What The Gospel Really Says About Prosperity
God wants you to prosper. It is a fact of the gospel that Christians both overlook and grossly misunderstand. Though some false teachers would seek to preach a gospel that attempts to defraud people of true biblical prosperity through greed, self-centeredness, and Scripture-twisting, God has spelled out through the pages of Scripture exactly how he wants you to prosper. The way to enduring prosperity begins with a true love for God and obedience to what He commands through Scripture.
Prosperity is simply another word for well-being, often financial but also including health, happiness, or spiritual well-being. Of course, people think of prosperity in different ways so it can be hard to nail down a specific definition that makes everyone happy. It could be thought of generally as the absence of poverty, unhappiness, sickness, fear, and adversity.
This is the first of two articles that explains what the Bible teaches about prosperity and how the prosperity gospel sweeping mainstream Christianity differs from that understanding.
Prosperity in the Old Testament
Scripture clearly demonstrates God’s desire for our material well-being and prosperity. God’s ultimate plan to see mankind prosper in His presence frames the story of the Bible. He breathed life into a world that saw Adam and Eve placed in the abundance of Eden (Gen 1:28–30). In the last days, He will establish a new heaven and earth for mankind that will flourish eternally following the final judgment of the wicked (Rev 21–22). In between the beginning and the end, God has also provided the material abundance to many of scripture’s heroes including Abraham (Gen 12:1–3; 17:1–8), Jacob (30:25–43), King Solomon (1 Kings 3:1–15), and Job (Job 42:10–17).
Deuteronomy reveals God’s promises for Israel’s prosperity on the condition of their faithful obedience to the commandments. These commandments taught Israel how to conduct themselves before the Lord and before each other, dictating the rules of worship, morality, and civil society. We learn in Deuteronomy 28:1–14 that God ensured fertility for both women and beast, abundance of food, land, and security against enemies if Israel faithfully obeyed.
The Lord will open to you his good treasury, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season and to bless all the work of your hands…if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today, being careful to do them, and if you do not turn aside from any of the words that I command you today, to the right hand or to the left, to go after other gods to serve them. (Deut 28:12–14).
Not only did God promise material blessings for their obedience but also curses for their disobedience. Notice that the curses for unfaithfulness are far greater than the blessings of material prosperity — 53 verses of curses vs 14 verses of blessings!
Why the imbalance? For one, God’s expectation of their obedience was clearly emphasized, though He already knew that they would not do it (Deut 30:1–3). However, I think the more important reason is that the blessings of material prosperity in Deuteronomy 28 were only icing on the cake. The obedience of the people to the commands of an all-knowing, all-powerful, loving, and just God was the substantial source of blessing for the community. The psalmist echoed this understanding of God’s law in Psalms 119 when he writes:
Blessed are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the Lord!
Blessed are those who keep his testimonies,
who seek him with their whole heart,
who also do no wrong,
but walk in his ways! (Ps 119:1–3)
Think about it. God made provisions for the welfare of everyone in society, even for the poor. He commanded the Israelites to allow the poor and the foreigner to glean their fields (Lev 19:9–10). Through this and other provisions of the law, God used Ruth the Moabite to marry Boaz after gleaning his field as a poor foreigner in the land, using her to establish the kingly line of David (Ruth 2:5–7; 4:13–17). The law also mandated other protections for the poor among Israel, protections that prevented them from becoming abused by predatory lending practices or harsh servitude (Lev 25:35–55). When God later pronounced judgement on Israel through the prophet Amos before their exile to Babylon, their mistreatment of the poor was one of the reasons for their punishment (Amos 8:4–8).
In Scripture, enduring prosperity is always tied to faithful obedience.
Consider also the writing in the book of Proverbs. Plenty of verses teach principles of biblical prosperity. Long life, honor, material and spiritual prosperity are all results of the wisdom that comes from fearing the Lord and living righteously (Prov 1:7; 3:13–16; 8:12–20). Hard work is also given as a prerequisite of material prosperity, while both laziness and oppression are causes of poverty (10:4; 12:27; 13:4; 20:13; 21:5). Many of the great principles of stewardship and wise financial management can be found in Proverbs (check out the article 101 Biblical Proverbs About Money on faithandfinance.org).
Prosperity in the New Testament
Whereas the Old Testament speaks much about material prosperity, the New Testament emphasizes spiritual prosperity much more. Written during a time when the Jewish people were still subject to Roman rule, Jesus and the other figures of the New Testament were not kings or wealthy aristocrats. Materially, they lacked the material prosperity enjoyed by Old Testament figures like Job and Solomon.
Jesus grew up in a poor family as evidenced by His birth in a manger and His parents poor offering at the temple (Luke 2:22–24; Lev 12:8). His disciples gave up their possessions to follow Him and experienced persecution following His death and resurrection (Matt 19:27). The Apostle Paul, writer of over half of the New Testament, documented his own struggles in spreading the gospel in 2 Corinthians 11:16–33, citing “danger,” “hardship,” “hunger and thirst,” “anxiety,” and “weakness”.
In spite of hardship, the writings of the New Testament paint a portrait of faithful believers who learned to extol thankfulness and contentment over material gain. Acts 4:32–37 documents how the early church shared property and gave financially to meet the needs of the body of believers, ensuring that “there was not a needy person among them”. Paul also expressed thankfulness for the support of the Philippian church and his sense of contentment when he wrote to them:
I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me (Phil 4:11–13).
Jesus’ Teachings on Prosperity
Up to and during the time of Jesus, the Jews had conflated material prosperity with righteousness and salvation. Jesus devoted much focus to tearing down preconceived notions about wealth in His teachings.
One such teaching came after Jesus spoke with the rich, young man who expressed sorrow at the notion of surrendering his great possessions to follow Him (Matt 19:16–30). Jesus told His disciples that it is “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (v. 24).
The astonishment of the disciples to the statement indicates how they understood what He was saying. If a man in his riches could not enter heaven, who could (v. 25)? They assumed that wealth was a clear sign of right standing and holiness before God. Jesus tossed that assumption out the window and made clear to His disciples that faith in Him was what made men right before God, not works based on their own merits.
Peter took one step further and responds to Jesus by saying: “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (v. 27). Jesus answered, not by rebuking Peter for considering how he might prosper, but by affirming that their sacrifice would be met with substantial, future material benefit, not the least of which included eternal life (v. 28–30).
Another great illustration of Jesus’s teaching on gospel prosperity comes in the next chapter. In Matthew 20:20–28, two of the twelve disciples, the sons of Zebedee known as James and John, along with their mother, approached Jesus as He was traveling to Jerusalem just before His triumphant entry. Their mother asked Jesus to seat her two sons on the right and left of His throne once His kingdom was established. Upon hearing this request, the other ten disciples became jealously upset at James and John because of their mother’s request. However, Jesus rebuked the ten and said:
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:25–28).
Note that Jesus was aware of the suffering and sociopolitical oppression of the people He came to serve. He reminded the disciples “that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them” (v. 25). Through the mission of Christ, God brought an answer to the oppression and poverty of the people and established a model of prosperity in the kingdom that wasn’t determined by military might, wealth, or popularity, but by humble servitude.
Also note that Jesus again does not rebuke James and John for requesting exalted positions of favor along with their Lord. Instead, He explains to James, John, and the other disciples the exact requirements for achieving greatness in His kingdom — the willingness to suffer for the cause of Christ and serve others. Scripture teaches us that both James and John drank the cup of Christ’s suffering. James was later beheaded by Herod (Acts 12:1–2) and John exiled to Patmos where he later wrote Revelations (Rev 1:9). Their willingness to lose their life for the Gospel and to serve the church are examples of greatness in Christ’s kingdom.
The accounts of the rich, young man and the sons of Zebedee illustrate an important fact: nothing is wrong with seeking the enduring prosperity that God offers through the gospel of Christ Jesus. However, these encounters also emphasized the importance of heavenly prosperity at the cost of a worldly, temporal kind. Jesus encouraged giving up personal wealth in this life to reap heavenly reward from the Father in the next (Matt 6:1–4, 19–24).
Make no mistake — Jesus wasn’t against seeking prosperity (“laying up for yourself treasures”); rather, He encouraged it (v. 20). He emphasized making investments in heavenly treasures that are only obtained by sacrificing earthly gain for sake of the gospel, committing both to the care of the poor and to the service of others who call Jesus Lord.
Material prosperity is an important part of the gospel message, but it is not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal of the gospel is to reconcile man to God through Christ Jesus. For those who make the kingdom and Christ the focus of their life on earth, prosperity awaits. For those who make material prosperity the focus of their life on earth, judgment awaits. They are certainly living their best life now.
God wants you to prosper. He will make you prosperous if you are willing to give up trying to achieve wealth your way. It isn’t something that you can do alone. Fortunately, God is willing to change your heart if you would be willing to forsake worldly prosperity for true prosperity that comes from having Jesus as your Master and Lord.