In our previous posts on prosperity theology we’ve looked at the importance of blessing in the Old Testament and observed how it is fulfilled and expanded with the coming of Christ. Jesus not only makes God’s OT promise of blessing come true, he expands its horizons: into all the world; into heaven; and into the future. For those in Christ there is a greater blessing, a greater “land,” and greater blessings.
When we examine prosperity theology in the light of this biblical development – following the flow of Scripture rather than simply arguing exegetical points on particular verses – its basic flaws become clear.
Prosperity teaching fails to grasp (inadvertently or deliberately) the trajectory of Old Testament prosperity promises. It fails to follow the course of the great river that runs through the whole Bible and empties into Christ. Prosperity theology fails to see how things develop through the two testaments. It misunderstands the New Testament’s development of the promises to Abraham. At its best, prosperity theology is a simplistic transference of Old Testament themes to Christians today. At its worst, it offers an excuse for greed under the guise of a perverted theology.
A more serious error of prosperity theology is that it sidelines Jesus. It fails to grasp both the nature of his teaching about kingdom, and the way he transforms the old covenant. Prosperity theologians, like the judaisers of the first century or those who obsess over the land of Palestine today, treat Jesus as a means to an end. They make something else – blessing, land or race – the ultimate goal that he serves. They fail to see how he offers us something much greater in himself.
The Place of Prosperity
How then should we think about prosperity where it does occur amongst believers?
First, we should think of it in missional terms. Abraham’s descendants were to be blessed for the sake of the nations (Genesis 12:2-3). Israel would obey God and be blessed; and thus other nations would be drawn to Yahweh (Deuteronomy 4:5-8). Some of this pattern continues in Jesus’ command that we should “make friends for yourselves by means of [worldly] wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes,” (Luke 16:9).
Second, we must remember that earthly prosperity is for sharing with the poor. The Sinai law, the teaching of Jesus, the example of the early church and of Paul’s collection all demonstrate a consistent stance here. Paul summarises it like this in his instructions to Timothy:
“…as for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future.” (1Timothy 6:17-19)
Third, we need to understand that earthly wealth is temporary. The material wealth of the old covenant was a shadow of the new covenant’s greater blessings and heavenly treasure which cannot fade, perish or spoil. The wealthy Christian also needs to remember that he or she will “disappear like a flower in the field … in the midst of a busy life,” (James 1:11).
Finally we need to heed warnings about wealth. Even in the Old Testament, as noted above, material wealth is not embraced fully. God’s faithful people may suffer and be poor. Wealth itself is a danger. This becomes even clearer in the New Testament. The love of money is a root of evil; the desire to be rich is a trap (1Tim 6:9-10).
There is no biblical warrant to promise material wealth to believers today. The Bible is a corporate sufficiency gospel, not an individualistic prosperity gospel.
Photo: Giovanni Orlando, flickr
Paul Barker is Regional Coordinator for Asia for Langham Preaching, a Visiting Lecturer at Myanmar Evangelical Graduate School of Theology and teaches in a variety of other Asian seminaries. He is the author of The Triumph of Grace in Deuteronomy, a book of expositions on Amos and other articles and short books. Formerly he was Senior Minister of Holy Trinity Anglican Church Doncaster, Melbourne.