A Prosperity Gospel?


Mark 10:27-31

Text Comment

v. 31

The sense is that those who take their stand on their riches or like worldly pleasures and possessions will in the end have nothing, while those who forsake everything to follow Jesus will not only be compensated for their losses but granted immeasurably greater things both in this world and the world to come. The kingdom of God takes from its citizens many things they are tempted to want to keep, but promises in return riches they can scarcely imagine.

The Lord’s statements about the difficulty of salvation and of the difficulty of salvation for rich people in particular had prompted questions in the minds of the disciples. The first question, reported in v. 26, had been “Who then can be saved?” To that Jesus had responded that God’s power makes possible what man finds impossible. So often in the Gospels, as here, the Lord teaches his disciples to look away from themselves to him; to trust him to provide what they lack. As surely as they couldn’t cure a leper or give sight to the blind, they were incapable of changing their hearts, or removing their guilt before God, or building a ladder that would reach heaven. Salvation is God’s gift and a work of God’s power and until a person understands that, he understands nothing. The whole problem with riches is that they engender self-confidence and self-confidence is fatal to a soul seeking salvation.

In reply to that Peter asks another question. It reads as a statement, but it is really a question. “We have left everything to follow you!” What is implied in Mark’s account is made explicit in Matthew’s. There Peter is reported as having said, “We have left everything to follow you. What then will there be for us?” The Lord had told the rich man to sell what he had, give it to the poor, and follow him. Peter is as much as saying – perhaps with a tinge of smugness – that he and the others had done precisely that. He wants to know what they will get who make the sacrifices the rich man was unwilling to make.

And the Lord’s reply in vv. 29 and 30 provides an account of the Christian life that requires careful thinking by devout minds truly to understand. It takes some time to explain the difficulty.

The Lord’s words, as you know, have been taken in different ways. Some – and they are, alas, very often the ones whose voices are heard most on Christian television and radio; and not in the United States only, but all over the world – take Jesus to mean that if you make sacrifices for his sake – and often the sacrifices required amount to sending money to the evangelist or his television ministry – Jesus will bless you with worldly riches. Does not Jesus say, “Give up something for me and you will get a hundred times as much in this world?” That means that if you give up your little house or your little car for Jesus you will get in return a very large home and a very fancy car. You may be persecuted as a Christian, but you can drive away from your enemies in a very nice automobile and lick your wounds sitting in a fancy deck chair beside the swimming pool of your spacious and beautiful home.

I am assuming that you appreciate that such is not the Lord’s meaning here. The Lord is speaking figuratively. I do not know if any of the twelve disciples owned even so much as a single field at his death. It is a virtual certainty that none owned one hundred fields. Some of them, so far as we can tell, did not have even so much as one permanent home. None was a wealthy man; certainly none was a real estate mogul. Some of them remained unmarried and hadn’t a family. Paul was such a man. So the hundred children promised Paul – for he was certainly a man who left everything to follow the Lord Jesus – certainly in his case were not members of his nuclear family. It is a deliberately insensitive, unimaginative and prejudiced reading of the Lord’s remarks here to imagine that the Lord meant to say that every man or woman committed to him would become wealthy as a result.

But if that is not what the Lord means, what does he mean? The first thing to notice about the Lord’s remarks to his disciples here is that they are very like what the Lord has always said to his people. It is sometimes alleged, even by some of our own men, that the promise of worldly or earthly reward was a characteristic of Old Testament religion and an evidence of the more juvenile character of the religious life that Moses taught. Believers in the ancient epoch needed the rather crude motivation of worldly prosperity to follow the Lord in obedience. In the new epoch, so we are told, our motivations are higher, more spiritual. They have more to do with love and gratitude and the promise of heaven than with hopes of earthly reward.

There are a number of serious problems with this way of thinking. The Bible, of course, never says this. It never teaches us that there is this difference between Old Testament and New Testament faith and life. It never teaches us to look down on the spiritual motivations of the ancient saints. Quite the contrary. The New Testament is always telling us to emulate them, to follow their example. It always assumes that their faith was the same as ours; their spiritual world the same as ours; and their motivations the same as ours.

But more to the point, the simple fact is that the Lord says the same thing to us in the New Testament that he said to them in the ancient scriptures. In the first 39 books of the Bible, even in the Ten Commandments, believers in the Lord were promised a long life if they proved themselves faithful to Yahweh’s covenant. In Ephesians 6:2 Paul cites the fifth commandment to the church’s children – “Honor your father and mother” – but then goes on to add that this is the first commandment with a promise. You should honor your parents “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy a long life on the earth.” Paul makes a little change in quoting the commandment – it is no longer a long life in the land the Lord your God will give you, but a long life on the earth – but nevertheless Paul adds the promise of earthly blessing to the obedience of Christian children in a Gentile church. In other words, Paul seems to think that the same promise of earthly reward made in the Old Testament applies in the New Testament.

In the Old Testament we read a number of times that faithfulness to the Lord will result in healthy lives. James makes much the same promise in the fifth chapter of his letter. Prayer offered in faith, he says, will make the sick person well.

Or we have Jesus himself in the Sermon on the Mount promising his disciples that if they seek first his kingdom and righteousness he will see to it that they have food, clothing, and shelter.

And then we have this promise of the hundred-fold reward to those who are faithful followers of the Lord: a hundred-fold reward explicitly in this present age.

There are many prejudices against the Old Testament in the minds of Christians that, in my opinion, result almost entirely from the simple fact that the Old Testament is larger and longer than the New. The Old Testament seems more legal to us because there is a great deal more law in it, chapters and chapters of laws. But the New Testament has plenty of law too; not so many chapters but enough. Or the Old Testament seems more ritualistic because there is so much more ritual in it: Exodus and Leviticus, with all of their ritual regulation, and so much in the prophets about right worship and the wrong way to make sacrifices. But, there is plenty of ritual in the New Testament as well. There is attention devoted to the Lord’s Supper, its rights and wrongs, the Lord’s Day, baptism, ordination, public worship – all the standard interests of the Old Testament – just fewer verses. Everything doesn’t have to be repeated. The New Testament doesn’t have to be as long as the Old. But it is manifestly the same teaching, it shows an interest in the same concerns, it just covers them in fewer verses.

And so here. There are whole chapters listing covenant blessings and curses, what the faithful will enjoy and what the unfaithful will suffer. There are long chapters in the prophets threatening earthly judgments of one kind or another – famine, the attack of enemies, even exile – and long chapters promising blessings of every kind if only God’s people would prove themselves faithful. And we find the same thing in the Psalms over and over again: the writer speaking of all that the Lord has given and all that he has taken away. But how is any of that different from what we read in the New Testament and especially in such a statement as the Lord makes here.

How is it different to read in Psalm 34:10: “those who seek the Lord lack no good thing,” and to read in Matt 6 that those who seek the kingdom of God have all good things added to them; or here in Mark 10 that those who follow the Lord faithfully and sacrificially will receive a hundred times as many of the things that matter to human beings in this world – family, friends, homes, fields – and in the world to come eternal life? The answer is: it isn’t any different. It is the same message. It is the same encouragement, the same promise, the same motivation.

It also takes the same spiritual sophistication to understand what is being promised as it always has. One thing any careful reader of the ancient scriptures certainly understood was that the promise of reward here in this world, in this life, did not mean that believers would not struggle, would not suffer loss, and would not find life painful in many ways.

In the same Psalm 34 in which we read in verse 10: “those who seek the Lord lack no good thing,” we later read in v. 19: “a righteous man may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from the all.” In the same psalm in which we read “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart,” (37:4) and “the meek will inherit the land” (v.11) – another promise the Lord repeats to his disciples in Matthew 5, as you remember – we also read “better the little that the righteous have than the wealth of many wicked” and “though [the righteous man] stumbles, he will not fall” (v. 23) and “The Lord helps [the righteous] and delivers them; he is their stronghold in time of trouble” (vv. 39-40).

We know of Abraham’s trials and those of Job, righteous men that they were. We know how godly men such as Obadiah and Jeremiah were caught up in the judgment that the Lord brought against the ungodly in Israel and Judah and lived difficult lives through no fault of their own.
And, as we said, it is not different in the new epoch. The lives of Christians were often very difficult. Some of them were martyred for their faith, some imprisoned, some suffered the loss of their homes. A great many of them in those early centuries lost a husband or wife and certainly lost friends who now despised them for what they thought was a silly and superstitious devotion to a dead Jewish rabbi.

But, you see, isn’t that precisely what Jesus said here. He is talking about being a faithful disciple and seems to assume that in one way or another, to one degree or another that will mean leaving home, losing one’s family – children, brothers and sisters, mother or father – one’s fields – which is to say one’s livelihood, one’s income, one’s equity – for the sake of loyalty to Jesus.

The last thing we can understand Jesus to be saying to us here is that faithful Christians will live a trouble-free life. The Lord’s remarks are, in fact, the direct contradiction of that conclusion. The promise is that the Christian’s troubles – and the troubles listed here are severe ones indeed and are likely to bring pain throughout the entire course of one’s life – will be compensated by the Lord’s much greater blessing. One doesn’t lose one’s children or siblings for Christ’s sake and not feel that loss for the remainder of one’s life. But God will not leave his faithful children without demonstrations of his love and abundant evidence that no loss suffered for Jesus sake will ever be regretted. From the beginning of the Bible the sacrifices likely to be required have been described in largely material terms, such as Jesus uses here – health, long life, prosperity, marriage, family, and the like – but one doesn’t read long in the Bible to gather that these things stand for the whole class of sorrows and sacrifices that Christians must make to remain faithful to the Lord in this world of sin, unbelief, and death.

Scarcely a week goes by that I do not hear of losses that Christians have suffered because they are Christians. I hear of people who have lost good jobs because they were being required at work to do what their Lord and Master forbids. I hear of wives whose husbands have divorced them because the women became Christians and began to follow the Lord in the ways faithful Christians do. I hear of Christian college students who lose friends because they are unwilling to join in or approve of the behavior of their dorm-mates.

But such sacrifices, real as they are and great as they are, are only representative. There is a world of sacrifice that Christ’s faithful disciples make that only heaven knows, sacrifices made in silence and in the heart. Hopes long cherished, laid on the altar of the love of Christ; sins and temptations battled long into the night and through the following day; a cheerful submission to some unwelcome providence of the Lord, a submission won through a struggle no one else can really understand or appreciate; the exhausting labors of men and women who have continued to serve the Lord when others had long since retired to sleep or entertainment.

We know of these sacrifices and of their cost. Anyone who has been a Christian for any length of time, anyone who has read church history, anyone who observes the lives of faithful followers of Jesus knows of the leaving of home and family and fields for Jesus’ sake. We understand why Christians make them. We want, we really want, to be numbered among those who suffer losses for Jesus’ sake because such sacrifices are the surest measure of love.

So far we haven’t a real problem with what the Lord has said. The problem comes from the fact that it is not only the sacrifices that tend to be described in terms of outward, measurable, and material things. The promised rewards tend in the Bible to be described in the same way. The problem, and it has been a problem throughout the ages, is in the promise of the hundred-fold return in this present age. We are not troubled by the houses and fields part. We are not likely to be suckered by a TV preacher who promises that if we give to his ministry we can expect that a fat envelope full of cash will soon be stuffed into our mailbox or that all our financial troubles will soon be over. We are Bible readers. We know better than that. Nor are we troubled by the eternal life part. All things will be wonderful in heaven; we have no doubt about that.

But the Lord did mean something when he said that he would give us a hundred times as much as we sacrificed for his sake and give it to us in this present life. And a hundred times as much should be something rather easy to see, should it not? It is here where a great many Christians struggle and where I think every Christian struggles from time to time. They have a hard time believing that the Lord has kept this promise to them. They have lived a devoted Christian life, they have sought to love and serve the Lord but they cannot see the hundred fold return. They weren’t expecting and aren’t asking for fields and homes. They want to marry or have a happy marriage; or they want children, or they want a decent job, or they want the Lord to help them surmount some besetting sin of theirs, or they want him to help them rise above some problems that they have, whether psychological, or spiritual, or physical or relational. They are entirely ready to face persecution for their Savior’s sake; some of them have already faced that. But they have for years longed for the hundred-fold return and it does not seem to them that the Lord has given it to them. That is their problem with this text. They have delighted themselves in the Lord and he has not given them the desires of their heart.

There is something objective and realistic and understandable and predictable about this confusion and the proof of that is that believers have struggled at precisely this point from the very beginning. We find that struggle in Job, we find it over and over again in the Psalms, we find it everywhere in the Bible. Where is the Lord’s hundred-fold? The author of the immortal 73rd Psalm, a substantial believer with a long history of thoughtful godliness, nevertheless struggled at just this point. It seemed to him, as he looked around himself, that believers were not only no better off than unbelievers; their lives were often more difficult, more painful, more sorrowful. Where was the hundred-fold, the blessings promised to those who lived in faithfulness to God’s covenant?

Paul quoted the fifth commandment to the children and young people of the church in Ephesus and reminded them that children who honor their parents have the promise of enjoying a long life on the earth. But my brother-in-law, a PCA pastor, died at 42 years of age; my sister at 49.

I remember distinctly sitting at kitchen table in Columbia, S.C. a few years ago. The pastor of the church at which I was preaching was telling me and our hosts of the sad visit he had paid to a young mother in the church who the day before had lost her young husband, a doctor, to cancer. They had little children and she was now a widow in her later twenties and a young mother. And she had asked her pastor the question we would have expected her to ask. How could this have happened? Didn’t the Lord promise good things, long life to those who love and serve him? They were devout believers, committed Christians. They were intending to raise their children in the nurture and discipline of the Lord. Where was their hundred-fold? The pastor had said to her that those promises of blessing that she was thinking of were general in nature and didn’t hold in every case. Most Christians live long lives, have happy marriages, watch their children grow up to be happy and healthy adults, are reasonably prosperous and so on, but not all Christians enjoy such lives. Well, it is obviously true that some Christians die young, some suffer unemployment or trouble in their marriage, some are afflicted with disease or with troubles in the soul and for some of them life is a long struggle. I accept that. It is a fact both of biblical teaching and the observation of life.

But I disagreed with the minister about his explanation to the bereaved young mother. I said I couldn’t accept that these promises were only generalities. That they held only in a proverbial sense: that they were usually but not always true. I said, these promises are everywhere in the Bible, they are imbedded in the most theological portions of the Bible and are related to the most fundamental considerations of God’s faithfulness and the meaning of salvation. I said you can’t read such a text as this one in Mark 10 and imagine Jesus inserting a “probably” or a “very likely” before the “will receive a hundred times” at the beginning of v. 30. You can no more put a “probably” there than you could alter Paul’s statements to read, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you probably will be saved” or “To live is Christ and to die is probably gain.”

It is interesting that the man who wrote Psalm 73 tells us that he found his head cleared and the confusion and despair of his heart simply swept away while he was in a worship service and that he left the sanctuary that day six inches off the ground not because the Lord had changed any one of his circumstances or that he had received some new promise of more money or a new house or healing or the solution to some problem he was facing. He left that church that day his headwaters and his heart a fountain of love because he had realized anew and afresh how impossibly wonderful a thing it was to know God, to live in communion with God, and to be going to heaven. The physical circumstances of his life were unchanged before and after. But he realized that he had received the hundred-fold, far more than the hundred-fold! He had struggled precisely because he had forgotten what the Lord had given him in return for his faith and his obedience. In fact, it is very interesting that near the end of that 73rd Psalm the man says that he realized anew and afresh and remembered that the Lord was his portion. “Portion,” you know, is a technical term in the Law of Moses for the share of the Promised Land that was apportioned to each Israelite family. It is as if the man were saying that he had received his hundred-fold of fields already in return; the Lord himself was his fields, his property, and his home. In other words, the man realized that he had been looking for his hundred-fold return when he already had it!

I won’t forget until the day I die that day I couldn’t find my glasses. I looked high and low for those spectacles. I looked upstairs and downstairs and I was going over my bedroom for the second time and down on my hands and knees to look under the bed to see if they might have somehow been kicked underneath, when I accidentally brought my hand up and hit the edge of my spectacles. I had been looking for my glasses and had them on the entire time. Now you might very well say “How could you not have known that you were able to see so well to look for your glasses only because you had glasses on?” That would be a very good question. It would be precisely the question the author of Psalm 73 would have put to himself that night when he got home. “How could I possibly not have seen what the Lord has already lavished on me and what it means that so much that is impossibly wonderful is yet to be mine?”

And the fact is, you can ask any serious, experienced Christian and you will hear the same thing. They may admit that there were times when they struggled to realize this, as I supposed every believer does from time to time – we live by faith and not by sight – but they will tell you that they know very well that the Lord has returned an overabundance of the most marvelous things because they trust in him. To know God himself, the living God, the Almighty; to know him, for him to call you by name and to make you his child, to have him as your father in heaven; to have his Word to guide your steps through this dark world, to have the Holy Spirit accompany you every step of the way through this vale of tears, to know the fellowship of the saints, the joy of salvation, to be assured of the forgiveness of your sins; to have the satisfaction, the impossibly great satisfaction of living for the highest conceivable purposes, to be able to face death without fear, to know that God is pledged to your children and he is to yourself; I say, these are blessings compared to which a hundred actual fields are just so much fuss and bother.

Think of the disciples to whom the Lord originally made this statement: Peter, James, John, and the rest. Do you think it ever occurred to any one of them to think that the Lord had not repaid them a hundred-fold? I promise you, Peter’s face reddened more than once telling the story of how he had said on this occasion to the Lord Jesus himself, “We have left everything to follow you!” He would tell congregations great and small, “I’m mortified to have to admit it, but that is what I said. But let me tell you, the Lord spoke only the half of it in reply to me. It hasn’t been a hundred-fold that I have received; more like a thousand-fold or ten thousand-fold if you ask me. I think of what my life would have been and the life of my wife and children had I never met the Lord Christ, and I shudder. All the homes that I have been in and that are now open to me all over the world; all of the homes in which I can remember sitting at a table talking about Jesus and eternity; all the brothers and sisters around the world that I know and love, all my children in the faith, all the fields, the places where I have worked on behalf of the kingdom of God and seen his Holy Spirit at work through me – the persecutions; yes there have been those too and will be more – but I wouldn’t exchange this life for anyone’s life, however wealthy, however comfortable. Christ has enriched it and ennobled it beyond anything I could possibly have imagined when at first I started this journey with him. And as for the comfort, well there will be more than enough of that in heaven.

That is what they say, that is what every one says, who leaves home, family, and fields for Jesus sake. The Lord Jesus is saying to us this morning: You will never give up enough for me; you will never come close to giving up enough for me so that I will be in your debt. I will always repay far beyond your investment. I will in this world and I will in the next. But is that true? Do we know that that is true? Can we count on it being true?

Finding, following, keeping, struggling,
Is he sure to bless?
Saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs,
Answer, “Yes!”