Prosperity: Blessings and Curses
Since the Prosperity Gospel cannot be found in the New Testament (except when one twists 3 John 2), the prosperity preachers, of necessity, lean heavily on the Old Testament to support their message. In so doing, they primarily use the promises God made to Abraham and Israel as a base for their doctrine.
In Genesis 12:1-3, God promised Abraham a land, blessings, many descendants, a great name and that through him all nations would be blessed. Can Christians claim these promises for themselves? The short answer is no and here are the reasons:
Old Testament Blessings Are To A Specific Ethnic Group
Israelites were physical descendants of Abraham. They shared the physical DNA of Abraham and of Sarah. This physical connection with Abraham and the covenant was demonstrated through the physical act of Circumcision (Genesis 17:10). The line through which the blessings would flow was very specifically through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Not even Ishmael who sprang from Abraham but not from Sarah, was entitled to the inheritance (Galatians 4:30). These promises are not made to Gentiles, whether Christian or not. But even if you did claim these promises as yours, they are very specific, physical promises.
The first deals with a great nation and many nations springing from the Patriarchs. This cannot be translated to mean financial prosperity or any other form of temporal blessing.
The second is a promise of the Land. If you want to claim this promise you have to move to the land of Israel for there to be any possibility of that promise being fulfilled for you. The promise of land cannot be transferred to include acreage in America, Australia or Africa – it has very specific geographic boundaries (Genesis 15:18). Once again, this promise cannot be altered to include people that were not part of the original covenant, nor can it include blessings such as jewellery and motor cars that were not specified in the original promise.
The third aspect of the covenant promises that the Messiah will come from Abraham’s seed (Genesis 22:18). It is pretty obvious that this applies to only one ethnic group and specifically one tribe within the nation of Israel (Judah). This once-again has nothing to do with Gentiles – except that we are blessed through Jesus.
There was a final component to the covenant – circumcision (Genesis 17:10). Circumcision was the sign of the covenant that God made with Abraham and his children. Those who believe that they have inherited these physical promises must therefore be physically circumcised. And this is not for medical reasons, but specifically as a sign of the covenant. The problem with circumcision for the Gentile Christian is that the moment you become circumcised (in order to try to keep the obligation of the Law, or to make this physical act the means by which you become grafted into God’s kingdom and blessings), you have denied Christ and have fallen from grace (Galatians 5:2-4)! This may sound strong, but this is part of the central message of the letter to the Galatians. Therefore, in order for a Gentile to claim the [Abrahamic] covenant he, of necessity, must deny Christ, and the sufficiency of Christ and His Sacrifice, which plunges him under the wrath of God. It is therefore absolutely impossible for a Gentile to claim the physical promises without forfeiting his salvation.
As you can see, there are four components to God’s promises to Abraham. A literal nation, a literal land, a literal descendant, and literal circumcision. None of these have anything to do with non-Jews.
Blessings and Curses
Later when Israel came out of Egypt, God confirmed and expanded the covenant He made with Abraham. It is particularly in these promises that the prosperity teachers find the promises of financial prosperity. Deuteronomy 28 is one of their favourite texts and the following verse will immediately ring a bell with anyone who has ever heard a prosperity preacher: “And the Lord will make you the head and not the tail; you shall be above only, and not be beneath” (Deuteronomy 28:13 ). These promises did indeed include financial prosperity. There are a number of other elements, as follows:
- Obedience to every commandment was a major condition upon which God would base His blessings (Deuteronomy 28:13; 11:8,13).
- They would have many children (Deuteronomy 28:4).
- They would have good rains and abundant crops and flocks (Deuteronomy 11:14-15; Deuteronomy 28:4- 6,8,11).
- The Lord would give them victory over their enemies (Deuteronomy 11:22-25; Deuteronomy 28:7).
- They would live long in the land of Canaan which God gave to Israel as a possession (Deuteronomy 4:1; 11:9; 32:49).
- They would lend and not borrow (Deuteronomy 28:12).
- They would be the head and not the tail (Deuteronomy 28:13).
At the same time that the promises of blessings were given, God gave threats of curses if they did not obey Him (Deuteronomy 28:15-68). Actually, the curses far outnumber the blessings. Here are just a few:
- Financial poverty and their fields would be barren (Deuteronomy 28:17-21, 38-40).
- Their children would be cursed (Deuteronomy 28:18).
- They would have diseases (Deuteronomy 28:10,27,35).
- They would be pursued by their enemies (Deuteronomy 28:22,25,48-52).
- They would suffer mental illness (Deuteronomy 28:28).
- They would serve other nations and their gods (Deuteronomy 28:36,43).
- They would eat their own children in the siege (Deuteronomy 28:53-57).
- They would be scattered amongst the nations (Deuteronomy 28:28-68).
There are certain principles that govern how we interpret passages like these. Some of those principles are common sense and some are well established theological (we call them hermeneutical) principles. Here are some of the issues that arise from the interpretation of these passages.
You Have To Take the Good with the Bad
The blessings and curses are a package deal. They are one unit and cannot be separated. God says that if they obey, He will bless them (Deuteronomy 28:1) but if they do not obey, He will curse them (Deuteronomy 28:15). You cannot separate the two aspects from each other. Therefore if you are going to preach God’s blessing from this chapter, then you must preach His cursing – you cannot do one without the other. If you are going to claim the one you must accept the other. There is just no other option.
In fact, if you look at Deuteronomy 28, you will notice that 15 verses are devoted to blessings and 54 verses are devoted to curses! Those who preach the prosperity message only preach from the first 15 verses and ignore the other 54. If anyone claims any (or all) of the blessings, then they must accept all the curses. The two are inseparable.
You Must Keep the Whole Law
These blessings and curses are subject to a very specific condition – the keeping of the Law. “If you diligently obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe carefully all His commandments which I command you today” (Deuteronomy 28:1). “.... it shall come to pass, if you do not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe carefully all His commandments and His statutes which I command you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you”(Deuteronomy 28:15). The “commandments which I command you today” refers to all 613 of the laws that God gave Israel, not just The Ten Commandments listed in Deuteronomy chapter 5. From chapter 5 through to 28, all the other “ceremonial” laws are given. When Chapter 28 refers to the “commandments which I command you today”, it refers to all the commands. So, in order to escape the curses and to enjoy the blessings, we must keep each and every one of the 613 commands. If you break one, you are guilty of all (Galatians 3:10) and you move from being blessed to being cursed.
Once again, we cannot pick and choose which commandments we want and which we don’t, just like we cannot choose the blessings without the curses. The three aspects are irrevocably tied together – keeping the Law, blessings and curses. Yet the false teacher will glibly take one and ignore the other two.
The Blessings are a Package
You cannot choose which commands you do not want to obey nor can you choose the blessings without the curses. In the same way, you cannot choose which of the blessings you want and which you don’t. God is not a car dealer who allows you to choose which options you get with your new car. You either get all the blessings or you get all the curses.
Why then do prosperity people only pick parts of the blessings? What about having many children? That is a central part of the package of blessings. If you claim the financial prosperity aspect of these blessings you must have many children, and “many” means more than a “few”! Another of the promises is “You shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow” (Deuteronomy 28:13). If you claim these blessings then you may never borrow money from a bank, never have a credit card or a mortgage on your house, but should be an international banker.
Another promise is victory over enemies in battle. The Christian who claims these blessings must be a soldier and must be fighting literal wars where literal blood is being spilt because that is part of the deal. Of course the response is that the wars we fight are spiritual, and our victory is over the devil. That sounds like a good argument. In fact, it is a very good argument. We are indeed at war and we are not warring against flesh and blood but against spiritual forces (Ephesians 6:12); but herein lies the problem. You cannot spiritualize one part of the promise and not the other. If the victory is spiritual then the prosperity is spiritual. If the prosperity is literal cash, then the war is the spilling of literal blood.
Another very specific promise is possession of the land. Once again, you cannot spiritualize the land (and read it as heaven or Christ) and make the prosperity literal. What you do to one you have to do to the other. If the prosperity is literal then the land is literal and then you had better start applying for Israeli citizenship.
Spiritual and Literal Do Not Mix
It should be clear by now that we cannot spiritualize part of the verse or passage and make the rest literal. If a given section of Scripture is literal, then the whole is literal; if one part is spiritual, then all is spiritual. You just cannot mix it all up and choose to interpret adjacent words or sentences differently. It is really quite simple.
In the Old Testament Abraham was a literal, flesh-and- blood man. Israel was a literal, actual nation made up of the descendants of Abraham, divided into twelve tribes, all genetic descendants of Abraham. Most of the promises God made to Abraham and Israel were literal promises – prosperity, children, military victory, possession of a literal land, rain and so on. None of these promises can be spiritualized when applied to Israel. They are literal, physical promises to a literal, physical people. (Incidentally one of the other problems here is that Deuteronomy is a covenant with the entire nation of Israel and has very little to do with individuals, except so far as they are part of the whole.)
I have not forgotten that Gentile believers are also the children of Abraham. Galatians 3:29 is very clear: “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise”. Now we must ask a very important question: Do we become physical children of Abraham and do we become partakers of his genes and DNA? Obviously not. How are we children of Abraham then? – We are spiritually children of Abraham.
That does not therefore mean we can claim the physical promises made to Abraham. Physical promises are made to physical children and spiritual promises to spiritual children. Just as you cannot spiritualize the promises made to the physical children, you cannot make literal the promises to spiritual children. Yes, we can claim all the promises of the Old Testament, but they are to be interpreted spiritually. Let’s look at some of the blessings in Deuteronomy 15 as it applies to spiritual children:
- We will have many spiritual children (new converts).
- We will be spiritually prosperous and the Father will rain His Spirit on us.
- We will have victory in our spiritual battles.
- We are looking for a heavenly country which we will inhabit for ever (Hebrews 11:14-16).
The New Explains the Old
In order to discover which promises are literal and which are spiritual, we must turn to the New Testament. The New Testament reveals and explains the Old. You cannot read the Old Testament and interpret it as you wish, or isolated from the New Testament. Therefore any teaching on prosperity, or any other subject, has to be based on the clear teaching of the New Testament. We can illustrate truths taught in the New Testament from the Old Testament, but we can only do so once we have established the doctrine based on clear statements in the New Testament.
The New Testament does not lay the same emphasis on earthly riches as the Old Testament did. Actually, while riches in the Old Testament were a sign of God’s blessing, the New Testament teaches that they are a hindrance to God’s blessings.
Changes From the Old Testament to the New Testament
Besides prosperity, blessings and curses, many other things changed from the Old Testament to the New Testament. A look at a few will confirm the principles I have outlined above.
Circumcision changed from primarily physical circumcision to spiritual circumcision. “In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ”(Colossians 2:11). Clearly the Christian must be circumcised, but it is a circumcision of the heart, in the spirit, not of the flesh, performed by God and not man (Romans 2:29). Thus what was literal in the Old Testament becomes spiritual in the New Testament.
Sacrifices were literal, physical sacrifices in the Old Testament: YOU brought a real animal, cut its throat and shed its literal blood. Some of these sacrifices were brought as sin-offerings. Jesus was the full and final sin-offering so there is no need for us to bring sin-offerings any longer (Hebrews 10:10). Other sacrifices were brought to thank God or to worship Him. However, in the New Testament our sacrifices are primarily spiritual. “Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name. But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased” (Hebrews 13:15-16). There are obviously some literal sacrifices we make in the New Testament like our time and money, but the emphasis has changed from physical to spiritual.
In the Old Testament worship was a very physical thing but a careful examination of worship in the New Testament shows a very different form of worship where the emphasis is no longer on physical activity but on a spiritual exercise. Jesus announced this change: “the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him” (John 4:23). There are some physical things done in the New Testament like singing, breaking bread and baptism; but the difference is that in the Old Testament the spiritual flowed from the physical whereas in the New Testament the physical flows from the spiritual. In other words we do certain things outwardly because of an inward reality.
In the same way, many other things changed from the Old Testament to the New. Sadly, some Christians do not take note of those changes and continue to serve God in Old Testament ways instead of the fullness of the New Testament. This is true of prosperity which in the Old Testament was primarily a physical thing but in the New Testament is largely spiritual.
There were however, exceptions to these principles in the Old Testament. These exceptions were a few men who, although part of the Old Testament, lived by New Testament principles. These exceptions prove that God’s true blessings are not material, but spiritual:
Abraham had all the physical promises and was materially wealthy, yet he, and others like him, understood that there was something far more important than land, wealth and influence. “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13).
Jacob returned from his sojourn with his uncle Laban a very wealthy man: “Thus the man (Jacob) became exceedingly prosperous, and had large flocks, female and male servants, and camels and donkeys” (Genesis 30:43). This was before he had even possessed a single thing from his father (Isaac) which would have increased his wealth even more. In addition to the flocks and servants, he now had two wives, many children and physical health. He thus had every form of literal blessing one could desire.
There was one thing Jacob wanted and that was to be blessed; and he was blessed – just look at everything he had. Prosperity people would love to have what Jacob had; but Jacob understood that the real blessing was not material but spiritual. That is why he wrestled with the Angel at the brook Jabbok and tenaciously insisted, “I will not let You go unless You bless me!” (Genesis 32:26). God did bless Jacob that day and changed his name to Israel to reflect that blessing; but instead of Jacob receiving some positive physical evidence of the blessing, he actually lost something – his health. Jacob limped away from the meeting with God as a cripple. Instead of getting more wealth and health, Jacob lost his health, but he gained a blessing that could not be seen with eyes of flesh.
Jacob’s disability marked him for the rest of his life and he died still a cripple. Is this not a sign of a lack of blessing? No, Hebrews 11 records his physical weakness as evidence of his faith. He dies blessing others and worshipping the Lord instead of grasping after material things. As he leans on his staff, he signifies that he had learnt to lean on God, rather than on his own strength and possessions: “By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff” (Hebrews 11:21).
Moses prospered in the courts of Pharaoh and he had a title and access to all the wealth of the richest world empire of the time. He was a prince in the courts of Pharaoh. Christians today would give anything to get what Moses had. Moses understood that all that Egypt had to offer was worthless in comparison to a much greater treasure: Moses, “choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward” (Hebrews 11:25-26). Suffering, affliction and reproach are not exactly words associated with well-being and prosperity, but Moses understood that there were treasures that were far more valuable and enduring than those of this world.
Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and others, put many modern Christians with their short-sighted desire for material blessings to shame. These men understood that material blessings cannot be compared to spiritual blessings.
We cannot read or interpret the Old Testament without a proper understanding of the New Testament. Most of the Prosperity Gospel is based on an incorrect interpretation of the Old Testament and is in violation of many very specific New Testament principles.
God’s promises and blessings in the Old Testament were physical, literal promises to physical, literal children of Abraham. We however, are spiritual children of Abraham and therefore the promises to us are spiritual and not physical.
Some of the promises will become literal again when Jesus sets up his Kingdom in Jerusalem, but until then Paul’s words to the Galatians, who wanted to go back to Old Testament, still apply:
Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? (Galatians 3:3).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Anton Bosch teaches at Sun Valley Community Church in California. He served various Assembly of God churches in South Africa for 24 years and has ministered in independent churches for the past 15 years. He teaches in different parts of the world and his articles encourage and upset many. Anton has been married to Ina for 37 years They have two daughters and two grandchildren. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.