Do the Old Testament Promises of Prosperity Apply to God’s People Today?
In some circles, the abundant life Jesus promised His followers has been confused with material wealth. Prosperity theology says that God’s plan is always for us to be wealthy—and to spend our money primarily on ourselves. Jesus, who didn’t even have a place to lay His head and who owned nothing but a robe and sandals (Matthew 8:20), clearly didn’t live a money- and possessions-centered life. Surely that’s not what He wants for us either.
So how can we explain the apparent contradiction between the words and lifestyle of Jesus and the apostles, and the Old Testament prosperity passages? Can God’s people today lay claim to those Old Testament promises of prosperity? The answers to these questions lie in the fundamental differences between the Old and New Covenants. Suffice it to say that the New Testament reflects a fuller picture of the true, eternal wealth that is ours in Christ.
Material Wealth = God’s Blessing?
The portion of truth that makes prosperity theology credible is that some Old Testament passages link material prosperity with God’s blessing. For instance, God gave material wealth to Abraham (Genesis 13:1-7), Isaac (Genesis 26:12-14), Jacob (Genesis 30:43), Joseph (Genesis 39:2-6), Solomon (1 Kings 3:13), and Job (Job 42:10-17) because He approved of them. He promised the Israelites He would reward them materially for faithful financial giving (Deuteronomy 15:10; Proverbs 3:9-10; 11:25; Malachi 3:8-12).
In Deuteronomy 28:1-13, God tells the Israelites that He would reward their obedience by giving them children, crops, livestock, and victory over their enemies, but He also tacks on fifty-four more verses describing the curses that would come upon the nation if they didn’t obey Him—including diseases, heat and drought, military defeat, boils, tumors, madness, and blindness. The teaching is double-edged: prosperity for obedience, adversity for disobedience (Deuteronomy 28:14-68).
The Old Testament also warns against the dangers of wealth—especially the possibility that in our prosperity we may forget the Lord (Deuteronomy 8:7-18). Furthermore, the Bible recognizes frequent exceptions to the prosperity/adversity doctrine, noting that the wicked often prosper more than the righteous. The psalmist said, “I have seen a wicked and ruthless man flourishing like a green tree in its native soil” (Psalm 37:35), and “I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. . . . This is what the wicked are like—always carefree, they increase in wealth” (Psalm 73:3, 12). Solomon saw “a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness” (Ecclesiastes 7:15). Jeremiah, a righteous man who lived in constant adversity, framed the question this way: “You are always righteous, O Lord, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?” (Jeremiah 12:1).
Are material wealth, achievement, fame, victory, or success reliable indicators of God’s reward or approval? If so, then He is an evil God, for history is full of successful madmen and prosperous despots. Was God on the side of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and other prosperous butchers of history during their rise to power and at the apex of their regimes when they were surrounded by material wealth? Is God also on the side of wealthy cultists, dishonest business executives, and immoral entertainers? If wealth is a dependable sign of God’s approval and lack of wealth shows His disapproval, then Jesus and Paul were on God’s blacklist, and drug dealers and embezzlers are the apple of His eye.
An Eternal Inheritance, Not a Temporal One
In the Old Testament, material blessing was given for obedience (Deuteronomy 28:2), yet in the New Testament many of the saints were poor (Matthew 8:20; 2 Corinthians 11:27; James 2:5). (The same is still true today for the majority of believers not living in the Western world.) Enjoying worldly wealth is emphasized in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 28:11; Joshua 1:15; Proverbs 15:6), yet the New Testament talks of giving away possessions (Mark 10:17-21; 1 Timothy 6:17-18). By their obedience, the Israelites avoided persecution (Deuteronomy 28:7), but by their obedience Christians incur persecution (Matthew 5:11-12; 2 Timothy 3:12; 1 Peter 1:6).
Why this disparity? Because God was determined that New Testament saints would understand that their home is in another world. No book better demonstrates the relationship of Old and New Testaments, and the two worlds on which they center, than the book of Hebrews. The new covenant is said to be “founded on better promises” than the Old (Hebrews 8:6). The Old Testament is copy and type and shadow. Accordingly, the material blessings promised to Old Testament saints are to remind us of our future heavenly blessings—but never are they to replace them. The new covenant brings not the temporal inheritance promised Israel, but an eternal inheritance (Hebrews 9:15).
We no longer sacrifice animals, because the Lamb of God has come. We no longer worship in a temple, because we ourselves are temples of God’s Holy Spirit. We no longer go to a priest, because Christ is our high priest, and we ourselves are a believing priesthood. We no longer look to material riches, because of the spiritual riches that are ours in Christ.
God demonstrated to the nations surrounding Israel His superiority to their gods by prospering the people of Israel when they obeyed Him. Now He wishes to display Christ’s lordship and presence to the world around us through a better faith and morality, not a higher standard of living.
The Israelites were citizens of the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 8:7-9; 11:8-12). Their destination was on this earth. But New Testament saints haven’t yet arrived at their destination and won’t until our lives here are done. We’re told our citizenship is in Heaven (Philippians 3:20; 1 Peter 2:11). The Promised Land was a foretaste of the glory that awaits us. We are to stake our claim in the ultimate Promised Land: “You have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God” (Hebrews 12:22). The earthly Jerusalem isn’t our destination. It’s only a signpost pointing the way, just as earthly blessings aren’t our ultimate rewards, just foretastes of what’s coming.
Hebrews speaks of promised blessings, a great inheritance of lasting possessions (Hebrews 6:12; 10:34; 11:13-16). These promises must be patiently awaited, because they come not in this world but the next (Hebrews 10:35-39; 11:13, 16). Our destination is as much superior to the Promised Land of Palestine as Christ’s blood was superior to the blood of bulls and goats. The effect of prosperity theology is to promote “Heaven on earth.” But prior to Christ’s return there can be no Heaven on earth. When earth becomes our Heaven—when we see God’s blessings as being primarily immediate and temporal—we lose sight of who we are, why we are here, and what awaits us beyond the horizons of this world.
Our Far Greater Spiritual Riches
Our greatest resources are spiritual, not material. They come from another world, not this one. Even in the worst of circumstances, it’s possible to experience a full, deep life in this world that’s under the Curse, and that’s what sets the Christian life apart. This soul-level abundance means that poor believers who are living in oppressive circumstances can be far more joyful and satisfied than unbelievers who are living in luxury and popularity.
In the New Testament, the Greek word ploutos is used six times for material riches put to evil purposes (Matthew 13:22; Mark 4:19; Luke 8:14; 1 Timothy 6:17; James 5:2; Revelation 18:17). Yet the same word is used eleven times in the positive sense, each time referring to spiritual, not material, riches (Romans 11:33; Ephesians 1:18; Philippians 4:19; Colossians 1:27). Once we experience those riches in Christ, we find them so profoundly satisfying that we can never again elevate earthly and material riches to the place of importance they once held.
We’ll also use the resources that God does entrust to us as means of investing in eternity, and preparing for the life to come. “Your plenty will supply what they need. . . . You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion” (2 Corinthians 8:14; 9:11). Don’t assume that God prospers you beyond what you need just to raise your standard of living. It’s more likely, according to these verses, that He prospers you to raise your standard of giving. He provides in excess not for us to live excessively, but so we can become rich in good works.
As thoughtful Christ-followers, we should never assume that financial abundance is God’s provision for us to live in luxury. We should assume that God entrusts us with His money not to build our kingdom on Earth, but to build His Kingdom in Heaven. A good question to ask God is, “Lord, whose kingdom am I focused on building: yours or mine?”