Everyone, it seems, wants to be rich. Can a Christian be rich and still be a real Christian? After all, Jesus was poor. The Apostles were poor. Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all that he had and give to the poor. Not unreasonably, many people in Cyprus believe that a person cannot be both Christian and rich. So, while nearly all Greeks think of themselves as Christian, they are also afraid of being real Christians, because no one wants to be poor.
The Bible deals a lot with riches. The ideal in Proverbs is a middle amount of wealth. “Give me neither poverty nor riches – Feed me with the food you prescribe for me; lest I be full and deny You, And say, “Who is the Lord?” Or lest I be poor and steal, and profane the name of my God (Proverbs 30:8-9).” The Apostle Paul wrote that he had learned how to be content with both poverty and abundance. “I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity. I have learned the secret both of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:12-13).” Jesus had rich friends who helped support Him (see Luke 8:3). He did not tell them to give all their money away and be poor.
Wealth, according to the Bible, is like fire, good but dangerous. Everyone sees the good, so the Bible warns us about the danger. Danger one: the desire to get rich (I Timothy 6:10). Danger two: worry about money (Matthew 6:25-34). Danger three: trusting in wealth rather than God (Luke 12:16-21). Danger four: loving money as your god, when no man can actually serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). Danger five: using your money to oppress other people (James 2:6, Isaiah 3:15, Amos 2:6-7). Wise men fear the temptations that wealth brings.
The ideal rich man in the Bible is Job. He never loved his wealth more than God. He used it freely to help others (Job 31). But when he lost it all in one day, he still revered God. And after Job had proven his love for God, God made him rich again. So a man can be rich and love God. One can be a real Christian and be rich. But it is not easy, the Bible says, and experience confirms it. Jesus knew that the rich young ruler would not obey the most important thing he told him – “and come, follow me” – if he kept his wealth.
The goal of getting rich is a foolish goal. You can’t take it with you (I Timothy 6:7). No one needs to have millions of euros. A wise man prays for his daily bread. “And if we have food and covering, with these we shall be content (I Timothy 6:8).” A man can be rich and be one of God’s people. Abraham was a rich man. But a man cannot have a life goal of getting rich and be a Christian. The greatest goal the Creator gives to man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. It is not to get rich. One can indeed be rich and be a Christian, but one cannot worship God and Mammon (money). Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and do not worry what else gets added to you in this life, whether much or little. The reward that Christians seek is eternal life, the infinite and certain reward for all who believe in Jesus and obey Him as King.
More danger than blessing
The New Testament seems to show wealth more as a danger than as a blessing. It emphasises the dangers more than the desirability of wealth. Jesus set the tone for this emphasis with his statement, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24-25). This statement is cited in all three synoptic Gospels. But how often do we hear preachers repeat it today?
Let’s get back to the warnings. In 1 Timothy 6:9-10 Paul says:
But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
Another strong warning comes in the parable of the sower, where Jesus says about the seed sown among thorns, “The cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Mark 4:19). These two strong warnings tell us how the desire for wealth can cause huge harm by deceiving us into giving up God’s way for the way of supposed prosperity. Sadly, today we find so many people who have fallen into these very traps. They have ruined their spiritual lives and condemned themselves to an unhappy life. In light of such strong warnings about the dangers of desiring to be rich, backed by so many whose lives have been ruined in this way, preachers should be careful not to inflame that desire by promising wealth to their hearers.
Treasures in heaven
At the same time, the Bible does not give an entirely negative approach to the issue of wealth. Jesus said, “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matt. 6:20). This statement is made in the context of what to do with wealth. Using language familiar to people in the business world, Jesus advises that we make the smartest investment in the most secure place: heaven. Preachers should encourage Christians to pursue eternal prosperity.
We invest in the Bank of Heaven by giving to the needy. Earlier we observed that Paul said in 1 Timothy 6 that wealth is less important than godliness and contentment. Now he is saying that lavish generosity is also important. The many teachings in the Bible about giving show that, for a biblical Christian, this is one of the great ambitions in life. Paul says the Macedonian Christians were “begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints” (2 Cor. 8:4).
Example and hero
Sixth, many of the heroes and devoted people of the New Testament were poor. Jesus is our prime example and hero. He became poor so that we might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9). He “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Phil. 2:7). Some say that Jesus took on the curse so that we may not have to live under it, and therefore we will not suffer as he did. But in both these passages Jesus is presented to us as an example to follow. Paul even says that he desires to “share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10). There is a depth of oneness with Christ that we will experience only when we suffer as he did. And to us union with Christ is the greatest wealth.
There is no doubt that the Bible teaches that faithful people who are wealthy have an important role in God’s plan. Some exemplary people in the Bible, like Abraham (Gen 13:2), Barzillai (2 Sam. 19:32), the Shunemite woman who helped Elisha (2 Kings 4:8), and Joseph of Arimathea (Matt. 27:57), were specifically described as being wealthy. Enjoying the things that money can buy is not necessarily wrong. At the same time it is significant that each of these four godly wealthy people mentioned were commended for their generosity.
Wealthy Christians can honor Christ especially by being humble, generous, and godly while being wealthy. Poor Christians can honor him especially by being contented, full of faith, generous, and godly while being poor. It is clear that in the Bible wealth is far less important than contentment, joy, peace, holiness, love, and generosity. People with these characteristics are, according to the Bible, truly prosperous whether they are economically rich or poor.
Finally, history shows that some of the greatest growth of the church took place when the Christians were really poor and struggling. This was so recently in China, Nepal, and Korea (in the early years of church growth), and now in Iran where there is significant growth. Many qualities, such as child-like trust, are easier for the poor to grow in their lives. This is one reason why Christ said it was so hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.
Many of the commended followers of Jesus in the New Testament were poor. The Macedonians were heroes because they gave despite their poverty: “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part” (2 Cor. 8:1-3). The giving of these poor Christians is described using the word wealth. In a passage rebuking the church for considering the rich as superior to the poor, James says, “Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?” (Jas. 2:5). The poor believers were actually rich!
In the letters to the seven churches in Revelation, only two churches do not receive a rebuke. And both of them are described as not having what the world thinks of as material success. The first is the church in Smyrna. The angel talks of their “poverty” then immediately says, “But you are rich” (Rev. 2:9). The second is the church in Philadelphia, which is described as having “but little power” (Rev. 3:8). They were two rare exceptions of churches having God-approved lifestyles at a time of great compromise. And they were poor and powerless! Isn’t it interesting how the poor Christians in these passages are described in terms suggesting that they were wealthy? That sense of being wealthy constitutes an important aspect of the identity of a Christian. If we are happy about our identity, then we will surely be happy people.
The mother church in Jerusalem consisted mainly of poor people. So other churches had to help them. There is nothing to say that they were poor because of something wrong in their beliefs or actions. It was a time of economic hardship in Jerusalem, compounded by the fact that many retirees lost their social relief benefits when they became Christians. Therefore the Christians in Jerusalem had great economic needs that Christians in other parts of the world met through their missionary giving.
It is true that the Old Testament promises prosperity as one of the blessings of faithfulness to God (e.g. Deut. 28:11). But we must remember that these promises were made to a righteous nation under the Old Covenant. The Old Testament often describes the pain of righteous individuals in that nation who struggled with the fact that the wicked were prospering while they were not. Many of the laments in the Psalms mention this struggle. Psalm 73 is a classic. Here Asaph’s struggle over his lack of prosperity compared to the prosperity of the wicked is solved only after he realizes that God will judge the wicked with righteousness. The books of Job and Habakkuk highlight the faith of genuinely godly people who honor God by refusing to give up trusting in him in the midst of terrible suffering. The Old Testament then does not assure the righteous of prosperity. In fact, like the New Testament, it also warns people often of the dangers of prosperity (e.g. Deut. 6:10-25; 8:11-20; 32:15-18).
Culled from www.thegospelcoalition.org and www.geneva.edu
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