Prosperity Gospel (PG), sometimes referred to as Word-Faith Gospel or Health & Wealth Gospel, embraces the notion that those who are saved received material blessing or abundance as part of the salvific blessing. They appeal to numerous passages in the Old and New Testament to support their position, and they are not wrong in their assertion that God will restore the abundance of his creation for us as part of his saving grace. However, like a one-legged man trying to swing dance, their timing is the biggest problem.
The most famous PG preacher, TD Jakes, just this year turned to Matthew 14 (John 6, Mark 6 & Luke 9) and the story of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 to justify his theology of prosperity. Let’s take a look at John’s account of this miracle to help us understand the connection between PG and poor eschatology (pun intended). John 6:
Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), 2 and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. 3 Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. 4 The Jewish Passover Festival was near.
5 When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.
7 Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”
8 Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, 9 “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”
10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). 11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.
12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.
14 After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.
Before delving into the specifics of this, or any passage, it is critical to take stock of the environment in which it sits. To understand what an author is doing with their words in a particular part of their writing you must account for the whole. As a quick example of what I mean, in order to understand what I mean by the sentence “It’s raining outside today” it would be important to have the context. If I was addressing my 3 year old son with a picnic basket in my hand, one would be conducting hermeneutical violence to my sentence if you interpreted my assertion about rain as a positive weather report. Similarly, if I was a corn farmer in southern Illinois suffering from drought, it would be an act of hermeneutical violence to interpret my words as a negative weather report. Interpreting scripture is no different. So before parsing John 6 let’s take a quick look at the context.
In the closing material of John 5 Jesus identifies himself with the Son of Man, and while scholarship puzzles over the use of this title (Son of Man) by the gospel writers, the most straightforward understanding is to read Daniel 7 as the background of Jesus’ self-identification. Recall that Daniel 7 is the vision regarding “one like the son of man,” his victory over the beastly creatures arising out of the sea, his enthronement at the right hand of the Ancient of Days, and his inheritance of an everlasting kingdom. This passage, and the whole book of Daniel, is a prophetic piece of literature primarily aimed at comforting Israel during their exile with words and images of YHWH’s deliverance from the exile and restoration of the kingdom to Israel. In person and work of Jesus, the moment of Israel’s restoration had come, and it is this mission, completing Israel’s story, that establishes the necessary background for understanding Jesus’ life and ministry.
Back to John 5, Jesus teaches his disciples that his authority is derived from his Father, just as the “one like a son of man” derives his from the Ancient of Days. His judgement and his mission is that of his Father’s judgement and mission. Jesus goes on to teach that the time of the resurrection (the only book of the OT to mention the resurrection was Daniel) was coming; in other words, he was teaching them that the time of Israel’s deliverance from the beastly kingdoms, the time of the “one like the son of man’s” work, the time of YHWH’s visitation was upon them in by his own person and work. Interestingly, John closes this section with Jesus’ rebuke. Jesus says that Israel is searching the scriptures to see when all this will take place, but they are missing its fulfillment by rejecting him. Jesus rebukes them saying that it is Moses (or the writings of Moses) that are now condemning them.
With this backdrop John records the feeding of the 5,000 men. In this passage John notes that the time of the Passover Festival was near. John is not including this reference as a temporal marker (since the gospels are not written as chronological histories), but it is a reference designed to involved the readers in the heightened expectation for the messiah’s deliverance (one like the son of man). This reference, while somewhat lost on the average American reader in the 21st century, would not have been lost on a Jewish audience in the 1st century.
Then after all were the people were filled with the bread, Jesus instructs the disciples to gather the left overs, and they collect 12 baskets of bread. Why 12? Numbers in scripture are almost always symbolic, even if they have reference to real world events. Like Jesus’ choice to include 12 disciples into his inner circle, the 12 baskets are an unmistakable allusion to Israel (the 12 tribes). After Jesus’ discourse, the condemnation of Moses, the setting on a mountain, the feeding by bread, the 12 baskets of left overs, and the subsequent miracle of crossing over the water (Red Sea anyone?) the reader should be catching these numerous allusions to the story of Israel and God’s deliverance in the Exodus. The reader should be thinking along the lines of 1st century Jewish expectation for a New Exodus when “one like a son of man” appears. Any interpretation of this passage apart from the story of Israel and her eschatological expectations will do serious injustice to the text and authorial intentions.
This story, like so many of Jesus’ enacted parables, are not random stories of parlor tricks designed to wow and astonish us for their own sake, and they are not there simply to “prove Jesus was God,” even though he was. These miracles were designed to teach his Jewish audience that in his person and work the fulfillment of Israel’s story was at hand. Israel’s eschatological expectation was being fulfilled. And this miracle recorded in John is no different.
Israel’s eschatological expectation varied from group to group within Israel, but generally speaking it was that YHWH would come and visit judgement upon their enemies, forgive the sin’s of Israel that led them into exile, restore the Temple, give back the land and re-establish David’s line to the throne. During this time of restoration Israel would be blessed in every way; their return to the land was to be nothing short of Eden’s restoration, all of creation renewed.
John, in framing this story as he does, is saying something about the nature of Jesus’ person and work. John asserts that Jesus is the expected “one like a son of man,” who came to be associated with the messiah in Jewish literature, and he argues that Jesus is bringing the eschatological moment of YHWH’s visitation to Israel to restore her, bringing creational abundance. The problem most Jewish believers had in the 1st century was that they were expecting this eschatological moment of salvation to happen in one visitation, advent or eschatological event. But what happens in the gospels is that Jesus establishes the kingdom in and through his ministry, but there is a fulfillment of the kingdom yet to come at his second advent. Instead of one eschatological moment for the the people of God there will be two, and we the Church occupied that space of tension between the alreadiness of God’s provision and the not yetness of God’s provision. PG makes this same mistake.
Because of this miracle in John’s gospel (and other passages), PG argues that as Jesus provided abundantly during his ministry as a sign that the kingdom had come so we should expect God to continue with similar provision. PG is tempted into relieving the tension between the two advents or comings of Jesus, escaping the tension between the already nature of the kingdom and the not yet of the kingdom. They bring all of the future blessing promised by God into our immediate time . Their error is one of eschatology not soteriology because God does in fact what us to be healthy, wealthy and wise, but their error is one of timing. Please understand that I am not arguing that PG teaching does not have serious and negative implications for the shape and content of one’s gospel, but I am arguing that the error is structurally located in eschatology.
If any preacher points to a passage or a verse arguing God wants us healthy or wealthy as a normative state of being now if we’ll only have sufficient faith you should run, not walk, to the nearest exit. This teaching is not only well outside the mainstream of Christian tradition, but it is a serious problem of eschatology. Think of how such a message would be received by our poor brothers and sisters of Haiti, South America or Africa. Or think of how this message would have been received by Christians living in the Roman Empire prior to Constantine’s reign. The problem is that PG sets up believers for crushing disappointment with God, expecting what may only be delivered at Jesus’ second advent. God will deliver in abundance, of that you can be assured, but it may or may not happen when you want it or expect it.