because they did not help him in his need. Their lack of care for him when he was in physical need revealed a flaw in their understanding of the concept taught in Galatians 6:6. They were thus not yet perfected in righteousness.
When we are covetous, we will not feel the need of those in need, and thus respond with a heart of love. In the context of the preceding words of John about those who would not manifest their love of the brethren by making sure that physical needs are covered, John concluded, “Whoever hates his brother is a murder. And you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 Jn 3:15).
Sins of the flesh as drunkenness are clearly evident to all. But the sin of covetousness can reside undetected in the heart of one for years without being clearly manifested. As the rich consume upon their lust, and give only a token when the collection plate is passed, they can hide behind the cloak of a secret contribution. When the poor widow gave all her livelihood, it was known to all. But when the rich gave, their comparatively large contribution was actually a cloak that disguised their covetousness.
Liberal giving is the very core of Christianity. It is the revelation of the heart of the one who truly knows God, and thus seeks to be godly. One has simply deceived himself if he thinks that token contributions can identify him with the God who loved the world so much that He gave His only begotten Son for our sins.
It is the curse of legalism that allows the covetous person to hide behind his token contributions (Lk 21:1-4). The legalist deceives himself into thinking that since he gave something, then he has fulfilled the law of giving. But he has conveniently created a religion after this own covetous desires. He has failed to see that we are not under a law of tithing percentages, but under a new commandment of love that moves us to give as we have been given to by the God who owns all things. Unfortunately, the legalist will go down in condemnation crying out that he gave, but never realizing that he did not give himself wholly over to the Lord. His tokens will take him into total destruction from the presence of the One who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.
D. Character of the covetous:
The covetous person is actually denying the one true and living God. He does so because he substitutes another god for God. In the city of Ephesus, Paul was confronted by the adherents of an idolatrous religion (See At 19). Theirs was a religion of idols, and idolatry is creating a god after one’s own image and own desires. Therefore, when Paul later wrote to the Ephesian Christians, he identified the nature of the covetous person. He wrote that the covetous man “is an idolater” (Ep 5:5). The covetous man is an idolater because covetousness “is idolatry” (Cl 3:5). Covetousness is worship of the creation over the Creator. It is elevating the created things of this world above the One who created the world. Jesus explained,
“No man can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Mt 6:24).
David said of those who made idols, “Those who make them are like unto them [idols], as is everyone who trusts in them” (Ps 115:8). The one who idolizes the things of this world are like the things of this world. They are worldly.
A servant is of no value to his master if he serves another master, while pretending to be totally dedicated to his master. When one becomes the servant of wealth, then he cannot be totally committed to God. Not only does the covetous man trouble his own house, he troubles the house of God (See Pv 15:27; 1 Tm 3:15). In the case of Achan, covetousness caused the death of his entire family (Ja 7:21). He saw; he coveted; he took; he died. The idolatrous man can never give his entire devotion to God. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt 6:21).
It seems that the heart of Demas was on the things of this world which he loved. Paul urged Timothy, “Be diligent to come to me soon, for Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world …” (2 Tm 4:10). As Demas, and Gehazi, many good men have fallen to the idolatrous nature of covetousness (See 2 Kg 5:22-25).
The sin of covetousness became so grave in Israel that the princes of Israel were known for their bribes by which they exploited the people, even to the point of shedding innocent blood to receive them (Ez 22:12). We must never underestimate the sin of covetousness. We must never fail to identify such as sin. And considering all that is stated in the word of God about the sin, we would do well to be on guard in our lives that we do not deceive ourselves that this sin cannot turn us away from God. Covetousness leads to the destruction of the spiritual life we have in Christ. Because it is a relentless curse to the soul of the Christian, it eventually turns one into a hard-hearted person who is void of empathy for the needs of his fellow man.
Through our obedience to the gospel, we have “escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust” (2 Pt 1:4). It is our struggle to stay away from lusts that lead to spiritual death. Those disciples who would persist in their way of covetousness seriously challenge themselves through personal studies of the eternal sacrifice that Jesus made for us (See 1 Co 5:9-11). Those who with smooth and fair speech prey upon the disciples for gain, must also be challenged (2 Th 3:6). God is serious about the sin of covetousness because such is a character that is totally contrary to the godly nature of Christianity.
“For this you know, that no fornicator, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no man deceive you with empty works, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Ep 5:5,6).
The covetous person needs to remember the words of Jesus that were spoken in reference to the rich man who was concerned only about laying up riches on earth for himself: “So is he who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Lk 12:21). Remember, covetousness comes to light when the collection plate is passed. One member boasted, “If I had US$1,000 I would give half to the church.” His fellow brother sitting beside him said, “What if you had two pigs?” The man responded, “That’s not fair. You know I have two pigs.”
E. Repentance from covetousness:
We must remember what the Holy Spirit said of the religious Pharisees. “They were lovers of money” (Lk 16:14). And when religious people who are lovers of money are denied their money by the preaching of the gospel, trouble is unleashed on the preachers of the gospel.
1. Simon the sorcerer loved, but lost his money. When Philip went to Samaria, he encountered one who was not unlike some preachers today. Simon was a preacher who was well known throughout the city of Samaria. For a long time he had “practiced magic and astonished the people of Samaria, claiming that he was someone great” (At 8:9). As we said, he was not unlike some preachers today who like to stand before the people with great pomp. And in order to guarantee his right to stand before the people, he worked his “miracles,” which were only magical tricks. And we assume that he was known for the two things that Solomon said would identify the leech: (1) Give! (2) Give! (Pv 30:15).
Simon certainly gained a great deal of money from his “miracle services.” He had the respect of the people he fooled. Luke recorded, “They all, from the least to the greatest, gave heed to him, saying, ‘This man is the great power of God’” (At 8:10). The people gave heed to the “miracle working” preacher “because he had for a long time astonished them with his magical arts” (At 8:11). But then there came to town a preacher of truth. Philip showed up with the message of the gospel. “But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women” (At 8:12). The religious profiteering of the “miracle” working preacher was shut down.
But when religious profiteers are shut down, they do not go down peacefully. Simon lost his source of income. Nevertheless, the text says that “Simon himself also believed … and was baptized” (At 8:13). But when he saw the miracles that were done by the apostles, he possibly saw another “angle” by which he could get back into the religious money-making business. So “when Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Spirit was given, he offered them money” (At 8:18). Simon saw where he presumed he could cash in on the religious business of miracle working (At 8:19). But notice what Peter said to the covetous preacher Simon, “Your money perish with you, because you thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money” (At 8:20). The reason Simon sought to financially invest in the “laying-on-of-hands” business was because of what Peter pronounced was in his heart. “Your heart is not right in the sight of God” (At 8:21). Peter identified the problem when he said to Simon, “You are full of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity” (At 8:23). Bitterness originates out of a heart of one who craves something so much, that when he loses it, he is bitter. Simon lost his position as a “miracle worker” among the people, and thus, he lost his source of great financial wealth. Though he was baptized, he was still in the “bondage of iniquity.” When covetous preachers lose their source of income when their iniquity is discovered, their heart of iniquity will move them to lash out with all sorts of nonsense.
2. Demetrius loved and lost his religious money-making business. In the city of Ephesus, another religious profiteer was endangered by the preaching of the gospel. The occasion was the conversion of people away from idolatry to Christianity. The mass conversion was so great that those who were into the idol-making business became somewhat disturbed. “Then about that time there arose a great disturbance concerning the Way” (At 19:23). The problem was that “a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines for Artemis, was bringing no little profit to the craftsmen” (At 19:24). So Demetrius called the craftsmen together and said, “Sirs, you know that by this craft we have our wealth” (At 19:25). The problem was that a preacher of the gospel came to town and said “that gods made with hands are not gods” (At 19:26). And so the market for idol gods took a hit, and the wealth of the idol makers had a bad day on the stock market. Consequently, Demetrius sought to stir up opposition against Paul by appealing to their belief in the idol god Artemis [Diana], that she was in trouble of being “dethroned from her magnificence” if this is continued (At 19:27). So what happens when the wealth of religiously covetous people is endangered? There is mass confusion and opposition against those who preach the truth (See At 19:28-41). One must never underestimate the culture of religious covetousness.
The repentant journey out of covetousness is painful. Sometimes it is so painful that one becomes, as Simon, bitter. To some, as Demetrius, wealth is far more important than truth, and thus, people as Demetrius are willing to stir up a riot against those who endanger their religious profiteering. But for those who seek to serve God, these are those who are willing to endure the pain in order to gain the crown. Those who are wealthy, and who bring their standard of living down for the needs of others, will certainly be blessed with great riches in eternal glory. We must keep in mind that money cannot give itself away. It takes a sincere and godly heart to do that.