By Pastor Cherie Dearth
We are continuing our sermon series The Bible Doesn’t Say That. The first week we looked at the phrase God helps those who help themselves. We learned that what the Bible really says is that God helps those who cannot help themselves, and we all fit into that category at times. The second week we looked at the phrase Follow Your Heart, but what the Bible really teaches is that we need to Follow God. Now this week, we are looking at the idea that Obedience to God Leads to Financial Blessings. This phrase can also communicate that if you don’t have money, you must not be obedient to God, or you must be sinning.
That is one of the problems with the so-called Prosperity Gospel. It implies that it is all within our grasp, within our control, and as many of us know – some better than others – that is not so. Many of us would say, “I don’t believe in the Prosperity Gospel”, but we act and think as if we do. If we or our friends receive a financial windfall, we may refer to it as being “blessed.” If a person has a financial setback, property damage, lost their job, we may not go so far as saying that that person was\“cursed”- though some might -but most of us would not say that that person has been “blessed.”
This implies a transactional relationship with God. If I do this for God or obey God, then God will do that for me. That is not how God’s grace works. If you have a relationship with Jesus Christ, you have been blessed. The classic explanation comes from Romans 5:8, and it forms part of our communion service each month. The Apostle Paul says, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
“While we were still sinners”… before we knew God, before we knew the difference between right and wrong, before we had any desire to please God, before all of that Christ died for us. We couldn’t possibly have earned it or worked for it because we didn’t even know that it was needed or available.
Think about the Apostle Paul who is writing this. Initially, he was someone greatly opposed to Jesus and the people who followed him. He was there and approved when Stephen was stoned. When he had his conversion experience, he was traveling to Damascus to arrest followers of Jesus.
Before he was even aware of Jesus, of who he really was, Jesus Christ died for him! He may have been one of the people in the crowd with Pontius Pilate shouting, “Crucify him!” He may have been miles away. Either way, while he was sinning, the man who wrote this passage in Romans, Christ died for him. In other words, he knew the magnitude of what he was saying, and it was in no way hyperbole. He calls himself the chief of all sinners (c.f. 1st Timothy 1:15), but really he was no worse than the rest of us. In any case, he knows that he did not earn his forgiveness, his pardon, his righteousness, despite his best efforts.
The grace of God cannot be earned. As Paul says in Romans 4:4, “When a person works, their wages are not credited to them as a gift, but as an obligation. However to the one who does not work but trust God who justifies the wicked, their faith is credited as righteousness ”(Romans4:4-5).
Here when Paul is talking about work, he is talking about people trying to earn, build up credit toward, their right relationship with God. We can’t do it. We could never do enough to earn it, but thanks to Jesus, we don’t have to. It is grace. It is a free gift. If we do good things, it is in response to this gift. It is not to earn it.
Today’s scripture passage comes from another one of Paul’s letters, the one to the church in Philippi. It is significant to know that he is in prison at the time. We may find it ironic, but one of the main themes of this letter is joy. In this passage, Paul is thanking them for a financial gift that they sent to him while he is in prison. It is Philippians 4:10-13.
Philippians 4:10-13 NIV
10 I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
As I said, Paul was in prison when he wrote this letter. Some think he was in Ephesus and others and Rome. That is less important than understanding that prisons in that time we’re not like our prisons in the United States today. We may think that they are bad enough, and they are. Are there any of us anxious to go to prison no matter how nice they may be? I know that I am not.
However, in Paul’s time, they wouldn’t provide meals; you had to pay for that yourself. You might have to bribe the guards in order to have visitors. They may not have thought of it as a bribe, but a “fee.” They did not know about what we consider basic hygiene, and you would have to pay if you wanted a better cell. In other words, surviving in a prison could cost a lot of money. In other letters, Paul seems to take pride and being able to support himself through his tent making business. He agrees that people should be paid, but he doesn’t need it (c.f. 1 Cor 9:1-18, Acts 18:1-4).
Now Paul does not have the ability to earn money, and the Philippians have sent him this gift. He is very grateful. But he says this extraordinary thing .“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation...I can do all things through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:12-1).
That last part is a verse that often gets taken out of context. “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” You may be more familiar with the King James Version, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Looking at it on its own, it can look like a blank check. I can do whatever I want. I will be successful and all my endeavors through the power of Christ, who is on my side. It actually can sound like it supports the phrase we looked at a couple of weeks ago, God helps those who help themselves.
In actuality, it is saying the exact opposite. It is saying, I can endure all that I’m faced with because God because Christ has given me strength. That is why the NIV translation we have in our Pew Bibles is far more helpful to us here. “I can do all this… through him who gives me strength.” [Emphasis mine.]
There’s one thing we can see here. Paul was as obedient as a person can hope for. Before he understood the truth of Jesus, he tried to diligently follow the Law. Once he received the gospel, he just as diligently, just as passionately, studied it and then went out to spread it. He had great success, as we know. We would not have the church we have now without his work. He also had astounding failures. He was driven out of towns, stoned, shipwrecked, and thrown into prison multiple times, all associated with his efforts to spread the gospel. He even spread the gospel while in prison to the guards and other prisoners.
There were times when he was affluent and privileged. There were times when he was poor, destitute, and oppressed. All of it was due to his obedience, his desire, to do all he could for the Lord.
Why would people in Paul’s day think that wealth and power were rewards from God for righteous living? And, these have come down to us. First of all in Proverbs, very close to the passage we looked at last week, in chapter 3:1-2 it says, “Keep my commands in your heart, for they will prolong your life many years and bring you prosperity.”
In 1 Kings 3:13-14, we have King Solomon a new king who is fairly young asking for a discerning heart, a listening heart, listening to all sides to come to a wise decision, but God gives him more. God says, “ Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for dash both riches and honor – so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings. And if you walk in my ways and statutes and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life.”
The wealth seems like a reward. However the trade-off for obedience was long life not wealth. But so what if it was? God can do what God wants. ‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Exodus 33:19). This is not transactional. It is God’s sovereignty. He can do what he wants. Paul quotes this in Romans 9:15, followed by in Romans 9:16, “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.”
In the Old Testament the constant refrain in the Law is…“For you were once slaves in Egypt.” By definition, poor and powerless. Obedience does not guarantee affluence. Moses was in Pharaoh’s house and wealthy. He met God when he was a poor shepherd.
Deuteronomy 28 is titled in our NIV Bibles Blessings for Obedience. This could sound confusing if there is a presumption that wealth is a blessing. It says,
“If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God… The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock Dash the Cavs of your herds in the Lambs of your flocks. Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed… The Lord will send a blessing on everything you put your hand to”(Deut 28:1-8).
The thing to know though is that this is a promise to the nation as a whole, and not to individuals.
It has been said that the United States has been blessed financially because it is a Christian nation. The United States does have wealth, and I admire many of the founders of the nation, but many of them were not really Christians at all. They were deists as we talked about a couple of weeks ago.
In the Second Great Awakening in the mid-eighteen hundreds,there was a great growth in the church in the United States. People were passionately following God, but this happened just before a bloody civil war where unspeakable things were done over a hateful institution. Moreover, it was expensive. The United States has had its times of financial ups and downs. It may be a wealthy nation relative to the other nations in the world right now, but it is immaterial as to whether it is a Christian nation.
Even the Old Testament Law did not condemn the poor. You would think that it would if obedience meant prosperity. In Leviticus 19:10, it says to leave anything missed during the Harvest in the vineyard for the poor. Leviticus 23:22 basically says the same thing for fields of crops.
We also know that Jesus had incredible compassion on the poor. In fact, they made up the bulk of the people who followed him during his Earthly Ministry. Remember, the feeding of the 5000 in the 4000. That was prompted by Jesus’s compassion. The raising of the widow’s son in Luke (7:11-17). The widow would likely be destitute without the support of her son. There were no retirement plans in those days. You expected your children to take care of you. The poor appreciated what Jesus did for them.
Often people with a lot of resources can feel self-sufficient, and therefore don’t need God. The poor rarely feel that way.
Jesus told stories and parables highlighting rich people who thought that their affluence was a sign of God’s favor, a reward for obedience. One story that comes to mind is the rich man and Lazarus in Luke chapter 16:
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.
23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire. ’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.
26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered ,‘ Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family,
28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham replied, They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them. ’
30 “No, father Abraham,’he said,‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”
This story tells us many things, but one of them is that wealth is no sure sign of obedience or God’s reward.
Neither should we say that poverty is a badge of honor. It is merely a state any of us can find ourselves in. We certainly have our examples of the affluent following Jesus. Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, Matthew and Zacchaeus the tax collectors.
John Wesley and many of his early followers made a fair amount of money. One of his mottos was: Earn all you can. Save all you can, and give all you can. He said that having money was an opportunity to do more for other people.
Any of you who lived through the Great Depression or the more recent Great Recession know that once financial situation can change in the blink of an eye through no fault of one’s own. Savings and stock portfolios can disappear in a day. The losses of others can mean that we lose our jobs, the factory shuts down. Our situation changes drastically. Does this mean that we have been bad? Well, if it was because we embezzled funds or broke the law at my, but usually not.
Paul’s circumstances changed quite often, but he learned the secret or true blessing, to be at peace regardless of the situation. This is a sign of Christian maturity, something we all probably could be better at. Knowing with confidence that God loves us and has blessed us in measurably, “whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. [We] can do all this through him who gives [us] strength!” (Philippians 4:12-13)
Praise be to God! Amen!