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Sunday, February 9, 2014

Biblically Understanding the Prosperity Gospel

In a twitter conversation, a friend mentioned to me that the prosperity gospel is simply ancient pagan fertility religion (namely Ba’al worship) in a modern garb…which got me thinking.  In thinking about the Biblical classification of the Prosperity Gospel, I would have to suggest that it is a system of very old false religion, but not necessarily Ba’al worship.
Now, it’s fairly easy to see that the “gospel” of the prosperity gospel isn’t the biblical gospel, regardless of how some try to soft pedal it.  The “good news” isn’t the death/resurrection/ascension of Christ resulting in restoration with God, it’s the death/resurrection of Christ resulting in the restoration of your credit rating.  It’s also fairly easy to get the whole “Balaam” and materialism connection (2 Peter 2:15-16; Jude 1:11), and it’s easy to recognize that those who push the prosperity gospel are false teachers since those who use God as a means to get financial gain are, on the basis of that one characteristic, labelled “false teachers” in the New Testament (1 Tim. 6:3-10; 2 Peter 2:15-16; Jude 1:11).  Nobody gets into ministry to get rich, and those who do aren’t actually “in ministry”.
Still, the materialism thing isn’t the only error.  I was thinking about something different…something less overtly pagan. The prosperity gospel isn’t exactly the descendent of ancient fertility religions like Ba’al worship (though it’s really close), mainly because the prosperity gospel doesn’t worship Ba’al, or any other pagan deity by name.  The prosperity teachers worship a god whose name is the same as the God of the Bible; they claim that they worship Yahweh (or Jehovah, or whatever else they call him).  Their system of false religion is masquerading as Biblical Christianity; it’s not, but it loudly and proudly claims to be.  The prosperity gospel is actually an ideological descendant of the worship of the golden calf instituted by Aaron and the worship of the golden calves re-instituted by Jeroboam at Bethel and Dan.  You remember the passage I’m referring to?
Let me refresh your memory:
1.  While Moses was up on the mountain, the people wondered what happened to him and Yahweh.  Aaron likely wasn’t trying to get Israel to change their gods, he was just trying to give them a physical representation of their gods; an icon that they could see while Moses was gone…but things went sour real fast.  The people said “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Ex. 32:4) and then the following day they had a feast unto Yahweh that included burnt offerings, peace offering, food, drink, and what was likely some form of ambiguously described (it involved dancing, but possible more), but certainly wicked celebration (Ex. 32:5-6, 19).  It’s worth noticing that Exodus 32:19 says:
“And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain.”
It wasn’t just the idolatry that got Moses hot under the collar; there was something shockingly wicked about the way they were celebrating their new deity as well (but the Bible doesn’t clearly unpack exactly what that was).
Beyond that all, it’s interesting how Aaron somewhere knew that what he was doing was horribly wrong.  This is revealed through the fact that he tried to remove himself from the whole affair by claiming that the people forced him to lead them into idolatry (Ex. 32:22-23) and he even lied about the golden calf, trying to tell Moses that the calf basically made itself (32:24).  God doesn’t let Aaron get away this his change of story though, and assigns him appropriate blame (32:25), then the sons of Levi paid the price for participating in the sin (32:26-29) and God also punished the people directly for their idolatry and wicked worship (32:35).
In short, Israel worshiped a false god whom they called Yahweh, worshiped him in a wicked way, and the leader behind it all tried to play innocent.  Sound familiar?
2.  Jeroboam wasn’t trying to get Israel to change their gods either, he was just trying to give them a physical representation of their gods; icons that they could worship outside of Jerusalem so that the northern tribes wouldn’t be tempted to return to Jerusalem.  Once the kingdom had split Jeroboam knew that if the northern tribes returned to Jerusalem to worship, the people would remember their rebellion against their rightful king and they would want to reunite with the 2 southern tribes (1 Kings 12:27).  So, in a politically driven move to preserve the separation of the north and his own political power, Jeroboam did the following:
 So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan. Then this thing became a sin, for the people went as far as Dan to be before one.  He also made temples on high places and appointed priests from among all the people, who were not of the Levites. And Jeroboam appointed a feast on the fifteenth day of the eighth month like the feast that was in Judah, and he offered sacrifices on the altar. So he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves that he made. And he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places that he had made. He went up to the altar that he had made in Bethel on the fifteenth day in the eighth month, in the month that he had devised from his own heart. And he instituted a feast for the people of Israel and went up to the altar to make offerings. – 1 Kings 12:28-33
Jeroboam wasn’t trying to make a new religion.  He wanted something that felt like Judaism.  He made counterfeit gods, counterfeit temples, counterfeit priests, counterfeit feasts, and counterfeit sacrifices.  Notice how he described their gods as the ones “who brought you up out of the land of Egypt”?  That’s directly identifying the golden calves with Yahweh.  Not very subtle idolatry, but far more subtle than telling the Israelites to abandon Yahweh and worship a Philistine deity.
False religion peddled in God’s name isn’t quite Ba’al worship per say, but I would argue that God detests it equally, if not more.
Rremember what happened to Israel in the Exodus when Aaron led the swan-dive into idolatry?  Well, Jeroboam got a visit from a true prophet of God in 1 Kings 13.  That prophet condemned Jeroboam right in front of the altar while Jeroboam was in the act of idolatry (13:1-3).  Jeroboam tried to have him seized but Jeroboam’s hand shriveled up when he pointed his finger at the man (13:4).  Then, Jeroboam had a rather quick change of heart after his prophecy came to pass (13:5) and Jeroboam all of a sudden wanted the prophet to pray to Yahweh for him.  The prophet did and Jeroboam’s hand was restored (13:6), but then Jeroboam wanted the prophet to become part of his entourage and the prophet stalwartly refused (13:7-10).  Jeroboam knew full well that he was an idolater, and he knew that Yahweh was the only true God.  He just didn’t care until he needed Yahweh to do something for him, but when Yahweh healed him, Jeroboam didn’t repent (13:33-34).
Finally, remember how in Exodus 32 God struck Israel with a plague after 3,000 Israelites were slain?  Well, Jeroboam’s son Abijah fell sick so Jeroboam sent his wife in disguise to see the prophet Ahijah (the disguise was because his eyesight was bad in his old age and Jeroboam thought he could trick the prophet)…
…but it didn’t work.
The Lord told Ahijah who was at the door and Ahijah gave her a prophecy about her sick son:
“Come in, wife of Jeroboam. Why do you pretend to be another? For I am charged with unbearable news for you.Go, tell Jeroboam, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: “Because I exalted you from among the people and made you leader over my people Israel and tore the kingdom away from the house of David and gave it to you, and yet you have not been like my servant David, who kept my commandments and followed me with all his heart, doing only that which was right in my eyes, but you have done evil above all who were before you and have gone and made for yourself other gods and metal images, provoking me to anger, and have cast me behind your back, therefore behold, I will bring harm upon the house of Jeroboam and will cut off from Jeroboam every male, both bond and free in Israel, and will burn up the house of Jeroboam, as a man burns up dung until it is all gone. Anyone belonging to Jeroboam who dies in the city the dogs shall eat, and anyone who dies in the open country the birds of the heavens shall eat, for the Lord has spoken it. Arise therefore, go to your house. When your feet enter the city, the child shall die.” – 1 Kings 14:6-12
The Lord doesn’t take idolatry lightly, especially when it’s done in his name.  Remember that “Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites” (1 Kings 11:5) and “Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem” (1 Kings 11:7), and yet God said of Jeroboam that “you have done evil above all who were before you” (1 Kings 14:9).
Solomon didn’t have all his male offspring cut off for his blatant idolatry.
Solomon’s children who escaped the sword weren’t eaten by dogs or birds.
I’d dare say that God really doesn’t like people using his name to pedal false religion.
So, if I’m reading those two stories correctly, I’d have to suggest that the prosperity gospel isn’t actually a grandchild of ole’ fashioned Ba’al worship.  It’s false religion done in the name of Yahweh, but the real scary part is that makes it worse.  God really doesn’t like it when people use his name to make it appear that he is condoning something that he actually condemns.  As a matter of fact, he’s made that one of the ten commandments (Exodus 20:7).
I learned something in writing this blog post, and it’s not something that encourages me to take a softer approach to the prosperity gospel.  I’m starting to develop a solid understanding why Peter describes false teachers as “waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved” (2 Peter 2:17).  False teachers claim to be true teachers of Yahweh and promote, in the name of Yahweh, a system of worship that is actually idolatry; they claim to offer people the 1 truth that can save their souls but bring them a counterfeit (and inoculate them against the true gospel in the process).  It’s no wonder that they get the darkest part of hell.
Sobering and frightening words.
Until Next Time,
Lyndon “the health & wealth gospel is sick and bankrupt” Unger