There are two kinds of people: those who stay for the movie credits and those who leave the theater early to avoid traffic. It’s no wonder in a culture where many churches strive to entertain that those in the pew treat worship as similar to a theater show, leaving when it’s convenient—when the “good part” is over. But this early departure will lead to malnourishment, for they’re missing out on the culmination of worship—the benediction.
The benediction? You mean that closing “prayer” the pastor gives with his hands raised? Isn’t that like the credits of a movie? Perhaps we’ve misunderstood its nature and purpose, at best treating it as a special goodbye from God. But historically, the benediction has been a vital component of the church’s worship. From the early church through the Middle Ages, to the Reformers through the Puritans, we find the liturgical tradition of the minister raising his hands to pronounce a benediction on the congregation. Together with the invocation, the benediction serves as a liturgical bookend whereby God gets the first and the last word. This practice is codified in the Westminster Assembly’s Directory for the Public Worship of God, which prescribes that the minister “dismiss the congregation with a solemn blessing.” Whence did this practice come, and what is its purpose?
God instituted the Aaronic benediction after the inauguration of the Levitical priesthood:
Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, “Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them, The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them. (Num. 6:23–27)
With this pronouncement, the newly formed congregation could be confident that the Lord had pledged Himself to them before they entered the promised land to take possession of it. From the earliest prescription of a benediction, we learn that it is (1) a word from God (2) delivered through ministers of the Word to His people (3) for the purpose of sustaining and strengthening faith.
First, a benediction is a “good word” from God. It’s an objective word confirming that we’ve encountered the living God through His means of grace. Thus, it’s different from a prayer or a doxology. The difference is that a prayer or a doxology is from us to God, while a benediction is from God to us. In other words, a doxology or prayer has a northward direction; a benediction has a southward direction. Both are important for Christian piety, but they must be distinguished in the church’s worship. Commenting on the Aaronic blessing, John Owen says, “The words prescribed unto the priests were not a prayer properly, but an authoritative benediction, and an instituted sign of God’s blessing the people.” This is why, historically, the proper posture, if there is one, is not of closed eyes and closed hands, but open eyes and open hands—receiving by faith the divine pronouncement. As for the posture of the one pronouncing the benediction, the examples of Aaron (Lev. 9:22) and Christ (Luke 24:50) indicate that it’s most fitting to raise both hands.
Second, a benediction is pronounced by qualified men who’ve been entrusted with preaching and teaching the Word of God. In the Old Testament, this ministry was primarily given to Aaron’s line (2 Chron. 30:27; Heb. 5:1–5). In the New Testament, these duties have been entrusted to qualified male elders; thus, the authority to pronounce the benediction on God’s people (in the proper context and with the proper form) is grounded in the ministerial office. With their declarative and derivative authority, ordained elders pronounce on God’s people what is already true about them—that He is their God and they are His people. But if it is already true about the congregation, then why do they need to receive it?
The answer is that a benediction, third, is pronounced for the purpose of strengthening faith. Its delivery has a purpose: to confirm God’s promise to be with us and to bless us. Therefore, it is to be received in faith. The Lord speaks to us through His word of benediction, spoken over us by His ministers. That is, the benediction is the form through which God’s blessing is communicated to His people; the Lord said, “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” We are to respond in faith to this objective pronouncement of the divine blessing. John Calvin notes that in the Aaronic benediction, the priests “are commanded to pronounce the form of benediction audibly, and not to offer prayers in an obscure whisper; and hence we gather that they preached God’s grace, which the people might apprehend by faith.” Through the blessing, Calvin continues, “God deposits His name with the priests, that they may daily bring it forward as a pledge of His good will, and of the salvation which proceeds from thence.” The benediction, then, is to be apprehended by faith and received with gratitude and assurance.
Like the Israelites, we are awaiting a land that has been guaranteed with a promise (John 14:3; Eph. 1:14). We weary pilgrims need this regular pronouncement to put wind in our sails. Beautifully, the Aaronic benediction finds its culmination in the consummated new covenant promise, where God’s dwelling place is with His people (Rev. 21:3) and His name is placed on us (14:1). Through this regular pronouncement, we are reminded that this is our destiny—the blessed and glorious presence of God forever. Then Christ will pronounce the divine blessing on His bride and we “will see his face, and his name will be on [our] foreheads” (22:4).
Aaron L. Garriott (@AaronGarriott) is production manager of Tabletalk magazine.