Summary: The apostle Paul lamented that in his day there were “so many” who were profiteering from the Gospel, “making merchandise of the word of God.” Sadly, there are still some doing the same today. Must Jesus cleanse the temple a third time?
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is “the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16, NASB). It is not a product to be marketed or peddled for personal gain. But sadly, even in the apostle Paul’s day 20 centuries ago, there were “many” preachers and teachers making merchandise of God’s Word, peddling it and preaching it for their own profit. Sad to say, our 21st century doesn’t seem to be much different.
In my 50 years of Christian ministry, I’ve seen shocking instances of God’s ministers enriching themselves at the expense of God’s people. I must hastily add here a disclaimer: I know hundreds of ministers, and the vast majority are godly, giving, other-centered people with no interest in enriching themselves from their labors for the Lord. But there is among God’s pastors, evangelists, and other spiritual leaders a minority whose handling of God’s holy Word can accurately be described, not by my words, but by the apostle Paul’s words:
This article is targeting that deplorable abuse, not the large majority of God’s honorable, dedicated ministers. Unfortunately, even relatively small numbers of ministers abusing the Gospel for personal gain bring great shame and discredit upon the Lord’s work on this earth. Twenty centuries ago Paul lamented that there were “so many” (wow, not just a few!) who were making merchandise of God’s Word. All of us who love Jesus and His Word should be lamenting any occurrences of that same shameful practice in the Church today.
Balaam was a mysterious prophet, apparently well known in the ancient world. Moab’s King Balak offered money to get Balaam to curse Israel. In the Bible's account in the book of Numbers it seems that Balaam declined to speak such a curse against Israel, even for money. But the two Scriptures above show that somewhere in the process, perhaps even after declining the king’s offer, Balaam did in some way use his ministry position for personal financial gain. The Holy Spirit-inspired writer Peter said that Balaam “loved the wages of wickedness.” And Jude wrote of those who had “rushed
Both today and in Jesus’ time, devout followers of the Lord can be preyed upon by those in a position to profit from the people’s spiritual devotion. John 2:13-17 describes the first of two instances of Jesus driving the moneychangers and other merchants out of the temple courtyard. As the Jewish worshipers from many nations arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover feast, many would need to convert their foreign money into local currency to buy sacrificial animals and perhaps to pay the required temple tax. The moneychangers often made an exorbitant profit in the currency exchange. Jesus loudly rebuked them for immorally profiting on the devotion of God’s people: “Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” (John 2:16) In a second instance of Jesus cleansing the temple, He similarly rebuked them: “It is written,” he said to them, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers’” (Matthew 21:13).
Unscrupulous profiteering from spiritual environments was done both in the ancient world and in our day. This is very sad and troubles me greatly and is at the heart of my motivations for writing this article from a biblical perspective.
I had been reading a daily devotional with 365 pages, one for each day of the year. When I was about halfway through the year, my spirit became increasingly troubled. I commented to my wife that almost every page of what I thought would be a devotional book included some form of the prosperity message, generally summarized as: serve the Lord and He’ll bless your finances. I closed that book, troubled in spirit, and put it away.
The book’s writers — and many in our day — had fallen for the antibiblical conclusion that Paul spoke against. Teachers in the apostle’s day were wrongly claiming “that godliness is a means to financial gain.” Paul contrasted this with genuine, biblical, “godly teaching” and declared that those teaching the godliness-for-financial-gain error were teachers who “understand nothing”!
What makes this teaching even more offensive is that those who profit the most from the godliness-to-financial-gain message are usually the very preachers and teachers of that message. I was in some meetings many years ago in which the visiting preacher would take his own offerings with very forceful, arm-twisting words. He would say to the congregation things like, “Rebuke the small amount; give the big amount” or (as the people wrote out checks), “It’s spelled t-h-o-u-s-a-n-d.” I’ll leave it to your judgment if this was an instance of “peddling the word of God for profit.” To me it was.
This is an important warning from the divinely-inspired writer to all of us, and especially to every “man of God” in ministry (vs. 11), as Timothy was. Ask yourself: do you personally “want to get rich?” Then the Lord’s Word tells you that you’re setting yourself up to fall into temptation and a trap, opening yourself up to many foolish and harmful desires. The predictable result is a personal plunge into ruin and destruction. All of that because of what? — wanting to get rich.
God’s ministers — in fact, all of us — would do well to take heed to this apostolic warning. I would encourage each reader right now to take a few seconds and go back and read the Scripture just above with a heart open to the Lord’s correction, if need be. If you are a sincere worshiper of God, heed the Lord’s clear instruction: “But thou, man of God [Paul writing to pastor Timothy], flee from all this.”
In my 12 years teaching in Bible College, my all-time favorite exam question to my students was from verse 10: “What is a root of all evil?” (translations vary between “a” root and “the” root). The Scriptural answer is not “money,” but the “love of money.” It is entirely biblical for pastors and other God-called ministers to receive living-wage compensation for their work for the Lord. Ministers have families to raise and the same living expenses we all have. That is indisputable, and the Bible clearly supports the minister’s right to a moderate income for his labors for the kingdom of God (see 1 Timothy 5:17f, 1 Corinthians 9:14, et al.). The problem, rather, is when an unhealthy preoccupation with money causes a minister to resort to peddling and merchandising the Word of God Almighty for profit. The apostle Paul commands: "Flee from all this."
I practically laughed out loud when my pastor read this verse from the pulpit, then said, “Paul would have made a lousy television preacher.” How right he was! That great apostle never coveted anyone’s silver or gold or fine clothes. He was well aware of the Scripture (Proverbs 30:8): “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me.” That godly minister had zero longing for other people’s money or finery. What a wholesome example for ministers today—being content with support that avoids either poverty or riches, but does meet all legitimate needs such as food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and the like.
My elderly widowed “Grammie” lived in our Dad’s and Mom’s home for 31 years, overlapping us kids’ childhoods and young adult years. She had very little personal income or savings, but my parents generously took great care of her for those 31 years and made sure all her needs were met. Dad deeply loved Grammie and even hired a worker once a week to help Grammie develop her beautiful flower garden at our Connecticut home. One day Dad rightfully became very distressed. Grammie had shared with him a boilerplate fund-raising letter she had received from a famous-name minister. The man—a familiar name in religious circles—was encouraging financial support of his ministry even to the point of people taking out loans to send the proceeds to his ministry. Dad of course properly agreed that Grammie should not even consider that outrageous request.
As we noted earlier, the Bible legitimately encourages the reasonable support of those in fulltime ministry—for example, 1 Timothy 5:17f and 1 Corinthians 9:14. Also God’s Levites and priests of the Old Testament. Even Jesus’ original 12 apostles as they were accompanying Him were apparently living by the provision of those who supported Jesus’ ministry while He was on earth—for example, see Luke 8:1-3.
So legitimate support of the proper needs of God’s ministers is entirely biblical, and I endorse that without reservation. The problem is those who go beyond that biblical position and profiteer off the Gospel, marketing and peddling the word of God for personal profit. By their “preaching for profit” (2 Cor. 2:17, NLT), some ministers have accumulated enormous personal wealth. Their names and shocking net worth are plastered across the internet and have brought great shame upon the legitimate ministry of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Have they forgotten the inspiring example of our Lord Jesus Himself, who for our sakes left the glories and splendor of heaven for a life devoid of natural riches while He was on earth? — “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor…” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
In closing, may the Holy Spirit give you wisdom to align yourselves with godly spiritual leaders who love Jesus and His Word, honor the local church, and never show inclinations to preach, market, or peddle God’s Word for profit. And avoid those who do make merchandise of God’s people. Jesus twice cleansed the temple of the merchandisers in the first century. And He is fully able to deal appropriately with those in the 21st century who minister to God’s flock “for shameful gain” (1 Peter 5:2, Amplified). Meanwhile, focus your love, your energies, your commitment, and your financial support on the Bible-believing, Jesus-honoring local church where the Lord has planted you. "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matthew 6:21).
DISCLAIMER: Some may be wondering: But pastor Jim, isn't there significant personal profit potential in a widely-read website like yours? Lest there be any unanswered questions or suspicions about this website's finances, let me reply to that. From our beginnings in 2004 I have followed the Lord’s specific personal word to me: “Freely you have received; freely give.” From personal funds I pay the expenses (software, hosting, domain name, etc.). We receive no revenue. We accept no paid advertising. And I ask for no donations. It is my joy and privilege to offer biblical preaching and teaching without charge to you, my much-appreciated readers. And our copyright specifically allows the free use of our materials for noncommercial purposes to further the spread of God's holy Word.
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