May 8 2014
Psalm 1:1-6, Matthew 5:3-12
Why do we say ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes? Apparently it comes from the time of the Bubonic Plague in 590 AD. Sneezing was the first sign that you had the killer disease and Pope Gregory ordered that the sick stand in lines to receive a blessing in the hope that they would be healed. But here we are hundreds of years later still saying ‘bless you’ and there is no plague! We bless the sneezing person as a matter of tradition. But it isn’t the only time the word ‘blessed’ is used in such a frivolous way. In some church circles now days when someone says, ‘Hi how are you’ the response is a traditional ‘I am blessed brother.’ Usually the person says it without even thinking what they’ve said. So I want to address this question today: What does it mean to ‘be blessed’ – what does the Bible say about it?
♦ The most common Hebrew word for ‘blessed’ in the Old Testament is ‘baruk.’ It basically means ‘a state of happiness’ but its use in Scripture suggests that its meaning grew. For example Psalm 1:1-3 says ‘Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.’ Here we can see that being blessed includes things like fertility, abundance and prosperity. So as long as Adam delighted in God’s commands he prospered, as soon as he walked in the council of the wicked (the snake) he was cursed. God cursed the ground and it became hard for Adam to prosper.
God also blessed Abraham to be fruitful – first in possessions and with victory over his enemies, and then later with many descendants. Job went through a terrible test losing descendants and possessions but in the end God blessed him with more descendants and possessions than he had ever had. It’s usually this way in the Old Testament. If you were blessed it showed in material things like fertile ground, possessions, descendants and victory over your physical enemies.
The New Testament is very different. The most common word for ‘blessed’ in the New Testament is the Greek word ‘makarios.’ Like the Hebrew ‘baruk’ it also means ‘a state of happiness,’ but it is used more for spiritual happiness than the happiness that results from material prosperity. So for example Mary was called blessed, not because she was materially wealthy or because she had many descendants, but because of her spiritual calling to mother the Messiah. Mary and her family were actually quite poor, this is made clear by her own statements, ‘My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed … He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty’ (Luke 1:47-53). It is also made clear by the fact that she and Joseph brought a poor persons offering to the temple – ‘a pair of doves or two young pigeons’ (Luke 2:24).
Of course we would regard Jesus himself to be the most blessed person to walk the planet, but do we consider him blessed because he had great material wealth? No. All Jesus owned in his life on earth were the clothes on his back. Woman cared for his basic needs (Luke 8:3), when he needed money for the temple tax he got it from the mouth of a fish (Matthew 17:27), when he needed a donkey he borrowed one (Matthew 21:2-3), and he had no descendants (Isaiah 53:8).
We might also add that all the men we speak most highly about in the New Testament – Jesus, Paul, John the Baptist and eleven of the twelve disciples ended up executed for their beliefs.
Does all this contradict Psalm 1’s claim that those who delight in God’s law shall prosper? Well the big question is this: Was Jesus prosperous or not? If we are thinking about material prosperity, then he definitely was not prosperous, but if we are thinking of spiritual prosperity we can say ‘absolutely!’ In fact from a spiritual perspective Jesus has more riches and more family than Abraham or Job ever had. And Jesus’ prosperity is eternal; he is King of kings forever and ever! So from an eternal perspective Jesus is truly blessed. And this is the perspective the New Testament emphasizes.
Perhaps the clearest teaching on blessedness in the New Testament is Jesus’ teaching on the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit [those who lack confidence], for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn [who have lost something], for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek [who have nothing to boast about], for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3-10)
Here Jesus is speaking to those of humble status; people who lack material blessings, and he is contrasting them with the rulers and religious leaders who were rich, and he is claiming that those who have little and are of humble status are blessed. He says they are blessed because of the rewards they will receive. And if you look at the list of rewards on offer you will note that they are all rewards given in the next life, not this life. And just in case you doubt that some items in the list are in the next life, Jesus makes it even clearer by saying at the end of the list ‘Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven’ (vs 12).
Gary Thomas, founder of the Center for Evangelical Spirituality tells the following story in the Discipleship Journal. It contrasts material and spiritual blessing quite nicely:
‘When my wife and I prayed extensively about buying a house, we gave God many opportunities to close the door. God appeared to bless the move. Five years later, our house is worth considerably less than we paid for it.
“Why didn’t God stop us?” my wife kept wondering. After all, we had given Him plenty of opportunities. But one day as my wife was praying, she sensed God asking her, “Have you ever considered the possibility that I wanted you in that neighbourhood to minister there rather than to bolster your financial equity?”
‘We thought of the people we have been able to reach, and then asked ourselves, are we willing to surrender to a God who would lead us to make a decision that turned out to be undesirable financially but profitable spiritually? Does obedience obligate God to bless us (financially), or can obedience call us to sacrifice?’ Gary Thomas finishes saying, ‘Think about the cross before you answer that one.’
Okay, so we get it, spiritual blessing is more important than material blessing, but why does the Old Testament emphasize material prosperity when the New Testament does not?
Many things in the Old Testament were merely shadows of the reality that were to come in the New Testament. Animal sacrifices were a shadow of the Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, the Passover deliverance was a shadow of Christ’s deliverance, Sabbath days were a shadow of the spiritual rest Christ would bring. Paul said ‘Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day (i.e. not keeping them). These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ’ (Colossians 2:16-17). In the same way God’s blessing on the material riches and physical descendants of Abraham and others were just a shadow of the spiritual riches and spiritual children that God would bless Christians with in Christ. Abraham’s material blessings pointed to our eternal blessings. God’s plan was never that we should focus on material riches; he has always wanted us to focus on spiritual riches, for these are everlasting.
Churches today that emphasize material prosperity are pointing us to Old Testament shadows, not the reality that Jesus proclaimed and modelled. This is not to say that we cannot have material prosperity, it just means that it isn’t to be the Christian’s emphasis or aim. Jesus was clear on this, he said ‘Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear … But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’ (Matthew 6:25-33). And this doesn’t mean that if you seek his kingdom first you will be materially rich; it just means God will take care of your material needs as he did with Jesus. Jesus did not have much, but he always had what he needed. He did not own a donkey, but if he needed one his Father provided it. He may not have had the money to feed five thousand, but if he needed to do it his Father made a way. Do you like that? I do.
So what does it mean for the Christian to be ‘blessed’? It means that we are plugged into the new life of the kingdom of heaven. We are called of God like Mary was, we will win in the end like Jesus did, and we will enjoy the eternal riches and family of God forever. What more could we want?
Other Illustrations used: The Pope blesses a journalist | A dog called ‘Lucky’
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