Jan 22, 2019 by Jordan Wilson
A recent tweet from Desiring God stated that not one of the 112 references to being blessed in the New Testament “is connected to material prosperity:”
This tweet, its potential implications, and some of the baggage that goes along with it bring up a topic we need to address in a comprehensive manner: the connection between blessing and material prosperity. This is a topic that purveyors of both the prosperity gospel and of the poverty gospel frequently get wrong.
For the purposes of this article, we will examine the connection between blessing and material prosperity in the New Testament. Whether the good folks at Desiring God agree with what I’m about to write, let’s first draw out a few of the conclusions which some may infer from the tweet:
- Old Testament teaching on the connection between blessing and material prosperity is no longer valid.
- The Old Testament blessings were material whereas New Testament blessings are immaterial.
- In the New Testament, whatever connection was in place between blessing and material prosperity has changed. Now in the New Covenant, blessing is not connected to material prosperity, or the connection is severely minimized and relatively unimportant.
- We should not seek material prosperity in the New Covenant or consider it a blessing to be desired.
But is any of this really true? Does the New Testament contain no continuing validation of the connection between blessing and material prosperity? If so, does this rescind Old Testament teaching? If it doesn’t, what do we do with all that Old Testament teaching? Does New Testament teaching actually go so far as to abrogate the connection between blessing and material prosperity for all times? Or even further, should Christians see material prosperity as a curse to be avoided as it ties us to the things of this world and distracts us from our heavenly destination?
These are the questions we will explore.
In part 1 of this essay, we will discuss a few hermeneutical starting points, point out covenantal and eschatological presuppositions influencing the various perspectives and survey the connection between blessing and material prosperity in Eden. We will even include instances in the New Testament where the connection between blessing and material prosperity is reaffirmed.
In part 2, we will dive deeper into the New Testament and compare exhortations about wealth and the promises of God in the Old Testament. We will dig further into the unique historical redemptive setting in which many of the New Testament teachings on wealth were given and suggest a corrective for how many go about interpreting New Testament admonishments about wealth.
But first a little perspective and a word about something we sometimes miss. With all that is wrong in the world we at times fail to count our blessings, material and otherwise, that are all around us right now. We fail to factor in the direct connection between the advance of the gospel in the New Testament, the propagation of Christian values in society, and the blessing that flows to those societies as a result.
No doubt this specific tweet referenced above was typed by some poor soul clothed in fine fabrics sitting in a comfortable chair, gainfully employed within a well-lit, air conditioned office. Or was the tweet typed out on a mobile device in the back of an Uber car powered by fuel extracted from the bottom of the sea while satellites orbiting the earth provided navigation? Had the tweeter gone hungry this month, or had predictable weather patterns, agricultural technology, and advanced logistical practices ensured that affordable food was not in short supply? How were the 112 references counted and located? Apparently, the tweeter received an education and can read and write. Did the person tallying them scour the original ancient manuscripts made available to him by travel afar? Were they only available in Latin? Or did the person check their recently updated Logos version 8 software? Who can know?
Sometimes we fail to see the connection between blessing and material prosperity because we’ve accepted the post-modern secularist view of history that wants to advance the mythical conception of the Christian religion as an obstacle to human flourishing rather than a progenitor of it. Other times it’s because we’re just ignorant.
To this end, a book called The Book That Made Your World was penned by an Christian intellectual, philosopher, and activist from India by the name of Vishal Mangalwadi, who is also a biographer of William Carey. I believe this book should be required reading for all Christians (especially college students and pastors) as it sets the record straight on the positive aspects of the world in which we live today and how propagation of Christian values through the dissemination of biblical truth shaped it.
To recognize this biblical truth, and not miss it or neglect it as many do, we need to know how to understand what the Bible is telling us.
First things first: Hermeneutics
Hermeneutics is a fancy word theologians use to refer to how to interpret and understand the Bible. Here are three basic but crucial factors involved in it. Engaging in biblical interpretation without knowing the following three key factors is like driving while blindfolded. If you aren’t careful you’re going to drive into a hermeneutical ditch and lead others there with you.
Factor 1: Cognizance of the overarching comprehensive biblical trajectory. The story of the Bible isn’t just fall and redemption. The pattern is creation, fall, redemption, and new creation. Redemption and new creation bleed together at points.
Factor 2: We must take into account the historical reality of Israel as a covenanted nation and the specific time period of redemptive history in which the text is written.
Factor 3: We must remember the immediate audience being addressed in any given passage and take into account how they would have been meant to understand what is being written in order to order to properly calibrate the application for today.
Some basic starting points
All throughout the Bible, both Old and New Testament greed, covetousness, irresponsible stewardship, and ignoring of the poor and orphaned are all prohibited. We are not to be materialistic nor are we to worship God’s gifts rather than the giver. This is true whether we are talking Old Testament or New Testament.
We must not make the mistake of crudely applying covenant promises given to whole nations and apply them individually to each and every person. This is the point where many modern prosperity preachers fall.
We must categorically deny the idolatrous heresy of the prosperity gospel which teaches that the reason the sinner should come to Christ is so that they can be rich and make much of themselves. This doctrine of demons robs the church of credibility and puts forth money as an idol and a false god. Its end is ruin.
Finally, we must acknowledge that the ultimate blessing upon mankind, the blessing that makes all other blessing possible, comes in the form of the person and work of Jesus Christ who is the culmination of all the blessings promised to Abraham and those in Abraham by faith.
That said, what we to make of what the Bible has to say about wealth and material blessing? Though it is at times underappreciated, the Bible certainly still has a lot to say about it, whether we are talking about the law and the prophets, the Psalms and Proverbs (tons!), the parables of Christ, the Epistles, and even the book of Revelation.
Beginning in Eden
To address the full biblical picture of wealth and understand how we should think about wealth here and now in this specific point in redemptive history, we must not start in the New Testament of first century Jerusalem, nor in Israel under Moses. We need to start in Eden.
This leads us to the first point we need to consider:
God’s initial design in creation did include a connection between blessing and material prosperity for all humanity. This connection was not a defect. It was not introduced as a result of the fall, but predated the fall. Therefore, there is nothing in this dynamic that needed to be rectified by Christ or his new covenant.
Right from the beginning in Genesis 1–2, God lays out his purpose for Adam and Eve. The mandate was that they would go forth and multiply and fill the whole earth and subdue it. They were to flourish and prosper throughout many generations as all humanity was to pursue material prosperity, abundance, and dominion. This was all to be done joyfully without greed, malice, or envy as unto the Lord in order to glorify him. Adam and Eve were God’s people under his rule and with a task before them. There was no tension between the pursuit of material abundance and prosperity and giving glory to God. This pursuit resulted in blessing for man and was honouring to God.
In the land of Eden, God placed gold, bdellium, and precious stones for their enjoyment (Gen. 2:12). He gave them gardens to work and cultivate, fruits to harvest, and animals to name and tame. There were lands outside the garden which were to be worked and subdued as the garden would be extended. Then sadly in Genesis 3 we read that with Adam’s sin, the entrance of the curse and death was foisted upon the world. This Godly pursuit of dominion, flourishing, and material prosperity would become greatly hindered.
Man’s original task and purpose became an exercise in toil, suffering, and frustration. As we then see Cain, Lamech, and the rest of the antediluvian crowd enter the picture (Gen. 4). Rather than working in harmony, mankind became greedy and began to war over resources while attempting to build their own kingdoms autonomously from God’s rule. Man even began to use violence to enslave and impoverish his fellow man in order to use him like cattle as a tool for his own selfish enrichment.
The pursuit of material abundance and prosperity that was supposed to be performed in faith, love, and hope as unto the Lord was now being pursued by violence, oppression, hoarding, and greed. Taking care of one’s neighbor and the aim of ensuring the flourishing of all humanity was tossed to the wayside and was exchanged for a battle of the survival of the fittest. The pursuit of wealth, abundance, and care over the earth was no longer treated as a stewardship entrusted to those responsible to God, but as a means of fomenting rebellion against God.
Moral failure put the prospect of dominion and flourishing on the earth in jeopardy. If this sinful nature within mankind was not eradicated the race of Adam was doomed to failing in its task of dominion and was heading for total destruction. Mankind would have to face physical death with the prospect of an eternity of the enduring wrath of God upon them.
Thankfully, God the Father, in his mercy graciously covenanted with man and promised a Savior who would not only atone for man’s sin in rejecting God but who would set up a Kingdom and establish a new covenant where the Holy Spirit would be outpoured upon his people. This was to be done in order to sanctify and redeem his people and restore them so as one day to disciple all the nations back to obedience to Christ and restore the project for which man was originally created.
In Christ, we are made alive for a singular purpose: to do good works unto God. This is the reason we are being redeemed and restored. All of this is dependent upon the continual relationship God has established between blessing and prosperity, including material prosperity.
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Eph. 2:10).
Material Blessing for nations and by creational ordinance
It is here that we must make a crucial distinction. God sends blessing in the form of material prosperity in different ways. There are blessings sent for his people directly by his covenant with creation and indirectly for all humanity, as well as for specific nations who follow and obey his moral law.
In his covenant with creation in Genesis 1 and 2, and reaffirmed in Genesis 9, God has set up some dynamics that simply do not change and are predictable and constant. The covenant was made for his people to live under his rule but also means some benefit for all of humanity: The sun comes up the sun goes down. The seasons change predictably. The water cycle, astronomical movement, gravity, inertia, photosynthesis, chemical reaction, boiling point of water, supply and demand, DNA patterns, you reap what you sow, etc.—these principles remain fixed for all peoples everywhere. This covenant with creation is a blessing and produces material prosperity indirectly for all of mankind.
The fall of man and the curse upon physical creation that accompanied it made it more difficult to reap bountiful abundance from creation, but it did not eradicate this dynamic altogether. This is why we continue to see verses like:
“Those who work their land will have abundant food, but those who chase fantasies have no sense” (Prov. 12:11).
“A sluggard’s appetite is never filled, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied” (Prov. 13:4).
“In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty” (Prov. 14:23).
Those who think that the material wealth and prosperity can come about without diligent effort and a disciplined work ethic will not be blessed. Those who recognize the world they live in and act accordingly reap the benefits.
Such maxims ring true at all times and in all societies as a continuation of the covenant of creation. It is important to note that this covenant with creation was made for God’s people. His enemies still benefit from these common grace gifts (temporarily) but as a secondary “crumbs under the table” bonus that the enemies of God enjoy for now. This is not an indicator that God’s long-term covenantal favour resides on the enemies of God. The primary purpose is to bless God’s people and allow them to flourish. What sinners labour for will eventually flow to the righteous.
“A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, but the sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous” (Prov. 13:22).
Once we see Israel established as a covenanted nation, we start to see how God deals specifically with nations (and not just Israel). God evaluates their conduct as a nation by his statutes and punishes or blesses them accordingly (both materially and immaterially).
Material blessings/curses upon various nations
Following Israel’s exodus from Egypt, we see various times God announces to them the prospect of blessings and curses contingent upon their national fidelity to God’s statutes which he announces to them through Moses. These blessings and curses included safety from invasion, economic prosperity, and global respect.
We see also, however, that God already has these same expectations for the other nations of the earth besides Israel, and is already cursing them for failure to observe these statutes!
“You shall therefore keep all my statutes and all my rules and do them, that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation that I am driving out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I detested them” (Lev. 20:22–23).
The point here is that God blesses nations who are faithful to uphold his statues and curses those who are not. The iniquity of the nations are said to figuratively seep into the land and when the land has had its fill of sin, those nations are then spewed out. Sometimes, the sowing of iniquity takes several hundred years for it to reach full measure according to God’s providence. Sometimes, God raises up nations to prosperity temporarily so He can use them to judge and destroy other nations (including Israel). He then holds the nation he used to judge another nation responsible for their own evil and destroys them as well. Sometimes this is done with a third nation, sometimes by famine or natural disaster, sometimes through economic disaster or combination of all.
One failure of prosperity preachers, therefore, is that they sometimes take biblical promises or curses which were given to nations as nations and apply them individually. They run into all kinds of problems when such promises don’t come true for the individual.
On the other hand, this failure of interpretation also should not allow us to get the idea that God no longer deals with nations for their collective sin either. This is precisely why in the New Testament we see no promise of wealth given individually to those who are living in a nation currently under the judgement of God. During the writing of the New Testament, Israel was about to incur the vengeance of Christ upon a nation like no other time in history. We will explore this situation further in Part 2 of this series.
It should be no surprise to us that the encouragement to the faithful remnant in Israel who would not escape the persecution to come was that they would reap their reward in heaven, and that they would one day inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5). These kinds of encouragements in the New Testament should prevent us from throwing our doctrine of God’s historical sanctions over nations into the dumpster.
The promise of material blessing continues in the Consummation
The continuing existence of sin in the New Covenant age may present an obstacle towards the attainment of blessing and material prosperity, but this is not the whole of the story. To the extent that the nations are being redeemed in Christ back to the purpose for which mankind was originally created, we should expect to continue to see this connection exist. We have the promised material blessing of a physical new creation and a physical resurrection as a continuing promise in the New Covenant.
After Genesis 3, mankind not only needed inward, immaterial sanctification in order to resume his project of dominion successfully, they also needed a new material body because the fleshly body is destined to rot and return to dust. Dust doesn’t take dominion.
“Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28–29).
As you can see, here is a New Testament passage that ties the blessing of God to a form of material prosperity—that is, the resurrection. In fact, all such New Testament references to the resurrection of the righteous in Christ are such examples.
Secondly, in the Gospels we are also promised that the meek shall inherit the material earth. This is not a figure of speech. This is making reference to the physical earth.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5).
Thirdly, Romans 4 reconfirms that the expanded promise to Abraham included the promised to inherit the whole material world:
“For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith” (Rom. 4:13).
In Romans 8, Paul then fuses the remaking of the physical creation and the resurrection of our bodies as our spiritual inheritance as the hope of blessing we are to set our eyes on:
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved” (Rom. 8:18–24).
Because of what Christ accomplished, everything is set in motion already back to a redeemed Eden here on the earth. We do not yet see this reality consummated, but we hold to these promises for our future as our hope. Again, these blessings are not immaterial.
Material blessing continues to be realized in history to the extent that individuals faithful to God’s statues can also live within nations collectively faithful to God’s statutes.
Material blessing is a continuing reality in the present age
The consummation is not the only place where the connection between blessing and material prosperity is reaffirmed in the New Testament. In Romans 15, we read about Paul’s plans to journey to Jerusalem in order to deliver “blessing” in the form of financial aid to the saints there which he refers to as a blessing of Christ. He commends the saints in Macedonia for sending money to the saints in Jerusalem and reaffirms the relationship between service to God and material blessing. Paul literally states:
For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings. When therefore I have completed this and have delivered to them what has been collected, I will leave for Spain by way of you. I know that when I come to you I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ (Rom. 15:27–29).
I wonder how many pastors today would deny the connection between blessing and material prosperity when it comes to offerings and meeting needs. Better yet, what about for their own salaries?
Now obviously we don’t conflate the reality of financial blessing as a one-for-one promise that if you come to Christ, money will just come to you and you’ll be rich. But Paul does indeed confirm for us that even in the New Covenant, blessing is still connected to material prosperity. There is an “ought” that Paul recognized which was still in place. Why is this? Because there is nothing about the New Covenant that erases the relationship between blessing and material prosperity.
In 3 John, the Apostle writes that he prays God would bestow good physical health in like manner to the provision of a prospering soul.
Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers (3 John 3:12).
There are also many places in the New Testament that affirm the continuity of material blessing as illustrations about the work of Christ, here’s an example from the book of Hebrews where the production of crops are reaffirmed as a direct blessing from God:
“For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God (Heb. 6:7).
This continuing relationship of labour for God and the receiving of blessing also undergirds many of the parables of Christ which we won’t explore here. In the New Testament, this relationship is assumed to continue and is nowhere overturned.
We also see the New Testament continually reaffirm the messianic promises of material blessings that Christ would bring, which at least partially have relevance in the present age. In this case our Lord quotes directly from Isaiah 61. This is a messianic prophecy that includes material blessings Christ would bring, some immediately at his first appearing and some as a function of his kingdom as it manifests itself in history.
And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord. And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him (Luke 4:17–21).
Obviously, our Lord delivered on the physical blessing of providing sight to the blind during his earthly ministry, but if you look through the entire chapter of Isaiah 61, you’ll also find other material aspects of his messianic kingdom to include the procurement of the wealth of the nations.
If you were to peruse the broader context of many other Old Testament messianic passages quoted in the New Testament you would also see broad promises of Messianic blessing to include such material things as the end of war, the implementation of earthly justice for the poor and needy, longer life spans, the dissolution of harmful taxation, even things like just weights and measures and much more.
If you are premillennialist who doesn’t see the inauguration and progressive building up of any of these realities as being made manifest on the earth in any way until after Christ’s return, you may dismiss some or all of the manifestation of these Messianic blessings in the present age. But it should be made clear that in this respect your eschatology is informing your theology of blessing (which is natural) and we need to be aware of those pre-commitments.
Conclusion to Part 1
Despite all of this, we still do see a different emphasis about money and blessing in the New Testament. At this point, however, we must ask: Given that the Old Testament was written over 4,000 years in all kinds of settings, including long-term prosperity over many generations, periods of sudden disaster and periods of slow decline, does the fact that the New Testament was written over a particular 40-year time span in history factor into play?
In part 2, we will examine an aspect that is so crucial to our understanding of this topic that without it we will never grasp what the Bible actually teaches. That is the unique historical setting of the New Testament and the effect this has on how we are to apply passages about wealth and material prosperity.
Jordan Wilson is a nobody, pursuing the Great Commission with his wife and children, with a long-term postmillennial outlook. He is a contributor at DatPostmil, New City Times, and The American Vision. You can find his personal blog at www.thefloatingaxehead.com