The Benediction in the Worship Service
Blessings from First to Last
When we come before the Lord at the beginning of the worship service we are greeted by Him. Right after the votum we hear the salutation: Grace be unto you ... etc. But having come to the conclusion of our worship we receive our Triune God's blessing. He or she who understands what this means and implies is blessed indeed. With the divine blessing upon us we can face life with all its responsibilities, challenges and temptations. For all who believe in God from Whom all blessings flow, this concluding benediction is also part of the power of God unto salvation.
The Biblical Warrant
It is strange that until the Reformation Roman Catholic liturgy did not include a concluding benediction consisting of words from Scripture. The Reformers, determined to go back to the Word of God in everything, also looked to the Bible for guidance in this matter. They found that both in the Old and New Testaments the worshipping congregation of the Lord was dismissed with His blessing. In Numbers 6:24-26, we have the so-called Aaronic blessing, "The Lord bless thee, and keep thee; the Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; the Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace." And in 2 Corinthians 13:14 we read that the apostle Paul concludes his letter to this congregation with this benediction: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen."
When the high priest had finished his work in the sanctuary he emerged from there to pronounce his blessing upon the waiting congregation in the outer court. This was an important part of the worship service, perhaps the most important. This blessing could not be pronounced by just anybody. Only the high priest and his sons were authorized by the Lord to perform this task (Num. 6:23). On the Day of Atonement the high priest would first enter the Holy of Holies with the blood of animals sacrificed for Israel's sins and sprinkle some of it on the altar of incense. He would then take off his plain ministerial clothes, don his glorious garments and bless the congregation waiting outside. This was a sign that God had accepted their high priest's sacrifice. Of crucial importance here is that the same hands that had been stained with blood were now stretched out over and upon the congregation.
In this way Israel was reminded over and over again that sin could only be removed and forgiven by sacrificial blood. All of this, of course, pointed to Christ whose blood alone cleanses us from all our sins.
No Mere Wish but Actual Bestowment
The blessing pronounced by Aaron and his successors did not just represent good wishes on their part. The blessing of peace and reconciliation was actually bestowed. This is still true today. When your duly ordained minister lays this same blessing upon the congregation, he does this in the Name of the Lord who is eager to bestow only good things upon His people. Just look at this threefold benediction (Num.6:24-26): "The Lord bless thee and keep thee."
There is a vast difference between man blessing God and God blessing man. We often read in Scripture how people blessed God; for instance, "Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time forth and forever more. From the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same the Lord's name is to be praised" (Ps. 113:2-3). Such blessing is basically an act of well-wishing, and attempt to honour and praise God's name. We do not and cannot add to His riches and glory. But when God blesses us He engages in well doing. God gives something we did not have before. He gave us our being, our life - by creating us. And if we are saved, He gave us new life in Christ through the new birth; we became new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).
The words, "The Lord bless thee," are to be read as all-inclusive. Here are blessings for this life and the next, material and especially spiritual blessings: forgiveness of sins, eternal life, all the blessings of salvation are freely bestowed.
"The Lord bless thee and keep thee." It is no small mercy to be kept by God. Where would we be if the Lord had not kept us since He saved us? We would still go lost. But the Lord keeps us from all kinds of dangers, from sickness, death, Satan and hell. As the apostle Peter puts it, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope ... who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation..." (1 Pet. 1:3, 5).
But there is more: "The Lord make his face shine upon thee." This means His reconciled face. God in Christ smiles upon His people. By nature God frowns on us; His face is as stern as that of a judge. Do we know what that means? Those who may look into God's shining face have first seen his frowning, displeased countenance on account of their sins. But as soon as we repent of our sins and put our faith and trust in Christ, the expression on God's face changes. Then it becomes:
Jehovah's kindly face
Gives happiness and grace
To all who are pure hearted;
To them is life imparted.Psalter 423:7
We may not realize this right away, but it is true. When we believe in Jesus Christ, God's Son, His Father loves us and is pleased with us, because "the Lord taketh pleasure in them that fear him, in those that hope in his mercy" (Ps. 147:11).
Therefore the rest is also true: "And be gracious unto you." Grace: what a wonderful, all-comprehensive word this is! Grace enlightens us to see our lost estate and opens our eyes for our all-sufficient Saviour, Jesus Christ. Grace works faith in our hearts and enables us to lay hold of Christ and to rest in His finished work and to persevere in that faith as well. We are debtors to God's grace!
The Triune God's Involvement
But now, lastly, "The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee and give thee peace." Some see the first part of the Aaronic blessing as referring to the Father, in the second to the Son, and in the third place to the Holy Spirit. This may well be true and if it is, we have here perhaps another Old Testament allusion to the Trinity.
It is certainly true that it is the Spirit's work to see to it that God's people enjoy the blessing of God's reconciled countenance. The problem is that believers do not always consciously experience this joy. They are often under a cloud. Because sin and the preoccupations of this life come between God and themselves, they often find themselves walking in the dark. While it is true that God always loves His people, they often lack the assurance of His love. But when the Spirit sheds abroad the love of God in their hearts, their hope is rekindled and joy floods their soul (Rom. 5:5). When He lifts the fog and mists, they see the Sun of righteousness shining again and God's countenance is lifted upon them once more.
There is nothing that God's people desire more than this. That is why David asks in Psalm 4: "Lord, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us" (v.5). To be at peace with God and to experience the peace of God is to experience heaven on earth (Rom. 5:1; Phil. 4:7).
The Apostolic Benediction
Having looked in some detail at the Aaronic blessing we will now briefly examine the apostolic benediction recorded in 2 Corinthians 13:5. We can be brief because the content of this New Testament blessing is basically the same as its counterpart in the Old. There are a few differences, however, as to the order in which the blessings appear.
Notice that Paul's benediction begins with Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Trinity. "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ," he states. Why does he not begin with the first Person and His "contribution" to the benediction? Is it not true that all blessings flow from the Father as the fountainhead? Did He not plan the salvation of His people? Yes, but if He is the Fountain then Christ is the channel as the One who accomplished this salvation and the Spirit is the One who applies it to the hearts and lives of the elect.
So, doctrinally, the order is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but in the order of experience it is the Son who comes first: "No man cometh unto the Father but by Me," Jesus says in John 14:6. The first thing a sinner receives is grace through Jesus Christ. As he is brought to faith in Christ and Him crucified, he realizes that behind the cross is the Father's love. Hence the second part of the apostolic benediction is "the love of God." We should never think that Christ died to induce or persuade the Father to love. The Father always loved His elect. Christ's role was to remove the guilt of sin so that His Father's love could be manifested as love founded on justice.
I was not to make the Father's love
Towards His people sure,
That Jesus came from realms above;
'T was not the pangs He bore
That God's eternal love procured,
For God was love before.
Finally, there is the third ingredient in the Pauline benediction: "the communion of the Holy Ghost." Every blessing, which God in Christ bestows on His people, is communicated by the Spirit who takes of what is Christ's and shows it to His people (John 16:15). He knows the mind and will of God and helps believers pray according to that mind and that will. He intercedes with groaning that cannot be uttered. He is also the Spirit of holiness and creates clean hearts and right spirits. In this way He leads into communion with God the Father and God the Son.
The Riches of God's Grace
Do you now see how rich these benedictions are? Every week we hear the minister pronounce both these Old and New Testament assurances of divine love. With these precious words God sends us into the world where we live and perform our daily tasks. With these blessings upon us we return to our homes. In this way the Lord equips us for service in His church and kingdom. Certainly, this should give us comfort and encouragement as we face our daily challenges, struggles and temptations.
May we all leave the Lord's house each Lord's Day, believing not only what we heard in the sermon that was preached but also what was promised us in the benedictions before exiting the place where God and His people love to meet and commune with each other.
The habitation of Thy house is ever my delight;
The place where dwells Thy glory,
Lord, Is lovely in my sight.