An Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount

by Kent Young

© 2017

Chapter 5 -


MATTHEW 6:19-24

The concept of future recompense, whether positive or negative, and how it relates to the coming millennial kingdom, has been the theme of the Sermon on the Mount as we have studied it so far. For review, remember Jesus’ words about reward in the beatitudes (Matthew 5:12), his warnings about entering or not entering the future kingdom (Matthew 5:20), and especially his mentioning of “reward” eight times from Matthew 5:46 through Matthew 6:18. Remember also how Jesus has routinely mentioned the idea of future disciplinary judgment for his disciples. He warned of the possibility of missing the kingdom (Matthew 5:20), and also gave multiple warnings of certain specific possible judgments. Recall his reference to the judgment of prison in Matthew 5:25,26, as well as to the judgment of “Gehenna” in Matthew 5:22,29,30.

Jesus has told us that when he returns to the earth and reigns in his kingdom it will be the faithful and righteous among his followers who will be rewarded with the crowns of co-rulership with him. Those who are unfaithful, on the other hand, though still secure in their final salvation from damnation, will lose out on this kingdom reward, and could also potentially face some measure of disciplinary judgment.

Now as Jesus’ teaching continues, his point of emphasis will shift somewhat. He is still talking about the disciple’s life as it relates to the kingdom, but he looks at it from another angle.

Up to this point Jesus has placed a strong emphasis on the disciple’s future, heavenly reward. Starting with the next section the focus of the sermon will shift to the disciple’s present, earthly attitude. In the section following this one (Matthew 6:25-34) Jesus will be telling his disciples to be completely free from the worries and cares of life in the present age. In the section we are looking at presently (Matthew 6:19-24), we have what is essentially a transition from the previous section into the next. In this transitional section Jesus continues to elaborate on the kingdom idea of future reward, but his emphasis has changed. He does not speak so much anymore about the specific righteous behavior that will secure the reward. Rather Jesus begins talking about the disciple’s ability to overcome the present-world desires and worries that would turn the disciples’ focus away from God and away from his heavenly reward.

The Principle – Matthew 6:19-21

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on the earth, where moth and eating destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor eating destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
Matthew 6:19-20

Translational Note: “Eating” vs “Rust”

Right away I am sure you have noticed a discrepancy between my rendering of these verses and what is normally found in the various English Bible translations. Most translations translate the Greek word “βρῶσις” found in this passage with the English word “rust” (i.e. “where moth and rust destroy...”). There is some logic to the common translation, but the word literally means “eating,” and is translated with that concept elsewhere in the New Testament. The word “βρῶσις” is sometimes translated with the word “food” (John 4:32; 6:27,55; 2 Corinthians 9:10; Colossians 2:16), or with the word “meal” (Hebrews 12:16), or sometimes with its literal translation “eating” (Romans 14:17 1 Corinthians 8:4). Nowhere else but in these verses in Matthew 6:19,20 is this word “βρῶσις” translated “rust.” I trust you will see shortly why I take it to be rightly translated in this passage in Matthew 6:19,20 with the same literal sense of “eating” as it is always otherwise found in the New Testament.

It seems that the thought behind translating “βρῶσις” as “rust” is that rust is an “eating-away” at metal possessions, perhaps specifically precious metals.

It is understandable that someone would take this to be Jesus’ meaning because there is a somewhat parallel passage in James 5:2,3 which does mention the “rusting” of gold and silver. James often gives similar, almost paraphrased instruction compared to what Jesus teaches in the gospels.[1] In the verses parallel with this one James says, “Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted...” (James 5:2,3) The moth and rust are closely associated, leading some to conclude that he is either interpreting, or at least referencing Jesus’ words in this passage in Matthew 6. Barbieri seems to take this view,[2] and Matthew Henry sees it as one allowable interpretation.[3]

There are a few crucial differences, though, between the James passage and Jesus’ teaching that will demonstrate why the literal translation of “eating” is to be preferred.

Firstly, and quite simply, the words used are different in the two passages. James uses two words that could mean “rust” or “corrosion,” or, depending on the context, “poison” or “venom.”[4] Neither of the words used by James is the word “βρῶσις.” βρῶσις, throughout the scriptures, always has to do with food or eating.

Secondly, James and Jesus have quite different audiences in mind for their warnings. James is speaking to “the rich” (James 5:1), where Jesus is speaking to his own disciples, whom he warns over and again about the deceitfulness of riches (Luke 6:24; 16:15). It would make sense that James would feel the need to warn against the “rust” or “corrosion” to which precious metals are subject, while Jesus would not need to include this warning, foreseeing that his disciples would later be able to say, “Silver and gold I have none” (Acts 3:6).

Thirdly, it should be pointed out that the while Jesus leaves off the silver and gold notion mentioned in James, the James passage does not leave off the idea that we are taking to be conveyed in Jesus’ words. James not only mentions treasure being destroyed by “rust” and “moths,” but he also says that “your riches have rotted.” This “rotting” almost certainly points to food. Jesus warns that, for his disciples, food will be consumed by “eating,” while James warns that, for the rich who may tend to hoard up their wealth, their food will be subject to “rotting.” So in the passage in James three items are mentioned: food, clothing, and precious metals. In the passage here in the Sermon on the Mount only two are mentioned: food and clothing. Both Jesus and James see food and clothing as earthly treasures that will not last. James, speaking to the rich, additionally includes a warning about precious metals. Jesus, speaking to the poor disciples, does not.

Finally, the interpretation that we are taking here is the only one that fits logically with the next section about ceasing from worry. Jesus is warning that “food” and “clothing” are treasures that are subject to consumption. Here he warns against the storing up of these earthly commodities, and later he will admonish his disciples not to worry about their supply of those exact two items: food and clothing (Matthew 6:25).

If Jesus were only warning about the corruption which comes from moths and rust, then it would seem he is only forbidding the hoarding up of precious treasures like silver and gold, and perhaps by implication fine and expensive clothing. This would be a far easier command to follow than the one that Jesus actually gives. Christians today have a hard enough time with the easier command! But Jesus goes well beyond the mere avoidance of extravagance. Jesus forbids the storing up of not only gaudy riches, but even of the most basic necessities. It would require some amount of humility in order to abstain from storing up excessive material wealth, but it additionally requires great faith to abstain from storing up even the basic necessities of food and clothing. Let us not rob Jesus’ words of their intended severity by taking the easier, but less literal understanding.

Advantages of Heavenly Treasure

Watchman Nee points out that the principle at work in this verse is the same as that found in Proverbs 19:17. “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.”

Four times in this chapter alone Jesus has mentioned a reward that is “with your Father” who is in heaven. One thing a disciple can do to secure this reward is to give to the poor, so long as he does so only with God’s thought in mind (Matthew 6:3,4). In doing so, Proverbs 19:17[5] says that he “lends to the Lord,” knowing that he not only will have a high return on his investment, but that his investment will be entirely secure. If there is anyone faithful enough for us to confidently lend to, it is the Lord. Jesus tells his disciples that the treasure that is with God in heaven is far more secure than any treasure that may be accrued here on earth.

Not Simply Warned Against, But Forbidden

Now, while it is true that Jesus explains the superiority of heavenly treasure over earthly treasure, let us not think that this is all that he is doing. Jesus is not giving a warning, but a command. He does not say, “Here are your two options, heavenly treasure and earthly treasure. I’d pick heavenly if I were you.” Unlike the warning that he gives in Matthew 6:1, Jesus does not simply say, “Beware of laying up treasure on earth,” rather he gives the direct command, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth.” Just because Jesus graciously explains why obedience to his command will be personally advantageous to the disciple, let us not overlook the fact that this is indeed a direct command.

Sadly many Christians, upon hearing this severe teaching, simply take it as a helpful warning. Without evaluating their own conscience in light of Jesus’ word they will take all manner of worldly precaution in order to secure their wealth for their own future and for that of their children. The sentiment is often, “I’m fine in building as much wealth for myself as necessary so long as I don’t forget that heavenly treasure is better.” But this is not what Jesus commanded.

Exactly how to apply this teaching to things like savings accounts, investment properties, life-insurance, etc. I will leave to the individual conscience of each believer. We know that there are righteous uses of wealth that are permissible for believers and even required of them. Providing for one’s family is obviously one such required use of wealth (1 Timothy 5:8). Material wealth can even be utilized for the securing of the heavenly treasure that Jesus has spoken about, as his parable in Luke 16:1-13 demonstrates. However, this passage in Matthew 6:19,20 clearly shows that there is a distinction between using wealth for godly purposes and storing up treasure for oneself on earth. We must be careful to guard against what Jesus has expressly forbidden.

Difference from the Command of the Law

As is also the case with many previous sections, many commentators attempt to soften Jesus words, often trying to make them more congruous with what was spoken in the Law. In an attempt to turn Jesus’ words into simply a command against covetousness, as opposed to a genuine ban on the laying up of earthly treasure, John MacArthur points out that God often “made promises of material blessing to those who belong to and are faithful to Him.”

Now this is indeed a true statement. The Old Testament characters that MacArthur mentions, Abraham and Job, both of whom were very wealthy, help to prove this point.[6] MacArthur could have further pointed to the promises in the Law of Moses of material blessings for Israel’s covenant faithfulness. God told the nation of Israel, “You shall eat old store long kept, and you shall clear out the old to make way for the new,” (Leviticus 26:10) and “The Lord will command blessing on you in your barns and in all that you undertake” (Deuteronomy 28:8). Thus we see that both under the Law, as well as before the Law, earthly treasure laid up for the future, far from being forbidden by God, was often a mark of God’s blessing for righteous obedience to him.

The problem with this understanding of Jesus’ command, though, is that Jesus’ disciples are a heavenly people, not an earthly one. It was quite all right for Abraham or Job or the Israelites under Moses to store up earthly treasure, as the earth is the area of God’s promise to them (See Genesis 15:18-20; Deuteronomy 15:4-6).

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Matthew 6:21

With Jesus disciples, however, the promised blessings are said to currently be “with your Father in the heavens.” Old Testament saints had many earthly promises of blessing. They were promised land, wealth, victory in war, and abundance of progeny (see Deuteronomy 28:1-14). Jesus’ disciples, on the other hand, are told that they are blessed if they are poor (Luke 6:20), and are certain to be persecuted and hated for his sake (Matthew 10:16-25). This passage, as well as many others, makes it clear that Jesus did not want concern for worldly things to prevent his disciples from being an exclusively heaven-minded people.

It is often taught that if a person gets his heart in the right place, then proper action will follow. Jesus tells us here that, in the case of riches, the inverse is also true. The action of storing up treasure actually leads the heart in one way or another. Either treasure stored on earth will bring one’s heart to the world, or treasure stored in heaven will lift one’s heart up to God. The heart follows the treasure.

Now for those under the Law it was good to lay up treasures on earth. The earth was the area of their promised blessing, and so it was quite appropriate for their heart to be focused there as well. For us, however, Jesus says that our treasure must not be on the earth, neither is that where our heart is to be occupied. If Jesus’ disciples will make the conscious choice to abstain from the laying up of treasure on earth, they will begin to notice that their heart will cease to be consumed with earthly things, things that would distract them from the heavenly work to which God calls them. As we instead begin to consider how much reward is being stored up with God in heaven, and as we work to build up that heavenly storehouse, we will progressively become the heavenly-minded people that Jesus calls us to be.

Singleness of the Eye – Matthew 6:22,23

“The lamp of the body is the eye. If, then, your eye is single, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is evil, your whole body will be full of darkness. If, then, the light in you is darkness, how great the darkness!”
Matthew 6:22,23

The metaphor that Jesus uses in these verses is quite profound. In a very literal way, light does actually enter the body through the eye. Without getting into the ophthalmological details about it, suffice it to say that Jesus conveyed an accurate phenomenon. If a person loses his eyesight, it can accurately be said that he is “in darkness.”

Jesus occasionally uses the notion of eyesight to refer metaphorically to one’s heart-desire (Compare Matthew 5:29 with Matthew 20:1-16; see also Mark 7:22). He deals specifically about greed for money in the parable of Matthew 20. In this parable, Jesus speaks of workers who expected to get paid more than they were promised by their master. The workers were asked by the master, “Is your eye evil because I am generous?” Looking again at the context within the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:29), the “singleness” of the disciples’ eye must refer to his exclusive love for, and service to, God. One who has an “evil” eye, just like one of the workers in the parable of Matthew 20, must then be one whose service to God gets corrupted by his love and service for the world’s wealth.

Jesus contrasts these two as opposites. He says that the one with a “single” eye is full of light, while the one with an “evil” eye is full of darkness. To help us fully grasp Jesus’ meaning I think we would do well to look at something similar that the apostle John says in his first epistle. John mentions “walking in the light” as referring to being in proper fellowship with God, and calls “darkness” the status of being out of fellowship with God (1 John 1:5-7). John says this shortly before saying, “Do not love the world, nor the things of the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”

Now John’s words harmonize exactly with Jesus’ teaching about singleness of vision versus divided vision. If one has a heart desire for the world’s goods (in this context namely material wealth), then he is “in darkness” when it comes to his relationship with God. Jesus had just explained why it was important to have heavenly treasure rather than earthly, again, because one’s heart naturally follows his treasure. In this passage Jesus continues his point by saying that once a disciple’s heart is inclined toward God in heaven and away from the things of the earth, it is important to make sure that things stay that way. In order for a disciple of Jesus to have proper fellowship with God, his heart’s desire must be singly focused on God himself, not wavering back and forth, trying to divide its devotion between heaven and earth.

Two Masters – Matthew 6:24

“No one can serve two masters, for either the one he will hate and the other he will love, or to the one he will be devoted and the other he will despise. You cannot serve God and Mammon.”
Matthew 6:24

Here Jesus summarizes this entire transition section. He mentions two potential masters that he calls “the one” and “the other.” Because of the order in which they are given, we can assume that “the one” refers to God and “the other” refers to “Mammon” (Aramaic meaning “wealth”[7] ). Jesus’ point is that the disciple must make a choice. So many today would like to have it both ways, being devoted to God, yet loving the accumulation of wealth. Jesus says, in no uncertain terms, that this is simply impossible. As unpopular of a teaching as this may be, there is no getting around the fact that, according to Jesus, the lot of his disciple in this age is one of poverty of spirit (Matthew 5:3). If one’s heart begins to long for material wealth, he will naturally begin to hate his God who calls him to lay it aside. Contrarily, if one’s heart is entirely devoted to God, he will be ready and willing to despise and reject the accumulation of the world’s goods.

While this teaching sounds harsh, it is the necessary foundation for what Jesus will teach next. Jesus is about to forbid all worrying about the things of this world (Matthew 6:25-34.) The only kind of disciple who can even entertain the thought of obeying that teaching is one who has set his heart to serve God exclusively, rejecting entirely the desire for the world’s goods.

Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ

And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13, NASB)

[1] See James 2:13 compared to Matthew 6:14,15, James 3:12 compared to Luke 6:43-45, and James 4:10 compared to Matthew 23:12.

[2] (Walvoord, John F.; Zuck, Roy B., 1989, p. 33)

[3] (Henry, 1994, p. 1640)

[4] The words used by James are “κατίοω” and the word it is derived from “ἰός.” Now, κατίοω is used only in this passage, but ἰός is used multiple places both in the New Testament and the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament. The word ἰόςalways carries with it the notion of an undesirable substance that causes harm or damage. It is normally translated as “rust” or “corrosion” in James 5:3 and Ezekiel 24:6,11,12. It is translated as “venom” or “poison” in Romans 3:13; James 3:8; and Psalm 139:4. “βρῶσις” never carries with it this idea, but always has to do with eating or food.

[5] (Nee, 1989, p. 113)

[6] (MacArthur, 1985, pp. 409, 410)

[7] (Strong, 2004) - 3126