Why Do You Believe the Word ‘Treasure’ in Matthew 6 Refers Specifically to Money and Possessions?

Question from a reader:

Would you expand on why you believe that the word “treasure” in Mathew 6:19-21 refers specifically to money and possessions? I think that when Jesus said “where your treasure is,” he didn’t just mean “where you send your money.” That may be part of it, or an implication, but I don’t think that interpretation fits the context.

Answer from Randy Alcorn:

I do in fact see Matthew 6 as certainly including, and actually even centering on, a promise for eternal rewards for the giving of money and possessions to the purposes of God.

I think the context of Matthew 6 clearly suggests that laying up treasure in Heaven does in fact involve giving money, and that Jesus is talking about eternal treasures as a reward for giving. First, because giving is an explicit subject of Matthew 6:1-4 (in words that ultimately lead to v. 19-21):“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”

Jesus is discussing reward for monetary giving, stating that if we give for the wrong motives we will have a short-term reward from men and forfeit eternal reward from God. Then he adds that if they do their giving for God and not men, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Reward them for what? Financial giving. Jesus clearly establishes here the subject of eternal reward for financial giving.

In verses 9-18, Christ follows with promise of reward from the Father when praying and fasting is done with God-centered motives. These are further elaboration of his first point, the one about financial giving and eternal rewards. Then we come to the key verses I cite in the chapter: 19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

You said, “‘treasure’” in v. 21 seems to have a subjective, sanctified component to it, whereas ‘resource allocation’ can be objective and carnal.”

I would not reduce generous giving to resource allocation, but certainly it involves it. A person may be tempted to spiritualize the passage to disconnect it from materialistic motivations, but in fact it is those very motivations Jesus is resisting by calling upon us to part with earthly treasures to invest them in heavenly treasures. That itself is something very sanctified, at the heart level, that we can do with money, not for the praise of men but to please God. Earthly treasures are not portrayed here as evil, and therefore unable to be connected with treasures in heaven, which are good. Rather, when we surrender to Jesus as our Lord earthly treasures to be used to care for the needy and love our neighbor and further the purposes of God, what we do with money on earth results in eternal rewards in heaven. See Christ’s injunction in Luke 16:9, “use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

The treasures on earth of Matthew 6 are material things. The treasures in Heaven are eternal reward in a near context of financial giving. How does one store up treasures in Heaven? The most obvious answer is through giving, which as a spiritual discipline, along with fasting and praying, has been his subject matter.

If Jesus said nothing else of finances after v. 19-21, but moved on to another subject, I think the immediate context still makes clear that monetary giving is a central, if not the central meaning of laying up treasures in heaven rather than on earth. (If we lay up treasures on earth by keeping material things, how do we lay up treasures in Heaven? The most obvious answer is by giving those material things instead of keeping them.)

However, not only the preceding context but the following one shows clearly that Jesus is thinking about Money. He talks about the eye as the lamp, then says only three verses after speaking of what we do with earthly treasures, “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.” How do you serve money? By making it of first importance, by clinging to it and centering your life on it in constant accumulation, rather than by giving it to God and the needy, and hence becoming free of it, yielding it to God’s lordship as a servant of God rather than a servant of money.

So Jesus precedes his words about treasures in heaven with financial giving, then commands them not to lay up material treasures on earth (but instead treasures in heaven), and immediately follows with a warning that you can’t serve both God and money. Contextually, it is very difficult for me to see as valid any interpretation that fails to see financial giving as being in mind in the command to lay up treasures in heaven instead of on earth.

The Money god, the idol, is toppled through laying up treasures by giving away money and material things. I’m trying to imagine saying to Christ’s disciples, in discussing this passage, “Jesus wasn’t concerned about whether we hang onto money or freely give it, rather he meant we should properly value heavenly treasure—whatever that means—whether or not we give generously.” I think their reaction would be “huh”? Like “don’t you get what he was saying?”

The cause and effect nature of material giving and treasures in heaven is obvious in Matt 19 and Mark 10:21:

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

Jesus says to the man, “Sell your earthly treasures, give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven.” Why shouldn’t we believe he’s saying essentially the same thing in Matthew 6?

Likewise in Luke 12:33-34, Jesus says, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

What better interpretation of Matthew 6 could we ask for, where the same language of thieves and moths, treasure and heart is used? And here liquidating assets and giving the money to the poor is explicitly said to provide inexhaustible treasure in heaven. Not only is financial giving of earthly treasures included in this storing of treasures into heaven, it is the only thing Jesus appears to be talking about.

The interpretation of Matt 6 I advocate is emphatically supported by Paul’s statements in 1 Timothy 6, where he borrows the words of Jesus “lay up treasures for themselves”:

 “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth…Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age…”

“In this way” points back to doing good deeds and specifically being generous and willing to share, which are clearly about financial giving and material generosity. Financial giving is said to be a means of laying up treasure in heaven. For Paul to speak of laying up treasure—and not only treasure but for themselves in the age to come (in Heaven)—is to me an unmistakable allusion to Christ’s words in Matthew 6. And I think it also demonstrates Paul’s understanding of Christ’s words in the very passage we are discussing.

The Matthew 6 passage and its parallels in Matthew 19 and Mark 12, and in Luke 12 and 1 Timothy 6 show a direct connection between actually giving away money, which God in turn regards as or rewards as treasure in heaven.

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries