On the Purpose of Benedictions
What’s the point of the pronouncement at the end of worship of God’s blessing? And why does the pastor raise his hands when making it? One of the most important principles of worship is that God has decided how he is to be worshipped. So a third question must be, Where do we find a biblical warrant for this element of worship?
This final part of the worship service is called the ‘benediction’, which comes from the Latin word for blessing, ‘benedictus’. For example, Zechariah in Luke 1:68-79 pronounces a prophecy that begins with, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.” This prophecy is known as the Benedictus.
God established a benediction for the Israelites in Numbers 6:22-27:
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘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.'”
God decreed that the priests were to bless his people in his name. The purpose of this exercise was to reassure the people of God at the end of their worship that he is faithful to them and that they are blessed in him.
Deuteronomy 10:8 says that the Levites were set apart as God’s minister in order to bless the people in his name, something restated in 21:5. It is fair to surmise that the blessing that the Levites are commissioned to perform in Deuteronomy is the blessing ordained by God in Numbers 6. Similarly, in Leviticus 9:22, Aaron blesses the people at the conclusion of their worship and does so while lifting up his hands towards them; Aaron is fulfilling the command of God given in Numbers 6.
The priests of God blessed his people on his behalf at the conclusion of their worship, communicating the Lord’s pleasure with them and his ongoing faithfulness to them. This was done symbolically by the priests raising their hands, to signify the favor of God being given to his people. It was likely done at the end of worship to be a grand conclusion, to serve as a reassurance that God has accepted his people’s worship. It was also to remind the people that God has put his name on them (i.e. marked them as his own, whom he will not abandon), and that marking out remains true in their daily lives. It is a sending out from worship being marked as God’s own.
The New Testament continues this pattern. The blessing of Numbers 6 is not repeated in the New Testament, but similar declarations are used. The most notable is Hebrews 13:20-21. It is widely believed that Hebrews is a sermon that was written down, and 13:20-21, while not using the word ‘blessing’, invokes a blessing upon God’s people. This is significant because it shows that benedictions continued in New Testament worship. Other examples of these New Testament benedictions include 2 Corinthians 13:14, Galatians 6:18, Ephesians 6:23-24, Philippians 4:23, 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, 2 Thessalonians 3:16, 1 Timothy 1:15-16, 2 Peter 3:18, and Jude 24-25. A lot of these examples mention the peace of God (e.g. Numbers 6:24-26 and 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24), which is why I frequently conclude my benedictions with “Go in peace.” The emphasis on the peace of God reminds us that God sends us out in peace, since we are at peace with him because of what Jesus has done for us. Our worship is acceptable to God because of what Jesus has done.
What the New Testament shows is greater variety in blessings being offered than the single blessing of Numbers 6:24-26. In principle what this demonstrates is a greater freedom in selection of blessings to be pronounced in the conclusion of worship. While the evidence from Old Testament is that the priests and Levites only used Numbers 6:24-26 as their benediction, the New Testament establishes a format or pattern for use. Much in the same way that the Lord’s Prayer lays out a pattern of prayer, Numbers 6:24-26 alongside the New Testament blessings sets out a pattern for how benedictions should look. Benedictions should include (not necessarily every time), praise to God for who he is and what he has done for his people in Christ (e.g. Jude 24-25, Revelation 1:5-6), petition to God to continue to do in the Christian’s life what he began in Christ (e.g. Romans 15:13, 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17, Hebrews 13:20-21), calls to the church to live as those who belong to Christ because of what he has done for us (e.g. 2 Corinthians 13:14), and declarations of what is true about the Christian as a result of what Jesus has done (e.g. Ephesians 6:23-24).
The priests and the Levites of the Old Testament were typological and prefigured Christ’s priesthood for his people, but they also reflected the pattern God uses to govern his people. God has always given ministers to his church to oversee its worship and teaching. It was for this reason that the Levites were set apart to minister to God’s people, including through the pronouncement of benedictions (Deuteronomy 10:8). The pastoral office of the New Testament continues this pattern, not that pastors are mediators between God and his people, but they are appointed for the oversight and conduct of the church’s worship (Romans 15:15-16, 1 Corinthians 4:1, 12:28, Ephesians 4:11-14, 1 Timothy 3:2). This is why the minister is the one who pronounces the benediction at the end of the worship service. While neither the Westminster Confession of Faith or Catechisms mention benedictions, the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God states, “…let the minister dismiss the congregation with a solemn blessing” to end worship. This is statement is representative of Reformational practice of benedictions.
Since the benediction of the New Testament church matches the format of the Old Testament, ministers raise their hands while delivering it. This represents that the pronounced blessing is passed not from the minister to people, but from God to his church. The minister’s pronouncement and posture symbolizes this. In some churches the people put out their hands at this point to symbolize reception of the blessing, something I think Paul has in mind in 1 Timothy 2:8 (note the emphasis on doing this as a way of maintaining peace in the church). The dynamic of giving and receiving the pronouncement of divine blessing is a way in which God assures his people that they are his in Christ.