Taken from The Bible Treasury Number 351 - August 1885
The selfish evil of making piety a means of gain has been exposed. It is really to turn Christ's name to the account of present and worldly interests; an abuse of grace, all abandonment of truth, save in profession, and a taking forethought for the flesh in order to its lusts: an alien as can be conceived from all that the Holy Spirit is now working en earth to the glory of God the Father.
"But piety with contentment is," says the apostle with emphasis, "great gain. For we have brought nothing into the world, because neither can we carry anything out. But having food and covering we shall be therewith satisfied" (ver. 6-8).
Piety as a cloak of covetousness, piety paraded in order to rise in the earth and acquire wealth, is a reversal of that which is everywhere shown to be a genuinely Christian expectation. When the Corinthians betrayed the desire thus to make the best of both worlds, the apostle reproved them in terms cuttingly ironical. "Already ye are filled full, already ye are rich, ye reign as kings without us; and I would indeed that ye did reign that we also might reign with you. For methinks God hath set forth us the apostles last as men sentenced to death; for we are made a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ's sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are in honour, but we are despised. Even to this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling-place; being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat; we are become as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things unto this day" (1 Cor. iv. 8-13). This speech of his was in grace, but it was unmistakeably seasoned with salt. He could not but blame, but it was in loving admonition that they might be sound in the faith and saved from ruinous error in practice flowing from their false principle. The true course is that which is urged in 1 Cor. vii. 29-31: "But this I say, brethren, the time that remaineth is shortened; in order that both they that have wives be as though they had none; and they that weep as weeping not; and they that rejoice as rejoicing not; and they that buy as not possessing; and they that use this world as nut using it to the full; for the fashion of this world passeth away." We are but pilgrims and strangers, passing through a world to which we no longer belong; we are of the Father, His gift to Christ, whose witnesses we are now called to be, as we wait for His coming to be with Him and share the glorious inheritance along with Him. It is His will to assign us our lot meanwhile; and piety would own with thankfulness His disposal of us, whether as a test of our subjection of heart or as a sphere of serving Him from day to day. For there is nothing right for our souls where He has not His place. It is not enough that there be "contentment." This alone would be but a heathen sentiment; as in fact not a few pagan authors have expressed it prettily, though (it is to be feared) it was rather what they could see to become man, than what they really made good in daily conversation. The stoics who most affected such language were hard more than happy men. Even had they succeeded in practice how far short was their self complacent contentment?
What is here declared to be a great means of gain is "piety" with contentment. This is a state wholly opposed to the pagan self-reliance which leaves out God and dependence en Him. "Piety " cherishes confidence in Him, and looks up to Him habitually as One who does not and cannot fail in His gracious consideration of every need, difficulty, and danger, all naked and laid bare to His eyes with whom we have to do. With piety "contentment"1 is the fruit of knowing His love and assurance of His will as good, acceptable, and perfect. As the same apostle said to the Christian Hebrews, "Let your conversation (or conduct) be without love of money, satisfied with present circumstances; for Himself hath said, I will not leave thee, neither will I forsake thee: so that taking courage, we may say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not be afraid: what will man do with me?" It is the same principle at bottom; but here it is the harm for one's own spirit that the apostle warns against rather than the apprehension of mischief from others which he would remove from the believers of the circumcision. Piety with contentment is great gain.
This he illustrates and enforces by the homely yet all the more impressive facts of man's beginning and end here below; which all can see, but only men of faith act on. "For nothing have we brought into the world, because neither can we carry anything out" (ver. 7). This is urged with such characteristic brevity and compressed ruggedness that one need not wonder if words once brought in to explain have crept into the text of not a few manuscripts. These apparent interpolations differ. In one of the earliest (D or the Clermont MS.) which contains an addition which prevailed in the West, "[it is] true" appears; and so it substantially stands in the Vulgate, Gothic, &c. Among the Greek early writers as in several late uncials and the mass of cursives, "[it is] manifest" is the word (" known" in the Syrr. being perhaps fairly equivalent). The oldest authorities do not allow καί or ἀλλά for ὅτι, but give what is here translated, as the text; which turns man's entrance into the world with nothing, into the solemn reminder that thus it will be at the close, so that. the twofold truth may bear on the believer throughout his course. Compare Job. i. 21: an anciently expressed sentiment, and as simple as sure; but piety with "contentment," alone makes its weight felt or forms a walk in accordance with the truth.
"But having food and covering we shall be therewith satisfied" (ver. 8). The words translated food and covering are both in the plural which may indicate the variety in either case provided of God. The "covering" too is not limited to "clothing" and should not be so translated, as it takes in dwelling as well. The future seems more forcible than the exhortatory tense, and better suits the passive voice. Little reliance can be placed even on the oldest and best MSS. which too often interchange the long with the short vowels as in this case. The critics generally of late incline to the future.
Let the christian reader study also the words of our Lord in Matt. vi. 19-34 and delight his soul in the incomparable fulness and dignity of that blessed discourse.
1) The Peshito Syr. seems to take αὐτ. in the objective sense of "our sufficiency," or the use of it, a sense no doubt possible, and as in 2 Cor. ix. 8 legitimate, but here inconsistent with the scope.