1 Cor. 4:8‑13

1 Cor. 4:8‑13

SERIES: Christ is the Answer When the Church Is in Crisis

Has God Promised Health and Wealth to the King’s Kids?  

Introduction: One of my favorite theologians is Dave Barry, syndicated comic in the St. Louis Post Dispatch.  Back in 1984 he wrote a column entitled, “Rev. Al: A Blessing in Disguise.”  It’s a bit lengthy, but I think you will understand why I include it this morning.

“When I tell you about Rev. Al, you’re going to think I’m making him up, but I’m not.  There really is a Rev. Al.  He runs the United Faith Foundation (‘America’s Healing, Blessing and Prosperity Center’) out in Fresno, California, and a while back he sent me, out of the blue, a Good Fortune Faith Necklace.  This is a green string with a little plastic object hanging from it that says, in medium-size letters: ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.’  Beneath that, in big letters, it says: ‘REV. AL.’ Beneath that, in tiny letters, it says ‘Made in Korea.’  

Included with the necklace was a letter from Rev. Al, with his picture on it.  He looks a little like Liberace, only with more hair spray.  In the picture, he’s wearing a white suit, holding a Good Fortune Faith Necklace and looking at the camera with the kind of extremely sincere look that automobile salesmen give you when they tell you they have an Excellent Service Department.

Rev. Al’s letter said I should wear the necklace for three days, then send it back with the enclosed Prayer Page, which is a piece of paper on which you write down the blessings you wish to receive.  Rev. Al also said I should enclose a Loving Gift of $5, or $10, or ‘more.’

The major thing that I wanted to receive in the way of a blessing was that something horrible would happen to our carpenter bees.  For several years now, our house has had a bad case of carpenter bees, which are these obese, Ernest Borgnine-like insects that drone around brazenly and drill holes right into our roof overhang.  Many’s the summer evening when we’ve sat out on the porch, drinking beer, watching the sawdust trickle down onto our heads from the bee holes, and saying: ‘We ought to do something about those darned bees!  Is there any more beer?’  So when Rev. Al’s letter came, out of the blue, I thought to myself: ‘This cannot be mere coincidence.  Some kind of Higher Power has sent Rev. Al into my life to cause a fatal prayer miracle to happen to the carpenter bees.’ 

So, following Rev. Al’s instructions, I wore my Good Faith Fortune Necklace for three days, then I wrote about the carpenter bees on my Prayer Page and sent everything back with a Loving Gift, made out to Rev. Al, of $5.  According to the letter, the next thing that was supposed to happen was ‘something wonderful,’ but what actually happened was I got the Prayer Necklace back with another letter from Rev. Al. 

‘Dave,’ he wrote, ‘I know you’re sincere in wanting a financial breakthrough.’  Knowing this, Rev. Al has enclosed a Faith Dollar, which looks like a regular dollar, only it miraculously changes bad luck into Divine Abundance.  By way of proof, the letter had photographs of cars, houses, a full grocery cart, a handful of cash, a television set and various other forms of Divine Abundance.  To get all this, the letter said, I was supposed to put the Faith Dollar in my ‘billfold or purse’ and never spend it, then send Rev. Al a Prove God offering of $20, which, Rev. Al wrote, ‘will help me feed more orphans.’ 

At this point I became quite concerned, because here Rev. Al was talking about sending me all this abundance, when in fact my particular Prayer Need had nothing to do with money.  I was afraid that somehow my Prayer Need had accidentally become mixed up with somebody else’s, which could mean that Rev. Al’s Prayer Family was killing perfectly innocent insects at somebody else’s house.  So I called Rev. Al’s emergency number, which it says in the letter you can call if you need ‘immediate prayer help.’  It turned out to be a recorded message of Rev. Al (who, incidentally, also sounds sort of like Liberace).”  

There’s more, but Dave Barry concludes his treatise: 

“I’m getting worried.  The bees are worse than ever, and I can’t remember which of my dollars is my Faith Dollar.  Also my Good Fortune Faith Necklace is giving me a rash.”  

Now I’ve read this more for fun than anything, because I’m really not too worried that preachers like Rev. Al will entrap members of First Free.  His prosperity gospel is so blatant and in-your-face that only a spiritual imbecile would fall for this scam artist.  But there are more subtle forms of the Prosperity Gospel that are tantalizing to true believers in Christ.  

A little boy who attends our church on occasion (but is actually a member of another church in St. Louis) was recently diagnosed with brain cancer.  After brain surgery, the doctors told his mother he needed radiation and chemotherapy.  But a group of prayer warriors from the other church convinced his mother to send him to Kenneth Hagin’s Healing School in Tulsa instead, so he could be healed by the power of God.  In fact, they prayed around his bed as though God had already healed him–prayers like “thank you, God, that the cancer is already gone,” and, naturally, if it’s gone, one doesn’t need chemo.  Thankfully, the mother eventually decided to use both prayer and medicine.  

I will go further.  I think there are forms of the Prosperity Gospel that are attractive even to biblically knowledgeable evangelicals.  Have you ever thought, “Wow!  God has blessed me with so many good things; He must be pleased with how I’m living”!  Or perhaps, “Since I’m a child of God, and since God is good–all the time–I can expect Him to spare me from the worst of the tragedies and traumas unbelievers experience and really pour on the blessing.”  I call that view “the Doctrine of Preferential Treatment.”  It’s the belief that God’s children should, by and large, experience less terminal cancer, fewer tragic auto accidents, and more promotions at work than other people because they’re God’s children.  Ever think like that?  That may be just another form of the Prosperity Gospel.

The basic question I want to ask today is this: “Has God promised health and wealth to the ‘King’s Kids’?  Is the prosperity gospel true?”  The overall theme Paul is dealing with in 1 Cor. 4, and really in the whole letter, is spiritual pride.  He has just asked the Corinthian believers three rhetorical questions:

“Who makes you superior to anyone else?”

“What do you have that you did not receive?”

“And if you got everything as a gift, why do you boast as though you earned 


This morning we pick up the reading in verse 8 as Paul turns up the heat with some biting sarcasm:

“Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings—and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you! {9} For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men. {10} We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! {11} To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. {12} We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; {13} when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.”

Paul is not above using sarcasm when an important truth is at stake.  Sometimes people just don’t get the point unless you hit them upside the head with it.  And what is his point in this paragraph?  He’s talking about authentic Christian living and authentic Christian ministry.  

Authentic Christian living always balances glory with the cross.

The Corinthians are clearly glory-conscious.  They are satiated with spiritual food, rich in knowledge and understanding, royal in status and position.  They have arrived!  At least that is how they are acting.  But the fact is they are no different from the Laodiceans of Rev. 3:17, concerning whom the apostle John writes,

“You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’  But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.  I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.” 

They know nothing of the sacrifice and humility of true servant leaders. 

Twice Paul employs the term “already,” in verse 8, indicating they have achieved something prematurely (or at least they think they have!).  The Corinthians are living as if the age-to-come has been consummated and they are already reigning with Christ.  But biblically the Kingdom of God, while a present reality, is still a future hope.  Theologians sometimes express this by the term “already, but not yet.”  The Corinthians are so enamored with the “already,” they have little room left for the “not yet.”[i]

Jesus teaches in Matthew 19:28 that during the millennial kingdom the Twelve Apostles will reign with Christ on earth, sitting upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  But during their earthly lifetimes they did anything but rule.  Instead, they were ridiculed, spit upon, imprisoned, beaten, mocked, and generally treated like criminals.[ii]  

Paul acknowledges he would love to be reigning now with the Corinthians, if that were possible.  At the end of verse 8, he states, “How I wish you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you!”  He would be glad to escape all the persecution, trials, traumas, and struggles of this life.  But while they think they have arrived, Paul knows he has not.  He knows he is still a pilgrim here, with his ultimate citizenship in Heaven.

You will notice that throughout this passage Paul uses the life experiences of the apostles to drive home this message: “If your Prosperity Gospel contradicts the experience of the very men who were entrusted by Christ to convey the Gospel to the Church, then how can it be the true Gospel?” 

The Apostles, far from being kings, were more like prisoners on their way to execution.  The portrait painted in verse 9 is vivid: “For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena.  We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men.”  

When a Roman general won a major victory, he would celebrate by entering Rome in great military splendor, leading his officers and troops in a parade.  Behind them would come a group of prisoners in chains, with the conquered king and his officers prominently displayed for all to see and mock.  The prisoners were under the sentence of death and would be taken to the arena to fight wild beasts.  That is the spectacle to which Paul refers.  In fact, Moffat translates this verse, “God means us apostles to come in at the very end like doomed gladiators in the arena.”  The apostles, knowing they would be first in the coming world, were content to be last in this one.

The Apostles, far from experiencing temporal glory, were made sorry spectacles to the universe.  Here’s how Paul puts it at the end of verse 9: “We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as men.”  You know, if there’s anything we hate, it’s to be made a spectacle.  We prefer almost anything to public embarrassment.  But the apostles experienced that very thing to an incredible extent.  The NT often portrays angels as spectators of human events, and the combination of “angels” and “men” embraces the totality of personal existence.[iii]  Whether these are good angels or evil ones, I don’t know, but the apostles are clearly on display before the universe.

Let me return to the principle that authentic Christian living always balances glory with the Cross.  The Christian life is not always great and wonderful.  When a friend at church always responds to the question, “How are you?” with “Fantastic!,” you know in your heart that can’t be true.  Or as one guy from FreeLife used to say, “I’m saved, sanctified, single, and satisfied.”  I suspect some of you are saying to yourselves, “Give me a break!  I’m single and certainly not satisfied.”  Don’t we all get tired of the plastic smiles and the hollow words?  Well, take some comfort: “fantastic” didn’t describe the life of an apostle either.

Last Wednesday morning I was dialoguing with some men from our Men’s Ministry, and one of them reminded us that when we read the great 11th chapter of Hebrews, the Hall of Faith, we generally focus upon the first part of the chapter, where the great heroes achieved amazing victories by faith.  And they did!  The author speaks of many . . .

“. . . who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions; quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength, and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.  Women received back their dead, raised to life again.”  (Hebrews 11:33-35a)

It’s no wonder some come to the conclusion that faith can and must conquer any obstacle.  But then this guy in the Bible study pointed out the very next words:

“Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. {36} Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. {37} They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— {38} the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”  (35b-38)

We must not miss the fact that these latter individuals were just as much men and women of faith as those whose faith produced children in the face of infertility, or healing in the face of fatal illness, or victory over great odds in battle. 

We greatly need balance here, friends.  I’m not trying to discourage anyone from trying to move “mountains” by faith.  That’s biblical.  We probably don’t see enough agonizing in prayer in the church today, particularly in our circles.  But I am trying to discourage the presumption that God guarantees to move particular mountains in response to true faith.  Yes, the Scriptures say, “We have not because we ask not,” but it also says, “we have not because we ask amiss.”  When I read the prayers in the NT, I find little or nothing about health or wealth or material needs of any kind, but a great deal about spiritual health, evangelism, and growth in Christ.  Could it be that one of the reasons we don’t see more answers to prayer is that much of the time we are asking for the wrong things, or at least not the best things?

The normal way to glory is through the cross.  The typical (not the only, but the typical) Christian experience down through the centuries has been to be rich in Christ and economically poor, to be loved in the Body of Christ and despised by the world, to be honored in the Church and persecuted by the world.  We who are sitting here this morning are almost unique in the history of Christianity in terms of the degree of our wealth, the absence of persecution for our faith, the level of health and longevity we enjoy, and the lack of threat from war or plague.  And we must not extrapolate too much from our experience.  We must not assume it’s because of our great faith that we are so blessed.  I think, on the contrary, that it’s often in spite of our little faith that we enjoy what we have.  

Now a second truth taught in our passage today is that …

Authentic Christian living is not adequately measured by prosperity.  (10-13)

Again Paul uses the Twelve Apostles, plus himself, as illustrations:              

The apostles did not enjoy the intellectual status of the Corinthians.  In verse 10 Paul says, “We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ!  We are weak but you are strong!  You are honored, we are dishonored!”  Once again, of course, the words are dripping with sarcasm.  The Corinthians were lovers of Greek philosophy and powerful rhetoric.  They fancied themselves the cream of the intellectual crop.  They could expound on the hypostatic union, the peccability/impeccability debate, and the details of eschatological interpretation, while these uneducated apostles preached in simple words the scandal of the cross and the power of the resurrection of Christ.  Why, it was embarrassing to them that not one of the Twelve even had a degree from the Athens Theological Seminary or the Jerusalem School of Religion.

The apostles did not enjoy the material blessings of the Corinthians.  Apparently, the believers in Corinth were doing well in business, as several comments have already been made relative to their wealth.  It’s possible the Corinthians had adopted that well‑known proverb of the Pharisees, “Whom the Lord loveth He maketh rich.”  There are many in the church today who seem to believe that.  But the apostles aren’t reaping these economic benefits.  Listen to their predicament: “To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless.  We work hard with our own hands (just to make ends meet).”  Doesn’t sound too much like the lifestyle of the typical televangelist, does it, or, for that matter, of very many local church pastors today?  

Actually, Paul doesn’t tell the half of it here.  In 2 Cor. 11:23‑28 he goes into more detail, contrasting himself to the false apostles in the Corinthian church: 

“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.  Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.  Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move.  I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers.  I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.  Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.”

Doesn’t sound like Preferential Treatment, does it?  Maybe reverse Preferential Treatment.

The Apostles did not enjoy the social prestige of the Corinthians.  If the Corinthian leaders were living like royalty, demanding all due respect from the church members and denouncing those who did not render it to them, contrast that with the treatment the apostles received and the attitude they exhibited in return (verse 12): “When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly.  Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.”

The words “scum” and “refuse” are used to refer to the scrapings cleaned from a dirty dish or pot and then thrown away.  They were also used figuratively to refer to the lowest, most degraded criminals, who often were sacrificed in pagan ceremonies.  That is the way the world looked at the apostles.  They were treated like so much religious garbage.  

You know, sometimes we Christians seem to believe that the way to have more influence for Christ in the world is to be more successful in our business and personal lives.  If we just get a promotion, then people will listen to us.  If we just get a nicer house, then we will open it up for hospitality and ministry.  A lot of that is pure rationalizing.  It sidetracks us easily into peripheral matters–how we dress, how educated we are, how big our portfolio, the kind of neighborhood we live in.  But those are not the determining factors when it comes to influence and power in the Christian life.  Paul is not saying we ought not have these things; he is simply saying they don’t matter when it comes to experiencing God.

There is one more point I wish to make this morning.  While authentic Christian living always balances glory with the Cross, and while authentic Christian living is not adequately measured by prosperity,…

Authentic Christian living is, nevertheless, blessed by a loving Father.  

I am obsessed with the need for balance.  We must always be cautious to avoid the swing of the pendulum.  If wealth is not a sign of spirituality, neither is poverty.  If health is not a sign of spirituality, neither is illness.  The experience of the apostles is not necessarily to be viewed as normal for all Christians.  

Friends, the nature of God as a good and loving Father is so clearly taught in the Bible, there should be no doubt in our minds that He is for us, not against us.  He longs to be gracious to us.  He gets up early in the morning to find new ways to show us kindness (that’s what Isaiah 30:18 says, in effect).  God is not a cheapskate, nor does He command the rich to divest themselves of their riches.  Rather He urges them to …

“not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. {18} Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. {19} In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.”  (1 Tim. 6:17-19).

Furthermore, there is a sense in which prosperity is the natural inheritance of the believer.  When we practice Biblical principles like hard work, staying out of debt, and giving generously from our incomes, we generally find our standard of living increasing.  That works, by the way, but it works for anyone–believer or unbeliever.  (You don’t find many Mormon or Jewish slums, do you?)  The problem is, it’s easy to assume that one’s prosperity is a tacit blessing from God, when actually it may be only the natural consequence of living by wise principles.  But to the extent the believer lives obediently to God and His principles, to that extent one can generally expect to live longer, healthier, happier, and with more prosperity than otherwise.  

Conclusion.  Paul’s teaching here has been couched in very strong terms, but his purpose has not been to shame his readers, but rather to reclaim them.  In verse 14 he says, “I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children.”  The sarcasm is deemed necessary to wake them up.  Now that he has their attention, what are they going to do about it?  

And what are we going to do about it?  Well, we need to reorient our thinking.  I want to suggest three areas.  First, recognize that we live in a fallen world in which nothing is as God originally planned.  It was perfect when He created it, but it is no longer perfect because of sin.  That means we are going to see tragedy and illness and death, some of which is not due to specific sin but rather due to the fallen state of this world.  There’s no room for anger at God.

Second, realize that God doesn’t want us to become too comfortable here, because this world is not our home.  I want to return to Hebrews 11, verse 13-16.  After speaking of the faith of Abel, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham, the writer summarizes,

“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance.  (They received some of the things promised, but not all) .  And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own….  they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”  

One of the greatest needs in the church today is for God’s people to realize they aren’t home yet.  And God uses trouble to remind us of that.  Elections won’t always turn out the way we want them to; bad accidents don’t happen just to wicked people; moles don’t know the boundaries between the yards of Christians and the yards of atheists; and premature deaths come even to believers and their families. We need to learn to accept that and keep our eyes and hearts focused on Home. 

Third, we need to learn that spiritual needs are more important than temporal ones. A friend of mine made a tongue-in-cheek claim to be a health/wealth theologian.  “The prosperity Gospel is correct,” he said, “but the only problem is the American definition of prosperity.”  When we think of prosperity, we so readily focus on material things, worldly influence, intellectual achievements, and social status.  But, friends, a Gospel that doesn’t apply to every culture at all times is not the true Gospel. America’s prosperity Gospel would be ludicrous in Bangladesh or North Korea or Rwanda.  

I challenge each of us today to reorient our thinking about prosperity.  To the extent we have it, enjoy it, but be clear that the true Gospel is not health or wealth but rather “the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes.”  (Rom. 1:16)

One other thought: Maybe God will ask some of us to be gladiators for Him this week–spectacles for Jesus at work or in our neighborhoods.  Many will be gathering with extended families for Thanksgiving. Will you share Christ with them, at the risk of being thought “fanatical,” or just make small talk for another year?   

DATE: November 19, 2000


Prosperity gospel



[i] Gary Vanderet elaborates on some of these concepts in “Authentic Christian Ministry,” Discovery papers, Catalog No. 785, March 18, 1990.

[ii] John MacArthur, 1 Corinthians, 110-11.

[iii] Leon Morris, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Tyndale NT Commentaries, 80