One Monday morning—about 2:00 a.m.—I was suddenly jolted out of a sound sleep. The phone was ringing! The voice on the other end of the line was somber. “Gene, an arsonist has just torched our church offices.”
My wife and I rushed to the scene, where fire engines had already arrived from four major areas in the Dallas Metroplex. Helicopters were hovering overhead, and a crowd was gathering. By dawn the four major television networks in Dallas had crews on the scene. I vividly remember one pointed question: “Pastor, how do you feel at a time like this?” In shock, I could only quote Romans 8:28.
My office on the second floor was obviously the center of the blaze. Through the smoke, we could see my personal library engulfed in flames. By the time firefighters had brought the flames under control, fifty of our offices had been destroyed, and fifteen of our pastors at Fellowship Bible Church North had lost their personal libraries.
With the help of inspectors, we were able to reconstruct what happened. The arsonist struck my office first, pouring gasoline on the sofa where I had counseled a couple a few days before. The husband, bitter with rage, decided to attack not only me but our entire pastoral staff—and in essence, the whole church. He had hit four other strategic locations with accelerants, deliberately destroying our whole complex.
A few days later, my wife and I entered the building. We donned our hard hats and made our way through the charred debris to the second floor and the space where my office had been. Nothing remained but piles of ash and metal beams sagging from the ceiling.
On what once was a credenza below my bookshelves, I had placed a lot of personal items. One was a gift from a man in Brazil to whom I had ministered. Sculpted out of metal, it was a replica of Moses holding the Ten Commandments. It was a beautiful piece of art created by one of the most brilliant metal sculptors in all of Brazil.
Could it be that this marvelous statue had survived? Taking a large shovel, I dug into the heap on the floor. When I turned over the first scoop of ashes, embedded in the debris was—no, not the sculpture of Moses—but a book I had written, titled A Biblical Theology of Material Possessions. Though singed, it was intact. My wife and I couldn’t believe our eyes. It was as though God were asking me directly and personally, “Gene, do you really believe what you’ve written in that book?” To be frank, at that moment my wife and I burst into laughter. Though there was comic relief for the moment, deep down, this experience sent me a powerful message.
To this day, I have that book—just as I found it—on display in my office. It’s a constant reminder that the material possessions we have are of no eternal value unless we use them to build the kingdom of God. In the end, everything will be destroyed by fire. All that will endure is the way we’ve used these temporal gifts to achieve God’s purposes in the world.
What you’re about to read is a new publication of this book—refined, updated, and more fully illustrated. In many respects, what I first shared about material possessions from God’s perspective is more relevant today than it was when it was first published.
This book is also the result of the exciting and challenging process of doing “theology in community.” This may sound complicated, but it’s really simple. In essence, this kind of Bible exploration involves a group of Christians—few enough to study together in an interactive environment—looking carefully at aspects of the biblical story as the Holy Spirit unfolded this dynamic saga over a period of time.
The group involved in this study—including myself as facilitator—was made up of twelve men. Most of them are Peter, James, and John types—all active in their own business communities. No, we weren’t trying to imitate Jesus’s strategy in choosing the apostles, though I must admit that twelve seems an ideal number for this kind of scriptural study.
Meeting almost every Wednesday evening for a number of months, we traced through the Bible what God has said regarding material possessions—and how Christians in every culture of the world should view and use these gifts from God. We began our study where the church began in Jerusalem. Analyzing Luke’s descriptive narrative in the book of Acts, we followed this unfolding story through the rest of the New Testament.
Very quickly in this report, Luke recorded a basic outline for understanding Christ’s answer to the apostles’ nervous inquiry on the Mount of Olives just before he left this earth: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Responding calmly but with intensity, Jesus answered their question: “It is not for you to know the time or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:7–8).
Jesus’s response served as a divine framework for Luke’s personal report to Theophilus. The book of Acts fills in many of the details as the apostles and their representatives began to carry out the Great Commission—to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). But as these men traveled beyond Judea and Samaria, preaching and teaching the Good News, they introduced us to another means for communicating God’s plan of salvation and spiritual growth. The Holy Spirit inspired some of them to write reports (the Gospels) and to compose letters (the Epistles) that were sent to the churches that had been planted throughout the Roman world, or to individuals—like Timothy and Titus—who had helped to establish these churches. Today we call these marvelous documents the New Testament, which is composed of twenty-seven books. The apostle Peter carefully described this divine and human process: “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20–21).
If the New Testament is the Word of God—and we believe it is—then it’s only when we carefully read these written documents and letters as they were inscribed chronologically and allow the Holy Spirit to enlighten the eyes of our hearts that we will be able to know and understand more fully God’s will for us today.
Furthermore, there is safety in numbers when it comes to Bible interpretation. The Holy Spirit is able to work uniquely in a community—part of God’s divine plan. It’s “as each part does its work” that the body of Christ “builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:16)—which certainly includes the process described by Paul: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16).
This was our challenge—and our goal was to zero in on what the Holy Spirit has revealed in Scripture regarding God’s gift of material possessions and his specific will as to how we are to view and use them today.
We soon discovered, however, that this subject could not be adequately understood without carefully reading the Old Testament. As in most areas of biblical truth, we cannot understand God’s will adequately unless we observe the continuity that is built into the entire biblical story—from Genesis to Revelation. For example, we cannot comprehend God’s will regarding the Second Coming of Jesus Christ without consulting both Old and New Testament prophets. Just so, we cannot understand God’s will regarding our material possessions unless we study both the history of God’s people (the church) in the New Testament and the history of God’s people (Israel) in the Old Testament.
For nearly two thousand years, we have been a new covenant people living under grace as members of the body of Christ. Our position in Christ, both individually and corporately, is a very important biblical and theological grid for understanding how Old Testament teachings regarding material possessions relate to what we are taught in the New Testament.
Our primary purpose in this study was to look for timeless truths that are applicable at any moment in history and in every people group that has and will ever inhabit planet Earth. We’ve identified these truths as supracultural principles. In fact, to our surprise, we discovered that the Bible says more about our material possessions than about any other subject other than God himself.1
Once we completed this basic study, I had the privilege of both writing this book and teaching these principles to the people I’ve served as senior pastor of Fellowship Bible Church North in Plano, Texas. Following one of these teaching sessions, I was greatly encouraged by the comment of one of our lay leaders. “Gene,” he said with excitement in his eyes, “what makes this material so powerful is that it’s God’s agenda, not yours!” He went on to explain that most presentations he had heard before—and he had heard many—described someone’s personal agenda using a variety of proof texts to support that agenda.
Needless to say, this was an encouraging comment, since that’s exactly what we had hoped to accomplish with this study—to discover what God’s will actually is in this very important arena that permeates all of our lives. By God’s design, we live in a material world. How can we live as citizens on earth when our true citizenship is in heaven? God answers this question by unveiling his agenda! It’s not surprising that many believers in our church began rethinking their priorities regarding their personal possessions.
The Holy Spirit inspired the authors of Scripture to record God’s eternal Truth. If stated correctly, biblical principles are specific statements of that Truth. However, it’s only as we as Christians internalize this Truth that changes will take place in our lives. These changes must start with a clear knowledge and understanding of biblical revelation. As Paul reminded Timothy, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17).
To internalize biblical truth, we must allow the author of Scripture—the Holy Spirit—not only to open the eyes of our hearts to know and understand Scripture but also to change our lives. Here the second part of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesian Christians is our secret, as well, in applying biblical truth:
I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:16–19)
I’m indeed grateful to Howard Publishing for encouraging me to present this material in a new and fresh way. The truth that lies between the covers of this book certainly was not destroyed by the fire I described earlier. The principles we’ve outlined are as old as Scripture, since what you read reflects what God has inscribed about material possessions in both the Old and New Testaments—the Word of God that will abide forever.
But what God has revealed to us in the Bible is also as current as today. And the society we’re living in—particularly in America—is perhaps more materialistic than at any time in the history of Western culture. To be in God’s will, we must listen and respond to the Savior who, on the mount overlooking the Sea of Galilee, told his eager audience, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).