Old Testament Prosperity vs. New Testament Suffering

by | May 8, 2024 | Ask the Pastors

QUESTION

In the Old Testament, obeying God seems so clearly tied to physical prosperity. God even promises no miscarriages and long life in Exodus 23:26. But in the New Testament, we are actually promised suffering if we follow Christ. Why the switch in expectations for a life of obedience?

ANSWER

That’s a great question!

First of all, we must understand that while the Old Testament does emphasize physical prosperity as a reward for obedience, there are many exceptions to this. Just think of Job: he was specifically targeted by Satan with terrible suffering that was allowed (and even suggested) by God, because he was righteous (Job 1:8; 2:3). Of course, Job ended up doubly blessed with physical prosperity: money, livestock, and children (Job 42:11–13). But there are also righteous Old Testament saints who seem to have lived whole lives of affliction, especially prophets like Jeremiah and Elijah; as well as others who were martyred, like Ahimelech (see 2 Sam. 22), Naboth (see 1 Kings 21), and Zechariah (2 Chron. 24).

All of these hardships for God’s righteous people in the Old Testament foreshadow the kind of suffering you’ve noticed in the New Testament. In fact, James specifically points to Job and the suffering prophets as examples for Christians to follow as we persevere through life’s trials:

Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains. You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. … As an example, brethren, of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. We count those blessed who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful.

James 5:7–8, 10–11

Notice James’s emphasis on “the coming of the Lord.” The New Testament hardly mentions the suffering of the righteous without also drawing our attention to the glory that is promised to the faithful at the final revelation of Jesus Christ:

Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:10

Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.

James 1:12

For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.

2 Corinthians 4:17–18

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

Romans 8:18

After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.

1 Peter 5:10

These passages show us that the shift in emphasis we should pay attention to from Old Testament to New is not so much from physical prosperity to physical suffering for the obedient, but from temporal prosperity to eternal prosperity. Job was certainly a blessed man at the end of his life, but we actually have greater blessings promised to us in Christ Jesus:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

1 Peter 1:3–5

By shifting the focus from this present life to the life to come, the New Testament actually intensifies and extends the Old Testament’s promises of prosperity on those who obey God!

Interestingly, Hebrews 11 actually teaches us that the faithful Old Testament saints understood that their hope was ultimately in something beyond earthly physical blessings, even ones promised to them by God:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old gained approval.

By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. …

All these [Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, et al.] died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.

Hebrews 11:1–2, 8–10, 13–16

The promises of physical prosperity in the Old Testament were types and shadows that prefigured the announcement of superior eternal riches promised to God’s people in Jesus Christ. As such, temporal blessings fade into the background in the New Testament, and suffering comes to the fore as an essential aspect of a life of obedience.

Here are just two reasons the apostles consider suffering central in the life of a Christian.

1. Righteous suffering brings glory to Christ.

The righteous Old Testament saints who suffered were more than just examples for us. They were also forerunners of the Messiah whom they showed would come and suffer for His people:

The prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow.

1 Peter 1:10–11

This was a key scriptural truth that the Jews of Jesus’ day completely missed. To first-century Jews, the Law and the Prophets taught them plainly that they were supposed to prosper. But they focused so much on earthly riches that they forgot to fear God. Just look at how often Jesus taught on the love of money, and at how the Jews responded to that teaching. They were shocked when He said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:23). To them, the rich were the recipients of God’s blessing, so they were astonished when He said things like, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20, emphasis added).

These Jews missed the fact that suffering was an essential aspect of righteous living in this cursed world, a blind spot that ultimately contributed to their wrong understanding of who the Messiah would be and what He would do when He came. They thought, when Christ showed up, He was going to usher in their full earthly prosperity by driving out their enemies, reclaiming their land, and generally making life wonderful. One thing they could not comprehend, however, was the idea of a suffering Messiah.

Remember how incredulous Jesus’ own disciples were when He told them He had to suffer:

Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day. Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.” But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.”

Matthew 16:21–23

Later, after His resurrection, Jesus rebuked two disciples for failing to discern the necessity of His suffering in the Old Testament:

And He said to them, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.

Luke 24:25–27

Here we see a vital truth that was foretold by the prophets but only fully revealed in Jesus Christ through His death and resurrection: The road to glory is paved with suffering.

This was true for Jesus personally because His suffering was required in order to cleanse His people from sin and to open a new and living way for us into God’s presence. But it’s also true for Christ’s disciples. As much as we might like to think that Jesus traveled the path of affliction in this world so that we wouldn’t have to, the New Testament could not be clearer in showing that’s not how it works. On the contrary, if we are one with Christ, we share in everything that belongs to Him—His glory and His sufferings:

Remember the word that I said to you, “A slave is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.

John 15:20

For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.

Philippians 1:29

Just as the suffering of Old Testament saints pointed forward to the glorious suffering of the Messiah (see Acts 7), so our suffering points back to Jesus and brings glory to God:

You have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps.

1 Peter 2:21

Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.

1 Peter 4:1–2

(In case you haven’t noticed, 1 Peter has a lot to say about this topic.)

2. Suffering shows where our hope is.

Our willingness to suffer the loss of earthly things testifies better than anything else that our hope is in an eternal inheritance promised to us by God.

This is not to say that affliction is the only thing we experience in the Christian life. Far from it! Just like the Old Testament was not simply about physical prosperity for those who obeyed, the New Testament is not simply about earthly suffering for the righteous.

It always surprises me to read Jesus’ response to Peter in Mark 10:

Peter began to say to Him, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You.” Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms…”

Mark 10:28–30

Jesus here makes a promise of blessings His people will receive “in the present age” when they obey Him by giving things up for His sake. I’m sure many of us can testify that we have been separated from close family and friends for the sake of Christ, but that God has given us many brothers and sisters and mothers and children in the church.

We should also understand that promises of blessing in the Old Testament actually belong to New Testament saints through Christ. How many of us fathers can sit at our dinner tables and look at our wife “like a fruitful vine” and our children “like olive plants” around our table? Is this not a testimony to that wonderful promise in Psalm 128?

Behold, thus shall the man be blessed

Who fears the LORD.

Psalm 128:4

How many of us can testify that when we have tithed cheerfully to God, He has opened for us the windows of heaven and poured out for us a blessing until it overflowed? (See Mal. 3:10.)

God blesses us in this life when we obey Him.

Nevertheless, as we enjoy these blessings, let us never fall into the dangerous temptation of elevating the gift above the Giver. We must keep our eyes fixed on the final revelation of Jesus Christ when all things will finally be made right. Until then, there will still be sickness, pain, miscarriage, war, famine, and persecution. Jesus addresses this at the end of His statement to Peter in Mark 10:30 (which I conveniently cut off when I quoted it above). The one who has given up earthly blessings for Christ’s sake and the gospel’s sake “will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, … along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life.”

All of our earthly blessings in this life are still just foretastes of the blessings of the life to come. God blesses His people with children, but those children die. God blesses His people with houses and cars and health insurance, but those things get taken away (Job 1:21). But when we remember our eternal inheritance and how Christ suffered for us to secure that inheritance, we realize there is a special glory in the loss of earthly things:

Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:11–12

The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.

Romans 8:16–17

We certainly can and should testify to God’s goodness by giving thanks for the earthly blessings He pours out on us. It demonstrates God’s goodness to those around us when we do so. But think about the testimony it bears to the world and to our fellow believers when we praise God for His goodness in the midst of:

  • cancer or other chronic illness
  • the death of a child
  • natural disasters
  • plague
  • economic downturn
    and, especially,
  • persecution

When we give thanks to God while enduring these afflictions, we testify that we’re not hoping for anything in this world. Rather, our hope is fixed on “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for [us], who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:3–5).

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. All rights reserved.

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