We saw in our last post that the Old Testament people of God could expect blessings in this world. God gave them fertility, territory and prosperity as signs of his favour, and these blessings were also part of God’s plan to bless the whole world. But what happened to these blessings after the coming of Christ? Can Christians expect to be blessed in the same way?
The promise of “seed” or descendants given to Abraham finds an astonishing revision in the New Testament. First, Jesus himself is the fulfilment of the promised seed (Gal 3:16). Second, as Paul explains in Romans 4:11-12, the children of Abraham now includes Gentiles who have faith in Jesus. While those who are merely racially Jewish are excluded, Jews and Gentiles who have faith in Jesus can both be regarded as Abraham’s decendents. It is the church that is the true Israel; the “chosen race … holy nation,” (1Pet 2:9). Paul declares that God’s promise to bless the nations through Abraham is fulfilled because ” those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed,” (Gal 3:9). Henceforth, genealogies are no longer significant.
The Abrahamic land promises follow a similar trajectory in the New Testament.
First, the promise is expanded to embrace the whole earth or world. Although the promise of Genesis 12:1 focuses on Canaan, Paul speaks of a promise that Abraham “would inherit the world,” (Rom 4:13). Here we see an example of a pattern John Stott wherein, “the fulfilment of biblical prophecy always transcends the categories in which it was originally given.” The expansion reflects the promise that all nations on earth will be blessed through Abraham. Dunn similarly argues that Paul understood the Abrahamic promises as a whole, leading to the restoration of the whole world – Paul is a-territorial and eschatological. Tom Wright calls this “one of the most breathtaking revisions of standard Jewish thinking we can imagine,” and he is right (pun intended)!
A similar extension to the land promise is found in Matthew 5:5, which applies Psalm 37:11. The psalm refers to inheriting the land (eretz) but Jesus “applies it, not territorially, but in terms of the ultimate vindication of the meek.” This is the regenerated earth, says Hagner. Hare suggests that this talk of inheriting of the earth is another way referring to the kingdom of heaven.
Second, the New Testament shifts the focus from the land to heaven. The language of inheritance usually applies to the land in the OT. But in 1 Peter 1:4 and Colossians 1:12 the apostles speak of a heavenly inheritance. This shift can be also be observed in Jesus’ declaration that his kingdom is “not of this world” (John 18:36); and in references to a “heavenly country” and “heavenly Jerusalem” found in the letter to the Hebrews (Heb 11:8-16; 12:22).
This leads us to the theme of blessing in the New Testament. Not surprisingly, this theme follows the same intertwined trajectory we have just seen for land and descendants. Prosperity theology fails to grasp this development.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus issues a series of well-known blessings, and what is striking about them is the absence of prosperity-related ideas: “theirs is the kingdom of heaven;” “they will be comforted;” “they will inherit the earth;” “they will be filled;” “they will receive mercy;” “they will see God;” “they will be called children of God;” “theirs is the kingdom of heaven;” – culminating in “for your reward is great in heaven.” The eschatological perspective is clear. The tenses are almost entirely future.
This future focus perspective is even more pronounced in Luke where we read, for example, “woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation,” (Luke 6:24). Earthly prosperity is no longer a mark of God’s blessing. The blessing package of a nation racially descended from Abraham, living in a prosperous land, has been transformed by Jesus into a church from all nations, belonging to a heavenly land with heavenly blessings. No wonder Paul declares that God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3). Jesus is therefore also the key to the fulfilment of the blessing promise.
This eschatological appropriation of blessing also explains how the New Testament can develop the theme of blessing through suffering. The Beatitudes climax with promises to the reviled and persecuted (Matt 5:10-12). Peter speaks of blessing through persecution, “If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting upon you,” (1 Pet 4:14).
It is claimed that the New Testament gives less prominence to the idea of blessing. But those who belong to God are still blessed – they are blessed in Christ. Their blessings include the blessing of forgiveness (Romans 4:7-9); the ability to believe without seeing (John 20:29); and the many blessings on martyrs in Revelation (14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 22:7, 14). As Mary Evans puts it: “These blessings are closely linked to the work of Jesus. It is Jesus who, through his life, death and resurrection, enables Jew and Gentile alike to inherit the blessings promised through Abraham.”
So the blessings of the Old Testament are still available, yet in a changed and eschatological form. For those in Christ there is a greater nation, a greater “land,” and greater blessings. Where does that leave the expectations of prosperity theology? In our final post we’ll respond to this modern approach to blessing using the framework that we’ve discovered through our survey of biblical theology.
Photo: The Great Lakes from the International Space Station (Nasa, public domain)
Paul Barker is Regional Coordinator for Asia for Langham Preaching, a Visiting Lecturer at Myanmar Evangelical Graduate School of Theology and teaches in a variety of other Asian seminaries. He is the author of The Triumph of Grace in Deuteronomy, a book of expositions on Amos and other articles and short books. Formerly he was Senior Minister of Holy Trinity Anglican Church Doncaster, Melbourne.
 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World (BST; Leicester: IVP, 1994) 130.
 James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8 (WBC; Louisville, KY: Word, 1988) 213.
 N. T. Wright, 73.
 R. T. France, Matthew (TNTC; Leicester: IVP, 1985) 110.
 Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13 (WBC; Dallas, TX: Word, 1993) 92. He likens this to Paul’s use of kosmos in Romans 4:13 (see below).
 Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew (Interpretation; Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1993) 39.
 The two strands of revision, namely world and heaven, may not be far apart given the argument by Tom Wright, Chris Wright and numerous others that stress that the new heaven and earth is in fact the renewed current cosmos, heavens and earth.
 Link, H.-G., “eulogia”, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (ed. C. Brown; IVP, 1975) Vol 1:212. See also the language of makarios in U. Becker, “makarios”, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (ed. C. Brown; IVP, 1975) Vol 1:215-218.
 Matthew 5:3-11; 25:34; Luke 6:20-22; 11:28; Romans 4:7-8; Ephesians 1:3; James 5:11; Revelation 19:9; 20:6; 22:14.
 Mary J. Evans, “Blessing, Curse” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (eds. T. D. Alexander, B. S. Rosner; Downers Grove, IL/Leicester: IVP, 2000) 400.