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It has been said that the Old Testament is a covenant of prosperity in which God blessed his people materially so they would be successful in the world. On the other hand, the New Testament has been called a covenant of adversity, in which God asks his people to deny themselves worldly success so they will be successful in his kingdom. There are also those who insist that God blesses his people today with material wealth as he did in the Old Testament; after all, the New Testament refers to God lavishing riches on his children.
What should we expect from God today? Does he pour immeasurable wealth on his people, or does he consider poverty a virtue? What does God have in mind when the New Testament refers to riches? What are the blessings of the new covenant? What are the evidences of a successful New Testament believer?
Deuteronomy 8:18 is an important and often-quoted verse: “But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today” (NIV). This verse reminds us that God gives us the ability to produce wealth, which is an important reminder to any believer who would feel proud of his accomplishments. The blessings and curses of the covenant described in Deuteronomy–the Mosaic covenant–related to success by the world’s standards: healthy crops and flocks, protection from enemies, prosperous work and so on.
Many people would extend the material prosperity of the Mosaic covenant into the new covenant that Jesus initiated. They point to such scriptures as 3 John 2: “Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers” (NKJV). Another significant verse is 1 Corinthians 16:2, “On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come.” (NKJV), which clearly states that God prospers his people materially. And there are many verses that address God’s riches, which he gives to his people.
I agree that we are no longer bound by the law of the Old Testament, because Jesus fulfilled that law. And because Jesus took the curse of the law upon himself, we do not receive the curse if we violate the law. But does that mean that only the blessings of the Mosaic covenant remain for us today? I don’t think that is a valid conclusion.
The Mosaic covenant was only one of a series of covenants between God and man recorded in the Old Testament. God also made covenants with Abraham and David, for example. He made another national covenant with the Israelites after the Mosaic covenant before they entered the Promised Land. The Old Testament prophets inform us that he will make still another covenant with Israel in the future (see Jeremiah 31:31-40). Each of these covenants supersedes earlier ones and brings Israel to a closer relationship with God.
In the same way, Jesus’ new covenant supersedes all other covenants for those who choose to accept it. The old covenants between God and man provided either blessings or curses, and the man’s performance determined which he received. The new covenant, instead, is based on God’s grace and our performance is a response to God’s grace, rather than a method for earning blessings. Those who would cling to the blessings of the old covenants also overlook the fact that Jesus changed the emphasis from a person’s external performance to his internal condition. In essence, Jesus made it more difficult to honor the covenant by escalating the requirements. Refraining from murder is no longer sufficient; now hatred is also forbidden. Not only is adultery taboo, but so is lust. Jesus taught that a man’s actions and external condition are not what make him righteous or sinful; this is the result of his internal condition. We recognize that what you are determines what you do, and Jesus shifted the emphasis to who you are.
In fact, the new covenant is entirely new, not just partially, so it has its own blessings and curses. It is reasonable, then, for the new covenant to have different standards for wealth and success than the old covenants. The new covenant even has a different purpose. It transforms people into the image of God, developing his character in them so they can perform his work in heaven and on earth, whereas the old covenants were intended primarily to establish a national presence on earth. Because the purposes, structures and requirements of the old and new covenants are radically different, you should not be surprised if their treatments of material wealth also are very different.
Even if his relationship with man changes with time, God himself never changes. Neither do his standards. So how does God view material wealth? When he describes the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21, he says the wall is “made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass” (Rev. 21:18). Every kind of precious stone decorates the foundations of the city walls. Each of the 12 gates consists of a single pearl and the city’s street is pure gold, as transparent as glass (21:21). God has a very utilitarian view of precious stones and metals such as gold. He apparently considers them the equivalent of concrete, steel and asphalt.
People usually measure their worth by how much they possess, so material wealth is important to humans. But God has worth simply because of who he is. He is God almighty, the supreme being, totally complete in himself. He needs no possessions to increase his worth, so material wealth has no value to him. If for some reason he wants more gold or platinum or granite or coal, he can create however much he wants.
Because the new covenant transforms people into the image of God, it also changes their attitudes, standards, perspectives and values. So what should your attitude be toward wealth and success? You obviously should not have the same attitude as non-Christians, so let us examine the New Testament’s position on material wealth and success.
There is an interesting list in Hebrews 11 that honors people for their faith. Some of those people voluntarily left what was rightfully theirs and others had it stripped from them. Some experienced mighty deliverance and others perished. Some experienced God’s power to overcome and others his power to endure to the awful end. It is significant that everyone God honors in this list lived under one of the various old covenants, which considered worldly success and material wealth as evidence of God’s blessing. Many were destitute, persecuted and mistreated, so by the standards of both the world and the covenant under which they lived, they would be considered failures. Yet God holds them up as examples for us.
Is God simply honoring them because they had such hard lives? Is he honoring them as compensation for what they experienced? No, God honors those people because they had a different perspective than the rest of the world. They knew there was something better, that by comparison the wealth and prestige available in this world are worthless. They considered themselves aliens and strangers on earth, even misfits. Although they lived under a materialistic covenant with God, they laid aside the material blessings to search for something better, which they never found in their lifetime. If God honors them for that attitude under a materialistic covenant, how much more would he honor that attitude under the new covenant?
In our culture success usually wears a dollar sign. We expect real success to produce wealth and a person’s wealth is often an indicator of their success. We consider success and wealth synonymous.
That kind of thinking limits the meaning of the word “success,” however. I have a rather large dictionary that gives three basic definitions for success, and only one of them relates to material wealth. The other definitions include such themes as accomplishing a goal or fulfilling a standard. Although our culture currently focuses on wealth as an indication of success, it recognizes a much broader definition.
The Bible uses a Greek word group that connotes success, and a little background may help you understand the emphasis of the words. The root word refers to a path, a road, or a journey. Figuratively it describes a procedure or manner in which something is done. You would use the word to describe someone’s path of life or manner of life, what they did or how they did it. One derivative is the word from which we get the English word “method.” That is, the root word for “success” and its derivatives generally relate to how one does something and have no direct bearing on material gain.
The only way to become successful is to know your purpose, set goals that will help you fulfill your purpose, then work toward those goals. True success is effectively using your skills to do kingdom work, which includes serving God and meeting the needs of other people. Kingdom success has no direct relationship with worldly success; those who are extremely successful in God’s kingdom are often failures in the world system. So it is very possible for you to be successful in God’s eyes without being a success in the world’s view.
God’s standard of success for you involves your becoming the person he created you to be and allowing him to use your unique abilities and personality to do his work through you. That requires a radical transformation in your mind.