Does God Promise to Prosper You?

August 28, 2009

Does God want you to prosper? How can you go about answering that question?

Jeremiah 29:11 reads:

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (NIV)
After reading that, you might be tempted to conclude: “OK! God wants me to be prosperous!”

Numerous churches teach such a doctrine. One website puts it this way:

The Bible is the greatest book ever written on motivation, success and prosperity. It is the original source book for discovering the keys to successful living through the power of kingdom principles.
By studying the Scriptures, you will come to understand that the prosperity of God is multi-dimensional. It is God’s will for us to prosper financially, to be in health, and for our souls to prosper (3 John 2). This is the three-part blessing of being obedient to His will and commands. God’s success plan for man encompasses the prospering of the spirit, soul and body with both spiritual and material blessings.
Is there anything wrong with this? Doesn’t God want to bless His people financially as well as spiritually? In particular, doesn’t Jeremiah 29:11 say explicitly that God plans to prosper us?

Over the course of the next three weekly devotions, we will look at this precious verse. While we won’t try to address the entire topic, the exposition of this verse will show clearly the direction we should take in understanding all such promises. Our goal as always is to learn what God is telling us through His Word, and thus to take to heart His very precious promises – promises that, as we shall see, are quite different from what they might appear to be after a casual reading.

We want to “rightly divide the Word of Truth” (2 Timothy 2:15), rather than to misinterpret that Word. How can you tell if someone is misinterpreting a verse? How can you be careful not to misinterpret verses yourself?

Consider these three helpful (but not exhaustive!) rules:

  • Read the context!
  • Check the translation!
  • Check the interpretation against the thrust of Scriptural teaching!

Let’s do that for this verse.

Read the Context
Nebuchadnezzer, King of Babylon, attacked Jerusalem for the first time in 605 BC. The king of Judah paid tribute and promised future payments to entice him to withdraw. The Babylonian did so, but took some exiles away to Babylon. Shortly before Nebuchadnezzer attacked, Jeremiah prophesied that it would happen, and that the exiles would remain in Babylon for 70 years (Jeremiah 25).

Seven years later, in 598-7 BC, Nebuchadnezzer returns, after the Judean king foolishly stops paying tribute. This time he deposes the king, sets up his own puppet from the Judean royal family, and takes thousands more into exile. Jeremiah remains in Jerusalem.

Today’s text is part of a letter Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon three years later. False prophets in Babylon and Jerusalem were claiming that the captivity was going to be very short – that God would break the power of Nebuchadnezzer and send the captives back to Jerusalem soon. In effect, they were saying, “God will prosper both you exiles and Jerusalem.”

In chapter 29, Jeremiah clearly says, “No! God is not going to prosper Jerusalem during the next several years. Don’t think you’re coming back soon – live out a normal life in Babylon!”

That’s a little bit of context – which alone calls into question the “God wants to prosper us” interpretation.

Check the Translation
But what about translation? Obviously knowing the original language helps, but everyone can look at different English translations. Consider these three translations:

  • NIV: For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
  • ESV: For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
  • NAS: ‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.”

“Prosper you” in the NIV becomes “welfare” and “wholeness” in the other two translations. According to Webster’s, “prosperity” means “the condition of being successful or thriving; especially economic well-being.” That is certainly not what “wholeness” means, and even “welfare” has quite different connotations. In general, an interpretation that is based solely on one translation is likely to be suspect.

This indicates that learning the specific Hebrew word might be helpful. As it turns out, in this case the Hebrew word is one you may already know: Shalom. Normally this word is translated “peace”, but it has a much wider range of meaning than the English word “peace”. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament describes shalomthis way: : “Completeness, wholeness, harmony, fulfillment. . . . Unimpaired relationships with others and with God.”

So our English word “prosperity” is not a good match for shalom in this context. For in English, the primary meaning of “prosperity” is economic well-being, with some overtones of happiness, fulfillment, and satisfaction. But for shalom the primary meaning is being in good relationships with others and with God, with some overtones of other sorts of welfare: absence of war, economic success.

So the biblical context and the historical context as well as the meaning of the Hebrew word all serve to undermine the interpretation that God wants all of His people to have economic prosperity.

Next week we’ll ask the question: To whom is God promising shalom?

Like a Child Resting on Mommy

August 23, 2009

This Sunday we begin a series of sermons on the biblical image of us as little children and God as our loving parent. This week, we will look at Psalm 131. In this psalm, David compares himself to “a weaned child with its mother” – that is, like a child fully satisfied and fully at rest, content and secure on its mother’s breast. That is to be our attitude before our heavenly Father. To whet your appetite for the topic and to help you to begin to ponder these important truths, here is an excerpt from Charles Spurgeon’s sermon on this psalm. – Coty

[David] tells us that he was not ambitious—“Neither do I exercise myself in great matters.” He was a shepherd. He did not need to go and fight Goliath, but when he did do it, it was because his nation needed him. He said, “Is there not a cause?” Otherwise he had stayed in the background. When he went into the cave of Adullam, he never lifted a hand to become king. He might have struck his enemy several times—and with one stroke have ended the warfare and seized the throne—but he would not lift a hand against the Lord’s Anointed, for, like a weaned child, he was not ambitious. He was willing to go where God would put him, but he was not seeking after great things.

Now, dear Brethren, we shall never be as a weaned child if we have high notions of what we ought to be and large desires for self. If we are great men in our own esteem, of course we ought to have great things for ourselves. But . . . the more hungry a man is after this world, the less he pines after the treasures of the world to come. We shall not be covetous if we are like a weaned child. Neither shall we sigh for position and influence—whoever heard of a weaned child doing that? Let it lie in its parent’s bosom and it is content—and so shall we be in the bosom of our God.

Yet some Christian men seem as if they . . . cannot work with others, but must have the chief place. . . . Blessed is that servant who is quite content with that position which his master appoints him—glad to unloose the laces of his Lord’s shoes—glad to wash the saints’ feet. . . . Let us do anything for Jesus, counting it the highest honor, even, to be a doormat inside the Church of God, . . . so long as we may but be of some use to [others] and bring some glory to God. You remember the word of Jeremiah to Baruch? Baruch had been writing the roll for the Prophet and straightway Baruch thought he was somebody. He had been writing the Word of the Lord, had he not? But the Prophet said to him, “Seek you great things for yourself? Seek them not.” And so says the mind of the Spirit to us all. Do not desire to occupy positions of eminence and prominence, but let your soul be as a weaned child—not exercising itself in great matters.

Very often we seek after great approbation. We want to do great deeds that people will talk about and especially some famous work which everybody will admire. This is human nature, for the love of approbation is rooted in us. . . . But that man has arrived at the right position who . . . judges what is right before God and does it caring neither for public nor private opinion in the matter—to whom it is no more concern what people may say of an action which his conscience commends than what tune the north wind whistles as it blows over the Alps! He who is the slave of man’s opinions is a slave, indeed. . . . He who fears God needs fear no one else! . . .

Frequently, too, we exercise ourselves in great matters by having a high ambition to do something very wonderful in the Church. This is why so very little is done! The great destroyer of good works is the ambition to do great works! . . . The Brother who says, “Here is a district which nobody visits. I will do what I can in it”—he is probably the man who will get another to help him and another, and the work will be done! The young man who is quite content to begin with preaching in a little room in a village to a dozen, is the man who will win souls! The other Brother, who does not begin preaching till he can preach to 5,000 will never do anything—he never can. . . . O, dear Brother, if your soul ever gets to be as it ought, you will feel, “The least thing that I can do, I shall be glad to do. The very poorest and meanest form of Christian service, as men think it, is better than I deserve.” It is a great honor to be allowed to unloose the laces of my Lord’s shoes! . . . When we are thoroughly weaned it is well with us—pride is gone and ambition is gone, too. We shall need much nursing by One who is wiser and gentler than the best mother before we shall be quite weaned of these two dearly beloved sins.

Why Ask for Daily Bread?

August 14, 2009

“Give us this day our daily bread.” (Matthew 6:11)

Do you ask God to give you the food you need every day?

Why should a rich person ask God for his daily bread?

Or – in case you don’t think you are rich (see this sermon for arguments that you are) – why should anyone with money in his wallet and savings in the bank ask God daily for the sustenance he needs?

Jesus gives us “The Lord’s Prayer” as a model, in response to His disciples’ request to be taught how to pray (Luke 11:1-4). The petition for daily bread is part of this model. Jesus wasn’t speaking here only to his poor followers – “Ask God to give you the food you don’t have, and trust Him to provide it!” – but He clearly implies that all his followers should pray like this. So the injunction to pray for daily bread applies both to the poor, indigent leper Jesus heals in Luke 17, as well as to the rich Zacchaeus who is saved in Luke 19. Clearly the leper, most likely dependent on begging, needs to pray for his food. But Zacchaeus remains wealthy even after he gives away half of his assets. Why should he ask God for his daily bread when he has enough saved up to buy his every meal for the next several decades?

Two biblical principles are key for answering this question.

First: You deserve nothing of what you own. Economists have researched the question: How much of the differences in wealth between people is due to their different skills, abilities, and work effort, and how much is due to accidents of birth, of race, of nationality? Even looking at the issue from this completely secular point of view, the vast majority of differences in wealth across the world are due to accidents. The country you are born in has much more impact on your wealth as an adult than your abilities or your work effort. Many bright, hard-working people are exceptionally poor. So from a secular standpoint, you deserve very little of what you have. You have most of it by accidents of birth.

But from a biblical viewpoint, you deserve none of it. Deuteronomy 8:17-18 warns us:

Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth,

Whatever skills you have come from Him. Whatever work effort you have comes from Him. You could not think, you could not work, you could not eat, you could not digest your food apart from God’s sustenance and provision. As James 1:17 says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights.” That is, nothing good that you have comes from anywhere else. God is the source of everything good – everything you have, everything you have ever experienced.

So recognizing that, give thanks for what you have and ask Him to provide for this day’s needs.

Second biblical principle: All that you have could disappear in an instant.

All material possessions will disappear when Jesus returns (2 Peter 3:10-12). They won’t last. They will do you no good on that day. They are a temporary grant from God, to be used for His purposes.

And even before that Last Day, disasters happen. Hurricanes. Tsunamis. Stock Market crashes. Robbery. Embezzlement. Illness. Disability. One day your assets may look sufficient to carry you through many years. And the next you might lose everything. As Proverbs 23:5 says, “Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle.” So do not set your security on the uncertainty of worldly assets, but the certainty of a faithful God (1 Timothy 6:17).

So as you sit down to eat today, surely give thanks to God for His provision. But also, when you wake tomorrow morning, ask your heavenly Father to provide the food you need for that day. Acknowledge that apart from His provision, you would have nothing. Look to Him as your security, as your hope, as your joy. Admit your dependence. Ask – and He will provide all you need to fulfill His purposes.

Why a Mediator?

August 7, 2009

1 Timothy 2:5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,
John 14:6 I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

What does it mean to say that Christ Jesus is our mediator?

We frequently think of Jesus’ mediation as being necessary for our salvation; He died on the cross to pay the penalty for all the sins of all who repent and believe in Him. So, in last Sunday’s sermon, we considered the biblical image of the courtroom, with each of us standing accused of crimes for which we are guilty. Satan, the Accuser, lists them one by one – but for those in Him, Jesus, the Mediator, the Substitute, responds to each accusation by declaring, “Forgiven, by my blood!” Christ, our Mediator, covers those sins and keeps’ God’s justice from requiring of us the fair punishment of an eternity in hell.

But Jesus’ mediation accomplishes much more than keeping us out of hell. Through His work, we who once were God’s enemies are now in His family. We are loved by Him; we are His little children, His joy, His delight. As Jesus welcomes the little children to come to Him, God the Father rejoices to have us approach Him, confident in His love.

Yet ponder this thought: This loving relationship is for those who are in Christ. In Christ, we can come into God’s presence – for God then looks at us and sees Jesus’ perfect life, not our sins. In Christ we can (and must!) speak to God, presenting any and all requests to Him – for we ask in Jesus’ Name, that is by His mediation and intercession. In Christ we offer all we are and do to God, presenting ourselves as living sacrifices – and, though even our best efforts are stained by sin, we are accepted by God as holy and acceptable because of Christ’s perfect life.

Ambrose, the fourth-century Bishop of Milan, put it this way:

Christ is our mouth by which we speak to the Father; our eye by which we see the Father; our right hand by which we offer ourselves to the Father. Save by his intercession neither we nor any saints have any intercourse with God.

Turn this over in your mind. Meditate on it. Apart from Christ, your relationship to God is solely that of condemned prisoner to Judge. You cannot speak to Him. You cannot see Him. You can do nothing for Him.

We speak to God, boldly approaching His throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16), because we have “a great high priest who has passed through the heavens” (Hebrews 4:14). We see God for Who He is because of Christ, “the exact imprint of His nature” (Hebrews 1:3); when we have seen Him, we have seen the Father (John 14:9). We can be the light and salt of the world, doing good deeds that glorify the Father (Matthew 5:13-16) only because Jesus has sent to us the Holy Spirit (John 14:12-18) – and He Himself intercedes to cover the remaining sinful aspects of even our best deeds.

Thus, the author of the letter to the Hebrews rejoices that Jesus “is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). He must always live, if we are to have a relationship with the Father – for we always need His intercession. We always need His mediation.

So dwell on this precious truth. Before God the Father, Jesus is your mouth. He is your eye. He is your right hand. In Him – and only in Him – God the Father is for you. He loves you. You are His precious little child. You are His delight.

Because of Christ Jesus.

What a Savior!

Prayer and a Clear Conscience

August 1, 2009

Last Sunday’s sermon focused on the importance of having a clear conscience before God, and discussed how to guard your conscience. In this sermon excerpt from 1981, John Piper helpfully draws the link between maintaining a clear conscience and being diligent in our prayers for others. See the entire sermon (text, audio) – Coty

1 Timothy 1:18 – 2:4 18 This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, 19 holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, 20 among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme. 2:1 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

[Paul] warns Timothy that, if you reject a good conscience, you may make shipwreck of your faith, like Hymenaeus and Alexander did. A good conscience is a conscience that does not condemn you for the things you do or don’t do. . . .
I think we can all understand this connection between a clear conscience and a vibrant faith if we just think about our own experience. . . . If I fall into a habit that my conscience condemns, what eventually happens is that my conscience begins to say, “Piper, all your talk about trusting Christ is a lot of hot air, because if you really trusted him, you wouldn’t go on in that behavior or that attitude.” And so a bad conscience begins to drill its little holes into the belly of the ship of faith until one of two things happen: either we confirm the genuineness of our faith by changing our ways and plugging up the holes of a bad conscience, or we show that our faith never was seaworthy and sink into unbelief and blasphemy like Hymenaeus and Alexander. So, Paul’s charge to Timothy to hold on to faith by keeping a good conscience is tremendously important, and any help Paul gives on how to keep a good conscience should be received with open arms.

That is what I think Paul does in verse 1 of chapter 2. Since you must keep a good conscience in order not to make shipwreck of faith, therefore I urge you first of all to pray for all men. At the top of Paul’s list of things that we must do in order to keep a clear conscience is to pray for other people. In order to see why failing to pray for people will lead to a bad conscience and so jeopardize our faith, we have to ask, “What is it that will prick a Christian’s conscience in his relations to other people?” The answer to that question is clear from the whole Bible. All God’s instruction is summed up in this: Love God with your whole being, and love your neighbor as yourself. Therefore, anything we do to people that is unloving will prick our conscience and threaten our faith. With that as a foundation we can start to see why prayer for other people is at the top of Paul’s list of things we must do in order to keep a clear conscience.

I see three reasons why prayer for other people is of first importance in keeping a clear conscience, in view of Jesus’ teaching that love is our greatest duty. First, prayer taps the power of God on behalf of others. We could try to help others . . . without praying for them. And, judged from a very limited perspective, we might do a little good that way. But the little good that we could do by our little power is not worthy to be compared with the great good God can do for people that he sets out to work for. So if we want the best for people, if we really love them, of first importance will be prayers on their behalf. . . .

A second reason prayer is of first importance in keeping a clear conscience is that it is the easiest step of love. . . . And isn’t it true that if you are unwilling to do something easy for the good of another, then it is very unlikely that you will be willing to do something hard for them? . . ..

And the third reason prayer is of first importance in keeping our consciences clear is that it reaches farther in its effects than anything else we can do. . . . Without it we can influence things nearby, and if we wait long enough, our influence may spread around the world. But God’s influence is everywhere and immediate, so if we send our signals to him, we can reach around the world in an instant. If a broadcaster wants to get a message to the most people possible in the smallest amount of time, he will send it first away from the people to a satellite. If a Christian wants to do the most good possible to the most people in the short time he has, he will turn to God first, whose influence reaches, without interruption, to every molecule and every mind in the universe.

So, if we would not make shipwreck of faith, we must keep a good conscience. And therefore, I urge you first of all to fulfill the love command by praying for all men, because prayer taps the power of God on their behalf, prayer is the first and easiest step of love, and prayer reaches farther in its good effects than anything else we can do.

By John Piper. Used by permission. © Desiring God. Website: desiringGod.org