What are heavenly treasures? It’s people. In the Old Testament, God’s people are referred to as treasure (Ex. 19:5, Deu. 7:6, 14:2, 26:18, Ps. 135:4). People are the treasure that moth and rust can’t touch and thieves can’t steal. When the Bible talks about spiritual offspring or eternal friends, it is referring to the only treasure you can take with you. Why did Jesus give up everything he have? To win you. You are his treasure.
Shortly before Moses died, the Lord said to him, “Behold, you will sleep with your fathers” (Deu. 31:16). Jonathan ben Uzziel, a Jewish sage who lived around the time of Christ’s birth, said this about the passage:
And the Lord said to Mosheh, Behold, thou wilt lie down in the dust with thy fathers, and thy soul shall be treasured in the treasury of eternal life with thy fathers.
To the Jewish mind, heaven is a treasury containing “the treasuries of life, the treasuries of peace, the treasuries of blessing, and the souls of the righteous” (Chagigah 12b). Righteous people who die and go to the next world are regarded as treasures.
Jesus lived in a culture that was very much aware of the hereafter. When discussing heaven, Jesus did not pluck phrases out of thin air, but he borrowed metaphors that were familiar to his listeners. When he spoke of heavenly treasure, his listeners understood that he was speaking about people.
Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19–21)
Today many people ignore Christ’s instruction because they don’t know what heavenly treasures are and they don’t know how to store them up. “Heavenly treasure is Jesus,” say some. But how do we store up Jesus?
“Heavenly treasure is eternal life,” say others. “You get it by giving to the poor” (see Matt. 19:16–22). Which is like saying you can buy your ticket to heaven. Eternal life is a gift, and is not something to earn or store up.
“Heavenly treasure is your good character. It’s the only thing you can take with you.” It sounds spiritual, but it doesn’t fit the context. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Why would your heart be in your good character?
“Heavenly treasure refers to your heavenly bank account. You make heavenly deposits by giving to the Lord’s work here on earth.” Not surprisingly, this line is usually uttered by those doing the Lord’s work. “Invest in heavenly treasures by giving to my ministry.” It’s the perfect scam. Give now and get nothing back in this lifetime.
“Heavenly treasure refers to possessions, even mansions.” It’s an oft-heard line but one without scriptural support.
“Heavenly treasure refers to different levels of responsibility. Faithful believers will rule cities.” This comes from the parable of the minas where the master tells the faithful servant, “take charge of ten cities” (Luke 19:17). But what does that mean, and will there be enough cities to go around? It’s never explained.
“Heavenly treasure means high-performing believers will rule nations.” This comes from Jesus’ letter to the Thyatirans. “He who overcomes, I will give authority over the nations.” (Rev. 2:26). Jesus is not talking about future rewards for hard-working believers, but a present reality for those seated with Christ in heavenly places. God has given us a mandate to rule and reign here and now (see entry for Rev. 2:26).
The concept of heavenly treasures is so hard to envision, that some dismiss them altogether. “Everything comes by grace.” But why would Jesus talk about storing up heavenly treasures if there are no such things? Why would he talk about receiving a “great reward” if there were no rewards?
Jesus would never mislead us, but we can mislead ourselves if we are unfamiliar with the context of his words. When Jesus exhorted us to store up heavenly treasure, he was referring to raising spiritual offspring and making eternal friends.
A Jewish definition of heavenly treasure
Jesus lived in a culture that was very much aware of the hereafter. When discussing heaven, Jesus did not pluck phrases out of thin air, but he borrowed metaphors that were familiar to his listeners.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was addressing Jews who had grown up with the stories of the rabbis. Each Sabbath, they all heard the same stories. When it came to heavenly treasures, one story in particular would have resonated with them. The story of King Munbaz was recorded in the Babylonian Talmud. Munbaz reigned 500 years before Christ over the long forgotten kingdom of Adiabene. Munbaz converted to Judaism and, during a year of drought and famine, gave all his possessions to the poor. However, his extraordinary generosity was not appreciated by his brothers. Worried that he was squandering the family fortune, they came to set him straight. “Your ancestors stored up money in their treasuries, and you are liberally distributing it to the poor.” Munbaz gave a reply that was repeated by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount:
King Munbaz: My ancestors stored up for this world, whereas I am storing up for the world to come.
King Jesus: Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth; store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.
One of the most striking things about Munbaz was his motivation for giving. He didn’t couch his generosity in the language of philanthropy. Nor did he say he felt bad for the poor. Like an ancient Warren Buffet, he was all business. “I am storing up something that generates profit.” In a similar tone, Jesus encouraged his listeners to “store up heavenly treasure.” What could be more profitable than heavenly wealth that never runs out?
From where did Munbaz get the idea that giving to the poor is storing up treasure in heaven? He got it from the Tanakh or the Hebrew Bible—our Old Testament. We know this because his speech is peppered with references to the scriptures. Put it altogether and we see that Jesus was quoting Munbaz who quoted the prophets who quoted the Lord.
When his brothers asked what he had done with the family fortune, King Munbaz pointed to the poor he had blessed and said “I am storing up treasures of souls.” To a man raised under Judaism, giving to the poor was how you stored up heavenly treasure. According to William Barclay, the early church held a similar view:
In the days of the terrible Decian persecution in Rome (250AD), the Roman authorities broke into a Christian Church. They were out to loot the treasures which they believed the Church to possess. The Roman prefect demanded from Laurentius, the deacon: “Show me your treasures at once.” Laurentius pointed at the widows and orphans who were being fed, the sick who were being nursed, the poor whose needs were being supplied, “These,” he said, “are the treasures of the Church.”
Munbaz and Laurentius understood that our righteous deeds have eternal consequences when they impact the lives of others. They understood that the fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and he that wins souls is wise (Pro. 11:30)
What did the apostles say about heavenly treasure?
Jesus spoke about heavenly treasures while the apostles spoke about eternal rewards. Why the difference? It may be that Jesus spoke predominantly to Jews while the apostles wrote for a mixed audience of Jews and Gentiles. Since the Gentiles were unacquainted with the Hebrew Scriptures, the idea of storing up treasure in heaven would have been foreign to them. But rewards were another matter. Roman emperors frequently dished out rewards.
Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed. (1 Timothy 6:17–19)
This is a remarkable passage for it contains both grace—“God richly supplies us with all things”—and works—“be rich in good works.” It seems contradictory. If God supplies all things, why work? We don’t work to meet our own supply—God has taken care of that—but to supply the needs of others. We work because we are abundantly blessed and because we want to share God’s blessings with others.
Religion says, “Give and God will bless you”, but Paul said, “Give because God has blessed you with an abundance.”
And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed (2 Corinthians 9:8)
We don’t give to get; we give because God first gave to us. If we can be generous to others, it is because God has been generous to us. He takes the initiative and we respond in kind. But it doesn’t end there. As we bless others with the abundance given to us, we store up treasure for the future.
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