Understanding Divine Blessing: Does the Prosperity Gospel Get It Right? (w/ Book Review)

The biblical concept of “blessing”—as in being blessed and blessing others—is not a topic any church I’ve attended focused on, so when I had the opportunity to read and review Divine Blessing and the Fullness of Life in the Presence of God by William R. Osborne, I took it. This is the second book I’ve read from Crossway’s Short Studies in Biblical Theology series, where in relatively short, readable books a certain theme is explored throughout the Bible. As a former high school English teacher, I have a bit of a thing for themes, and I found both books helpful, accessible introductions to important subjects of biblical theology. Biblical theology is the practice of tracing a particular theme or idea throughout the entire biblical story and connecting the dots.

Divine blessing isn’t a topic I’ve explored before, but being familiar with the Bible I knew “blessing” is a word that comes up quite a bit. As both an apologist and pastor, this was a topic I needed to grasp because of the prevalence of the “prosperity gospel” and “health and wealth gospel.” Even if a Christian doesn’t subscribe to the false prosperity gospel, understanding biblical blessings is essential to addressing a sort of prosperity gospel thinking that intersects with the problem of evil and suffering. This is the thinking that expects God to always intervene in times of trouble. This is the person who asks when they hit a rough patch in life, “Why is God allowing this to happen to me?” with the underlying idea that God should never let anything bad happen to his people.

Let’s be honest, a lot of evidence exists both in and out of the Bible that doesn’t support the idea that if you’re a “good” Christian you get blessings and if you’re “bad” you’re cursed. If the apostle Paul can ask God three times to remove the “thorn” in his flesh and God refuses (2 Cor. 12:1–10), then that destroys the whole health and wealth gospel thesis right there. So, as Osborne asks, “What about when God’s covenant people live faithfully, trusting in his word, and still experience tragedy and sorrow?” Further, there appears to be “a theological rift” between the Old and New Testaments’ portrayals of divine blessing. The Old “seems focused on the material wealth, health, and success of the faithful,” while the New “portrays the most faithful as martyred and imprisoned.” 

In addressing all of these issues, Divine Blessing and the Fullness of Life in the Presence of God is a welcomed (and much-needed) help.

THE BASICS OF BIBLICAL BLESSING

In the rest of this blog, let me give you some insights into what the Bible says about divine blessing. To start, here are some basics:

  • “God’s blessings for his people are relational, spiritual, material, present, and eschatological [future].”
  • Like when exploring any biblical concept, we need to differentiate between the Old Covenant (exclusive to ancient Israel) and the New Covenant (for Christ’s people) when talking about divine blessings.
  • Where blessings under the Old Covenant is exclusive to ancient Israel, not Christians, and “the material wealth, health, and success of the faithful” appears to be part of that covenant, the Bible also often portrays these blessings as stumbling blocks. 
  • Both the Old and New Covenants have a spiritual and physical aspect of blessing. “[D]ivine blessing was always intended to be material, spiritual, [but also] relational.” That it, based on a relationship with God, which is the ultimate blessing within itself.
  • All biblical blessing is “fixed upon the reality of the fullness of life in the presence of God,” which includes being in a right relationship with God and God dwelling with his people. “True blessing, no matter the form, always leads us near to God.” “Unlike what is commonly heard in prosperity [gospel] circles, you don’t go through God to get his blessings. Conversely, we might say you go through his blessings to get to God! God is the end to be pursued because his blessing is experienced only by living in his presence.” 
  • Divine blessing coincides with obedience to God’s will, which include his divine directives and commands. Living according to God’s wisdom brings consequential blessings, which is rooted also in a proper fear or respect of the Lord (Prov. 1:7). 
  • God always intended to bless his people and for his people to be a blessing to others.
  • God is under no obligation to bless or guarantee a certain fullness of life. We have privileges as Christians as God’s children, but these aren’t rights. As I like to say, we can’t sum up God’s ways in a mathematical formula. In other words, we can’t put God in a box.
  • In one sense, the delay of God’s wrath is a blessing!

BLESSING IN THE BIBLICAL STORY

God created to bless. We see three blessings found in the creation narrative. Before the fall, humankind was to “experience the fullness of life in God’s presence in the garden.” Humankind was to walk in the presence of God (quite literally before the fall). Humankind was also to be a blessing to creation by fulfilling God’s “creation/cultural mandate” to be fruitful and fill the earth and be stewards of creation. But the first man and woman screwed this all up. In the post-fall world, God put another plan into effect to bless the world:

Now the Lord said to Abram [Abraham], “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:1–3)

So, God chooses a person to bless, and through that person he will bless the whole world. Through Abraham, God will build a people—Israel—to be a blessing to the world. Of course, the biblical story shows the Messiah—Jesus of Nazareth—is a descendant of Abraham. The “promise land” God will give Abraham’s people will serve as a light—a blessing—foreshadowing the new creation (“the new heaven and new earth”) ushered in by Jesus Christ.

In the Old Testament, under the Old Covenant, which is specific to Israel, God makes a covenant of blessing and cursing. Material blessing is part of this, including health and fertility/procreation. Under the Old Covenant this is conditional, based on Israel’s upholding their side of the covenant; they must obey and be loyal to their God. But at the same time, God has made an unconditional commitment to bless his people regardless. In the fallen world, whether under the Old Covenant or New Covenant, this will only ever see partial fulfillment. Those bemoaning a lack of blessings are too shortsighted and need to keep focused on the future new creation where God’s people will live with him.

Further, “in a fallen world, the way to divine blessing always involves suffering.” See Luke 9:23–26 and Romans 8:17, but this is seen in the Old Testament as well. For instance, “Jacob’s life challenges our simplistic categories of ‘do good things and be blessed’ or ‘you are blessed so nothing hurts.’ In Jacob’s limp we see God’s severe mercy going to great lengths to produce the transformation and blessing in our lives, but not always in the way we wanted.”

As we leave the Old Testament and enter the New Testament era under the New Covenant, “For all the promises [and, thus, blessings] of God find their Yes in him [in Christ]” (2 Cor 1:20). “[I]n the New Testament, blessing is always specifically in Christ” and Christ’s blessings can’t be disconnected from eternal life and the Kingdom of God. With this, the Holy Spirit is another blessing to Jesus’ people, who also empowers them to bless others. The indwelling Holy Spirit, along with Jesus’ resurrection (and even the church itself), are down-payments—assurances—of the coming fulfillment of divine blessing in the future new creation, ushered in by Christ. In the New Testament—under the New Covenant (Luke 22:20)—we experience the “partial fulfillment” (the “already/not yet” nature) of God’s blessing, which will be fulfilled when Christ returns. Even the Old Covenant’s physical blessings are a foreshadowing of the material blessing in the new creation, where there will be no more hunger, sickness, or death, and every tear will be wiped away (Rev 21). Again, those bemoaning a lack of blessings are too shortsighted.

3 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 (Eph 1:3). 

So, Christ’s people already have “every spiritual blessing” in heaven at this very moment, yet full experience of God’s blessings won’t be obtained until the New Heaven and New Earth. As Osborne puts it: Cross, then Crown (for both Christ, and Christ’s people). But Christ’s people are also blessed because God will use all their suffering for our good (Rom 8:32). “If our notions of divine blessing require freedom from suffering or persecution, then our hope is grounded in the wrong thing, or maybe the wrong age.”

Osborne proposes a great test for the believer: “Does this ‘blessing’ draw me closer to the triune God? Does this need being met bring me nearer to the giver, or is it a distraction? No perceived ‘good gift’ will ever drive you away from the Lord.” 

(Crossway provided a free copy of this book for me to review.)

The Serpent, Dragon & Leviathan in Symbol & Scripture (w/ Book Review)

LITERAL OR FIGURATIVE?

As Christians, we often have to defend our belief that the Bible should be taken literally. The writers of the Bible present much of the information as historical truth, and Christians need to accept certain claims of the Bible as fact to be true Christ-followers. For example, the apostle Paul wrote that if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then our faith is false (1 Cor. 15:14–19). Often, orthodox Christians find themselves battling against the idea that the claims of the Bible are purely symbolic of spiritual truths. One must believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus from the dead to be a Christian.

Yet, we also have to accept that the Bible is a work of literature, and sometimes the writers of the Bible do, in fact, use symbolic language and metaphor. By identifying the genre of the book of the Bible, this becomes clearer. For instance, the Psalms are poetic songs. The Book of Revelation is a highly symbolic style of ancient writing called apocalyptic literature. So, both Psalms and Revelation use figurative language much more than other books of the Bible. Often, we have to ask about any given verse in them: Are we to take this literally or figuratively?

On the other hand, works like 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, the four Gospels, and Acts are historical narratives, so we take them as factual history. Yet, even these historical narratives have non-literal elements. For instance, Jesus often teaches in parables. We all know parables are short fictional tales to teach a lesson. Jesus also uses metaphors when he teaches. He calls himself a door and bread and a shepherd, but even the most uninformed reader understands that he’s speaking metaphorically.

As a former high school English teacher, I enjoy learning about the often-overlooked literary elements of the Bible, including symbolic themes—elements that may not be so obvious to modern readers but repeat throughout God’s Word. The Serpent and the Serpent Slayer by Andrew David Naselli is part of a series called Short Studies in Biblical Theology. It’s a quick read exploring the symbolism in Scripture of the serpent and dragon. 

THE SERPENT (AND DRAGON) AND THE SERPENT (AND DRAGON) SLAYER

Naselli writes of the love of dragon-slaying stories throughout history, all of which he sums up with a pithy explanation: “Kill the dragon, get the girl.” He claims this is the theme of the Bible as well: Satan is the villainous serpent/dragon; the damsel in distress is God’s people; and the serpent slayer is Jesus. This may seem like a stretch, but once we consider the symbolism of the snake and dragon in Scripture—as well as the Church as the Bride of Christ (Rev. 19:7–9, 21:1–2; Eph. 5:25–32)—it might not be so far fetched.

Even someone with a cursory understanding of the Bible knows that Satan, as a serpent, tempted the first humans to rebel against God. Less known is that just after this, God declares the coming of the one who would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). Though Genesis 3 doesn’t anywhere call the serpent Satan, the writers of the New Testament certainly connected the two (Rev. 12:9, 20:2; Rom. 16:20). Michael S. Heiser, in his book The Unseen Realm, makes the case that the Hebrew word for serpent (nachash) in Genesis 3 is a play on words pointing towards a spiritual being. Regardless, the serpent was definitely “representative of someone or something” bigger, something “beyond this particular snake” [1].

Some of the same passages that equate Satan with the serpent also equate him with the dragon of the Book of Revelation:

And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. (Revelation 12:8–9)

And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years (Revelation 20:2)

Naselli explains that the snake and the dragon express the two sides—or two strategies—of Satan. The snake is the deceiver. The dragon is the destroyer. He writes, “Snakes deceive; dragons devour. Snakes tempt and lie; dragons attack and murder. Snakes backstab; dragons assault.”

THE LEVIATHAN AND SEA

Understanding the symbolic nature of the snake and dragon (which is just a huge, winged snake) opens up the possibility of the mysterious “flying fiery serpent” of Isaiah (30:6–7) being a poetic symbol. Similarly, the presence of the Behemoth and Leviathan in Chapters 40–41 of the Book of Job have been a topic of debate. Some Young Earth Creationists claim these are dinosaurs. Others have tried to explain them as commonly known animals. I have to admit that the description of the Behemoth certainly sounds like a sauropod dinosaur. Some have argued it’s a hippopotamus, but a hippopotamus doesn’t have “a tail stiff like a cedar” (Job 40:17). 

Yet, an argument for the Leviathan being symbolic is more easily made. First, the language describing the Leviathan in Job appears to be highly poetic. The fact that it’s described as breathing fire (Job 41:18–19) may be a clue that this is a mythical creature. This certainly seems to be a creature that’s more than a common crocodile, as some have proposed. Secondly, the Leviathan appears elsewhere in Scripture in poetic contexts (Ps. 74:14, 104:26; Isa. 27:1; Job 3:8). Finally, we need to consider that the sea—not just this sea monster—is a common symbol of evil, chaos, and death both in the Bible (Dan. 7:2–3) and in the cultures surrounding Israel. At the Second Coming of Jesus, when he renews all of creation and ends evil, we’re told,

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. (Revelation 21:1)

I don’t think this means the New Heaven and New Earth won’t have any oceans! And I do think the ancient readers would’ve understood what the sea represents here. Both the sea and the Leviathan represent “evil, primordial, cosmic, chaotic forces.” 

THE SERPENT SLAYER

The writers of the Bible often practiced appropriation, borrowing symbols and language from neighboring cultures and adapting them to their biblical worldview as a polemic against the pagan religions. In a sense, they’re saying “You know that language you use about your god? Well, we’re going to apply it to our God, the only true God!” With the Leviathan specifically, the biblical writers are essentially saying, “You know that sea monster you all fear—the one your gods can’t even stop? Our God, the true God, can catch it like a minnow on a hook.”

Interestingly, in Job, God describes the Leviathan’s armor-like scales, a common characteristic of dragons. Naselli points out two times the Bible writers refer to evil humans as having scales. First, he language describing Goliath’s armor reflects this. The NASB tells us “he was clothed with scale-armor” (1 Sam. 17:5). (The NIV translation also reflects this scale language.) Secondly, notice how God describes the Pharaoh in this passage from Ezekiel:

“Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, 

the great dragon that lies 

in the midst of his streams, 

that says, ‘My Nile is my own; 

I made it for myself.’ 

I will put hooks in your jaws, 

and make the fish of your streams stick to your scales; 

and I will draw you up out of the midst of your streams, 

with all the fish of your streams 

that stick to your scales…

To the beasts of the earth and to the birds of the heavens 

I give you as food. (Ezekiel 29:3–5)

So, the symbol of the serpent, the dragon, and Leviathan become much clearer.

Take note, a serpent isn’t always a negative symbol in Scripture. After all, Jesus told his disciples to be as wise as serpents (Matt. 10:16). But, as we’ve seen, the serpent usually represents evil (Ps. 58:3–5, 140:3), and Christ is the one who will smash the serpent/dragon. In the New Heaven and New Earth, the serpent will no longer be a threat, not even to children (Isa. 11:6–9; 65:17–25). With this, as God’s people, the Church is to participate in the defeat of the serpent/dragon. Naselli’s writes, “God is the one who ultimately crushes serpent heads, and he ordains that his people participate in the head-crushing.” (Ps. 91:13; Luke 10:19; Acts 28:3–4.)

Though there are always sections that I wish were more fleshed-out in short books like Naselli’s, The Serpent and the Serpent Slayer is definitely worth the quick read if you want an introduction to these ideas.

[1] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Vol.2, Genesis by John H. Sailhamer.

*Crossway Books provided me with a free copy to review this book.

Book Review: Why Should I Join a Church?

WhyShould

Mark Dever’s 65-page book Why Should I Join a Church? is part of a “Church Questions” series of quick-reads published by 9 Marks and Crossway. Since I have known Christians who see little reason to be part of a church and I was working on a sermon on church unity, I decided to give this quick read a quick read. With short books like this, it can often go one of two ways: (A) The book could be so short that it barely touches on the topic and is of little help or (B) since the book is short, it jettisons any unneeded wordiness and it answers the question clearly and concisely with laser-focus. I can’t speak of the other books in this series, but I found this short book to be give strong, clear, biblical answers to this question about being part of a church.

Dever shows how the New Testament writers needn’t give a command to join a church because the whole New Testament ASSUMES Christians are gathered in local churches. Heck, much of the New Testament writings are letters written to CHURCHES. Dever gives 6 good reasons why being part of a church community is so important, but he starts with the most powerful and persuasive reason: The love shown by fallen but redeemed Christ-followers in a local church displays to the world the Gospel of reconciliation, the core of the Christian message.

As I ended up writing in my sermon, any Christian who thinks he is too mature spiritually to be part of a local church body is, ironically, showing what he is lacking in spiritual maturity. He needs to be in a church, where fallen but reconciled Christ-followers can help each other grow together in faith. Part of that is learning to live with the messiness of others and to forgive them as Christ has forgiven us.

Dever writes,

“Local churches are the place where we live according to this new reality [of reconciliation through Christ]. We don’t just say we’re reconciled, we show it. We show it by joining a congregation and committing to love one another and help one another grow in Christlikeness. We show it by inviting one another into our homes and caring for each other’s needs. We show it by confessing our sins to one another and forgiving one another. We show it by putting aside personal preferences and considering the interests of others above our own. We show it by learning and submitting to the word of God together. By joining a church, we commit to other redeemed sinners and show the world that Christ has indeed reconciled us both to God and to each other…

“What truly displays the gospel is when we commit to love and care for people that includes people utterly unlike us. We display the gospel when we gather each week to serve people who sometimes share only one thing in common with us: Jesus. We show we are reconciled in Christ when we commit to love those people in that place — no matter what faults and foibles they may have.”

*Crossway provided a free copy of this book to me for review.

Book Review: “God the Trinity: Biblical Portraits”

God the Trinity: Biblical Portraits

by

Malcolm B. Yarnell III

(B & H Academic)

GodTheTrinityBook

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity – that God is three distinct personalities with one divine identity – caused some disputes in the early church, and it continues to be the topic of controversy today. Muslims and skeptics often criticize the doctrine of the Trinity, and groups that break off from traditional, biblical Christianity, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, universally jettison the Trinity. There also appears to be a growing number of “oneness Pentecostals” who deny the Trinity. As biblical illiteracy grows, even among church-goers, and emotion is emphasized over proper study and understanding of God’s Word, many professing Christians have a weak understanding of the Trinity or simply ignore it.

I recently had an online interaction with a young woman who studied the Bible quite seriously but denied the Trinity. Her view was that God the Father and God the Son were the same person but at different times in history – an old, refuted heresy known as modalism. When Jesus, God the Son, is praying to God the Father in Scripture, she claimed, he was just modeling for us how believers should act, and the Holy Spirit was not God, but God’s power, similar to the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ view.

Malcolm B. Yarnell III, the author of God the Trinity: Biblical Portraits, explains in the introduction that he set out to answer two questions in his book: Is the Trinity a biblical doctrine? Is it necessary to believe?

Yarnell doesn’t approach these questions as if he’s an apologist in a public debate. A relatively short academic book (240 pages) on a doctrine that requires looking at the Bible closely to comprehend it, Yarnell’s approach is creative and enjoyable. He speaks of the insight different books of the Bible give us into the Trinity as different portraits. His tone is not argumentative, but inviting and warm, like a friend sharing something he deeply loves. No, this isn’t a straight forward, dry apologetics book. I’m not sure I’d consider it an apologetics book at all.

In fact, though this book will certainly teach Trinitarian skeptics about why a proper understanding of the God of the Bible is Trinitarian, I would say this book is more for believers than nonbelievers. One of the primary strengths of this book and gifts to the reader is the communication of a sense of awe and wonder in the Trinitarian God of the Bible, something that moves one to worship.

The book is certainly academic and detailed, but readable. Again, Yarnell’s approach is far from making God the Trinity: Biblical Portraits a dry, academic read. But, admittedly, my seminary training did assist me in grasping a lot of what Yarnell covers. My classes in church history, systematic theology, ancient Greek, and even philosophy certainly helped. Yarnell spends time discussing various theologians and their understanding of the Trinity, presuppositions behind interpretations, as well as a lot of (insightful) talk about the “economic” and “immanent” Trinity.

But even if someone without seminary training reads God the Trinity: Biblical Portraits, even if they get a bit lost in the sections about, say, hermeneutics, the gold nuggets throughout will make this short read worth it. Even without the insight given into specific Trinitarian passages, the insight into the books of the Bible they appear in are worth the read alone, especially the Gospel of John and Revelation.

My only complaint is that I would’ve liked to see the question Is belief in the Trinity necessary? explored more directly. Specifically, must one accept the doctrine of the Trinity to be saved? Is the young woman I mentioned above saved by her faith in Christ despite her flawed understanding of who the God of the Bible is? Though one can draw conclusions to answer this question based on the examination of the biblical evidence in this book, I would have liked to hear Yarnell’s explicit insight into such questions.

Finally – and this may be superficial, but I am a bit of a bibliophile – the look of the book is extremely pleasing. The simple design and contrast of colors on all three sides (as well as there being something pleasing about thinner hardcovers books) makes it a beautiful book to sit on a book shelf.

That being said, God the Trinity: Biblical Portraits is both apologetic but not apologetic and academic but not academic.

(If this book interests you, I’d also recommend James White’s The Forgotten Trinity.)

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