Douglas B. Clawson
Haiti became an independent nation on January 1, 1804. Most of its people were satisfied to be subsistence farmers. In 1809 the government began paying its soldiers with small parcels of land, and the division of the country into small farms was complete by 1843. Still today, wherever one looks outside of cities and villages, one sees small fields that provide their owners with just enough to survive.
In and of itself, subsistence farming may not seem like a bad thing for people who don't aspire to have anything more than what they need today. But as the population grows, where do the next generation and the generation after that find land for their subsistence farms? What happens when the land is drained of nutrients, there is no more land to obtain holdings for your sons, and fertilizer is too expensive? This is what a number of Caribbean and African nations wrestle with. All it takes is one bad year of crops to cause long-term harm to their national economy.
Although the natural resources and economic opportunities of the United States and Canada may be far better than those of many other nations, the spiritual blessings that Christians have in every nation are the same. There may be a disparity with regard to the resources that God uses for our spiritual growth, namely, pastors with less training or too few pastors. There may even be a lack of Bibles, or poor translations, or a literacy level among the people that isn't high enough to read solid catechetical materials with comprehension.
However, when it comes to spiritual blessings, every believer in every nation has every spiritual blessing. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul addresses a church that lacks the material resources that we think are essential to our lives, but he tells them that they have every spiritual blessing. He begins chapter 1 by saluting the Ephesian saints with the twin blessings of grace and peace. Then in verse 3 he declares the praise of the God "who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places." In other words, in Christ there isn't any spiritual blessing that every believer hasn't received.
When the Old Testament saints thought of the blessings of God, they thought most often of the material blessings that the Lord might bestow on his people in this life. They would think of rich harvests, large flocks, a large family, safety from national enemies, and even rule over the nations. These were the material blessings of the covenant relationship that God gave to his people.
Here, however, Paul speaks of spiritual blessings, not material ones. And in Romans 15:27 he also speaks of the spiritual benefits of the gospel that the Gentiles have received. These spiritual blessings include union and communion with God through Christ, new life, faith, forgiveness of sins, redemption from the curse of the law, the imputation of righteousness without works, eternal life, and all other benefits that belong to every believer, both now and in glory.
By calling these blessings "spiritual," Paul makes two things clear. First, these are blessings that last. They do not pass away. We have them as fully and completely when we are young as when we are old. We have them as fully when we are sick as when we are well. These are the sorts of blessings that we have in both this life and the next. In Christ, God loves us and rejoices over us. He is patient with us; he is faithful toward us. He is merciful and compassionate toward us.
Second, by calling these blessings "spiritual," Paul makes it clear that they are not necessarily perceptible to our senses. In Christ they are ours, every one of them, whether we live in a nice home in a wealthy nation or have been made homeless by mud slides in an impoverished nation.
Paul declares that spiritual blessings come from heaven. Have you ever thought about the way we describe the gifts we give or receive? We identify where we bought them or who gave them to us. We received a pair of jeans from our aunt. We bought a really neat camera at a certain store.
The blessings Paul speaks of here do not come from some other place, as if God ordered them from an Internet superstore. These blessings are from heaven. They come from God's dwelling place.
The heavenly places are where Christ is seated (Eph. 1:20), and where we have been seated with Christ (2:6). The heavenly places are the abode of the rulers and authorities before whom God makes his wisdom known through the church (3:10). The spiritual forces of evil against whom we wrestle are also there (6:12).
We know the ground for these blessings: they are given to us in Christ. We know their nature: they are spiritual. We know their source: they are from heaven. And in Ephesians 1:4 Paul tells us when God determined to bless us: before the foundation of the world. And in that verse we see why he chose us and blessed us: so that we would be holy and blameless. He has chosen us in Christ and blessed us in Christ so that our nature would be conformed to Christ's nature. He chose us to transform us from those who love this world into those who turn their backs on sin and the world and delight in serving him and doing his will. He chose us in Christ so that we would be set apart to him, blameless in his sight.
We should not only be thankful to be the recipients of so much blessing, but should also desire with everything that is in us to arrive at God's goal for us in Christ. We should see our lives in this world not only in terms of God's many blessings to us, but also in terms of the holiness and blamelessness for which we have been chosen.
We have received everything that really matters. Why then do we grieve over not having enough material blessings, which are only temporary? Why do we try to please friends and relatives, so that we will receive the trinkets of this world, rather than seeking to please God, who has blessed us with the blessings of heaven?
Why isn't what we already have ever enough for us? Why do we want something different? Why do we obsess over what passes away? Why don't we long to please him and to see God's purpose completed in us? Why are we satisfied with a minimal awareness of our spiritual blessings and instead long for more material blessings?
Our material circumstances are in stark contrast to the circumstances of most of those ministered to by our foreign missionaries. But, like us, believers in Haiti, Africa, Suriname, Uruguay, and parts of Asia also possess every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. Like them, we think that this or that bit of material wealth will make us better off, with more security or comfort. Like us, they need to be reminded of what they already have in Christ as they face their poverty and the false promises of the "health and wealth" preachers who are more and more present in such places. Like them, we need to be reminded of the hope of Christ's return and of a new heaven and a new earth. Like us, they need to be reminded to be content with what God has given to us to live in this world.
In spite of material differences, every believer has the same spiritual blessings, and it is those blessings alone that make us secure in our hope of the age to come. No Christian life should be lived as if a subsistence level were enoughnot when we have every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. We should be immensely thankful for all these blessings.
Through the work of the Committees on Christian Education, Home Missions and Church Extension, and Foreign Missions, more and more unbelievers are hearing about the spiritual blessings they desperately need and can have through Jesus Christ alone. Believers also are being reminded of the bountiful spiritual blessings they have in Christ. As we collect the Thank Offering this year, please consider using what, at times, may seem to be dwindling material resources to assist others to know about every spiritual blessing that belongs to those who are in Christ Jesus.
The author is associate general secretary for the Committee on Foreign Missions. Reprinted from New Horizons, November 2008.