Prosperity Gospel


In a day when the so-called “prosperity gospel” seems to be growing in popularity, there are many passages in the Bible that are becoming unpopular.  On the one hand we may be aware of Jesus’ invitation to everyone to “follow me.”  On the other hand, we are not preaching enough about what this may cost us or what it all entails.  You see, scripture does not hold back on conveying the reality of following Christ.  It communicates to those who may consider discipleship that it is not all a bed of roses. 

Now don’t get me wrong, there is much to be attracted to and life in many ways will be better.  Yet it may not be the kind of improvement the world may expect.  Jesus does say that he came to give us life and life “more abundant” (John 10:10).  The Greek word for abundant is perrison in this passage and communicates a superlative.  That is, he came to give us a life that will be best, a life that will be full, a life that will be awesome.  Unfortunately, many have turned this term into a mainly financial word.  However, it is best thought of as an equivalent of zoen aionion, “eternal life.”  Eternal life is one of John’s main themes (John 3:15, 16; 5:39; 6:54, 68; 10:28; 12:25; 17:2,3; 1 John 1:2; 2:25; 3:15; 5:11,13, 20).

Yet the reality is that with this great blessing of salvation and eternal life there is sacrifice.  There is a price to pay; there is a cost for following Jesus.  It is a sacrifice that is different for all of us.  For the rich young ruler it was his wealth and for others it is all that they possess (Luke 18:18-30; 14:33).  For many disciples it was leaving behind house and family (Luke 18:28-29).  For others it is not being able to do those things that seem like the right thing to do; duties that we regard as sacred and things that we must do.  For one man it was burying his father (Matt. 8:18-22).  In that culture to not bury a body was a dishonor to the body and the children who did not bury it (Deut. 28:25-26).  Everyone was supposed to bury their parents because of the command to honor one’s parents (Exod. 20:12).

Then there are those that are called to possibly make the ultimate sacrifice—their lives.  Every time this is brought up in conversation it never goes over very well.  I believe this is partially due to the prosperity gospel we have been infected with in America.  It is a belief that all will go well for you as a disciple if you just do the right things.  However, scripture does not speak to this as being a promise.  On the contrary, we are guaranteed that things may get pretty rough because we are Christians and the world hates our message because they hate God; which brings me to John 21:15-19.

Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him.  Each time Peter becomes a little more frustrated and says, “Yes I love you.”  Each time Peter responds Jesus says, “boskeh ta arnia mou,” that is, “feed my lambs/sheep.”  Here Jesus equates loving him with feeding his lambs.  It is clear from scripture that his “lambs” are his disciples.  If Peter truly loves Jesus then he will feed Jesus’ disciples. 

However, through some imagery Jesus speaks to the fact that Peter would be martyred: “But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”  This enigmatic statement is clarified for the reader by the parenthetical statement that Jesus was speaking about the death Peter would suffer to glorify God.  As if the shock value is not strong enough here, Jesus then adds, “Follow me.”  Peter did follow Jesus. In fact, early church tradition says that Peter was crucified in Rome on an upside down cross with his hands outstretched on the cross.   

This is not a passage that you will hear in a prosperity gospel church.  If you do, it will greatly be watered down and twisted.  Yet it is obvious that Jesus is inviting Peter to feed his disciples and that such a commitment will end in a violent death.  So the question must be asked.  Am I willing to follow Christ?  Am I willing to follow and be obedient to a calling that may end in a violent death?   What if that death somehow glorifies God?  Will you?  Will I, take up my cross and follow Christ?

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We are all familiar with the story in the gospels of the “Rich Young Ruler” who comes to Jesus and asks him what he must do to “inherit eternal life.”  I suspect most Christians could summarize the entire story found in Matthew 19:16-30 and Mark 10:17-31.  However once the young ruler walks away disappointed and sad at Jesus telling him to sell all of his stuff and give it to the poor, we tend to forget what comes after.  With a few more exchange of words we heard Jesus conclude by saying, “I tell you the truth, no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”  (Mark 10:29-31; NIV; italics mine for emphasis). 

One will note at first that Mark and Matthew differ in their time fulfillment emphasis of when this 100X reimbursement will take place.  Matthew leaves it open-ended and does not quite mention when he thinks it will be fulfilled.  His addition of the words “and eternal life” almost seem to place it in the future when the Lord returns and the consummation of all things has occurred.  Yet he could very well see it the way Mark sees it, that the fulfillment or at least the beginning of it is received “in this present age.”  If so what does this mean for the follower of Christ NOW?  Some have interpreted this as a hundred fold return in a Prosperity Gospel manner of understanding things.  I have heard several Prosperity Gospel sermons about this passage supporting the belief that God wants us to have many homes and properties–NOW!  Yet this seems a bit too shallow of an interpretation for me.

A couple of thoughts come to my mind at this point.  First, I consider Mark’s audience.  They are part of the early church.  They are a mostly a gentile congregation in Asia-minor.  There is no doubt that they are under persecution from the circumcised Jews as well as pockets of the Roman Empire, as evidence in Jesus’ parenthetical addition to his list of 100-fold returns, “and persecutions”.  Many of them have lost everything for the gospel and choosing to follow Christ.  Many have lost their jobs for not being willing to join or remain in working guilds that require one to bow to Caesar to be part of the guild.  Others have been rejected by family members for joining this new sect of Judaism or leaving their true Jewish tradition as circumcised Jews believed

Secondly, the flavor of this passage does not seem to me to taste what the Prosperity Gospel interpreters taste here.  I think Jesus’ message of a sort of reimbursement is deeper and flows more with the overall message of the New Testament.  I think what Jesus envisions here is what Paul speaks of in Ephesians.  In 1:5 he speaks of us being adopted as God’s children, therefore having a new family.  In 3:15 he speaks of our “whole family in heaven.”  This is what Jesus means by a 100-fold return of brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers etc.  As mentioned in a previous article, we are leaving one family for another.  Does this mean we do away with the biological family? By no means, it means we are adopted into a new one with the hope of bringing the biological ones along.  But if the biological family rejects Christ, they are not to come between you and the Lord.  You see this of Jesus’ life as well in Mark 6:1-6 and 3:31-35.

Yet there is a third reason that jumps out at me like a hungry hyena.  In Acts 2:42-47 we find the very beginnings of the fulfillment of what Jesus was speaking of in the gospels above.  We see the new family of believers doing exactly that, living this new Christian life as a community of believers.  Luke reveals to us that these early Christians:

 42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

This, I believe, is what Jesus was talking about—a community.  He was speaking of the Church community and this is what the gospels were emphasizing.  But Mark wanted to make sure that unlike Matthew, we were told that it is for “this present age.”  What you see in Acts is that these believers were not a self serving people and they were definitely not storing up treasures on earth.  They were selling their possessions and goods so that they could help and provide for ANYONE in need.  Do you see this in the Church today?  Is this what the guys on TV are preaching?  I think not. 

Jesus foresaw, if you will, a community of believers who left their homes, fields and families only to inherit a new community of homes, fields and families.  It may be illustrated in this way.  Imagine a man who left all those things behind to follow Christ.  As he wanders through the street a Christian land owner sees that this fellow looks a bit glum and anxious.  As he asks this wanderer who he is and what he’s doing, the wanderer tells this Christian that he is a fellow believer who has just left so much behind including his home.  The Christian tells his brother-wanderer, “Do not fear, mi casa sui casa.  What is mine is yours. “ 

This is how the new community was meant to live.  We are to have all things in common so that everything I have is not mine but the community of believers’.  We are to lend but never have to borrow.  Why?  Because if I see all these things as ours, I am not really borrowing am I?  We are sharing.  If the Church was living in such a manner, what difference do you think it would make?  I think we would be a lot better off and fewer Christians would be struggling in as many areas as they are.

  Why are so many Christians lonely?  They should have 100-fold of a family.

Why are so many Christians financially struggling?  They should be helped by their new family 100-fold.

Why are many Christians homeless in so many ways?  They should have 100-fold homes. 

I am not talking about get rich quick schemes or people working the system.  I am talking about a selfless community where we all work for the common good of the Church and each other.  What does it look like when we don’t live out the vision of Christ?  It looks like a minister living in a $3 million dollar home driving a Rolls Royce while his brother-wanderer lives in a shack, barely a meal a day, walking to his three minimum wage jobs, while trying to feed his family.  It looks like a local church taking up constant offerings to build a new $12 million church instead of taking up offerings so that the money can be distributed in such a way to help those in need. 

Most recently my wife and I have been thinking very seriously about the so called, “Prosperity Gospel.”  I don’t know exactly who coined this phrase or named the movement.  What I do know is that it has permeated some of the evangelical church and has several ministers who promote the belief.  Men and women such as Ken and Gloria Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Bill Winston, Jesse Duplantis and the list goes on.  My goal is to give this belief a honest, thoughtful, prayerful consideration before I commit my life and family to it. 

I do believe that God wants to bless us and meet our needs, scripture is clear on this.  However, I do have difficulty seeing exactly where the excess of material gain is promoted.  It is notable that many men of God were men of significant substance in the Old Testament.  To name a few we find Abraham and his sons, Joseph, David, Solomon and Job.  Yet one must also note that these men were also leaders of sizable groups and the wealth was shared as a community.  In addition, there is scripture that is hesitant if not unpleased with great wealth and accumulation thereof.  Deuteronomy 17:14-20 warns against the kings of Israel accumulating too much wealth and specifically says, don’t do it.  Deut. 31:14-29 also predicts the departure of the Hebrew people from Yahweh as they enter the promise land and get fat on prosperity.  In the words of Walter Brueggemann, “Affluence can tend to produce amnesia.”  That is to say, wealth can cause us to forget our identity and our God. 

Yet especially when we transition to the New Testament I am not sure I see the Prosperity Gospel as being as bold and as observable a message as some would paint.  I wonder if in many cases it is forced into the text, that a presupposition colors the truer interpretation of the message.  Often times, PGP’s (Prosperity Gospel Preachers) point to a passage like Matthew 25:14-30 as support for their view.  This passage is often referred to as, The Parable of the Talents.  If you are unfamiliar with this passage, it is the one where a master goes away leaving three servants with different quantities of talents.  The first servant is left with five, the second is left with two, and the third is left with one talent.  The first servant doubles his talents with action, the second doubles his, and the third buries his out of fear of his master.  The first two are approved by their master while the last one is scorned for his laziness and unproductiveness.  Because this parable uses the imagery of money PGP’s make this parable a money issue.  It’s used as prooftext for why we need to multiply our monies.  I believe this sort of interpretation trivializes the richness and depth of this parable.  I think the imagery of monies is no more literal than the imagery of people being sheeps and goats. 

Another challenge I have is how much this endeavour actually looks like 21st century, western-capitalism.  It is a drive for materialism.  Often PGP’s begin sermons with a disclaimer saying, “this is not materialism, but…”  Yet the content does not sound far off.  One baptist preacher in Atlanta says, “If you can’t tell the difference between a rapper and a Prosperity Gospel Minister, there’s a problem.” Now this may be a bit exaggerated but there may be a valid point here.  Rappers rap about money, how they get it and are going to get more and preachers preach it.  Is this what the gospel intended?

I am also struggling with putting Jesus in the shoes of some of these PGP’s.  For instance, I can’t see Jesus cruising around in a Rolls Royce, wearing Italian made designer suits, shuffling through money on a platform at church with his feet, or selling his books and cd’s at prices comparable to Best Buy or Walmart.  For him the gospel was FREE!

Also, what about humility and coming to Christ as little children?  Do little children care about enormous amounts of wealth?  When you bring up humility PGP’s say you are asking about a false humility, but I beg to differ.  What I am talking about is Jesus telling his disciples in Matthew 23:11 that the greatest among them would be their servant.  These men don’t seem to be ‘servants’ but often times ‘the served.’

In summary what I am finding difficulty with is:

1) I am not sure it lines up with scripture

2) It looks too much like our secular culture

3) Not sure I can see or hear Jesus preaching and acting like a PGP.

4) Doesn’t look like humble servitude.

     These observations are by no means exhaustive but introductory.  I would like to know what your thoughts are and how you might point me in the right direction if you find my perspective wanting.  Thank You!