Tuesday 3 January 2012

Blessing (4)

PrayerWorks, a new venture from the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity starting in early January 2012, seeks to encourage prayer for the workplace by providing creative ways of praying and developing pathways of prayer for Christians together. From 1 February, this will include a 40-day journey of prayer for work using the prayer pathway of blessing. As part of this, I have been asked to write a supportive piece on what the Bible says about ‘blessing’ – what it tells us about God and the way he works, and its implications for our response in praise to God and in praying for others.

Earlier posts:

Blessing (1) – Introduction

Blessing (2) – Blessing comes from God – the creator God

Blessing (3) – Blessing comes from God – the covenantal God

2. Blessing flows through Christ

The New Testament links God’s blessing with Jesus, quintessentially expressed in Ephesians 1:3:

‘Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.’

‘Spiritual’ here may mean ‘of the Spirit’ – the blessing that comes by the Spirit – in which case, this blessing is triune-shaped: the Father blesses us through the Spirit in Christ, the three-in-one God working to bring about our salvation. Paul goes on to catalogue God’s amazing blessings – which come to us only because of the death of Christ, which brings about redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Eph. 1:7).

Already, then, it should be clear that while God continues to provide for the material wellbeing of his people, the New Testament has nothing like the same emphasis as the Old Testament on blessings in terms of material prosperity. With the coming of Christ and the inauguration of the new covenant, God’s provision of blessings in the form of fertility, descendants, long life and good health, give way to ‘every spiritual blessing in Christ’ – blessings to be experienced now, and which will be experienced in full with the final kingdom, blessings which the old covenant could only foreshadow.

Blessing is now to be understood as mediated through Jesus Christ. For the Christian, then, Jesus becomes the focal point of blessing from God – in the fulfilment of blessing and in the invoking of it.

(a) Blessing fulfilled

It’s not too far into the early church period before Peter preaches that God has blessed us by the sending of his servant Jesus in fulfilment of his promise to Abraham (Acts 3:24-26). Paul elaborates on this in his letter to the Galatians, showing how God’s promise to Abraham to bless all nations is now fulfilled in Christ (Gal. 3:6-14; cf. Heb. 6:13-20; 12:17).

He has done this because, in his death, Christ has borne the consequence of the curse of the law. Paul refers to Deuteronomy 27:26 and 21:22-23 in Galatians 3:10-13, reminding the Galatians of the penalty of breaking the law and so falling outside the sphere of God’s blessing. Christ redeems us from the curse, enabling Jew and Gentile alike to enjoy relationship with God, extending to Gentiles the blessing promised to Abraham. Once again, to read the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy 28 as if they were timeless principles is to confuse the covenant God made with the nation of Israel in that particular time and place with the unconditional promise to Abraham now carried forward and fulfilled in Christ.

(b) Blessing invoked

Echoing the language of Exodus 19:3-6 (in calling Israel to be a priestly kingdom, a holy nation, for the sake of nations), Peter is likewise clear that God was finally fulfilling his promise to bring the Gentiles into the blessing too (1 Pet. 2:9-10). That blessing gives them the privileges – and responsibilities – that went with the covenant. Hence, Israel’s call – their identity and role with respect to the world – is now taken up by the church, by all followers of Christ. God’s mission to bless all nations continues to be worked out through us, his chosen people – wherever we may find ourselves ‘scattered’ (1 Pet. 1:1).

We are able to bless others because we ourselves have been blessed.

Blessing of Christ

The language of blessing is found in the early chapters of Luke’s gospel (1:42, 68-69; 2:28-32) woven in with promises of God’s redemptive presence in the coming of Christ. Then, at the end of the gospel, in words that are reminiscent of the priestly blessing in Leviticus 9:22, Christ blesses his disciples:

‘When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.’ (Luke 24:50-53)

Somewhat ironically, Luke starts with a priest, Zechariah, unable to complete his service in the temple (1:21-22) and ends with Jesus giving a priestly benediction. He has made the sacrifice which brings about the forgiveness of sins to be preached to all nations (24:46); now, as he departs in order to send the Spirit to be with them and equip the disciples, he blesses them for the mission that lies ahead.

Blessing through Christ

It’s possible that an echo of the priestly benediction might be heard at the start of Paul’s letters, in the regular greeting – with the ‘grace and peace to you’ reminiscent of the final sentence of the priestly prayer, ‘And be gracious to you... and give you peace’ (Num. 6:25-26). If this is the case, Paul’s frequently-added words ‘from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’ in his greetings reinforce the source of the blessing. Grace and peace provide more than just a convenient greeting, but summarise the blessings of the gospel – which come through Christ.

Even if this is a stretch, the benedictions or doxologies at the end of some of the New Testament letters function as blessings (e.g., Rom. 16:25-27; 1 Cor. 16:23; 2 Cor. 13:14; Gal. 6:16, 18; Eph. 6:23-24; Phil. 4:23; Col. 4:18; 1 Thess. 5:28; 2 Thess. 3:18; 1 Tim. 6:21; 2 Tim. 4:22; Titus 3:15; Philm. 25; Heb. 13:20-21, 25; 1 Pet. 5:14; Jude 24-25). 2 Corinthians 13:14 is perhaps the most well known of these:

‘May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.’

This is instructive in itself, reminding us, like Ephesians 1:3, that grace is available only through Jesus Christ, is grounded in the love of God, and is mediated to us by the Holy Spirit.

Hence, blessing is to be understood in christological terms, coming to us as a result of Christ’s work. It is only in Christ that we understand what it means to blessed by God, and it is only because of Christ that we can bring to others his blessing (Rom. 15:29) and are able to bless, rather than curse, even those who persecute us (Luke 6:27-28; Rom. 12:14; 1 Peter 3:9).

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