A popular teaching has been heard in the church over the last few decades which encourages Christians to believe they should be rich and prosperous. Called the Prosperity Gospel, the Health and Wealth Gospel, the Name it and Claim it theology, or the Word of Faith movement, it raises a number of questions. Does the Bible promise that all who have faith in Christ will be rich? Were Jesus and the early disciples wealthy? Does a lack of riches indicate a lack of faith?
There is no question that God wants to bless his children. The question arises, however, as to what form this blessing is to take. Is it just material wealth, or something else? Certainly God can bless anyone materially if he wants. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills. Indeed, he owns everything. And many times in the Old Testament promises of material blessing are given by God. Deut. 28 – 30 is a case in point.
However, a few words about these promises are in order. First, they were made to Israel. If Israel obeyed the Lord, promises of blessing – eg., possession of the land, productivity – would be realised. But if they disobeyed, the land would be unproductive, and even taken away from them. In fact, blessings would be replaced with cursings. Those who want to claim these blessings seldom seem as ready to also claim the curses! Indeed, there are far more curses promised than there are blessings.
Second, if the New Testament seems to appropriate these blessings for the church, it is usually in a spiritual sense. For example, we are said to be the real children of Abraham (Gal. 3:29; Ro. 4:16, eg.). Obviously we, as Gentiles, are not the literal, physical children of Abraham. Thus Paul will speak of how we are blessed with all “spiritual blessings in the heavenlies” (Eph. 1:3).
But certainly God wants to bless us materially as well, it is argued. I am sure that this is sometimes true. But when he promises to supply all our needs, he means needs, not wants. And given the many warnings in Scripture about wealth and riches and the snares they bring, I am sure that God has to be careful who he blesses in this way. Certainly if you have the gift of giving (Rom. 12:8) then God will bless you financially, since you cannot give away what you do not have. But many people are probably spared the temptation of riches simply because wealth may lead them away from the Lord, not to the Lord.
This is not to argue that God wants us all to be poor. As Proverbs 30:8 says, “give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread”. And Paul says that in whatever state we find ourselves in, be content (I Cor. 7:24). He also says Godliness with contentment is great gain. (I Tim. 6:6). Balance in other words, is the key.
Yet we are told to “live like King’s kids – nothing but the best”. But my king, as described in Is. 53, was a suffering servant, a man familiar with grief and sorrow, a man with nowhere to lay his head. That is my king, and he left me an example of how to live. To serve others is the key, not to seek to be rich.
But Jesus and the disciples were wealthy, the prosperity gospellers tell us. The proof? Usually two very poor reasons are given. One, they had a common purse, and two, Peter had a fleet of fishing boats.
A common purse was there simply because the early disciples shared all things in common. What little money they had was pooled together and Judas kept it on their behalf. Given that Jesus usually told the rich to give their money away, and that tax-collectors like Zacheius repayed what he ripped off four-fold, there would not have been a lot of money left for those who followed Christ. Luke tells us that certain wealthy women contributed to the needs of Jesus and the disciples (Luke 8:3). If they were so rich, why did they need welfare handouts from these women? Indeed, Jesus had to get some tax money out of a fish at one point.
Luke 5:2 says Peter did have one fishing boat. However, most fishermen, and farmers – indeed, some 70 per cent of the population – were living in poverty, usually working as hired servants for someone else. Fishermen were not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. In the first century, the really wealthy were the top 1-2 per cent (the Emperor and his cohorts). The next 5-7 per cent were the well off bureaucracy who served the emperor. Then there was a small middle class of about 15 per cent – these were folks like the Scribes and Pharisees. The rest of the population lived in real poverty. So a simple knowledge of the cultural and economic conditions of the day would dispel the myth of wealthy disciples.
An interesting indication of the disciples’ lack of wealth is found in Acts 3:6 where a crippled beggar asks them for money. Peter replies, “Silver and gold I do not have, but in the name of Jesus, get up and walk”.
Indeed, in many of Paul’s letters he talks about raising funds to help poor believers elsewhere. As an example, look at 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. Poverty was a way of life in those days, and the early believers had to keep helping one another out.
In fact, throughout church history we find that most of Christendom has been poor and needy, just as today the majority of believers around the world are far from wealthy. Yet according to the prosperity Gospel, God wants us rich, and if we are not, we lack faith. Does that mean most Christians in the world today and most Christians throughout history have been lacking in faith? If so, then Jesus and the disciples too lacked faith, for they were not wealthy. Paul said “To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless” (1 Cor. 4:11). Hardly “King’s kids” theology there. In fact, even in the Old Testament, we hear complaints about the wicked prospering while the godly go in want. Spirituality, in other words, is not measured by one’s material possessions. Often the people richest in the Kingdom of God are the poorest here on earth. As Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20).
In the light of the fact that most Christians today are struggling to find their next meal, and would love to have running water and electricity, to tell them they should expect a Mercedes in the driveway is sheer folly. It is more than interesting that the prosperity gospel originated in America, perhaps the most greedy, materialistic and decadent country on earth. The prosperity gospel did not originate in the slums of Calcutta, or in the garbage heaps of Sao Paolo.
But, argue the prosperity gospellers, God needs to bless us financially so that we can carry on his work. Since when does God need money before he can act? If that were true, 90 percent of missionary work throughout history, 90 percent of Christian work in the Third World, indeed 90 per cent of the work done by the early church would not have been possible. God’s hands are not tied because of the church’s lack of money. His hands are tied by our lack our obedience, our lack of holiness and our lack of unity.
Christians of all people should be wary of such greedy gospels. Jesus warned against laying up treasures on earth. James spoke very strongly about the wealthy and their coming judgement. Paul spoke directly against those teachers who said that “godliness is a means to financial gain” (I Tim. 6:5). Again, this is not to say that poverty is a virtue. Hard work will pay off, and it is what we do with our wealth that is important. I know very wealthy men who give away 90 per cent of their income to missions and the poor. These are the kind of people God wants to prosper. Not those who feel they must impress others with the trappings of wealth to prove they are King’s kids. John Wesley had it right when he said, “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can”.
Our desire should be to serve the King, not live like some supposed rich King’s kid. If that service entails God’s material blessing, fine. If not, he is still King of Kings and Lord of Lords.