June 2020 Credo
For some time now I have been receiving emails in which the senders use the word “Blessings” as the valediction. These emails are mostly from Christians, although some of my Muslim friends also sign off their messages in this way.
Indeed, words like “blessing”, “bless” or “blessed” are constantly found on the lips of Christians of every stripe. They are used to acknowledge the good perceived in a myriad of things and circumstances: an answered prayer; a harmonious family; an effective ministry etc.
Peddlers of the so-called prosperity gospel have exploited this most ambiguous of words to the fullest. For them, to be blessed by God is to experience miraculous healing, to enjoy good health, to be materially prosperous and successful. (This of course seems to suggest that those who lack these things are not blessed.)
Blessing is a recurrent theme in the Christian Bible with words expressing the concept appearing more than 600 times in the Old Testament alone. This should not surprise us. After all, the God who created us in His own image and calls us into a covenantal relationship with Him wants us to flourish.
That being said, it is vital that we understand what the Bible means by “blessing”. At the very outset, it must be emphasised that in the Bible, blessing is first and foremost a divine activity. A blessing is God’s to give, and it expresses His immutable character.
The first mention of divine blessing in the Scriptures is found in the creation narrative in the early chapters of Genesis. God saw that what He had brought into being was good, and He blessed them, saying: “Be fruitful and multiply…” (Gen 1:22)
In the Bible, blessing is fundamentally a theological concept: it cannot be understood apart from the good and loving God who bestows it. But the biblical concept of blessing is also inextricably tied to human beings’ relationship with their Creator. Reflecting on God’s call of Abraham and the promises that accompanied it, Matt Champlin notes that “over and over, the Lord proclaims to the reader of Genesis that blessing is pre-eminently about a right relationship with him. That is not simply a part of the blessing; it is the very core.”
In the New Testament, blessing is profoundly related to the saving relationship that believers have with God in Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul expresses this eloquently in his epistle to the Ephesians: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (1:3).
For Christians, therefore, the concept of blessing is meaningless outside of their relationship with God in Christ.
When the Bible speaks of blessing, it does not refer only to temporal goods like health, wealth and success. Blessing is not always synonymous with the successful life. In fact, there are numerous passages in the Bible where the blessed life has no association whatsoever with material wellbeing. On the contrary, some of these passages indicate that it is those who endure hardship, trials and persecution that are blessed.
Consider these remarkable (some would say counter-intuitive) statements from the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who mourn… Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake… Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you…” (Matt 5:2-10).
Thus, a clearer picture of what the Bible means to be blessed is emerging, one which appears to be at odds with other notions. To be blessed is to be in God’s favour. To be in God’s favour is to be in the right relationship with God—regardless of the circumstances.
There is a profound relationship between blessing and obedience that should never be missed or ignored. In fact, it should be stressed again and again in the wake of the antinomian ethos that pervades certain sectors of the evangelical church today.
For it was our Lord himself who said: “Blessed…are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28).
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.