When I took my first full-time job out of college, we moved to Dallas, Texas, the prosperity teaching capital of the world. This health and wealth gospel was foreign to me and to the auto workers and farmers and bus drivers I had grown up around in Northern Indiana. I was interested in getting in on this deal; you know, with the more money and all.
Soon, two situations had me running for the exit. First, as I began to receive literature from these prosperity teachers, I noticed a curious pattern. Based on the testimonials, it seemed God’s financial blessing only worked for those on a variable income. For some reason miraculous increases in wealth came to realtors, salespeople, business owners, and, of course, the prosperity teachers themselves. No testimonials from hourly employees or those on a straight salary. And much to my chagrin, no geophysicists.
I also encountered a personal situation that flew in the face of prosperity teaching. A family friend, a young wife and mother of two children, died of stomach cancer. Shortly before her death, she said, “I’ve confessed every possible sin I can think of…I’ve prayed with all the faith I can muster…It’s not happening for me…I’m dying.” Something isn’t working when only those on commission and tele-evangelists are getting rich and believers are dying young.
At some level our theology has to agree with the realities of life. In fact, the observation that what God says in the Bible explains so much of the reality I experience is the apologetic that sealed my choice to become a Christ follower. If your theology says all people are under six feet tall…well, it’s just not true.
The key to unlocking the the true meaning of the apparent prosperity teaching of the Bible is to understand the difference between the Old and New Testaments, the old and new covenant, the old and new arrangement between us and God. The most casual reading of the Old Testament suggests that prosperity is a common picture of God’s blessing. From Abraham to Jacob to the Israelites to Job to the Proverbs, God’s blessing (and punishment) was generally vary tangible, immediate, and temporal. God’s blessing and curse were clear and right out front for all to see. This is the testimony of the Old Testament.
But something changed at the coming of Christ. God’s character; God’s incomparable greatness and His care for His people (see Isaiah chapters 40-66) did not change. But how He demonstrates His care changed dramatically. Remember the word testament means covenant or arrangement. Something changed in our arrangement with God. Just as our tendency is to add Jesus to the Old Testament in the area of the law (legalism), we also are inclined to add Jesus to the prosperity teaching of the Old Testament rather than recognize the new arrangement.
Francis Bacon summed it up well in 1512 when he wrote, “Prosperity is the blessing of the Old Testament; adversity is the blessing of the New.” Our facial expression becomes quizzical as we think about that thought. Could adversity really be the blessing of the New Testament? I believe it can and it is. In fact, a careful study uncovers Scripture from every book of the New Testament that supports this idea. In the interest of space we will only mention two.
In Matthew chapter 13, Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom of God with a farming story. Going straight to Jesus’ own interpretation (Mt 13:24-30,36-43), let me summarize the story. The farmer (God) planted the good seed (His people) in the field (the world). His enemy (Satan) secretly sowed some tares or weeds (sons of the evil one). That the two were planted together was unknown until they began to grow. God’s workers (the angels), upon seeing the weeds growing with the wheat said, “Should we go yank out the weeds (destroy your adversaries and the adversaries of your people)?” In other words, “Should we employ the Old Testament method of destroying evil on sight, in the here and now (and by implication allow your people to prosper)?”
God’s surprising new covenant reply was, “Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather up the weeds and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.’ ” (Mt 13:30). In the church age, our present situation, righteousness and evil are growing together and results in both adversaries and adversity for the new covenant believer.
There are many other New Testament passages which emphasize the adversity we face waiting for our eternal reward. The temporal and immediate reward system of the Old Testament has been replaced by something new. This new system was recognized by the apostle John even in his greeting to the churches in the book of Revelation. “I, John, your brother and fellow-partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos, because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Rev 1:9). A fellow-partaker in tribulation. A prisoner in exile because of his allegiance to Jesus. Not exactly the good life.
But the story of John and the story of the early church is a testimony to words that John heard with his own ears in the upper room. Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).