From Lies of the Shepherds….Chapter Three: Prosperity Theology
If you flip on certain television ministries, or listen to certain preachers deliver sermons on this subject, they will tell you that God wants you to be prosperous, and that if you step out in faith by giving to their ministry, God is going to reward you for it by opening up the floodgates of Heaven to shower on you a hundredfold or a thousandfold what you gave. That is today known in some circles as prosperity theology or the prosperity gospel. It seems to be popular in modern industrial society. But is it scriptural?
Prosperity theology could actually be the subject of a whole book, and books have been written about it. But this chapter will deal with it practically summarily.
Does God want you to be prosperous? Does God promise that his people will be cared for and given all that they need?
In my estimation, there is no doubt that God wants all people to enjoy prosperity. Consider John 3:16, which starts out with “God so loved the world….” God wants to save all people and to restore us all to a perfection that was his intention from before the beginning of the Creation. The prophecies that deal with this state that there will be no lack in the Paradise God will restore once Jesus Christ has returned to end the evil that now controls the world.
For example, in the 25th chapter of Isaiah, we are told this:
“8 He will swallow up death forever,
And the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces;
The rebuke of His people
He will take away from all the earth;
For the Lord has spoken.
9 And it will be said in that day:
“Behold, this is our God;
We have waited for Him, and He will save us.
This is the Lord;
We have waited for Him;
We will be glad and rejoice in His salvation.”
Later in the 21st chapter of the book of Revelation, the promise is expanded to include this:
“3 And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. 4 And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”
5 Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” And He said to me, “Write, for these words are true and faithful.”
Although the scriptures speak about prosperity in more detail, some of which we will review, I would say that with the fulfillment of the promises in the two preceding passages, we already foresee that all who are resurrected and restored according to God’s purpose will lack nothing. So then, God obviously wishes for all to be prosperous. It only depends upon each one of us to remain obedient to Him, so that we will come to enjoy prosperity in eternity.
One of the passages of the Bible that is often used to promote the central idea of prosperity theology is this one, found in chapter three of the book of Malachi:
“10 Bring all the tithes into the storehouse,
That there may be food in My house,
And try Me now in this,”
Says the Lord of hosts,
“If I will not open for you the windows of heaven
And pour out for you such blessing
That there will not be room enough to receive it.”
This passage relates to the practice of tithing that Israelites practiced, and which is in a different form practiced in may denominations today. Tithing will be dealt with more fully in a later chapter. For the moment, just be aware that the way in which tithing was supposed to be practiced, and the way in which tithes are supposed to be used, according to the holy scriptures, differs from modern practice more often than not. And ask yourself whether such a result should rightly be expected to come from a practice which is not carried out as it is supposed to be.
Also ask yourself whether material prosperity is what we should reasonably expect for the present time, while we await the fulfillment of God’s promises, given the teachings of Christ on the matter of prosperity. For example, consider what Jesus Christ said in the fifth chapter of Matthew:
“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.”
Christ taught that we should serve God, rather than riches, which he made clear in verse 24 of the same chapter, where he said, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
While Christ taught that we should serve God, he also showed that we will be provided with everything we need as long as we are serving God. This is what he taught in verse 33 of that chapter, where he said, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.”
God, Jesus said, knows what we need, and will provide it for us while we seek first his righteousness. But he taught that we should not worry about tomorrow, or the things we might need tomorrow, as “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34).
So why should Christians be concerned about having prosperity in this time, while Christ has taught such things? And why would preachers of the gospel of Christ want to teach that followers of Christ should be enjoying material prosperity now, after what Jesus Christ said to a certain ruler on this subject in the 18th chapter of the gospel of Luke? In Luke 18, a ruler asked Christ how he might inherit eternal life. Christ told him that to inherit eternal life, he should keep the commandments, which the ruler said he had done since his youth. To this Jesus replied, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Luke 18:24-30). It certainly appears that Jesus was not teaching him to be concerned about material prosperity.
There is no doubt that God wants all of us to enjoy material as well as spiritual prosperity. Material prosperity was among the blessings He promised to ancient Israel as a reward for their obedience to the Law they agreed to obey at Mount Sinai, while its opposite was among the curses that must result for their disobedience. And material prosperity is among the blessings that all will enjoy in the future who put God’s righteousness first.
But we are in a period now in which the whole Earth will be subjected to material lack, leading up to the great tribulation to which many will be subjected who will later be saved, according to the seventh chapter of Revelation. They will come out of the great tribulation with their robes “made white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14), but they will suffer tribulation, during which the cost of food will reach prices that will exceed the ability of many to pay, according to Revelation 6:5,6, where we are told:
“When He opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come and see.” So I looked, and behold, a black horse, and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not harm the oil and the wine.”
Keep in mind that a denarius is approximately a day’s wage for a worker, so many will be spending their wages to pay for enough to keep body and soul together. That is already the case in some places.
Another teaching of Jesus Christ that should be considered is found in the 12th chapter of the gospel of Luke, where Christ speaks of a rich man who planned to lay up for himself such material prosperity that he would be able to tell himself “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.” After this, Christ said, God will say to the rich man, “Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?” Christ concluded by saying, “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”
So, as you can see, the teaching of Christ does not appear to have much in common with the prosperity gospel that has been popular the last couple of centuries. But what was the view of early Christians with regard to the teaching of Christ?
Consider the circumstances in Judea during the first century among the followers of Christ. Were they prosperous, in a material sense? We are here talking about the primitive church of Christ, his apostles, the elders of the church in and near Jerusalem, the writers of the Christian scriptures, and the other members of the early church.
No, The early church did not promote the theology of prosperity that has lately become popular. In fact, material prosperity was not the usual condition in the church, although God provided for the needs of its members. If you read the book of Acts, you will see that the church did not as a whole experience overabundance of wealth, and shared what its members owned to permit many of them to subsist. As it says in the fourth chapter of Acts:
“32 Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. 33 And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all. 34 Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, 35 and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need.”
We are not speaking of some apostate church here, but of the same church populated by those upon whom the Spirit of God descended on Pentecost, made up of the men with whom Christ had walked and whom Christ chose and taught to be his apostles and ambassadors. Who should more enjoy the privilege of material prosperity, if it were Gods will, than that church?
But such became the condition of that church that the apostle Paul, among the churches where he was sent to preach the good news, took up collections of contributions to support the church in Jerusalem, that had become materially needy. You can read of this in the 11th chapter of Acts, where we are told:
“27 And in these days prophets came from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 Then one of them, named Agabus, stood up and showed by the Spirit that there was going to be a great famine throughout all the world, which also happened in the days of Claudius Caesar. 29 Then the disciples, each according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea. 30 This they also did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.”
And yet no one suggested, nor should have suggested, either, that material need among the brothers in Jerusalem were evidence of disobedience among that church. No one suggested that lack of material prosperity were a sign that something amiss in the church of Christ.
However, as we shall consider in a later chapter, the same churches that never fail to actively promote tithing often forget to promote Christ’s doctrine on helping the most needy.
While material prosperity was not universally present within the early church, there is no record of the teaching of a theology of material prosperity, and there is no record of lack of faith or of widespread discontent resulting from lack of material prosperity. The record we have of the early church does show a marked spiritual prosperity, a vibrant faith, and the active working of the Holy Spirit in that church. That is what we need more of today.