Material Prosperity In The New Testament: The Prophetic Reality (Part 2)
There is yet one highly significant topic to explore without which our study would fall woefully short. We must now examine how the many pronouncements and exhortations about wealth in the New Testament need to be understood specifically in terms of the unique period of redemptive history in which they were proclaimed.
The Historical and Redemptive Setting of the New Testament Matters
What was going on in mid first-century Jerusalem when the Bible was written? More pointedly, where was the New Testament Church situated within the covenantal, redemptive history of the people of God?
What needs to be understood is that biblical exhortations about wealth can deviate from norms given certain scenarios, especially with an imminent apocalypse around the corner.
Let’s take a look at an example from the Old Testament, then look to the New. Observe how prescriptions about wealth are related to what is going on at that point in redemptive history. Observe how the pattern of guidance regarding wealth in the Old Testament is actually mirrored in the New Testament. If anything, the New Testament continues the dynamic of the Old in this respect.
Consider what is going on in the book of Ezekiel. Having been witness to Israel’s continual rejection of God, Ezekiel prophesies to exiles living far away from Jerusalem in Babylon about what is going to come to pass in 586 BC in Jerusalem. That is the destruction of the city to the ground and the razing of the temple. In the passages that follow, notice the exhortations Ezekiel gives to those engaging in commerce in those days:
Thus says the Lord GOD: This is Jerusalem. I have set her in the center of the nations, with countries all around her. And she has rebelled against my rules by doing wickedness more than the nations, and against my statutes more than the countries all around her; for they have rejected my rules and have not walked in my statutes (Ezek. 5:5–6).
The time has come; the day has arrived. Let not the buyer rejoice, nor the seller mourn, for wrath is upon all their multitude. For the seller shall not return to what he has sold, while they live. For the vision concerns all their multitude; it shall not turn back; and because of his iniquity, none can maintain his life (Ezek. 7:12–13).
Ezekiel goes on to lament the acquiring of wealth among a people who have rejected God in a time when their wealth was about to be snuffed out. The problem was not their pursuit of wealth but that they had made an idol of wealth and thought that they could achieve satisfaction and victory through wealth apart from God’s rule over them. As judgement, wealth (a blessing) is taken away from them and given to their enemies. Thieves break in and steal. Famine and inflation destroy the wealth of those who hold gold in an apocalypse scenario. You cannot serve both God and money.
They cast their silver into the streets, and their gold is like an unclean thing. Their silver and gold are not able to deliver them in the day of the wrath of the LORD. They cannot satisfy their hunger or fill their stomachs with it. For it was the stumbling block of their iniquity. His beautiful ornament they used for pride, and they made their abominable images and their detestable things of it. Therefore I make it an unclean thing to them. And I will give it into the hands of foreigners for prey, and to the wicked of the earth for spoil, and they shall profane it. I will turn my face from them, and they shall profane my treasured place. Robbers shall enter and profane it (Ezek. 7:19–22).
You also took your beautiful jewels of my gold and of my silver, which I had given you, and made for yourself images of men, and with them played the whore (Ezek. 16:17).
We could also look where the prophet Jeremiah, a contemporary of Ezekiel, warns from near the temple in Jerusalem for the people to flee the city due to the impending wrath that is about to come upon them. He also laments their idolatry and pursuit of wealth in a time period where vengeance is imminent.
And to this people you shall say: ‘Thus says the LORD: Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death. He who stays in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, but he who goes out and surrenders to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have his life as a prize of war. For I have set my face against this city for harm and not for good, declares the LORD: it shall be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire (Jer. 21:8–10).
Flee from the midst of Babylon;
let every one save his life!
Be not cut off in her punishment,
for this is the time of the Lord’s vengeance,
the repayment he is rendering her (Jer. 51:6).
Moreover, I will give all the wealth of the city, all its gains, all its prized belongings, and all the treasures of the kings of Judah into the hand of their enemies, who shall plunder them and seize them and carry them to Babylon (Jer. 20:5 ).
In both books of prophecy, the lesson to be learned is clear: do not seek to acquire wealth while engaged in autonomous rebellion and idolatry against God. In the midst of covenantal judgment, where apocalyptic destruction is imminent, your wealth cannot save you.
New Testament Exhortations about Wealth Mirror Old Testament Patterns
We find that the people of God living in the New Testament were in a very similar situation to those in the days of Ezekiel. Jerusalem was about to be destroyed again. The only difference is that the conditions were even more severe and even more covenantally significant with the impending end of the age and the passing away of the “heaven and earth” of the old covenant order. As Christ prophesies to disobedient Israel:
Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation (Matt. 23:34–37).
Then the disciples ask Jesus when this will all happen. The disciples want to know about what to look out for. They ask:
Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age? (Matt. 24:3).
But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people. They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.
And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Luke 21:20–33).
As can be seen, Christ promises that Jerusalem, the city which Ezekiel proclaimed as the covenantal center of the world, was going to be destroyed again along with the temple. Speaking figuratively, Christ warns that the old “heaven and earth” was going to pass away within the same generation of those to whom Christ was speaking. The age in which the first century church had begun was about to end. They were living in the “last days” of the Old Covenant age, and it was going to go out with a bang.
This period leading up to the cataclysmic events in Jerusalem would be coupled with intense persecution of Christians in Jerusalem by apostate Israel. Brother would be set against brother, son against Father, Mother against daughter. Faithful Christians would be thrown out of the synagogues and flogged, beaten, and murdered throughout the ancient world, not just in Jerusalem. Then when insurrection began in Jerusalem, Christians would be blamed by Romans and tied in with the Jews as usurpers of the emperor. Their persecution would only increase across the Roman empire from there.
It is through this lens that we must view many of the teachings about wealth in this era. Those who foolishly sought to retain ownership over land, title and possessions would be forcibly looted, dispossessed, and be made destitute. The command was to flee Jerusalem as the day drew near and as the signs manifested themselves. Possessions were to be sold off as they were going to be burned up anyways. It was the same exhortation as what would have been said to the faithful remnant in Ezekiel’s day.
Not only would Jerusalem be looted, but all gold and silver coins would become worthless during the Roman siege and the resulting famine. All of this was prophesied by Christ in the Olivet Discourse in the gospels, and in Revelation 6 where we see the price of wheat has skyrocketed.
When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!” (Rev. 6:5–6).
Let’s put it this way: it wasn’t the time for those with means to invest their capital in real estate in Jerusalem. It was time to divest, liquidate, get out of Dodge, and wait for the dust to settle. You didn’t want to be caught in Jerusalem with only precious metals to your name when the music stopped. Economically speaking, for the shrewd, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. Sell high, get out of town, and come back later to buy low. Give to those in need (there would be many) and don’t foolishly hoard possessions in “the last days” in a land about to be destroyed.
Interestingly this is exactly what happened historically as the faithful remnant heeded Christ’s prophecy and fled to Pella before the Romans came and destroyed everything and killed over 1 million inhabitants of the city. Those who had sold all their possessions in order to use the proceeds for kingdom purposes would be best positioned in the world that emerged following the apocalypse of AD 70.
The Righteous Rich Prosper, the Unrighteous Rich Pay the Piper
Those rich who foolishly and maliciously engaged in hoarding and greed while exploiting and mistreating their workers are warned, not because they are rich but because of their wickedness. Unlike the righteous rich man, Joseph of Arimathea, who used his wealth to pay for the burial of Christ, they reject the Messiah and his law. They do not use their wealth for kingdom purposes but for selfish indulgence. They will pay the price both monetarily and in eternity.
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter (James 5:1–5).
The entire chapter of Revelation 18 is a mockery of apostate Israel and those in Jerusalem whose riches were suddenly taken away.
We see the admonishment about not pursuing riches multiple times throughout the New Testament, always in view of the present times in which they lived. It was an extremely uncertain time where long-term plans were not to be relied upon and where wealth gathered could disappear in an instant.
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life (1 Tim. 6:17–19).
This is exactly the sort of exhortation you would expect to be given to the faithful remnant living in a nation that was about to be destroyed. It is clear to us when we see it in the Old Testament. It is just as clear in the New, if we will only see it.
Failing to Understand the Times & Compounding the Error
Ignoring or misunderstanding redemptive-historical context not only causes us to make interpretive mistakes when it comes to material wealth but in other serious ways as well.
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul encouraged the Corinthian church not to change their station in life at all in view of the “present distress” and in recognition that “the present form of the world is passing away” about which the “appointed time” of this conflagration had “grown very short.” Whether slave, free, married, unmarried, circumcised, uncircumcised, etc.—stay where you are, an imminent paradigm shift is coming.
Commands like these which Paul gave were not given in a vacuum. They were given in recognition of the times in which they lived. These were not normative commands for all times. Some even misinterpret these passages as teaching the misguided notion that the normative ideal is for Christians to remain single—a great way to end Christendom in a hurry!
Unfortunately, many of us read the New Testament as if there wasn’t an imminent apocalypse about to occur and as if an epoch of history, the end of the age, wasn’t about to take place at the time. We treat exhortations given under those conditions as paradigmatic for all of church history. We ignore the historical and covenantal context of the first century church. We forget that the Old Covenant covered 4,000+ years of church history in a variety of stages in redemptive history, and the New Covenant covers 66–69 years of one unique stage (some say 96 years) of that history which, according to Hebrews 8:13, the Old Covenant was yet to fully vanish, but was about to very soon.
We do not live in that inter-covenantal period anymore, and we should not import all applications given during that period in the exact same application for us today. We must cautiously determine how the overall teaching of the full counsel of scripture applies regarding transcendent truths and based on the redemptive-historical covenant reality in which we now live. We must be men of Issachar who understand the times.
None of this means that these passages are irrelevant for us. Obviously, the church still is engulfed in persecution to varying degrees around the world and so these passages can be instructive depending on the severity of the persecution. They can also help remind us to orient our plans and our pursuits around what God is doing in history and not in idolatrous greed and selfish ambition. They also teach us to be shrewd, an oft-overlooked virtue but a glaringly obvious one, especially in the parables (think the parable of the dishonest manager).
Should we make treasure our treasure? Should we worship money? Should we set our hearts upon the piling up of treasure on earth for our own indulgence? No! We are servants of the King. The Bible does not teach that wealth is bad, but it warns against entangling our heart’s desires with anything that isn’t God. We pursue wealth and prosperity not for ourselves but for his kingdom purposes as we are being restored back to our original purpose: to go forth, subdue the earth, and to exercise dominion over it for God’s glory.
Karma or Christ?
It’s at this point where it’s important to remember that the events of history are not random. In the big picture, God’s covenantal sanctions are still being enforced upon the nations. Covenantal blessings, both material and immaterial, flow to nations obedient to God, and curses flow to nations who reject God.
Think about the extent to which governments and societies which have been changed by the gospel and begin to esteem God’s commands are blessed as a result—both interpersonally and civilly.
In terms of personal ethics, this means love the Lord your God. Honor your Father and Mother. Do not bear false witness. Do not steal your neighbor’s property. Do not commit adultery. Do not murder. Love your neighbor as yourself. Do not be idle. Train up your children in the Lord. Do not withhold discipline.
How do people who generally follow this path generally fare in life during times where there isn’t intense persecution of Christians? How do families who generally follow this path generally fare?
In terms of civil society, this means similar things: respect for boundaries of authority (family, church, civil magistrate). Punishment should be proportionate to the crime. Uphold due process. Practice and enforce equal scales. These are simple, transcendent biblical standards applied to social life.
What does national fidelity to these statutes produce for society in the big picture? Does God bless this?
Now think about what a departure from those standards would mean. We don’t have to look very far! Cultures that have no respect for personal property, whole societies which downplay or mock family values, civil governments that eschew biblical standards of justice—these decline into chaos and poverty. The concept of covenantal sanctions in history, and God’s continued involvement in this, is something Christians need to grasp—especially if we want to be salt and light in the world.
The moral universe in which we live applies equally for individuals, families, churches, nations, etc. This is the God we serve, and this is the reality that proceeds from his being. Christ has inherited the nations and possesses all rule and authority (Matt. 28:18).\
At the end of the day, what we see in the New Testament is a wealth and money ethic which is the same as in the Old Testament. The only difference is that all the New Testament exhortations about wealth were written during a brief historical period of intense persecution, martyrdom, and imminent apocalypse. But this period was prophetic and is now long-since past.
Both the poverty and the prosperity “gospels” are deviations from what the Bible teaches. If we fail to account for the historical context in which the New Testament was written, we do so at our own loss. There is much more that still applies, and we must choose to use it either to our profit or our peril.
Read more about Bible’s worldview and optimistic outlook in David Chilton, Paradise Restored: A Biblical Theology of Dominion.