Monday, October 12, 2015

That Was Then, This Is Now

Sometimes Wikipedia has a gem or two.

The translators of our Bibles tell us that the thing for which Esau traded his birthright to his brother Jacob was a bowl of lentil soup. The King James that I grew up with reads “a mess of pottage”, and I still get a kick from that now-anachronistic and quirky turn of phrase.

Oddly, there is even a Wikipedia entry for “mess of pottage” that nails the concept perfectly:

“A mess of pottage is something immediately attractive but of little value taken foolishly and carelessly in exchange for something more distant and perhaps less tangible but immensely more valuable.”

Those followers of Christ who look primarily for blessing in this world are making the same sort of trade Esau did.

General Grace

A theological concept called “general” or “common” grace is a bone of contention among Reformed Christians. Without wading into their argument, the idea of common grace rings true so long as we restrict our understanding of it to what scripture clearly affirms and no more. We must concur with the Lord Jesus, for instance, that the Father “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust”.

We can call that “grace” if we like or we can call it “blessing”.

Or we can simply recognize with Job that heaven’s justice is not always experienced during this lifetime, and that sometimes the wicked prosper and the godly do not. At very least, it sometimes appears that the wicked are “blessed”, doesn’t it?

So while we may be grateful for blessings like rain and sun, family, children and so on, there is nothing uniquely Christian about them.

The way the world works, we are not generally conscious of any sort of binary choice between God’s explicit approval (manifested in an outpouring of material blessing in this life), and his explicit condemnation (manifested in instant lightning bolts). Experience tells us life just doesn’t play out that way for many of us. Unlike the Lord’s disciples, with a few notable exceptions we dwell in our own houses on our own lands, surrounded by unestranged and very present family members, enjoying what appears to be the best of both worlds.

Is that all there is? As a Christian, doesn’t that seem a little flat to you?

If it does, it may have something to do with our understanding of the word “blessing”. I’m not sure we use it at this end of the Church Age precisely the way the Lord or the apostles did.

Redefined Blessing

With regard to God’s dealings with Israel in the Old Testament, “blessing” almost always meant material improvement. Blessing might involve prestige, an increase in business success or harvest, children, herds and flocks, victory over enemies in war and consequent fear in the hearts of those enemies, and riches to lend rather than a need to borrow.

These blessings were based on a very specific and unique covenant relationship with Israel that was about as binary as a relationship could be. It was approval or condemnation. It was blessings or curses. Either/Or. Tangible success or very tangible, quantifiable loss.

That was then, but this is now. The picture is remarkably changed when we come to the gospels and throughout the New Testament.

Blessings of a Christ-Like Attitude

We first see this in the Sermon on the Mount, where it becomes clear that the Lord Jesus is talking about blessing of a very different sort, one that must have thoroughly perplexed many in his audience. In this he is not so much heralding a change in God’s dealings with man (though that was certainly about to occur) as he is acknowledging the things that have always made man truly “blessed”: poverty of spirit, or humility; a consciousness of the fallen state of the world; meekness; an all-consuming desire for justice; mercy; purity; a craving for peace, along with a desire to facilitate it; and, finally, a willingness to suffer for the things that matter.

It is the adoption of an entirely different worldview.

We might call these “blessings of a Christ-like attitude”, because they are primarily outlook-related, and because it is the Lord Jesus who has best modeled each of these qualities for us already. To the extent that we imitate him in these attitudes and cultivate his mindset we give evidence that we are becoming more like him.

These blessings enumerated in the Sermon are distinctly unrelated to the material world. Further, they are largely anticipatory (“they shall be comforted; they shall inherit the earth; they shall be satisfied”), and even though they clearly begin in this life (“when others revile you and persecute you”), they await their complete realization in the coming kingdom.

But where the believer is concerned, there is much more.

Unconditional Blessings in Christ

Consider this profound passage by the apostle Paul in Ephesians, wherein he sets out precisely what it means for the Christian to be “blessed”:
“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, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”
Now these are all blessings that we enter into as a result of exercising faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. They arise out of relationship, not our performance. They are ours from the new birth “in him”, which is to say we do not have to do anything to receive them other than simply receive him. They are clearly not “common grace”. Equally, they are not conditional on Christian performance.

But my main point here is that in contrast to the blessings of the Old Testament predicated on behaviour, these blessings Paul enumerates are distinctly non-material. They are spiritual in nature. This is a major problem for people who can only think in terms of physical “blessing” and their needs in this world. Individuals of this type cannot conceive of a happiness predicated on anything intangible.

These are the sort of “blessings” that characterize the Christian life. They are superior in every way to those of the Old Testament.

Blessings of Living Christian-ly

Finally, there is a third class of New Testament blessings that we would be remiss to overlook. There is:

·        The blessing of turning away from wickedness and the benefits that follow from it.

·        The blessing of remembering the Lord and the fellowship with him that follows from it.

·        The blessing of showing forgiveness.

These blessings are conditional. To the extent that the Christian neglects to turn away from wickedness, that benefit is absent in his or her life. If a Christian does not prioritize remembering the Lord, he will not enjoy the fellowship that comes from it. If a Christian refuses to show forgiveness, he forfeits the benefit of a clear conscience.

Note that there are only two New Testament references to material blessings, and context shows these have to do with the meeting of basic needs rather than desires. Further, note that the onus is not on receiving such blessings, but in taking every opportunity that presents itself to bless others materially (see also 2 Corinthians 9:5-6).

Common Blessings and Christian Blessings

For the Christian, the definition of “blessing” has effectively been turned on its ear. To adopt the primarily materialist view of the Jew on the subject of blessing is to be a child in the spiritual realm. It is to miss the point of the Christian life almost entirely. Once upon a time “blessing” meant success, victory, money, food or children.

But that was then, and this is now.

All the Old Testament “blessings” are still real blessings, of course. When I get a raise, I should be grateful to the Lord. When I am preserved in a crisis, it is perfectly reasonable to acknowledge the Lord’s particular goodness to me even if I have done nothing to merit it. And of course it is still appropriate and biblical to refer to my children as a “blessing”, though this is true of every child ever born. When we witness the goodness of God to us in particular ways, we should always be grateful.

But we have received many blessings unique to our calling as believers in Jesus Christ, and it is these which should primarily occupy our minds and hearts. These are not the things the world seeks, and to be occupied with their sort of material blessing is to be as unappreciative of our spiritual birthright as Esau was of his physical birthright when he sold it to Jacob for a bowl of lentils. We are not to be occupied with the material world but with that which is spiritual and eternal.

The world can keep its lentils, thank you. That was then. This is now.

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