The Beatitudes of Jesus are some of the most memorable statements in all of the Gospels. Each one begins with a simple formula: “blessed are those who.” Then they tell you what you must do if you want to be blessed. It obviously sounds good and inviting. But what exactly does it mean to be blessed?
To live well. Oftentimes when we think of blessings we have in mind the good things in life that we enjoy. We speak of our material blessings, things such as our food and shelter. In moments of gratitude we thank God for enriching our lives with the essentials we need and the extras we want. Abraham is a good example of a man well blessed with wealth and possessions, of whom the Scriptures say “the Lord had blessed him in every way” (Genesis 24:1).
A mindful person is aware that our greater blessings are not material, but rather, intangible things of great personal value. Such things are evident in the story of Abraham. He had a good wife in Sarah. They were blessed with a son, Isaac, after many years of waiting with frustration. All three lived and prospered to an old age. They experience the fear of imminent loss (Isaac’s sacrifice) and the relief God’s mercy brings (when Isaac was spared). Abraham was privileged to have a knowledge of the true God, and he received God’s righteousness by his faith (15:6). He lived with the promise and hope of a coming Messiah who would reveal more of God’s rich blessings. The story of Abraham reminds us of the kind of blessings we long for and cherish.
To speak well. Another way to be blessed is to have someone speak well to you and about you. This idea goes back to the opening chapters of Genesis when God spoke directly to his people. A message that would be regarded by the listener as good began with the formula: “God blessed them and said.” In this manner God “blessed and spoke” to Adam and Eve (1:28), to Noah (9:1), Abraham (14:19), Jacob (35:9, 10), and Joseph (48:15). This was in sharp contrast to the occasions when God cursed an individual and spoke of dreadful things to come. What an irony of word usage when someone describes an angry exchange of words as “they blessed me out.” There is no blessing in receiving words of anger and cursing.
The Latin word for blessing (benedicere) literally means to speak (dicere) well (bene). Not only does it convey the idea of saying something good to someone, but also speaking well of them. To praise and extol their virtues. Indeed, it is a blessed thing when people speak well of us. “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold” (Proverbs 22:1). We like to imagine our friends saying good things about us in our funeral eulogy. The real blessing would be for people to speak well of us now. A good life and a good reputation are truly great blessings.
To wish well. From the Latin word benedicere also comes our English word benediction. In a church context we think of a prayer that closes out a worship service. The heart of the term is not that an assembly has ended, but that those who attended be favored with good things as they depart. A benediction is a farewell that wishes God’s blessings in the days yet to come. You can see this idea in the Spanish farewell vaya con Dios (go with God) as well as in adios (to God) and the French equivalent adieu. The prayer for God’s favor is likewise conveyed in the old English “Godspeed.”
We have traditions that pick up on this desire for well wishes for our future. A suiter asking the parents of a girl for their blessing hopes that they will wish the young couple well as they proceed toward marriage. The “God bless you” after a sneeze is a little benediction, going back to the days of plague, when people nearby expressed the hope that you were not coming down with the plague. A heart-felt “goodbye” conveys “God be with you” to family and friends.
To be blessed is to be aware of the good things God has given you, to have a good reputation among others so that they speak well of you, and to live out your days anticipating greater blessings yet to come.
For over three decades Johnny Pressley taught theology and New Testament at Mid-Atlantic Christian University and Cincinnati Christian University. He now serves First Church of Christ, Washington, North Carolina, as senior minister.