Alan Marshall – July 2002
During the ten years I have spent in pentecostal churches, I have learnt to value their strengths while accepting their weaknesses. I have valued the confidence such churches usually have in God and his Word, and the ministry to the ‘heart’ as well as the ‘head’. However, there is a teaching now sweeping through many of these churches that is ignorant and which appeals to the heart’s baser motives.
I am writing about what is commonly known as prosperity teaching. The main thrust of this teaching is that if we are generous towards God with our money, he promises to bless us financially in return. It teaches that God wants to bless us materially because he loves us. It teaches that if we are not so blessed, then either we are not aware of his promises, or we have not given him the tenth or more of what we already have.
In Sydney, where I live, the senior pastor of the largest individual church has written a book titled “You Need More Money”, and he is serious. I personally know other pastors who have been distracted from their ministry by multi-level marketing schemes with the promise of money without labour. Another friend was motivated by prosperity teaching to buy a bigger house, and was bankrupted in the process. And I hear of others who cannot accept this gospel of greed, being asked to leave their churches.
This distorted gospel could only flourish without challenge among christians who are largely ignorant of the scriptures, so let us return to the scriptures and examine what they say:
These teachers are fond of quoting Malachi 3:8:
Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.
At first reading, there does seem to be support in this text for their position. However, we need to ask two questions. Firstly, what kind of blessing God is promising here? I believe the blessing is actually God himself. In the Old Testament, resurrection and eternal life are barely mentioned. These spiritual blessings of the new covenant, are in the old covenant prefigured by the land and its riches. Under the new covenant, Jesus could make statements such as “the first will be last, and the last will be first”, but such statements would not be comprehended in the worldview of the old covenant. Many christians will experience some material blessing in this life, but it is the eternal blessings of a relationship with God which we should be seeking.
The second question we need to ask is whether giving the tenth part is a model for us. This is beyond the scope of this essay, but I think it is quite clear that christians are encouraged to a generosity of heart that makes any legal formula quite redundant.
The early church gave away or shared everything, not expecting to receive it back:
All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. (Acts 2:44-45)
Prosperity teachers are also particularly fond of Job:
“After Job had prayed for his friends, the LORD made him prosperous again and gave him twice as much as he had before...
The LORD blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the first. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand donkeys. And he also had seven sons and three daughters.”
Job was certainly blessed in later life, but we are no more to expect this kind of blessing than we should expect Job’s kind of suffering. There was, and is, no clear connection in this life between material blessing and the favour of God. So much so that the prophet Jeremiah could ask God:
“Why does the way of the wicked prosper?” (Jeremiah 12:1)
It is a reflection on the biblical illiteracy of the many christians today, that they can ignore everything Jesus and the apostles taught us about the dangers of wealth, and get carried away in hype over an obscure text. This troubled me, so I earnestly sought the Lord on the significance of this passage:
Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, “I gave birth to him in pain.” Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” And God granted his request.
(1 Chronicles 4:9-10)
It was not long before I received the following insight. Names were very important to the Hebrews. For example, Joshua, and Jesus (its Latin translation), means “God saves”. How would you feel if your mother called you Jabez, meaning “pain”, because of the pain you caused her during your birth! Jabez felt that he was under a curse. He felt blamed for the pain he caused his mother, yet it was not his fault.
Depending on your translation, he asked God that he not experience pain, or that he would not cause pain. He looked beyond the circumstances of his birth to the goodness of God, and his prayer was answered. The passage thus begins with what today we would describe as a “generational curse”, and ends with deliverance from that curse. That is its specific lesson. Its more general lesson is, of course, that we have a good God who answers our prayers. It is not a model for individual wealth and prosperity. If God enlarged the territory of Jabez, it was of course, at the expense of his neighbours. Jesus’ model, as we shall see, was of equality, for his command was to “love your neighbour as yourself”.
Does the New Testament teach that our Old Testament model is the “promised land”, flowing with “milk and honey”, as many pentecostals claim? Israel under King David prefigures the Kingdom of God under Christ, which does not come in its fullness until his return. For many christians, and certainly those in countries hostile to the gospel, this life remains an Exodus experience. Egypt reminds us of our old life (Rev 11:8), the crossing of the Red Sea reminds us of our baptism (1 Cor 10:1), and the promised land stands for future eternal glory (Heb 9:15). So we are still on a journey, and like the Hebrews of the Exodus, we rely on God to sustain us.
Until the day they entered the promised land, God miraculously supplied the Hebrews each morning with “manna”. It was bread from heaven, but they were commanded only to gather as much as they needed for each day (Exo 16:14-18). In fact, if they gathered an excess, it went rotten! (Exo 16:19-20). They had no promise of wealth in the wilderness. The promise was for daily provision. The lesson for christians is that we have a God who supplies our needs, even in barren times. That does not necessarily mean we will never be hungry, for at times Paul and the other apostles were hungry. But it does mean we can trust God, and that he is a God who provides!
Jesus teaches us not to be anxious about food or clothing (Matt 6: 25-34), and he seeks us to remind us that the true blessings are eternal. Jesus himself is the true bread from heaven, the true manna (John 6:31-35).
Prosperity teachers peddle the lie that Jesus was a wealthy man. They are forced into this claim because if the founder of the faith was not prosperous, then their teaching would instantly crumble. I challenge anyone to read one of the gospels from beginning to end, and ask themselves honestly whether the picture we see there is that of a wealthy man.
One piece of spurious “evidence” that Jesus was wealthy, is that his seamless robe (John 19:23), for which the soldiers gambled, was an uncommon and presumably expensive article of clothing. It may have been an expensive item, but so what! At some stage of his ministry he may well have been given it, just as Mary freely anointed him with an expensive perfume (John 12:3). Judas criticised this action, indicating that the habits of Jesus and his disciples were normally frugal. Jesus accepts the expensive gift because of the love which it is given, and because he is about to die (John 12:4-7).
Jesus was a carpenter and the son of a carpenter. At the time he began his ministry, his father was evidently no longer living. If there was a family carpentry shop, it would have been taken over by one of his brothers to support his mother and the rest of his family. From the time Jesus left his vocation to begin teaching, we see him dependent on the generosity of others for food and accommodation. When he sends out his disciples, he instructs them also to rely on God through the generosity of those to whom they minister (Luke 10:1-7).
He described the conditions of his ministry in these words:
Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58)
Jesus practised what he preached. He told followers to sell their possessions and give the money to the poor (Luke 12:32-34). If he had wealth, how could he them retain it? He and the disciples shared everything. All their money was kept in one pouch in the custody of Judas, and he stole from it!
Jesus did not have a bank account. He had no house of his own, and no boat of his own. He had no wife or children. He had only his life, which he gave for us!
After Pentecost, the early church was led by Peter. There is no evidence that he was wealthy either. When asked for a small amount by a beggar, he said:
“Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” (Acts 3:6)
The centrepiece of Jesus’ teaching on God’s provision is in the prayer he gave us in Matthew 6:9-13. If you want a prayer for everyday use, this should be your model, not the prayer of Jabez. We should ask God to meet our needs day by day:
“Give us today our daily bread”.
When Jesus gave thanks to God before eating, it was because God was daily supplying the needs of him and his disciples. They had few possessions. Their’s was a faith ministry.
In what is known as the “Parable of the Rich Fool”, Jesus gives a clear warning of the danger of seeking to be materially rich:
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them this parable:
“The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:13-21)
The only wealth Jesus encourages us to seek is spiritual wealth:
Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
This is the model Jesus gives us, and it really couldn’t be more clear. In the light of this what do we make of prosperity teaching? How do we assess its constant exhortation to us to ask for, and to expect, material blessing? Let us pause for a moment and reflect. Let us call it what it is, for it is in fact, heresy.
Another common theme in prosperity teaching is that Jesus has suffered for us, taking all our suffering upon himself. They say, therefore, that there is no need for us to suffer sickness, poverty, or any kind of deprivation.
Again, they are confused about the Kingdom of God. There is indeed an end to every kind of suffering, but according to the bible, it is not in this life. The very fact that our bodies still die, is proof that the end of suffering is when we meet the Lord. Until Christ’s return, every one of us (if we don’t die for our faith) eventually will succumb to heart attack, stroke, cancer or some other ailment. But when Jesus ushers in his glorious kingdom, there will be an end to death and every other evil:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away."
(Revelation 21:3-4, NASB)
Jesus death redeems us from the curse of our own sin, but not from the consequences of the sin of others. Much of the financial hardship of the poor in this world is due to the greed, corruption and theft of others. And don’t expect it to change quickly. Jesus reminds that “you always have the poor with you” (John 12:8). Christians are not called to enrich themselves , but to ease the suffering of the poor, starting with those within the church (Gal 6:10). After the proclamation of the gospel, care of the poor was next most important priority of all the apostles (Gal 2:10)
The apostle Paul endured many hardships, which are listed in several places in his letters. Yet he had within himself a great peace:
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:12-13)
Here he gives us what is surely the biblical balance. If we pursue earthly wealth, we will very likely find it. But if we are living for God, wealth should not be what is important to us. There will likely be seasons of adversity as well as seasons of blessing. That is part of the process of learning to rely on God. Whatever our situation, we trust God to provide.
So are you a Jabez Junkie? Have you been duped by the gospel of greed? I admit the title of this essay is provocative, but it is a good question, isn’t it? You may feel the need to repent, or you may be moved to dust off your bible, read it systematically, and see whether what I have presented is the truth.
As a body of believers, there are other searching questions we need to ask. How do we explain prosperity teaching? Where did it come from? How can such unbiblical teaching have been so easily spread? My answer is in two parts.
Firstly, it is preached widely because it is popular. It appeals to a generation who grew up in the 80’s, and played the stock market in the 90’s. Pastors want to attract this demographic, and they dream of building big churches. I am not saying they necessarily set out to do this in a calculated way. But this kind of preaching can become a habit if it brings in the crowds. It certainly promotes enthusiasm, but of the wrong kind. Enthusiasm for personal wealth is simply greed!
Secondly, it is able to be preached widely because it is not adequately challenged. Pentecostal churches tend not to read the bible in church. They merely quote snippets of text when it suits their argument. This is contrary to the command of the apostle Paul, who called for the public reading of scripture (1 Tim 4:13). There has also been a trend to appoint unqualified men and women as pastors. Fortunately, this latter problem seems to have been recognised and is starting to be addressed.
Discernment is Needed
While this essay may seem like a firm rebuke, it is not for me to judge anyone. I emphasise that I wish to relate to prosperity teachers, and those under their pastoral care, as brothers and sisters in Christ. If they are wrong on this issue, then there may be other issues on which they have something to teach me. I wish to speak in love, what I understand to be the truth, and not to wound anyone, but rather to encourage an honest, intelligent and biblical examination of these matters.
May God grant us wisdom (James 1:5). Amen.
All quotations of the scriptures, unless otherwise stated, are from the New International Version (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, USA), 1984.
As a lay person, I write in my spare time, and sometimes need motivation. So, I wish to thank my brother in Christ, John Moran, for his encouragement and input.
Most Web browsers will only allow you to download Word files to your hard disk. Newer browsers, specifically Internet Explorer 5.0, will by default display the document on-screen (with some formatting lost). To download to your hard disk instead, right-click on the link below, and choose "Save Target As."
Some readers may wish to endorse this essay while others may have criticisms. All feedback is welcome if it is constructive. Email can be sent to:
You can print out this essay, or download the electronic version, from:
All essays on this site can be reproduced freely without permission, provided they are not altered.