Counting and naming blessings
Being conscious and grateful for everyday blessings is expressed in the simple hymn: “Count your blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.” But a quick glance at Facebook could convince a visiting alien that blessedness comes from having beautiful children, a new car, exotic holidays, great friends, getting a promotion or snagging a good looking partner! The gift is often praised, but the giver simply ignored. It is as if blessings come out of nowhere or are due credit for our efforts. For many people, the blessed life is nothing more profound than enjoying good luck, hereditary privilege or the fruits of one’s labours.
A matter of fact, not feeling
Christians also love to use the word blessed, although we are not always exactly sure what it means. We know that a blessed life is more profound than random luck and has something to do with God’s favour and protection. In the Bible, the Greek word for blessed (makarios) literally means happy, and blessings (eulogeo) are the bounty, favour or benefitswe receive from God’s hand. But these benefits have often been twisted by Bible teachers to refer to favourable circumstances and monetary rewards. Many pastors, particularly in Africa, have turned the Christian gospel into a commodity and teach their churches the principle of “seeding” (giving to the church) in order to reap material blessings and riches from God. But perpetual wealth, health and prosperity have never been the lived experience of godly believers through the millenia– including the prophets, Paul and the apostles, and Jesus Christ himself. The Bible simply does not teach this materialistic understanding of the blessed life. In fact, the first forty-three Psalms are meditations or prayers on the privileges or blessings of God’s favoured ones, yet they are drenched with the psalmist’s groans, cries, grief, persecution and personal torment. These ancient songs express God’s favour and blessing over oppressed, poor and helpless people.
Today’s text from Ephesians 1 gives flesh to the special “blessedness” of being a Christian. Here we see that being blessed is not just a feeling (which comes and goes depending on our circumstances) but a fact. It is a unique kind of privilege that has more to do with status than a fuzzy emotion. We are blessed because of our position as believers who are in Christ regardless of our social status, race or any other group identity. We are often blessed in spite of our circumstances, not because of them. Blessing has been conferred on us by God himself and it’s been done in the past tense. It is secure, unchangeable and unconditional. Blessedness is a matter of fact, not of feeling. It is the ultimate privilege and has nothing to do with good luck. The blessed life is something we can depend upon because it is based on God himself, not on ourselves or our circumstances.
Ephesians 1:3-14 (ESV)
“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, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
11 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, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13 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, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”
Blessed in Christ
It is true that everyone experiences God’s blessing in a general sense. God has blessed us with life in the world He has created, the ability to breathe and gasp at a beautiful sunset, hug a child and laugh with friends. Sometimes we don’t realise how blessed we are until we lose something precious. It is right to thank and praise God for every simple blessing and take nothing for granted. (James 1:17) Living with gratitude and joie de vivre is actually good for our physical and emotional health no matter who we are.
But in our Ephesians text, did you notice how many times Paul links blessing to being “in Christ” or “in him?” It is the way the Bible speaks of being united with Christ, which happens the moment we become a Christian. What a privilege to be blessed “in the Beloved” (Eph 1:6)! Union with Christ appears 165 times in the New Testament, which means it’s central to our faith. The blessedness Paul is speaking about in Ephesians 3 is special and distinct. It is only experienced by being “in Christ.” Of course, this cannot mean a literal, physical union with Christ, as Jesus died in 33AD on a Roman cross. But it describes the reality of a believer’s intimate relationship with Jesus because he lives in our hearts by faith (Eph 3:17-19). The Bible has many terms and images to describe this reality of being united with Christ. It is not just a loose link with Jesus or the way I feel close to him at certain times. Metaphorically speaking, a Christian has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal 2:20).
John Murray describes the joyful blessing of being united with Christ like this: “Why does the believer entertain the thought of God’s determinate counsel with such joy? Why can he have patience in the perplexities and adversities of the present? Why can he have confident assurance with reference to the future and rejoice in hope of the glory of God? It is because he cannot think of past, present, or future apart from union with Christ.” (co-founder and past lecturer at Westminster Theological Seminary).
Being “in Christ” gives hope where many are in despair.
God’s ultimate plan for human history is found in Ephesians 1:9-10. On a certain day in the future, God will unite all things in heaven and on earth in Christ. On this day, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. He will rule supremely with no rival. But until that day, God gathers a special family for Himself whom He has chosen to be holy (Eph 1:4), adopted (Eph 1:5), redeemed and forgiven (Eph 1:7). He has opened our eyes to see the mystery of his will regarding Jesus (Eph 1:9), he has given us an inheritance (Eph 1:11) and sealed this future hope with his own Spirit who comes to live inside us (Eph 1:13-14). God has not only purchased us, but has also blessed this family under his rule with “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” We have purpose on this earth and into eternity. We enjoy great benefits and assurances this side of heaven. We are not the product of random chance and fate in this messy, unjust world. It is truly awesome that the Maker of the universe has given us this privilege on earth, and it is the blessing enjoyed by all God’s people through the ages. If we are Christ’s followers, we need to meditate on this truth every day. This is the only blessed life, regardless of the messages drummed into us by social media, advertisers or our own distorted minds and wavering emotions. This spiritual blessing is the only privilege worth having, because it speaks of God’s unfailing love for his children since before the world was made. It cannot be earned or lost.
No privilege of race, education or wealth comes close to blessedness in Christ.
Do you notice that none of these great blessings is due to a single thing we have accomplished or our group identity? Every blessing is God-given, “according to the riches of his grace” (Eph 1:7). It is a generous, undeserved treasure trove. It is initiated and “lavished upon us” by God (Eph 1:8). Paul assures us that our “blessedness” does not depend on us. God was at work long before the creation of the world for the purpose of adopting us into his family. Given the timing, there is nothing we could have done to earn his selection.
Blessedness is sealed, signed and delivered by God himself to those who belong to Him. But it is also clear that we need to respond to God’s plan of redemption. We need to accept the invitation of redemption for ourselves. We need to hope and believe in Jesus ourselves. (Eph 1:12-13). There is no such thing as a proxy response.
Blessedness is built on redemption through Jesus. (Eph 1:7; 12-13)
The blessed life is freely available to us, but Jesus welcomes sinners to himself only on the basis of redemption through his blood and the forgiveness of our sins (Eph 1:7). Sin has no place in the presence of God. Evil deeply offends his holiness. We first need to be made right with God to claim these special blessings of God. They are not conferred by religion or ritual or heritage, but only through personally putting our trust in Jesus. That is why Peter affirms in the earliest sermons of the Christian faith that Jesus is the cornerstone, as “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12). Jesus was unequivocal that He was the way, the truth and the life and that no one could come to the Father except by Him (John 14:6). Paul wrote to Timothy that there is only one God and one mediator between God and man–the man Jesus Christ (1 Tim 2:5). Jews were not exempt due to their special religious heritage. This is the gospel of our salvation— the word of truth that Paul refers to in verse 13 of our Ephesians text.
The unique word of truth
The text tells us that we are united with Christ when we hear the word of truth and believe in Jesus (v13). Nothing more is required than hearing and believing, but verse 13 is describing the greatest miracle known to mankind. Did you notice that Paul doesn’t refer to some vague idea of truth, but uses the definite article “the word of truth, the gospel of our salvation”? Abdu Murray’s excellent book, Saving Truth: Finding Meaning in a post-truth world describes how western culture has moved to a new worldview where personal feelings and preferences matter more than truth or objective facts.
“Western culture embraces confusion as a virtue and decries certainty as a sin. Those who are confused about sexuality and identity are viewed as heroes. Those who are confused about morality are progressive pioneers. Those who are confused about spirituality are praised as tolerant. Conversely, those who express certainty about any of these issues are seen as bigoted, oppressive, arrogant, or intolerant.”
Murray goes on to provide vital insight on how to share the gospel truth in a post-truth world, connecting with people in the things that matter to them, so that they will hear us and believe in Jesus.
The uniqueness and power of the gospel is inescapable: That the perfect Son of God should become flesh and live among us, that He should die for our sins on the cross and rise on the third day—this is a unique word that offers salvation, peace and hope to our generation in the same way as to any other in history.
It is the word of truth that needs to be clearly spoken, heard and believed: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom 10:14) The Triune God is a speaking God. He is not silent and He has shown us who He is and how we can know Him. We are God’s mouthpiece to communicate this word of truth to a confused generation. We need to learn to do it effectively in the post-truth world in which we live and in which our children are growing up.
Sealed with the Holy Spirit.
Amazingly, God has done more than speak his word of truth to us. His Spirit is alive in us and at work in our lives. The Holy Spirit is a person– the protector, counsellor, prompter, comforter, and the power and presence of God for those who are in Christ. He is the guarantee of a sure inheritance that cannot perish, spoil or fade (1 Peter 1:3-5).
Our inheritance is eternal life with God. This is our true legacy– the only glory worth seeking. The Holy Spirit is living proof of it.
Do you know the Spirit’s work and presence in your life?
What blessing really means.
Loss, failure, illness, broken relationships and death can smash the perfect image of our Facebook blessings in the blink of an eye.
Yet, in a recent season of my life when almost every pleasure and comfort was stripped away–when everything was dark and I could hardly breathe or eat a mouthful of food–when all I could do was lie face down, crying to God in desperation, and devour His word like a crazy person seeking water in the desert– that is when I knew his blessing more intensely than ever. I knew and felt deep down in my soul the paradox Jesus described: “Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who mourn” (Matt 5:3-4). I personally experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit more intimately than ever before and felt God’s grace and mercy drench me like warm, heavy rainfall. I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that my life was blessed. It was joy.
I experienced God’s blessing because of this simple truth in God’s word:
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)
God is faithful. Merciful. Steadfast in love.
I store hundreds of verses like this in my memory bank for times when I forget that my life is blessed. My blessing is based on His character, not my own. Nor my circumstances.
Elizabeth blessed her cousin Mary, the mother of Jesus, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” But blessed Mary would watch her beloved son brutally crucified 33 years later. In Mary’s life, and in our own lives as God’s children, true blessedness has everything to do with God’s favour and nothing to do with favourable circumstances.
If you are God’s child, you will experience the blessing of being at peace with God– forgiven of your great burden of guilt and sin through Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross (Romans 4:7). You will also know that the greatest blessing known to mankind is to be loved by the immortal God. It is the blessing of security– the confidence of knowing that no one can accuse or stand against you, and no circumstance, in heaven or earth, nor even death itself, can separate you from God’s love (Romans 8:31-39). Nothing can come between you and Jesus.
The ultimate water bladder
The certainty of God’s love is the water bladder in your hydration pack on a long trail. Without water, it won’t take long for thirst and dehydration to set in. You will wilt, get wobbly on your feet and start seeing mirages. Trust me, I’ve been there! Likewise, a believer cannot survive for long without sipping slowly and deeply on the living water of God’s eternal love for you. It is the surest way to keep your vision clear. It is the one great blessing around which all the others nestle comfortably.
Live out the blessed life!
- Do you have a joyful, grateful heart that is evident to people around you? How do you typically respond to your blessings? Do you blessthe Lord (speak well of/ thank and praise Him), not just in Church but in your everyday encounters with people at home, school, work, in the supermarket, wherever you find yourself? Are you certain of the favour and love of God even if your circumstances are far from perfect?
- If you are a parent, do you speak words of blessing over your children in the same way God honours and blesses you? Or are you shaming or disheartening your children by dishing out conditional approval?
- Do you experience the love of God your Father at a heart level? Do you personally know the blessedness of Ephesians 1? If you are unsure, do not delay! Keep reading these devotions, ask God to reveal the “word of truth, the gospel of your salvation.” Make an appointment today with a trusted Christian to meet regularly until you know where you stand with God. Pray, however imperfectly. Don’t stop until you have more than head knowledge of God’s blessing.
Turn Ephesians 3:16-21 into your own prayer:
“Father, I pray that out of your storehouse of rich blessings, you may strengthen me by your Spirit– with a deep inner strength that is more than human. Give me an unshakeable, secure confidence.
Jesus, I invite you to live in my heart through faith, every day, every moment. I ask that I may live my ordinary life securely rooted in your unfailing love for me.
May I, together with all your followers, fully grasp how wide and long and high and deep is your love for me.
Father, please let me experience in my mind and my heart the dimensions of your love which is greater than anything I can fathom.
As your child, may I be fully satisfied in you, content and grateful with my life. May I know that I am truly blessed in you.
Blessed be your name!
Glory to God in the church!
Glory to God in the Messiah, Jesus!
Glory down all the generations!
Glory through all millennia! Amen!”
In “Blessings,” Laura Story asks the question of God: “What if blessings come through rain drops? What if the rain, the storms, the hardest nights–are your mercies in disguise?” Listen to Laura Story and Matt Redman sing about the blessed life: