How the Bible’s Irony Combats the Prosperity Gospel
Ups and Downs
Our life consists of ups and downs. We are usually surprised by both, but we should not be so surprised, since the Bible testifies that such ups and downs are part of the divinely designed warp and woof of life. This is true of both the believer in Christ and the unbeliever. But what may appear for the unbeliever as a positive upturn in life is sometimes really, from God’s view and plan, the beginning of a downturn in judgment. And what appears to be a downturn in the believer’s life is really an upturn in blessing.
These ups and downs involve ironic patterns. What is irony? Irony is the saying of something or the doing of something that implies its opposite. What is said or done really indicates the reverse of the saying or act. God deals with humans in primarily ironic ways. The Bible is a record of how God has so dealt with humans. There are two kinds of biblical or theological irony. There is retributive irony whereby God punishes people by the very means of their own sin. There is also redemptive irony whereby the faithful appear to be cursed, but as they persevere in faith, they are really in the midst of being blessed.1
Redemptive Reversals and the Ironic Overturning of Human Wisdom
G. K. Beale
A New Testament scholar shows how God has used irony throughout history in order to put his own wisdom and glory on display, using what is weak and foolish to accomplish his purposes.
There is a common belief among many Christians throughout the world that if they are faithful, God will reward their faith in this life with physical health and material prosperity. This is sometimes referred to as “the health and wealth gospel.” Even Christians who do not consciously hold to this prosperity view unconsciously sometimes assume its truth. Do many of us not believe that God will reward our faithful and hard work in business by blessing us with material prosperity?
The Pattern of Jesus’s Life
We need to be reminded of what Scripture says on this topic. The life of the Christian is based and modeled after the ironic pattern of Jesus Christ’s life. Christ did not receive material prosperity during his life, he persevered in his faith in spite of pressures to compromise, and was killed because of it. Nevertheless, his death was reversed into life and was overcome through resurrection. Jesus’s ironic overcoming is pictured in Revelation 5:5–6, 11–12:
Behold, the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah. . . . And I saw a Lamb standing, as if having been slain. . . . And I heard the voice of many angels . . . saying with a loud voice “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.”
Jesus conquered the forces of evil through both his death and resurrection. John first hears that Jesus overcame as a lion (Rev. 5:5), but when he sees a vision of his Lord, he perceives exactly in what manner Jesus won his victory: Jesus overcame by being overcome at the cross. The cross itself was an invisible victory over satanic forces and was subsequently expressed visibly in his resurrection body. So the Lamb slew his spiritual opponents by allowing himself to be slain temporarily (see Rev. 1:18; cf. Rev. 4:67 and Rev. 5:5–6 with Rev. 15:21). This is why immediately before his death he told his disciples, “Take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
The community of believers should reflect in themselves during the life of the church age the same paradoxical and cruciform pattern that their Lord showed during his life. We also must persevere in faith through temptations to compromise. When we remain steadfast in belief, we also, like our Savior, will suffer tribulation. Yet our victory lies in the continued maintenance of faith in the face of discouraging circumstances. Jesus says, “If any one wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). Christ is saying not merely that we should model our lives after his life but that it must be so modeled, and will be, if we are genuine believers. Christians must overcome through faith while suffering, as Jesus did. Revelation 14:4 says believers must “follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” In 1 Thessalonians 3:3, Paul says that Christians should “not be moved by these afflictions, for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this.” Believers during the church age are modelled after Christ’s suffering life, and, then, like him, they will be resurrected afterward and experience the health and wealth of the new creation.
The Christian Life Demands Faith
Even though we have begun to experience spiritual resurrection life with Christ, God places believers in situations of material need and suffering, and even death. The ironic situation of the Christian life is meant to induce faith in us; indeed, it demands faith from us! Without need our faith has difficulty growing. As was the case with Joseph in Egypt, so with Christians: “Many who are . . . last [will be] first” (Matt. 19:30), and “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43–44). It was only when Joseph lost what he thought was to be his life that he truly found his life, for “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:39; 25). Hence, the evil of Joseph’s bondage was ironically meant to bring about good.
Biblical principles such as overcoming through being overcome and becoming great by first being a servant are only two of the ways in which the New Testament speaks about the ironic Christian life. In 2 Corinthians 4:7–11 Paul explains how “the surpassing power belongs to God” and is expressed in the life of the believer:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.
Again, we find the repeated idea that Christian defeat and suffering is an imitation of Christ’s and that the Christian’s ultimate destiny is also patterned after that of Jesus: God will turn their defeat into victory and their suffering into the joy of triumph, if they continue in faith (2 Cor. 4:16–18).
No doubt, Satan wanted to destroy Paul with this thorn, but God’s purpose was to strengthen Paul’s faith and to humble him in order that the power of Christ would dwell in him (2 Cor. 12:9). Trials that come from Satan or the world may seem destructive, but God purposes that these same afflictions ultimately prove constructive. In the light of this, we can say with Paul, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9–10).
A Cruciform Life in Word and Deed
Christians are to reproduce in themselves the witness of Christ, both in word and lifestyle. They are to live a cruciform life in conformity to their crucified Savior. They also may be tempted to compromise and to take a low profile in this witnessing role, and when they resist temptation to compromise and faithfully persevere, they may suffer and appear defeated in the earthly sphere. Yet as long as they maintain their witness, they are spiritually reigning over Satan in the midst of apparent defeat, just as their Savior did.
John himself knew from personal experience what it means to exercise ironic kingly power in Jesus’s eschatological kingdom:
I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. (Rev. 1:9)
Here in John’s self-description is found in capsule form a picture of the Christian’s end-time kingship, which consists of three essential elements. (1) John had faithfully continued to witness about Jesus through his words and deeds, although he had been strongly pressured to quit giving such a witness. As a result, he suffered tribulation by being sentenced to exile on an island. It is probable that one of the ways in which he was tempted to compromise his testimony was by giving some formal, public acknowledgment that Caesar was Lord. Because he would not do so, he suffered apparent social and political defeat. (2) Nevertheless, his perseverance in faith and witnessing was evidence that (3) he was spiritually reigning in a kingdom with Christ. It certainly didn’t look like John was ruling as a king, but he really was because he was “in Jesus,” that is, in union with his Savior, which meant that he would “follow the lamb” (Rev. 14:4) in whatever ironic suffering path he trod.
Christians are to reproduce in themselves the witness of Christ, both in word and lifestyle.
Some of the Christians in Smyrna underwent economic deprivation due to their Christian witness (Rev. 2:8–11). In these Asia Minor cities, the major businesses or trades had organized trade unions or guilds (e.g., silversmiths, dyers of linens). Usually these unions had annual conventions or trade-union meetings in pagan temples, which all in a particular trade were expected to attend. One of the main activities at these annual meetings was to worship the idol-god who was supposedly responsible for protecting the economic prosperity of the trade. Often such worship was expressed through eating a meal dedicated to the guardian deity. Christians in Smyrna and Thyatira would not attend such meetings, since it would have compromised their Christian testimony. Consequently, they were excluded from union membership. Such exclusion, in essence, meant they could not practice their trade, since no one else would carry on business with them. Against this background, John’s description of believers in Smyrna should be more appreciated: “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich)” (Rev. 2:9). They were financially poor because they were rich in faith. They conquered spiritually by being economically conquered, and by persisting in faith they were reigning with Christ in the end-time kingdom (see likewise Rom. 8:35–37).
How should Christians in business today respond when their competitors are making huge profits through various unethical practices? Certainly they would be tempted to do likewise. But they spiritually overcome when they continue to maintain Christian integrity, while being overcome or suffering economically. When Christians exhibit such faithfulness in business dealings, they are exercising their eschatological and spiritual rule with Christ. I recollect a Christian accountant who worked for a car dealership. At one point, the boss told him to “doctor” the accounting books, so the dealership would not have to pay so much tax. The accountant refused. The boss asked him repeatedly to do this, but the accountant stood firm and refused. The boss then fired him for not following his orders. The accountant lost his job and appeared destitute, but, in reality, he was reigning with Christ and in the midst of being blessed for his faithful obedience to Christ.
Consequently, God produces physical or emotional weakness in order that spiritual strength will be produced. He puts us into situations of helplessness and tests us that we may trust him. Our faith will have difficulty growing if we are not put into circumstances in which we realize that we need God’s aid and must trust him for support.
True believers are like their representative Jesus Christ. The restorative irony displayed in Christ’s suffering life and death is also displayed in their lives because they are being conformed to Christ’s image (Rom. 8:29); that is, they live a cruciform life whereby their faith in the midst of their suffering indicates that they are winning spiritual victory in the midst of their seeming defeat. Such faith indicates that they are actually spiritually strong and on the road to ultimate victory, both spiritually and physically, in the new heavens and new earth.
God does often bless our efforts with material prosperity, but not because he is obliged to in response to a promise. He does so as a foreshadowing of the eternal new creation to come, when Christians will experience eternal spiritual and material prosperity. I do believe in an ultimate “health and wealth gospel,” since there is nothing more healthy than an eternal resurrection body and nothing wealthier than experiencing the eternal city of gold and precious stones in the new creation (Rev. 21:18–21). But, while God does not promise to give us physical health and material prosperity during the church age, he does promise to give us spiritual health and prosperity now and will complete it with full spiritual and physical health in the new heavens and earth.
Thus, since our life is to be like Christ’s, our life must include suffering of some kind so that God’s spiritual strength can be exhibited in our physical weakness. Although many Christians experience victories this side of heaven, all must die and await the ultimate victory of conquering death through resurrection.2
1. Warren Austin Gage first formulated these two kinds of theological irony in a personal conversation, which has helped me to clarify better these kinds of ironies in the Bible.
2. Except for the generation living when Christ returns a final time; these will be translated from this old life to the next eternal life.
This article is written by author G.K. Beale and partially adapted from his book Redemptive Reversals and the Ironic Overturning of Human Wisdom.
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