by | May 18, 2022

Are the Old Testament Blessings and Curses Relevant Today?

Introduction

Every culture has some form of blessings and curses for how one behaves in their society. Chinese Taoism has “the way” (道; dào), Hinduism has the principle of karma, and Kabala has the Tree of Life. All these religious systems contain a cause and effect relationship between blessings and curses and moral behavior. Such systems invites the Christian to evaluate the concept of blessings and curses according to the word of God. The Scriptural text which deals with this issue more explicitly than anywhere else is the 27th and 28th chapter of Deuteronomy which has become the locus classicus on the topic of God’s blessings and curses. In this passage, God announces blessings for obeying his covenant and curses for breaking it.

While convenient that the Christian faith has a somewhat lengthy text to help understand God’s blessings and curses, some tend to think of it as inconvenient that the text comes from the OT pertaining to the nation of Israel. What is a hasty conclusion, then, is that Deut 27-28 is no longer applicable for the NT era. In a way of a saying, it is a museum piece—not relevant for the NT church today. However, a closer examination on this topic will lead us to the conclusion that the blessings and curses of Deut 27-28, while unique to ancient Israel, contain a universal nature and modern application.

Jordan Wilson has done a good job in applying the specifics of God’s blessings and curses to material wealth which you can read here and here.

However, some scholars within the field of covenantal thought disagree with the a modern application of the OT blessings and curses. Meredith Kline, for example, advocates for the concept of “Intrusion” concerning the blessings and curses of the covenant. “Intrusion” refers to certain aspects of heavenly reality which intrudes into earthly reality. In his chapter entitled, The Intrusion and the Decalogue, Kline uses the judgment curses and redemptive blessings of the Old Covenant as an example of Intrusion.[1] The arguments he presents imply that since the OT era is the epitome of the Intrusion phenomenon, and the present age is characterized by common grace, the blessings and curses of the OT are unique to Israel only. Any blessings or curses that God dispenses in the present age, therefore, does not have the level of predictability that Israel was promised in Deut 27-28. 

Blessings and curses are covenantal

In order to identify the NT’s application of God’s blessings and curses, we must look at how they are expressed within the covenantal framework of the book of Deut. This book refers to itself as a covenant document. Moses summarizes its content by saying, “These are the words of the covenant …” (29:1) and charges the people to “keep the words of this covenant (v.9) because they are entering “into the sworn covenant of the LORD your God, which the LORD your God is making with you today” (v.12). 

The covenant God made with Israel at Mount Sinai is similar to the structure of the ancient Near Eastern vassal treaties or covenants which transpired during the fourteenth-thirteenth centuries BC.[2] The pattern for these treaties include but not limited to: 1) a preamble, stating who the suzerain or sovereign is; 2) stipulations of the treaty, both general and detailed; and 3) blessings for obedience to the terms of the treaty and curses for disobedience. Thus, the pattern is: sovereignty, stipulations, and sanctions. Deuteronomy follows this pattern. God’s sovereignty is established among the people with the recurring phrase “the LORD your God”; general stipulations are presented in the Ten Commandments and (4:1-11:32) and in other more detailed laws (12:1-26:19); and blessings and curses are summarized in chapters 27 and 28.[3]

Deut presents God’s law as inseparable from the covenant. The Ten Commandments as well as other various laws within the book cannot be seen as merely a moral list, but covenantal in nature. This idea is expressed when Moses says, “And he [God] declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments, and he wrote them on two tablets of stone” (4:13). Here, Moses presents the Ten Commandments as a declaration of the covenant. To perform the covenant is to obey the law of God. Deut itself is called the book of the law (28:61; 31: 24, 26), and stresses keeping God’s law-covenant. Thus, the law of God is both a distinguishable and an essential feature of the covenant in Deut. 

Grace, not karma

The blessings and curses are an expression of God’s grace. There is no natural cause and effect relationship between blessings and moral living as found in eastern philosophies such as the Dao in Daoism, Karma in Hinduism, or the Tree of Life in Jewish mysticism. God’s Blessings do not come automatically or legalistically in this way as if God’s favor could be earned through human works. Rather, both the law and the blessings are revealed to Israel after God had already graciously delivered them from Egyptian bondage (Deut 4:20; 5:6; 7:8). God did not say, “here’s my law, now if you obey it, then I will deliver you from slavery.” He had already delivered them at the giving of the law. Thus, the covenant with law and blessings attached within was given within the framework of grace.

More confirmation of this is given near the end of the book when Moses speaks of a time when God in his mercy will restore the lost  blessings and fortunes of Israel after they repent and return to the LORD (30:3, 5-6). Here blessings are a result of repentance and God’s mercy, not as payment for good works. Moreover, the Song of Moses in chapter 31 conveys a similar idea. God anticipates that Israel will disobey him (vv.1-18) and he will punish them for it (vv.19-35), but God also promises to be gracious to them and defeat their enemies (vv.36-43). It is clear that Deuteronomy is bookended with God’s mercy and grace.  

If the law-covenant is based on grace as well as the blessings for obedience, then how do we account for the “if, then” language of Deut? The solution to this conundrum is that the blessings should be seen as an intensification of the grace that God already bestowed on them through the Promised land. This becomes clear when we recognize that the land God promised Israel was already blessed to some degree. God did not lead Israel into a wilderness that he would then prosper after obedience. He brought them into a land that was already flourishing (Deut 1:25), a land flowing with milk and honey (6:10-11).

God’s giving of the Promised land and his law are both because of his grace. The “if, then” language is meant to communicate that Israel will prosper in that land if they obey the law-covenant. The blessings God gives in the land are, therefore, an intensification of the grace that was already bestowed. 

Israel’s unique historical circumstances

Deut deals with the specific experience and historicity of Israel. All the blessings and curses in Deut, therefore, cannot apply directly to any other entity or nation because of Israel’s unique historical circumstances. The covenant was made with Israel and no other nation, Although we will see the universal nature of the covenant, the way the law and the blessings are expressed in Deut apply directly to Israel alone. This is seen in the fact that the covenant addresses Israel’s unique historical circumstances. For example, the land of Canaan to which they are going is the land that was promised to their fathers (29:13). God did not make that covenant with 21st century Christians. He did not promise us Palestine.

Moreover, God warns the people not to “put the LORD your god to the test, as you tested him at Massah” (6:16). New Covenant believers never did test God in this region. Furthermore, one of the threats God makes for breaking the covenant is that he will “bring you back in ships to Egypt, a journey that I promised that you should never make again” (28:68). This threat would make no sense to Christians in America today.

One final example is 4:26-27 where we see another punishment for disobedience: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess” (4:26). This threat cannot directly apply to anyone but Israel. So, we cannot make a one to one application of the blessings or curses of Deut for the reason that it is written within Israel’s historical context and specifically to them. To put it one way, when we read the book of Deuteronomy, we are reading Israel’s mail.

Specific and general

The blessings of Deut 27-28 come in two forms: general and specific. General blessings are often expressed with the phrase, “it may go well with you.” On the other hand, the blessings are expressed in more specific ways: the removal of sickness (7:15); living long in the land (5:33; 11:9; 22:7; 30:18; 32:47); victory over enemies (7:1-5); multiplication of wealth (8:12-13); promise of rain (11:13-14), expansion of Israel’s borders (12:20); and the blessing of the “work of your hands” (14:29; 15:10,18; 16:15; 23:20; 24:19). 

Curses follow the same pattern. General expression of the curses come in the form of being “few in number” as opposed to Israel’s multiplication (4:26-27); being destroyed (7:4; 8:19); and being forsaken by God (31:17-18; 32:20, 23). More specifically, Israel’s disobedience will result in pestilence and disease (28:21-22), drought (v.24), military defeat (v.25), as well as other specific curses.

So which is it? Are the blessings and curses general or specific? The answer is—both. Generalizations and specifications are two different ways of expression, and do not negate each other. For example, a father may promise their children’s well-being by ensuring that they will always be taken care of as they grow up. Yet, the father may also express the specific ways in which he will keep this promise (e.g. providing healthcare, college tuition, food to eat, financial allowance, etc). Understanding God’s blessings and curses as both general and specific will be important in identifying them elsewhere in Scripture. 

The universal nature of the law-covenant

We have found sufficient evidence to show the uniqueness of Israel and how the covenant is expressed in its historical context. However, the uniqueness of Israel and keeping the law in the land does not keep the law-covenant of Deut nor its blessings and curses from being universal. The universal nature of the law-covenant is seen in the Pentateuch itself, the book of Proverbs, the Prophets, and the NT.

The Pentateuch

The Pentateuch presents two ways in which we see the universal nature of the covenant: 1) the law was a model for the surrounding nations of Israel, and 2) covenantal sanctions were brought upon gentile nations for being disobedient to the law. 

First, we see the law as a model for the surrounding nations of Israel:

See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?

(Deut 4:5-8).

Moses anticipates that the law would be universally recognized as “righteous” in the sight of the peoples. How could this be if the laws within the covenant were only for Israel? As we have already admitted, the covenant was unique to Israel in how it was expressed, written, and delivered. However, the uniqueness does not keep it from being universal. 

Second, prior to the Sinaitic covenant, God held all of mankind accountable for wickedness and brought upon them sanctions for sinful behavior. The book of Leviticus warns Israel not to behave like the gentile nations who occupied the land before them: “For the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean, lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you” (Lev 18:27-28). How can the land vomit out both Jew and gentile for the same abominations unless the covenantal curses were, in some way, universal? Furthermore, there is a warning in Deut concerning turning to worship other gods. Moses says, 

And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. Like the nations that the LORD makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the LORD your God

(Deut 8:19-20).

Again, the curse for breaking the covenant law has already been experienced by gentile nations and will continue to be experienced by them should they persecute Israel. 

The Proverbs

The book of Proverbs is also evidence for the universal nature of the blessings and curses of Deut 27-28. This book is widely recognized as universal wisdom for all time, probably the reason that most NT bibles include Proverbs as well as the Psalms. Such universal phrases like, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (14:34) makes it clear that Proverbs was not intended for Israel only but was meant to be applied by any nation and all people. 

Yet, this universal book contains the same or similar blessings and curses that were already written in Deut. This is evidence that Solomon is simply rehashing old material and applying it in a universal way. For example, in summary form, chapter 2 pronounces a blessing on the righteous: “For the upright will inhabit the land, and those with integrity will remain in it,” and a curse for wrong doers: “but the wicked will be cut off from the land and the treacherous will be rooted out of it” (vv.21-22). Deut already pronounced this blessing (4:5; 5:16; 18:9; 21:1) and curse (8:19-20) for Israel.

Furthermore, Proverbs as a whole is filled with similar blessings and curses to those of Deut. Walking in the way of wisdom is said to result in security (3:2), long life (9:11), victory over those who oppose you (16:7), good health (4:22), prosperity and plenty (10:22), exaltation of a nation (14:34). The curses of Proverbs are also similar: destruction (10:29; 13:13; 16:18; 17:19; 18:12), hunger (19:15), and lingering evil over one’s house (17:13).

Putting all these similarities together makes one wonder if Solomon is not drawing his material straight from Deut 27-28. It is, therefore, reasonable to believe that Solomon’s intent in writing the book of Proverbs was to place the blessings and curses of Deut into a new universal form without significant changes or improvements. 

The Prophets

The OT prophets are another way in which we see the universal nature of the covenantal blessings and curses. One of the main functions of the OT prophets was to pronounce judgment upon the ungodly.[4] These pronounced judgements always were accompanied with a call to recommit themselves to the covenant by repentance and keeping the law, followed by a word of hope for Israel’s restoration. What’s curious about these indictments is that there are several instances when they are brought against pagan nations for violating covenant law. Nations such as Babylon, Moab, Assyria, Egypt, and others are said to be guilty before God, yet they are not Israel. How can this be unless the gentile nations were in some sort of covenant relationship to God. Isaiah 24:5-6 shines light on this:

The earth mourns and withers; the world languishes and withers; the highest people of the earth languish. The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt; therefore the inhabitants of the earth are scorched, and few men are left.

(Isaiah 24:4-6).

Isaiah speaks of the earth itself being in danger of God’s curse because of the sins of its inhabitants. They are said to have broken the everlasting covenant. 

The New Covenant Blessings

The NT authors also present a case for the universal nature of the blessings and curses of the covenant. In many cases they apply blessings and curses that were previously stated in the pentateuch, and in other cases, reveal new ones for obedience or disobedience. For example, 

The epistles

Paul, in his instruction to the children at the church of Ephesus, quotes the fifth commandment in the decalogue. What’s interesting about his citation of Exo 20:12 is that, not only does he include the moral principle of the law, he includes the blessing attached to it: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” (Eph 6:1-2). Notice how the blessing is stated: “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.”

What land is this? In the context of Exodus 20:12, it is the Promised land. Yet, this is not what Paul means. He is not saying that if the gentile Ephesians children honor their parents, they will get to live long in Palestine. This would simply be absurd. Rather he is replacing “land” to mean anywhere on the earth where parents are honored. Paul is generalizing a specific commandment and blessing given to Israel and applying it to the unique circumstances of the Ephesian church. 

In the book of Romans, Paul argues that justification and the promises of God come, not by works of the law, but through the righteousness of faith. In defending his position, Paul appeals to the faith of Abraham as an example: “For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith” (Rom 4:13). Paul draws his example from Gen 17:8 where God promises to give Abraham “all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession.” What’s interesting is that Paul replaces the word “land” with “world.”

This is intentional for the reason that the Greek Septuagint translates the word for “land” in Gen 17:8 as γῆ and not the more universal term—κόσμος that Paul uses in Rom 4:13. Why wouldn’t Paul use the language of the Greek Septuagint that was commonly used in his day for his citation of Gen 17:8 in his letter to the Romans which was written in Greek? The intentionality of the replacement of words suggests that Paul is escalating the promise of Gen 17:8 from the geographical territory of Canaan to the entire world. 

The idea that promises of “land” are escalated to “world” forces us to clear a common misapplication of 2 Chronicles 7:14 where we read “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” This verse is often applied to the United States as a call for national revival. We must recognize that this is a reiteration of the blessing of Deut which, we may recall, was a covenant document that applied uniquely to Israel only; therefore, this blessing cannot directly apply to America for the reason that the U.S. isn’t God’s covenantal people.

However, the principles of humbling oneself, praying, seeking God’s face, and repenting are as applicable today as they were in Solomon’s era.[5] We can expect the blessing to apply as a general trend anywhere in the world where the church as God’s Holy Nation leads communities to turn to him. 

Revelation

In the book of Revelation we see a blessing that is pronounced to the church in Thyatira: “The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father (Rev 2:26-27). This blessing echoes the blessing of Deut which states that Israel is to “keep all his [God’s] commandments, and that he will set you in praise and in fame and in honor high above all nations that he has made” (26:18-19). 

The Gospels

Speaking of his flock, Jesus says, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The blessing of abundant life is also found in Deut 30:18-20. 

Jesus also mentions the blessing of multiplication which comes when one sacrifices possessions and personal relationships for the sake of the gospel:

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.

(Mark 10:29-30)

The blessing is one of multiplication. God will multiply what one gives up for the sake of Christ and the gospel. Multiplication as a blessing is also found in Deut 7:13 which states, “He will love you, bless you, and multiply you. He will also bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock, in the land that he swore to your fathers to give you.” Both Mark 10:29-30 and Deut 7:13 show a variety of multiplication as a blessing. 

The beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount are also an example of NT blessings. One in particular can be traced all the way back to Deut. Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5). This blessing is almost identical with Psalm 37:11— “But the meek shall inherit the land,” which is a reiteration of the land inheritance blessings of Deut. Inheriting the earth by meekness is another example of the blessings in Deut being escalated in the New Covenant. 

New Covenant curses

The NT also mentions curses for sin and disobedience. Jesus says that of the curse for blaspheming the Holy Spirit comes in this life as well as the next (Matt 12:32). In Rev 2:20-23, heretics in the church of Thyatira are threatened to be killed with pestilence, a curse also found in Deut 28:21. Some in the church at Corinth who partook in the Lord’s supper in an unworthy manner are said to have become “weak and ill, and some have died” for that reason (1 Cor 11:27-32). 

Paul directly applies one of the curses of Deut to his gentile contemporaries. He says in Gal 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” What curse is he speaking of? In verse 10, Paul quotes Deut 27:26— “Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.” How can Paul apply this curse which was specifically given to Israel and apply it to the gentiles? He can’t, unless we allow for a universal application of the blessings and curse of Deut 27-28. 

A warning on how to read the blessings and curses

We have concluded that the blessings and curses of Deut 27-28 are not just for Israel only but are to be applied universally. This conclusion does not come without its theological abuses. What is known as the “prosperity gospel” has become mainstream in Christian discussions pertaining to God’s blessings and curses. This is the notion that God wishes to bless his people with physical health and financial success, and that faith, positive speech, and donations will cause one’s material wealth to increase.[6] Avoiding the error of prosperity theology, one must heed the interpretive warning regarding blessings and curses. Two come to mind. 

First, prior to the final judgment, blessings and curses are general trends and not strict promises. While we have to believe that God blesses those who obey him, we cannot demand that God dispense his blessings equally to everyone. For example, we have already seen both the Old and New Testament pronounce a blessing of long life for those who honor their parents (Exo 20:12; Eph 6:1-3). However, the blessing is not absolute, but a general principle that is true for those who obey the fifth commandment. We can expect some who hate their parents to live long lives and visa versa. 

Second, the outward appearance of apparent blessings and curses can be misleading and, therefore, inscrutable. What often appears to be a curse is sometimes God’s set up for blessing, and what often resembles blessings might generate curses. For instance, Psalm 73, begins with affirming that God is “good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart” (v.1), yet the Psalter is confused because he sees the wicked prosper (v.3). This causes him to doubt God’s curses upon the wicked, and even doubt his blessings for righteousness (v.13).

However, the Psalter remembers God’s long term plan for the wicked and reaffirms his promised curses toward them (vv.16-19). Psalm 73 reminds us that sometimes apparent blessings for the wicked can be God’s way of setting them up for curses. Another example of this is the book of Job where God reveals his complex plans and preservation over the natural world (see Job ch.38-42). Despite Job’s inward struggle, he did not sin against the LORD with his words (Job 1:22; 42:7), and therefore, his suffering was not a curse from God for disobedience. 

On the other hand, apparent curses can be God’s way of setting an individual or group up for his blessings. For example, John’s lengthy story of Jesus’ healing of the blind man begins with an interesting question from his disciples: “‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘it was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him’” (John 9:2-3). The disciples wrongfully assumed that blindness was a curse for disobedience. Jesus corrected this false notion by stating that the man’s blindness was God’s way of showing his works. 

Jesus, in Luke 13:1-5, also refers to two tragic historical incidents as examples of apparent curses that were not directly related to sin. The first example is a story concerning Galileans who were murdered by Pontius Pilate during their sacrificial worship, and the second is an event in which eighteen people who were killed in a falling tower in Siloam. Although Jesus uses these examples to emphasize the urgency of repentance for all the inhabitants of Galilee and Jerusalem, he explicitly states that these disasters were not a direct effect of the afflicted having more sins (v.3, 5).[7]

Likewise, Christians today cannot assume that every tragedy in the world is directly caused by the sin of the sufferers. One of the largest disasters in history was the Yangtze river flood which inundated approximately 70,000 square miles, killing over 2 million people.[8] We cannot assume that those 2 million who lived in that proximity to the Yangtze river were particularly more sinful than the rest of China. 

Conclusion

In conclusion, the blessings and curses of Deut 27-28 are not for Israel only but are to be generally applied universally. Evidence for this is seen in the Pentateuch itself where the law was to be a model for all gentile nations and that other ethnic groups who occupied the promised land prior to Israel were vomited out for covenant law violations. Moreover, the prophets not only bring indictments against Israel for covenantal law-breaking, they also pronounce curses upon the gentile nations who violate God’s covenant. Furthermore, the book of Proverbs reiterates similar, if not the same, blessing and curses of Deut. This time in the universal framework of “wisdom” and “folly.” Finally, the NT authors apply both the blessings and curses of Deut, as well as new ones, to the New Covenant.

There is an eschatological fulfillment of God’s blessings and curses. One day at the end of history, blessing and curse will never again cross paths. They will be forever separated. To those who reject the Messiah, this is bad news. God’s eternal wrath on the ungodly is delayed until the final day of judgement. At that time God will repay them according to their works (Rom 2:5-6). Everyone is in danger of this curse for the reason that everyone has broken God’s law (Deut 27:26; Gal 3:10).

But the good news of the Gospel is that Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (Gal 3:13). He did this by dying on the cross as a payment for our sins. His sacrifice secured for us an inheritance of life with God forever. This eternal blessing is received through faith in Christ. In gratitude for salvation and for evidence of saving faith, every believer is called to live in obedience to every command of King Jesus.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

[1] Meredith G. Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972.

[2] Mendenhall, George E. Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East. Pittsburgh: Biblical Colloquium, 1955.

[3] Lucas, Ernest. “Covenant, Treaty, and Prophecy.” Themelios 8, no. 1 (September 1982): 20.

[4] Taylor, Mark E. “Righteousness and the Use of the Old Testament in James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, and Jude.” Southwestern Journal of Theology 64, no. 1 (Fall 2021): 110

[5] Taylor, Jonathan G. “The Application of 2 Chronicles 7:13-15.” Bibliotheca Sacra 168, no. 670 (April 2011): 161.

[6] Wilson, J. Matthew. From Pews to Polling Places: Faith and Politics in the American Religious Mosaic. Georgetown University Press, 2007.

[7] Shirock, Robert J. “The Growth of the Kingdom in Light of Israel’s Rejection of Jesus: Structure and Theology in Luke 13:1-35.” Novum Testamentum 35, no. 1 (January 1993): 15–29.

[8] Courtney, Chris. The Nature of Disaster in China: The 1931 Yangzi River Flood. Studies in Environment and History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

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Ben Moore
Ben is a Christian worldview writer who holds a BA in Economics and is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Biblical studies at Reformed Theological Seminary. He and his beloved wife live and serve to advance the Gospel in all areas of life.

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