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Have you heard of the internet hashtag #blessed? On the surface, it’s a tag people use to show their friends they’re happy and thankful to God (or some higher power) for some aspect of their life. “My fiancé is the best. #blessed”. “Feeling #blessed to have achieved so much in my sporting career.” But in online interactions, it’s never as simple as that, is it? There are always complex motivations, real or imagined, lurking beneath the surface. When we read this, we want to know: why are they sharing this feeling of blessedness? We might start speculating. Are they bragging about their life and their achievements? Or we might start to get annoyed. Who cares anyway about their fiancé or their sporting career? Pride, boasting, envy and scornfulness are never far away online. So the hashtag has become a sarcastic meme—a way of poking fun at humblebraggers and narcissists. “I dropped my pizza in the gutter and it landed right side up. #blessed”.
But it isn’t just an internet meme. Many people, especially Christians, will talk about being ‘blessed’. The blessings that we often choose to talk about involve our own feelings of fulfilment. My ‘blessings’ are the kind of things that I have in life, or that I have achieved in life, or that I am. They are things that define me as a person with a good life. What’s more—and here’s the problem—they’re also the kind of things that many other people don’t have or haven’t achieved or aren’t. We can talk about the blessings of health, family, happiness, reputation, food, comfort, love. These are things that some of us have, and others long for. They are, of course, real blessings, and if we have them we should be thankful to God and tell people that we’re thankful too! But the #blessed phenomenon shows how easy it is to move from gratefulness to boastfulness on the one hand, and envy and sarcasm on the other.
The apostle Paul opens his letter of Ephesians with an explosion of praise and thankfulness for the ‘blessings’ that God has given to us. What kind of blessings is he talking about? We quickly see that they’re very different from the kind of blessings we often talk about.
Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, in Christ!Ephesians 1:3
Blessed is God!
The first ‘blessing’ is actually not about our own personal fulfilment at all. It’s about God. Paul exclaims that God is “blessed”—meaning that God himself is wonderful, amazing and worthy of all our praise. Paul starts his talk about ‘blessing’ with God, not himself. He describes God as the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”. God’s own blessedness comes from who he is: the fact that he is the Father of Jesus Christ. While this really matters for us, it doesn’t start with us. It starts with God. So whenever we think about blessing, it’s right to first dwell on God himself—who he is, and especially who he is in relation to his Son Jesus Christ.
Spiritual blessings in the heavenly places
This “blessed” God has also “blessed us”. Paul isn’t talking here about the kind of blessings we often dwell on: health, wealth, love, reputation, or happiness. Rather, he is talking here about “spiritual blessings in the heavenly places”. These are blessings that have to do with God’s Holy Spirit and the spiritual dimension of life. We don’t often dwell on the spiritual dimension of life because it’s not right in our faces, and sometimes it seems so distant and unreal. But in fact, it’s these spiritual blessings that really matter. They matter because they’re guaranteed by God’s Spirit, and because they’re permanent, and because they make sense of everything else. These blessings are secure. So this is what we need to fix our hearts on, even though sometimes it seems that we’re not ‘blessed’ in life. Remember that Paul is writing this from prison, chained up for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. But he doesn’t dwell on that. Instead, he wants his readers to know that they have these firm and secure spiritual blessings in the heavenly places, and that these blessings really matter.
What do these spiritual blessings consist of? They include being chosen, forgiven, adopted, and being given knowledge and hope. That’s what the following verses are about, and I’ll discuss them in more detail in future posts. But for the moment, there’s something even more important to dwell on: these blessings are all “in Christ”.
We have all these spiritual blessings “in Christ”. The place where it all happens, the sphere of blessing, is a person: God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
There’s some Old Testament history behind this idea of being ‘blessed in Christ’. In Genesis 12, after a long description of humanity’s downward spiral of sin and rebellion against God, God speaks to an individual called Abraham about ‘blessing’. God promises that he will “bless” Abraham (Genesis 12:2). He also promises Abraham that “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3), and “in your offspring all the nations of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 22:18; see also 26:3–4, 28:14). These are absolutely foundational promises from God. So much of the story of the Old Testament looks forward and points to the one who would be Abraham’s offspring, the one in whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. And now, Paul says, this one has come! Abraham’s offspring, who is God’s Son Jesus Christ (see also Matthew 1:1), is the one in whom all the nations of the earth are blessed. God’s purposes and plans throughout time, seen through the history of the nation of Israel, have reached their culmination. Jesus Christ, who has been born and died on the cross and risen from the dead, is the focus of God’s plans and his blessings for everyone who believes in him. The phrase “in Christ” keeps coming up again and again in the first half of Ephesians chapter 1, as Paul goes into detail about all the blessings that we have in him.
In one sense, these spiritual blessings will only truly be seen for what they are in the future. God’s purpose is for all things, in heaven and on earth, to be summed up “in Christ” (v. 10). God will bring about a new creation, where those who are in Christ are tangibly ‘blessed’ in every possible way. But that time is not now. God does not promise to give us every material blessing right now. Rather, says Paul, what we have are ‘spiritual’ and ‘heavenly’ blessings. That’s all fine, but do these ‘spiritual’ and ‘heavenly’ blessings make any difference at all to us right now? Yes, they do. Throughout Ephesians, Paul keeps emphasising how people who believe in Jesus, through his Holy Spirit, have the benefit of these blessings, even now. That’s because Jesus is even now risen from the dead and victorious. And through believing in him, we can know that we are forgiven and loved and holy, we have a real hope, and we can live as God’s children—despite our sin, our suffering, and despite the fact that life here on earth doesn’t always look too ‘blessed’.
Every spiritual blessing
Notice that we have every spiritual blessing in Christ—not just a few of them. Verses 3–14 is one long sentence in the original language (Greek). It’s like Paul is pouring out the words on the page. This is a little like my wife’s family at Christmas time. In the family I grew up in, Christmas was a reasonably ordered affair. We would all gather around the Christmas tree and hand out gifts in an orderly way. First my sister would get a gift, she’d open it, we’d watch her pull out her Cabbage Patch Kid and we’d all appreciate it. Then I’d get a gift, and we’d all watch and appreciate it. But when I got married, I realised my wife’s family is different from mine, in a fun way. At Christmas time, it’s like a gift frenzy! Because they just want to love each other and give presents and bless each other as quickly as possible, they just hand them all around (sometimes even throw them to each other across the room!) quickly and chaotically, and we’re all blessed together. That’s a little like Paul here as he overflows with joy in talking about the spiritual blessings we have in Jesus Christ. We have it all, and nobody misses out!
Blessing and us
So God has “blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, in Christ”. What does this mean for us?
Firstly, it means that in Christ there’s no room for bragging. The most important blessings we have from God don’t have anything to do with our own wonderful lives, our relationships, our families, our abilities, our achievements. The spiritual blessings that matter are the ones Paul goes on to list in the following verses: they’re about being chosen, forgiven, adopted, and being given knowledge and hope. This all c0mes from God. None of this is anything we can brag about.
Secondly, it means that in Christ there’s no room for envy. When it comes to the blessings that really matter—the spiritual blessings in the heavenly places—everyone who believes in Jesus Christ has it all. So if you’re a believer, there’s no extra or second spiritual blessing coming your way. There’s no extra special and super-wonderful plan for your life over and on top of what you already have in Christ. In Christ, you have it all. The challenge is to lift your eyes to see it, dwell on it, and remember it. It can be hard to lift your eyes sometimes, can’t it? You may be downcast, and suffering, and feeling very unblessed. You may look at the earthly blessings that others have, and long for them. Paul realised that his readers might easily find it hard to lift their eyes—which is why he prayed for God to do it for them (Ephesians 1:18). You might want to pray a simple prayer to God even now: “God, lift the eyes of my heart to see the blessings I have in Christ”.
Thirdly, it means that we need to keep remembering what God has promised us—and what he hasn’t promised us. There is a kind of teaching called ‘prosperity teaching’, which says that God promises every blessing to us in Christ, right now. Here is an example from a well-known preacher and author named Joseph Prince:
Beloved, this is the heart of God. He wants you to remember all the benefits that Jesus has purchased for you with His blood! It is His heart to see you enjoying every single benefit, every single blessing and every single favor from Him in the new covenant of His grace. Forgiveness of sin is yours. Health is yours. Divine protection is yours. Favor is yours. Good things and the renewal of youth are yours!Joseph Prince, Unmerited Favor: Your Supernatural Advantage for a Successful Life (Lake Mary, FL.: Charisma, 2010), p. 95.
In this book Joseph Prince goes on to say: “Our heavenly Father wants to make you a success and that success includes financial success” (p. 232); “It is not possible to be an heir of the world if you are constantly fatigued, sick and flat on your back. No way! God will make you healthy and keep you in divine health in Jesus’ name!” (p. 235); and “Be very clear that God does not and will not discipline you with sicknesses, accidents and diseases” (p. 237). Prince teaches that if we truly rely on God’s unmerited grace, then God will bless us with all these material blessings, now. It’s a central theme in much of his teaching. But it’s not right. Right now, God does not promise financial success and health. Of course, God might bless us with these things, and whenever he does we should be thankful to him. But God does not guarantee to give us these things. What he does guarantee are spiritual blessings in Christ: being chosen, forgiven, adopted, and being given knowledge and hope. In fact, these spiritual blessings are often most precious to us when we are in hard situations, or weak, or flat on our backs, longing for that day when God will sum up all things in Christ.
So as Christians let’s be careful about the way we talk about God’s blessings. It’s right to be thankful to God for the blessings of this life. But if we constantly use the language of ‘blessing’ only to talk about the things of this world—even good things like health and relationships and happiness—we’re seriously short-changing the message of the Bible. The great news of the gospel is that we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing—in Christ! Let’s continue to lift our eyes, to celebrate, talk about, rejoice in and praise God for these wonderful spiritual blessings we have in the heavenly places, in Christ.
What kind of blessings do you focus on or long for the most?
When your earthly life doesn’t feel very ‘blessed’, how might reflecting on these spiritual blessings help you?
This post is part of a series of ~70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You can see all the posts so far, and subscribe to receive updates via email, audio podcast, and social media, by following this link.
The academic details behind these reflections
In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.