The Prosperity Gospel - Right Promises, Wrong Timing

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

open bibleAs a new believer, I learned that one of the major reasons the Pharisees opposed Jesus was because they were expecting a military and political Messiah who would conquer the Romans and physically set up the kingdom of God on earth.  But Jesus came to set up a spiritual kingdom (“The kingdom of God is within you” Luke 17:21). And that’s why there was a lot of confusion and opposition on the part of the Pharisees and other people.  At the time, that was a helpful explanation.  

However, as I have continued to read and study the Bible over the years, I came to see that maybe those folks who thought Jesus came to set up a physical kingdom were not so far off.  If you read the Old Testament prophets, it often sounds like the Messiah will set up a physical kingdom where everyone will be healthy and happy.

“He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)

“Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.” (Isaiah 9:7)

“But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)

If you are reading prophecies like that, I can see how you might think that the Messiah is supposed to do more than just talk about spiritual salvation.  So if the Old Testament gives hints of a physical kingdom, why didn’t Jesus do it?

One of the reasons the Jews of Jesus’ time were confused is because they understood the promises somewhat correctly, but got the timing wrong.  Jesus was going to bring a physical kingdom... but not right away.  Jesus’ coming got the kingdom started (inaugurated), but the kingdom wouldn’t be fully set up until Jesus’ came back a second time.  So while there are physical aspects of the kingdom now, it is primarily a spiritual kingdom.  And we are in this “already, not yet” stage of seeing some of the kingdom promises being already fulfilled, but not in their entirety.  That’s why John the Baptist got confused:

“Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see:the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (Matthew 11:2-6)

John believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and saw signs pointing to the kingdom.  But if that was so, why was John still in jail?  Isn’t the Messiah supposed to free the captives?

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;” (Isaiah 61:1)

John got tripped up at the same place that many people get tripped up, both in Jesus’ time and today.  He saw the promises of what the Messiah was to do and wondered why they weren’t happening.  He found himself caught in the “already, not yet” dilemma.  Some of the Messianic promises have already been fulfilled but they have not yet been completely fulfilled.

Throughout church history, many people have run into trouble by thinking that certain promises are supposed to have their complete fulfillment right now, instead of in the future.  In the nineteenth century, many who followed the holiness movement and perfectionist teachings believed that Christians in this world could come to a point of sinlessness.  By “letting go and letting God” and submitting themselves fully to God, they believed that they could reach a point of “complete sanctification” where they do not sin anymore.   On the one hand, they were tapping into some very real promises of God.  After all, New Testaments believers are often called “saints” (Acts 9: 41, Rom. 1:7, Phil 1:1) and the apostle John says that “everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning” (1John 5:18).  But their error was in thinking that complete sanctification could happen right now.  Passages like Phil 1:6, 1 Cor 13:9-10, 1 John 1:8, and others indicate that we still struggle with sin in this world and our sanctification is not complete until we reach heaven.  The erroneous teachings of perfectionism have waned in popularity since their heyday in the nineteenth century, but proponents of the prosperity gospel make a similar error today.

On the one hand, if you look at the Old Testament promises of what the Messiah will do, it sure looks like health and wealth are part of the package:

“But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)

“He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide for strong nations far away; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.” (Micah 4:3-4)

“Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion; instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot; therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion; they shall have everlasting joy.  For I the LORD love justice; I hate robbery and wrong; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their offspring shall be known among the nations, and their descendants in the midst of the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge them, that they are an offspring the LORD has blessed.” (Isaiah 61:7-9)

But are these promises for today?  Prosperity gospel teachers would say, “Yes, of course they are and we have a right to claim for ourselves the health and wealth in these promises.”  Thus, you get a lot of teachers and books claiming that the Bible promises us health and wealth.  And of course, they are right.  But they’ve got the timing wrong.  

Jesus’s kingdom did not come all at once in the first century and it hasn’t all come now either.  The kingdom of God is present in this world now only in part and we have neither the right or ability to wrest from God’s hand the complete fulfillment of things that He only chooses to give in full in heaven.  The complete fulfillment of these Messianic promises will come to pass in the new heavens and new earth at Jesus’ Second Coming:

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”” (Revelation 21:3-4)

Keeping in mind that complete abundance lies in the future, we can affirm that God does give wealth and abundance now, to varying degrees to different people, in ways that are not necessarily reflective of their degree of faith.  And God does heal today.  Sometimes he does it miraculously, but most often in more ordinary ways.  But sometimes He doesn’t heal.   And since we all eventually die, we should be sure that healing too is only partial in this world.  If we have the ability to produce healing and wealth in our lives simply by making a positive confession, how come the apostle Paul didn’t use his great faith to take the thorn out of his flesh (2 Cor. 12:6-10) or to heal Trophimus whom he had to leave sick in Miletus (2 Tim. 4:20)?

Prosperity Gospel teaching can seem to have the ring of truth about it when we look at the Scriptural promises of what the kingdom of God will be like.  There is truth in those  promises.  God does not lie.  But He has not said that we are going to have it all right now.  In this world, we endure and rejoice in the midst of sufferings because Christ himself is our most valuable treasure and better things are yet to come.

“In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
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