Last post I wrote about the importance of adhering to the "apostolic pattern of sound teaching", if we are to understand the Bible and accurately communicate its essential message to others. The cover story of the latest issue of Time Magazine (September 18, 2006) provides a classic example of the very thing I am talking about. Entitled: "Does God Want You To Be Rich?" it does a good job of tracing out the confusing and contradictory messages that can be heard coming from some evangelical pulpits today. On the one side there are an array of "prosperity" preachers, some of whom pastor some of the largest churches in the world. Opposing them are those who do not believe that the gospel message is one of material prosperity and wealth. In between is a skeptical world and a bewildered Christian public who is often not sure what to think.
In a graphic, cleverly labelled, "Verses Versus Verses", the authors, David Van Biema and Jeff Chu, have set opposite one another Bible verses that seem to teach distinctly different things about material possessions. In support of prosperity teaching are Deuteronomy 8:17-18, Ecclesiastes 5:18-19, Malachi 3:10, Luke 6:38, John 10:10; and pointing in another direction are Psalm 49:16-20, Matthew 6:19-21, Mark 10:24-26, Luke 12:33 and James 5:1-3.
No wonder people get confused with this kind of didactic dueling! Given this kind of interpretive morass it should come as no surprise that some people believe that trying to answer these questions is a waste of time. To them, there is no one answer. The Bible is either hopelessly confusing, or it teaches many different things and we are allowed to pick and choose what suits our way of thinking and our particular style of ministry.
This is where "the pattern of sound teaching" (2 Timothy 1:13) is invaluable. Anyone can prove anything from the Bible if they ignore the pattern of sound teaching that is embedded in the Bible as a whole. If we fail to see the progressive nature of God's revelation and the way it is ultimately focused and fulfilled in Jesus Christ, we will twist and distort the Scriptures beyond recognition. Although the Bible is composed of 66 different books, it is one book which has been given to us by God. Therefore, it cannot teach things that are truly contradictory. Some statements and verses may appear to contradict others, but that is always a problem with our understanding and interpretation; it is never a problem with the word of God itself.
Does God want you to be rich? The simple answer is yes; IF, by riches you mean everything that is treasured up for his people in his Son, the Lord Jesus. But I must quickly add that this does not mean material wealth and prosperity for all in this life. Riches and wealth are not always a blessing, as is commonly assumed today. Sometimes God gives people wealth in preparation for judgment and destruction so as to leave them without excuse. Other times he uses material things to test our loyalty to him. He tries us to find out if we love him more than his gifts. And to see if we trust him no matter what comes our way. The simplistic equating of material riches with God's approval and blessing flies in the face of the pattern of sound teaching in the Bible.
But this should not overshadow the wonderful gospel truth that there is abundant life to be had in Christ. The forgiveness of our sins, peace with God, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the promise of life which we begin to experience now and will continue to experience in an even great way in the new heavens and earth. We are rich if we are in Christ, no matter what our financial advisor might say. And we are completely bankrupt if we are outside of Christ even if we have money to spend on all the toys available to us in this part of the world.
Was the apostle Paul a rich man who was walking in the blessing of God even though his final days where spent in a Roman dungeon without friends, warm clothes and books to read? To ask the question is to answer it if we know anything about the pattern of sound teaching! Listen to Paul again as he writes to Timothy just days or weeks before his execution: "Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, in keeping with the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, To Timothy, my dear son: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord... for I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day -- and not only to me, but also to who have longed for his appearing" (2 Timothy 1:1-2; 4:6-8).