A decade later, I still remember one of my professors in college telling the class that he thought Christians should not own luxurious things unless they were necessary to do the work God had called them to do. He gave the example of a guitar—it is not a sin for a Christian to have a guitar, but unless he needs an $800 guitar to lead worship in church, he should get the most affordable one possible. This example struck me as imminently reasonable, but many disagreed.
After a decade of living in the luxurious West, this manner of thinking has fled from me, only to be brought under my nose like smelling salt in the book of Revelation. It seems to me, and I may be wrong, that John of the Apocalypse has a very low view of luxury. Could the Bible be telling us that living rich (not being rich) is a sin?
In Revelation, the epitome of evil is Babylon, and one of the hallmarks of Babylon is luxury. Thus, the punishment of Babylon is to be commensurate with her luxurious living: “As she glorified herself and lived in luxury, so give her a like measure of torment and mourning'” (Revelation 18:7a, ESV. See 18:9). Why do people mourn the punishment of Babylon? Because they will no longer make money from her (18:11).
After describing punishment for luxurious living, John gives a very long list of goods. Almost every item on the list is a luxurious one (e.g., “gold, silver, jewels, pearls, fine linen, purple cloth, silk,” 18:12). The capstone of this list of luxury is clearly something that should not be bought or sold: “slaves, that is, human souls” (18:13).
Why does John not just say, “The merchants wept because no one bought their goods”? Why does he take the time to make this long list? I cannot think of any reason other than a repulsion for luxury. One might argue that John was repulsed by luxurious living because it was done to glorify the sexual and idolatrous sin of Babylon. I agree with that. But that does not mean John would be happy to hear about Christians living in mansions, or multiple homes, or having multiple cars, or thousand-dollar watches. Opulence and luxury belong to God. The Temple was to be a luxurious place. When homes are opulent, and the Temple suffers, the prophets judge the people: “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house [the Temple] lies in ruins?” (Haggai 1:4, ESV).
For much of church history, wealth was regarded as something to avoid. The church considered it biblical wisdom: “Give me neither poverty nor riches” (Prov 30:8b). Augustine’s mentor said, “We consider only those things useful that lead us toward the goal of eternal life, and not those that merely provide temporary enjoyment. We do not see any inherent value in the opportunities and in earthly riches; instead, we regard them as hindrances if not set aside and burdens when possessed.” (Ambrose, “On the Duties of the Clergy” p. 6 – updated for today’s reader).
Have wealthy Christians lost this? Have we subtly been slipping back into the silks of Babylon, living in luxury as we eat expensive foods, wear costly clothes, drive luxurious cars, and take fancy vacations? What would the Apostle John say about the Church today—would it be the pure and blameless bride of Christ, or would it look like Babylon to him?
This was originally posted on The Fight of Faith.