The fastest growing religion in Africa is not Islam. But nor is it Christianity. The fastest growing religion in Africa is a variation of Pentecostalism which is as dangerous as it is unbiblical. It is what is known as the “prosperity gospel.” It is the mistaken and wrong teaching that if you are a Christian God will always give you health, wealth and success, just as long as you have enough faith. The prosperity gospel. So in many African cities cars and church-owned minibuses display disturbing bumper stickers like “Unstoppable Achiever,” “With Jesus I Will Always Win,” and “Your Success Is Determined by Your Faith,”
This prosperity gospel of health, wealth and success is spreading all over Africa and India too but its roots lie in USA. You will have heard some of their slogans. “Say it; do it; receive it; tell it.” “Name it and claim it” “Healing in the atonement”. “You believe you receive”. “What I confess, I possess.” This “prosperity gospel” can even sneak its way on to Premier Christian Radio and most of the God TV channels. And I was very sad even to find a song in Songs of Fellowship (798) which promises,
“Oh, the Lord, He is the God And faithful is He.
He’ll keep His word and His covenant, Giving mercy and prosperity.”
No – He won’t.
Christians have always looked to God to meet their material needs. But the kind of blessings that prosperity gospel preachers often promise are very different. An expectation of abundant wealth, runaway professional success, and unassailable physical and emotional health, all so that Christians can fund Christian work and prove to the watching world that Christ exists. These are the lies of the prosperity gospel! I have preached before the heresy of “Health, wealth and success” but I return to the theme tonight because in Philippians 4:19 we come to what I think is probably the most misquoted and misunderstood texts in the whole Bible.
“And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”
Here is a precious promise claimed by many Christians, not just those proclaiming a prosperity gospel. But what does this text really mean. Does God really promise to meet ALL our needs???
When I am preparing my sermons, after I have thought about what I am going to say, I look at the sermons other ministers have preached on the same texts. The classics of Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Spurgeon, Campbell Morgan. And contemporary sermons posted online in a very useful website anybody can read called sermoncentral.com. But looking there at the 73 sermons preachers have posted on the text of Philippians 4:19 I became very depressed very quickly. Because almost without exception, preachers have misinterpreted this verse and the majority of them have actually been teaching some form or another of the prosperity gospel and not the true meaning and message of Philippians at all.
Let me give you a few examples of what others have said which I believe are WRONG and NOT what Philippians 4:19 has to say to us today.
A Methodist wrote, “In the same way God supplied the needs of the Philippian Church, he promises to do so for local Churches today and for each one of us personally as His individual children.” (David Reynolds)
A sermon called, “God shall supply” promised, “In whatever circumstance we should find ourselves in, God will supply all our needs.” (Scott Ghan)
One Pentecostal called said, “Because the Philippian church was a giving church God was going to bless them in many ways. If we learn to be generous givers God will also bless us.” (Ronald Thorrington)
A Baptist introduced his sermon this way. “Do you have needs today? If so, what or who are you trusting in to meet those needs? If you are going to God and fully trusting him then those needs will be met. God promises us that He will meet all of our need as his people. All too often people seemingly suffer need because their faith in God to meet their need is so little. Trust in God and Him alone, He will never fail you. Today by God’s wonderful help we would like to consider our unfailing God, and His ability to meet our need.”
And one Pentecostal preacher from India even entitled his sermon, “Secrets of Prosperity: My God shall supply all your need.” “This sermon is about the secrets of financial blessing through generosity and How God promises to supply all our need.” (Stanley Vasu)
I have quoted these examples because I believe they are wrong interpretations and wrong applications of what Philippians 4:19 has to say to us today. So, why do I think that? And what does this verse really promise us?
The starting point for understanding any text is its context. A text without a context is a pretext. So who wrote these words and who was he writing to? In the early 60s AD the apostle Paul wrote a letter to the church at Philippi and in it he said, “My God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”
In context this is Paul conveying to one particular group of Christians in a particular place at a particular time his assurance that God would meet all their needs. Because Paul is speaking as an apostle, we can assume that God had given him that message to pass on to that church. It was a message for those Philippians. The occasion of the message was as part of a “thank you note” which Paul wrote to the church because he had received some gifts they had sent him with Epaphroditus. And in the first instance that promise that “God will meet all your needs” was historically unique to the Philippians, just as much as their gifts to Paul were historically unique.
But it’s not unusual for us to extend promises, or commands, in the Bible beyond the people who originally received them. Like God to Joshua: “I will never fail you or forsake you.” Many Christians regularly claim that promise. We usually say that anything Jesus said to his disciples in the gospels will apply to all his disciples in every place and generation. We take, “Go and make disciples of all nations,” as being for every Christian, not just the first apostles. We make that kind of unspoken assumption almost every time we read the Gospels. Unless we have good reasons to think otherwise, we usually say that any instructions Paul gives to a particular church in one of his letters will be a command to every church. We assumed that last week. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” We happily transferred those wonderful promises initially written to the Philippians on to ourselves and I am sure we were right to do so. But my point is that we made that jump in application without even thinking about it. We usually think that promises made to specific people in the Bible apply more widely to other people and so we claim them for ourselves. But let’s think about this some more.
We don’t usually think that Bible promises Jesus made to his disciples can be claimed by people who are not believers unless they are promises which are obviously aimed at non-believers. And there are some promises Jesus made to specific individuals which we don’t think are for everybody. “You are Peter and on this Rock I will build my church.” Not every disciple called Peter is called to be Jesus’s Rock and the foundation of the church. Every time we read the Bible we make a judgment about how what we read applies to us. And it is not right that we should just assume that every verse applies directly to us without at least some consideration. “My God will meet all your needs,” was written to the Philippians, not in the first instance to you or to me.
So who is that promise for? Many preachers rightly look at the immediate context of the previous verses
Philippians 4 14 Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. 15 Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; 16 for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need. 17 Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account. 18 I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.
Here is Paul’s thank you note for the gifts he has received. We see that the Philippians have supported Paul with practical aid, gifts of money and perhaps of food and clothing as well. Again Paul stresses, he is not writing looking for a handout. He is content with what he has. Paul just wants to thank the Philippians for their gifts to him which he describes as “a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.” So we read that the Philippians were a giving church, a faithful church, a generous church, even a sacrificing church. And many preachers see this context and say that the promise in Philippians 4:19 is specifically for churches and Christians like the Philippians. Many preachers say essentially the same as one who wrote, “This promise comes with a premise. If you meet the premise of 4:14-16 you can claim the promise of 4:19. This promise is not for all people. It is not even for all Christians. It is for those who are meeting the premise. God wants us all to be generous people and if we are meeting that premise we can stand on this promise.” (Mark Atherton)
It is good when preachers attempt to read the verse in the context of the passage. But, in that understanding, God is only promising to meet the needs of Christians who are following the example of the Philippians of generous giving. If you give generously to God’s work, God will meet all your needs. If you don’t give enough, that promise is not for you. God’s promises are conditional and unless you meet the conditions you can’t claim the promise.
An interpretation like that which imposes some kind of condition on God’s promise has the great advantage for those preachers that it suggests a convenient explanation for why some Christians are poor, and some Christians are even homeless or starving. Preachers like that teach that the reason is that those poor hungry Christians have not been generous enough. So God will not meet their needs. For preachers of Health, Wealth and Prosperity who want their congregations to give very generously to their churches, that is a very convenient way to understand the promise of Philippians 4:19. It gives their congregations a very strong incentive to be very generous in their giving to their churches, and consequently also to their pastors and preachers. Some go so far as to teach that Christians can only claim this promise if they are tithing – faithfully giving 10% of their income to the church. It never seems to occur to those preachers that there are other Christians, who in Africa or India may be literally on their doorsteps, who are homeless and starving through no fault of their own. There are some Christians living on the breadline who have never had the opportunity to be generous, and others who may have been generous in the past but droughts or floods have wiped away their crops and even their homes and left them with absolutely nothing. God does not seem to be meeting all the needs of those Christians – and that has nothing to do with whether they have been generous in their giving or not. That slogan sounds great: “Every promise has a premise and if you meet the premise you can claim the promise.” The problem is, that is not a valid way to interpret this passage, or indeed lots of other promises. God is not a heavenly blessings machine that if we put in our pennies or notch up enough heavenly brownie points we are guaranteed a particular blessing. God’s promises just don’t work that way.
Some preachers will qualify this promise in a different way. They say that God only promises to meet the needs of Christians who are trusting in Him and in Him alone. Not trusting in their jobs or their employers but in God alone. Another sermon by a Baptist says this. “Do you have needs today? If so, what or who are you trusting in to meet those needs? If you are going to God and fully trusting him then those needs will be met. God promises us that He will meet all of our need as his people. All too often people seemingly suffer need because their faith in God to meet their need is so little. Trust in God and Him alone, He will never fail you.”
In other words, if all your needs are not being met, it is all your own fault. You haven’t been generous enough, or you haven’t put your trust in God, or you simply haven’t got enough faith!
I hope you realise that I don’t just disagree with these interpretations. I think they are fundamentally wrong and desperately cruel to Christians who in this unjust world have so little when others have so much. But what then DO I believe these verses say to us?
The secret of interpreting Philippians 4:19 is indeed to read it in context. But the context is not just verses 16-18 but the whole passage we looked at last week beginning at verse 10. Let me remind you.
Philippans 4 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.
Paul had just said to the Philippians that there had been times when he was in need and that he had learned to be content whatever his situation, whether well fed or hungry, living in plenty or in want. He implies there and makes clear in other letters that his contentment did NOT come by God always miraculously meeting his material needs. His contentment came through Christ strengthening him. “Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.” (Message) We saw this last week.
In that context it makes no sense to me to say that Paul was promising the Philippians that God would never let them experience material needs. That had not been his own experience. Why would he suggest that would be the case for the Philippians, however generous they had been to him? Surely Paul is NOT saying that God promises that Christians will NEVER be in material need!! Paul may have been talking about the Philippians helping meet his material needs, but the whole thrust of Bible teaching is that there are more important things even than our material needs for food and shelter and companionship.
Listen again to the whole of Philippians 4:19.
“And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”
New Living Translation “19 And this same God who takes care of me will supply all your needs from his glorious riches, which have been given to us in Christ Jesus.”
The needs Paul is talking about are not the kind which are met by the arrival of gifts of food or clothes or money. They are the even more important things we really need, which God has given us already through the glorious riches which come to us in Christ. They are the kinds of needs which Paul experienced in his times of hunger and want and which God met as Christ was strengthening him.
Remember Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 6
17 Command those who are rich in this present world 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. …. 19 …. 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
So I believe there is a wonderful promise here in Philippians 4:19. And I believe it is for all Christians without conditions or qualifications. But we misunderstand the promise if we think it is talking about physical and material needs. The greatest needs every human being has are not material needs in this present age but spiritual needs in the age to come. Our greatest need is “to take hold of the life that is truly life,” eternal life which Jesus described as “life in all its fullness.” And for those ultimate needs here is God’s promise which we can all claim.
“…. my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”