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Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology
The most basic English definitions of wealth are "the condition of being happy and prosperous" and "spiritual well-being" (OED). But the most common usage probably involves the narrower sense of "abundance of possessions, or of valuable products." A large percentage of Scripture focuses on right and wrong uses of this latter kind of wealth, while always subordinating it to the former.
The Old Testament . All wealth originally formed part of God's good creation, over which humans were given dominion (Genesis 1:26 ). This responsibility remained after the fall (9:1-3), but sin corrupted the process. God promised to make a great nation of Abraham's offspring, centered around prosperity in the promised land (12:7; 15:18; 17:8; 22:17). The patriarchs themselves were wealthy, as a first token of this blessing from God (24:35; 26:13; 30:43). So too God materially blessed the Israelites in Goshen as a testimony to the Egyptians (47:27). En route to Canaan, however, God very clearly places stipulations on the accumulation of wealth; manna and quail were to be collected so that no one had too little or too much (Exodus 16:16-18; quoted in 2 Corinthians 8:15 ).
The law assumes the inherent worth of private property. It regulates the boundaries of fields (Deuteronomy 19:14 ) and inheritance rights (21:16). It promises Canaan as a land of abundant resources that the Israelites may enjoy so long as they obey God's laws (Numbers 13:27; 14:8; Deuteronomy 6:3 ). But the law also provides safeguards against theft and covetousness (Exodus 20:15,17; 22:1-15 ), forbids usury or "excessive interest" (22:25; Deuteronomy 23:19-20 ), and includes a variety of constraints against the accumulation of unnecessary wealth. People may not work on the Sabbath; loans must be cancelled in Sabbath and Jubilee years (Leviticus 25 ); tithes and offerings of the best of one's goods must be given to the Lord (Deuteronomy 14:22-29; 25:1-15 ), creating genuine sacrifices; and generous provisions must be left behind for the poor and alien in the land (Leviticus 19:9-10; Deuteronomy 15:4-11; 23:24-25; 24:19-22 ). One's livelihood may not be taken as security (Deuteronomy 24:6 ), and wages must be paid on time (19:13). Great quantities of material resources were expended in constructing and furnishing the tabernacle (Exodus 25-30 ), but the temptations to use wealth for idolatry loomed menacingly near (chap. 32).
God's promises and threats are repeatedly fulfilled from the time of Joshua through the monarchy to the exile and return. When the nation and her leaders obey God, he blesses them with peace and prosperity in the land; when they disobey, conquest and oppression by foreign nations follow. The Book of Ruth illustrates a compassionate rich man (Boaz) properly following the laws of gleaning. David amasses great wealth through military victories; Solomon's comes more from tribute and trade. By not first of all seeking wealth, God grants Solomon greater prosperity than any other ancient monarch (1 Kings 3-4 ). His palace and God's temple require vast material resources for their erection, but at the expense of the conquered peoples. At the very moment his wealth reaches its zenith, his foreign alliances, reflected in his huge harem, lead him into idolatry (1 Kings 10-11 ). Later kings more consistently abuse the privileges their wealth grants them, among whom Ahab is probably the worst (1 Kings 21 ). Ezra-Nehemiah describes the rebuilding of the temple after exile, but this time the needs of the poor are given greater priority (Nehemiah 5:1-13 ).
Despite its dangers, wealth has so far been seen as primarily a blessing from God, with poverty often viewed as a curse. The Book of Job offers the most important Old Testament corrective to this notion. God allows Satan to take away Job's great wealth (and health) to test him. Job's friends are convinced that he has sinned, but God vindicates Job against his friends. Psalms and Proverbs therefore continue a two-pronged approach to riches and poverty. Wealth may be a reward for industry or righteousness (Psalm 112; Proverbs 12:11; 13:21; 21:5 ). But it is at least as often the ill-gotten product of wickedness or hostility, in which case it is better to be poor (Psalm 37:16-17; Proverbs 15:16-17; 16:8; 17:1 ). These contrasting emphases caution against absolutizing any one particular proverb; wisdom literature after all provides only generalizations of what is often true, and some statements are descriptive rather than prescriptive. Biblical wisdom also stresses the transience of earthly wealth (Psalm 39:4-6; Proverbs 23:4-5; Ecclesiastes 5:8-17 ) and the future recompense of the oppressed (Psalm 49:10-20 ). Those who are given much must therefore not trust in their own resources but in God (Psalm 52:7; Proverbs 3:9-10 ) and must use their abundance to help the needy (Psalm 82:3-4; Proverbs 29:7 ). The ideal is to pray for enough possessions to avoid the temptation to steal but not enough to feel independent of God (Proverbs 30:8-9 ).
The prophets continue the theme of offering prosperity for obedience and threatening its removal as a punishment for sin. Yet in view of the wickedness of their audiences, the latter predominates. Foreign nations are lambasted for the arrogance their wealth has engendered (Isaiah 14; Ezekiel 26,28 ). Although Judah and Israel should know better, however, they too selfishly amass property while ignoring God's moral standards (Isaiah 5:8-9 ); they trust in ritual worship rather than true repentance (Jeremiah 7:5-8 ); and they extort, rob, and oppress the poor to gain more land (Ezekiel 22:29; Micah 2:2 ). They boast in their wealth (Hosea 12:8 ), revel in their affluence (Amos 4:1; Habakkuk 2:16-17 ), and cannot wait for the Sabbath to end so they can make more money (Amos 8:5 ). Their leaders' motives for ministry are largely financial (Micah 3:11 )! Instead, they should "Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow" (Isaiah 1:17; cf. Jeremiah 22:13-17 ). They should give to God the full amount of tithes and offerings due him (Malachi 3:10 ). In expectation of just such obedience, the prophets look beyond the coming exile to the restoration of a remnant in the land, whose prosperity will once again be great (Isaiah 54-55,60-66 ), including much to eat (Joel 2:23-27 ) and the shared wealth of all the nations (Zechariah 14:14 ).
In short, the Old Testament recognizes wealth as often a blessing from God. But frequently that wealth is tied up with the land or the temple in ways that do not carry over into a New Testament age that knows no one sacred piece of geography or architecture (John 4:24 ). Even in the Old Testament, the Israelites' wealth was meant to be shared, with the poor in the land and with Gentiles outside, so as to bring people to a knowledge of the Lord. Increased privilege carries increased responsibility. Governments and economic institutions today are not theocracies, but they may still be judged on how they meet the needs of the powerless and dispossessed.
The New Testament . As a carpenter, Jesus probably came from the lower end of the small "middle-class" of the ancient world although by modern standards he would still be considered poor. The same is probably true of his fishermen disciples. Matthew would doubtless have been better off. Joseph of Arimathea is called rich (Matthew 27:57 ). But the overriding thrust of Jesus' teaching on wealth is to highlight "mammon" (material resources) as a major competitor with God for human allegiance (Matthew 6:19-24; Luke 16:1-13 ). Wealth is "deceitful" (Mark 4:19 ) and can distract people from taking care of their spiritual condition, thereby causing them to forfeit eternal life (Mark 8:36 ). Hence, Jesus comes to announce God's reversal of human standards concerning rich and poor. Luke in particular emphasizes this theme. The rich will be sent away empty (1:53), the poor will be blessed (6:20) and liberated from their oppression (4:16-21). Those who accumulate wealth with no thought for God or the destitute around them will be eternally condemned (12:16-21; 16:19-31).
The right use of money thus forms a crucial part of Jesus' teaching on discipleship. His followers should have special concern for the poor (Luke 14:7-24 ), give generously of their resources (Matthew 5:42 ) even when they are meager (Mark 12:43-44 ), and be content with their daily bread (Matthew 6:11 ). There are unique occasions in which it remains justifiable to lavish expense on the worship of Christ in ways some people will find wasteful (Mark 14:3-9 ,; with v. 7 quoting Deuteronomy 15:11 a), but these should remain the exception and not the norm (cf. Deuteronomy 15:11 b). Perhaps the most famous teaching of Jesus on money is his call to the rich young ruler to sell all he had, give it to the poor, and follow him (Mark 10:21; cf. esp. v. 25 ). Luke's redaction makes it clear this command does not apply to all; it appears as first in a series of three episodes on wealth (Luke 18:18-30; 19:1-10,11-27 ). In the second, repentant Zaccheus gives up only half of his possessions; in the third, the faithful servants invest their master's money for kingdom priorities. But it is precisely those who too quickly become complacent by this observation whom God probably would call to give up all!
Not only individuals but Christian communities must come to grips with Jesus' ethic. As a promise to individuals, Matthew 6:33 ("seek first [God's] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [food, clothing, and drink] will be given to you as well") would have been frequently disproved. In light of Mark 10:30 and Luke 12:33 it must rather mean that to the extent that God's people collectively obey his commands, which include caring for the poor, then individual needs will be met. God provides enough for all his people to live a decent life; the question is if they will distribute his resources equitably to bring about this state of affairs. Eternal destinies hang in the balance; God will judge people on the basis of how they have cared for the needy in their midst ( Matthew 25:31-46 ). The parable of sheep and goats most likely refers only to needy disciples ("brothers"), but the parable of the good Samaritan generalizes the principle to embrace even one's enemies, including those of entirely different religions and races (Luke 10:25-37 ).
In the early church, Jesus' disciples begin to put his teachings into practice. While retaining private property and not forcing anyone to participate, they develop a system of communal sharing in which believers sell their goods and redistribute the profits from "each according to his ability" (Acts 11:29 ) "to anyone as he had need" (2:45)the identical two clauses that formed the heart of Marx's manifesto! Some have labeled this experiment a mistake that exacerbated the effects of a later famine, but Luke makes it clear that God supported and blessed these arrangements (2:46-47; 5:14). Barnabas provides a positive illustration of donating the proceeds from selling a field to the common pot (4:36); Ananias and Sapphira offer a negative illustration of deceiving the apostles about how much they were donating (5:2).
Acts nevertheless makes clear that physical and spiritual healing take priority over material needs (3:6-10). Philip rebukes Simon Magus for thinking the power of the Holy Spirit could be bought (8:18-20). Paul stresses that he has not coveted anyone's goods but worked to supply his own needs. And he quotes Jesus: "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (20:33-35). Still, his preaching has an impact on how people use their wealth, particularly in Ephesus; believers who no longer buy idols cause such a downturn in the silver business that the merchants riot (19:23-27).
Members of the Pauline churches, particularly in Corinth, are predominantly poor and hence more receptive to the gospel, which seems foolish to persons of power and influence (1 Corinthians 1:18-31 ). This is one of Paul's reasons for not seeking support from the churches to which he ministers (1 Corinthians 9 ), while still accepting such support when it comes unsolicited (Philippians 4:10-19 ), and encouraging Christians to support others who teach or lead them (Galatians 6:6; 1 Timothy 5:17-18; 2 Timothy 2:6 ). But remuneration must never be a motive for ministry (1 Timothy 3:8; Titus 1:8 ) and "the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil" (1 Timothy 6:10; cf. 2 Timothy 3:2 ). A key theme in several letters is the collection for the poor Christians in Judea, based in part on a sense of indebtedness to the mother church there (Romans 15:25-27 ). Support for leaders in ministry and help for the needy of the world thus form the two central purposes for Christian giving.
In 2 Corinthians 8-9 , Paul stresses that such giving should be sacrificial (8:1-3), sincere (v. 8), voluntary, and cheerful (9:7). Commitments should be kept (8:10-12), systems of accountability established (8:16-24), and giving in proportion to one's incomea "graduated tithe" (8:12-15; cf. 1 Corinthians 16:2 b). In the context of this collection appears the first record of a weekly Sunday offering (1 Corinthians 16:2 a). Christians should take particular care of needy relatives (1 Timothy 5:3-16 ) and be rich in good needs, sharing rather than trusting in their wealth (1 Timothy 6:17-19 ). They should pay their taxes (Romans 13:6-7 ) and work diligently, avoiding idleness so as not to be a financial burden to anyone else (1 Thessalonians 4:11; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 ). Perhaps more than any other writer, Paul gives the lie to the so-called prosperity gospel, by stressing hardships, including economic ones, as standard fare for the believer (1 Corinthians 4:8-13; 2 Corinthians 6:3-10; 11:23-29 ).
After reading James, one wonders if it is possible to be both rich and Christian! Current economic states will be reversed (1:9-11); true religion cares for the dispossessed (1:27); God has a preferential option for the poor who love him (2:5); the rich exploit the poor Christians to whom he is writing (2:6-7); indeed they are characterized as affluent, self-indulgent oppressors whose doom is near and certain (5:1-6). Still, there is a small merchant class in James' congregation (4:13-17), and the rich in 1:10 probably are believers. But 2:14-17 makes plain that unless rich Christians use their wealth to help their poorer fellow Christians they cannot claim to have saving faith.
Peter too knows false teachers who are "experts in greed" (2 Peter 2:14 ) and commands elders not to be eager for money but for service (1 Peter 5:2 ). Women should not seek beauty from expensive, outward adornment (1 Peter 3:3; cf. 1 Timothy 2:9-10 ). John echoes James: Claims to have Christ's love without sharing material possessions with the needy prove vacuous (1 John 3:17-18 ). Jude's false teachers "have rushed for profit" (v. 11). And the end times will be characterized by rich, professing Christians who pitifully refuse to acknowledge their spiritual bankruptcy (Revelation 3:17 ). Indeed, the Antichrist's empire will rule by economic discrimination against believers (13:17); the lament over the fall of end-time "Babylon" focuses on the destruction of its great luxuries and affluence (chap. 18). But although fallen humanity has used wealth for great evils, God will redeem his originally good purposes in creation in the new heavens and earth when all wealth will be used for godly ends (21:24).
In sum, the New Testament is less positive about wealth than the Old Testament. It creates great temptations, even among God's people, for sin, self-indulgence, and exploitation of the poor. It is possible to be rich and Christian, but only if one is a good steward of that wealth, generous in giving and not worshiping unrighteous mammon. Yet one day, wealth, like the rest of creation, will be restored to its true and perfect place in God's designs to recreate the cosmos.
Craig L. Blomberg
Bibliography . J. Ellul, Money and Power; G. A. Getz, A Biblical Theology of Material Possessions; N. K. Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh; G. Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation; T. D. Hanks, God So Loved the Third World; M. Hengel, Property and Riches in the Early Church; R. M. Kidd, Wealth and Beneficence in the Pastoral Epistles; P. U. Maynard-Reid, Poverty and Wealth in James; R. H. Nash, Poverty and Wealth; D. E. Oakman, Jesus and the Economic Questions of His Day; R. J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger; T. E. Schmidt, Hostility to Wealth in the Synoptic Gospels; D. P. Seccombe, Possessions and the Poor in Luke-Acts; C. J. Vos, ISBE, 4:185-90; R. N. Whybray, Wealth and Poverty in the Book of Proverbs; H. G. M. Williamson, EQ 57 (1985): 5-22.
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
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Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Wealth'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​bed/​w/wealth.html. 1996.