What John Believed: The Bible’s Great, Sweeping Story of Life and Death, Blessings and Curses (Refiner’s Fire Pt 6)

NOTE: “Refiner’s Fire” is a mini-series within my overall series on the gospel of Matthew. It deals with the story of John the Baptist as a vehicle for navigating our own struggles with doubt, disappointment, and crisis of faith. I’m working on it daily and will release the whole thing as a book once it’s done. What you see on the blog is a work-in-progress. It may make the most sense if you start from the beginning, so if you wish to read it that way, I’d recommend visiting the gospel of Matthew index page and looking for the Refiner’s Fire section. Please note the central passage of Scripture at issue is Matthew 11:1-19.


This week, we continue our exploration of what John the Baptist believed. A crisis of faith is only possible when there is something to doubt. So to understand his struggle, we need a clear picture of what he expected from God, and from Jesus specifically.

So we continue the story …

I Set Before You Blessing and Curse

Although it’s easy to get lost in some of the details, the Old Testament ultimately tells one great, sweeping story: the story of Israel and God.

In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, we read about the creation and fall of man. We then see God and man struggling against each other for a time, until God chooses a man named Abram (later “Abraham”) and covenants with him.

The covenant is eternal and unilateral, or one-sided, and it revolves around the promise of “blessing”:

The LORD said to Abram:
Go out from your land,
your relatives,
and your father’s house
to the land that I will show you.
I will make you into a great nation,
I will bless you,
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
I will curse those who treat you with contempt,
and all the peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.
(Genesis 12:1–3)

The Hebrew concept of “blessing” revolves around the idea of life and fruitfulness. It connotes prosperity and health, peace, freedom from trouble, and victory over one’s enemies. It is the opposite of “cursing,” which withers and makes barren, bringing trouble and evil with it.

Abraham’s descendants through his son Isaac inherited this covenant, but in order to remain within its covering and continue moving toward its ultimate goal — the blessing of “all peoples of the earth” through them — they needed to practice righteousness and faith in God.

This is where the Mosaic Law entered the picture.

Remaining in God’s Love

At this point, Christian discussions often turn to legalism and “the curse of the law,” as though the law itself was a curse, overburdening the Israelites with a moral weight they could not possibly carry and essentially tricking them into becoming sinners. But this is a misreading of the Scripture.

Paul was clear about why the law was given, and it wasn’t to curse the people or load them with a burden of legalism that they couldn’t possibly carry.

The law was intended to keep them safe—it was intended to watch over them as a sort of official guardian until the goal of the covenant could be reached.

Why then was the law given? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise was made would come … The law, then, was our guardian until Christ, so that we could be justified by faith. But since that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:19, 24–26)

In one of his most famous parables, Jesus told the story of a man with two sons. The younger son demanded his inheritance, left his father’s house, and spent the money in reckless living.

Reduced to poverty and humiliation, the younger son decided to go home and ask for a servant’s job in his father’s house.

But in an unexpected and beautiful turn, the father had been watching for him. When he saw his son on the horizon, he ran to him, embraced him, kissed him, soaked his tunic with his tears, and declared that his son who was lost had been found; his son who was dead was alive again. It was the kind of welcome and reception we dream of, and Jesus claimed it was the heart of God for all of us.

I think the story demonstrates something about the nature of obedience as it relates to God’s love (and to the law, which is why I mention it here). In John 15:9–10, Jesus said:

As the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you. Remain in My love. If you keep My commands you will remain in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commands and remain in His love.

The implication here isn’t that God is a legalist and his love depends on our behavior. Like the father in the story of the prodigal son, God’s love never changes. When we fail to remain in his love, that doesn’t mean his love for us ceases to exist. It means that we remove ourselves from its influence.

The prodigal son was always the object of his father’s devoted love. His father’s resources were always there for him. But to receive them, to experience them, he had to come back home. He had to choose to remain in his father’s love.

The Mosaic Law was calculated to do the same thing: to keep the people of Israel at home in the love of God. In Romans 11, Paul compared the situation of the Israelites under the law to that of a “cultivated olive tree,” brought up in “the kindness of God” and needing to remain in it—in contrast to the Gentiles, who were like a “wild olive tree.”

The law was not a prison or a curse; it was a greenhouse.

The Mosaic law, however, was qualitatively different from the earlier covenant with Abraham. The law was also covenantal, but unlike the Abrahamic covenant, it wasn’t one-sided, with everything depending solely on the action of God to accomplish. It was a mutual covenant that required things of the people just as it required things of God.

The people could choose to remain in it and meet their obligations or not, but if they did not, there would be consequences.

And again, the central issue was blessing:

See, today I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity. For I am commanding you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commands, statutes, and ordinances, so that you may live and multiply, and the LORD your God may bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not listen and you are led astray to bow down to other gods and worship them, I tell you today that you will certainly perish and will not live long in the land you are entering to possess across the Jordan.

I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, love the LORD your God, obey Him, and remain faithful to Him. For He is your life, and He will prolong your life in the land the LORD swore to give to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Deuteronomy 30:15–20, emphasis mine)

In his love, God had promised Abraham that he would bless his descendants and through them, the entire world. But Abraham’s descendants continued to struggle against God just as humanity before them had done. So God gave them the law to “keep them in the greenhouse,” so to speak—to ensure that they “remained in his love” until the time came to fulfill all his promises to Abraham.

The Mosaic Law, however, had a necessary negative side. Just as shalom (well-being) could rightly be called “the blessing of the law,” so a whole host of negative consequences were attached to the law as its “curse.”

This is what Paul means when he talks about the “curse of the law” (Galatians 3:13). The law itself was never a curse; it was a gift from a good God looking to keep his children safe at home, under his protection and in ongoing relationship with him. But the law did contain a curse: a promise of destruction if the people chose to engage in unrighteousness and break faith with God. [1]

What is clear from the record of the Bible is that Israel did break faith with God — early and often. With the law clearly judging their actions and pronouncing curses on them, they engaged in blatant idolatry and all kinds of evil.

Despite the fact that they were clearly “outside of the greenhouse” at this point, and that as a nation they had agreed to be judged by the law (see Exodus 24:1-7), God demonstrated patience for hundreds of years, withholding large-scale judgment and sending prophets to call them back to faithfulness.

What followed were several hundreds of years of fits and starts—predictable waves in which the people rejected the law and turned to idols, God sent a small-scale judgment on them along with a prophet calling them to repentance and covenant renewal, the people turned back to God, God prospered them with the promised blessings of the law, and the people rejected the law and turned to idols again.

Eventually, of course, large-scale judgment would come — and that judgment provides the immediate backdrop to the story of Jesus and John the Baptist.

[1] It’s often asserted within the church that the law was innately impossible to keep, making every act of sin a breaking of covenant and placing everyone under the law’s curse. What’s overlooked is that the law itself contained provisions for atonement and forgiveness. The law had built-in room for human messiness and a way to be reconciled to God. What brought the nation under the curse was not individual failures to keep the law perfectly but a national failure to be reconciled to God. The curse came because the nation turned their back on the law, rejected the covenant, and chose to follow and worship idols instead of Yahweh.


This is Part 162 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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One response to “What John Believed: The Bible’s Great, Sweeping Story of Life and Death, Blessings and Curses (Refiner’s Fire Pt 6)”

  1. […] Part 164: What John Believed: The Bible’s Great, Sweeping Story of Life and Death, Blessings and … (Matthew 11:1-19) […]

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