I like to ask people new to our congregation about their first impressions of Village Church. Mary’s answer surprised me. “I’ve been part of a church family for as long as I can remember,” she said, “but this is the only church where the pastor blessed his people at the end of the service.” She always thought the benediction was the last hymn the congregation sang before returning to the world; she didn’t know it was God’s blessing on his people.
“When you stretched out your arms and sang a song of blessing over us,” she said, “I was moved to tears. You weren’t just sending us out to face the world on our own; you were pouring out God’s blessing and Spirit on us so that we would be better prepared to face the world.”
Benedictions have become one of my favorite pastoral privileges. I can’t imagine ending a worship service with, “See you next week,” or “You’re dismissed,” when I can offer a congregation God’s blessing instead.
“This is how you are to bless …”
There are many kinds of benedictions. Some pastors write a unique blessing for each Sunday, drawing from the texts of the morning. Scripture itself provides the church with many blessings, including Paul’s familiar, “Grace and peace to you from our Lord Jesus Christ.” But one blessing is the source and summary of all others.
In Numbers 6:23–26, God instructed Moses that Aaron and his sons were to bless the Israelites in this way: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”
This blessing was Israel’s national treasure, their holy heirloom. This national blessing began with God’s promises to the patriarchs, unique promises of success, safety, and significance. In these three lines, God summarizes what he would always bring to those who trust him.
This blessing has come to be called a benediction—from the Latin for “to speak well of.” The benediction is a good word. The best of words, actually. Unfortunately, it comes off sometimes as a kind of churchy, Hallmark sentiment, as if it were in swirly printed script over a picture of a country church. It has been the thoughtless repetition of benedictions which has done them in, I imagine.
Through the mutual carelessness of pastors and their people, the words can cease being sacred gifts and become clergy code for the service’s end, a congregational heads-up to collect your stuff.
Listen to what we’re saying.
But, in fact, it is so much more. This blessing is a unique kind of statement, its own genre. It isn’t a wish. We really shouldn’t say, “May the Lord bless you,” the way people say, “May all your dreams come true.” The benediction is a declaration: “The Lord blesses you—he really does!” It doesn’t tell us what God will do for us, but what God is doing ever and always for his people. It is sort of an uber-promise. I wonder if the best analogy would be that it is God’s wedding vow spoken to his people. It’s his way of saying, “I take you for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, and death will never part us.” The benediction is like God renewing his vows to us. Let’s take a closer look at what these vows include.
“The Lord bless you.” Yahweh personally endows us with his richest benefits. He assures us that his love envelopes all our comings and goings and that his favor infuses all our days. It is God’s own hand upon our waiting heads, his own table spread before us in the presence of our enemies.
“And keep you.” God promises our safe passage through wilderness wanderings and enemy ambushes. It is God before us and God behind us. It is the Lord completing what he started in us through Christ and the assurance that will guard our souls till we hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
“The Lord make his face shine upon you.” Jacob, to whom we bear such a striking resemblance, wrestled with the angel of the Lord all night, until God finally blessed him. (Did the angel use these words, I wonder?) The writer describes the morning after this way: “The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel [Face of God], and he was limping because of his hip.” We all know that there are plenty of dark nights of God-wrestling, but the Lord promises those who will settle for nothing less than his blessing that we will bask in the sunlight of his face in the morning.
“And be gracious to you.” Every word of this blessing is grace, but here it is in no uncertain terms. Here are sinners set free and death-locked cells sprung open. Here are sons and daughters with the Father’s rich robes thrown over their rags and a banquet spread before beggars. Here is David’s song: “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.”
“The Lord turn his face towards you.” This blessing assures us that we have God’s attention. This statement explains why the Lord knows what we need before we ask and why we can do our good deeds in secret—because the Lord is paying attention to us! To secure this promise of God’s attention it took Christ’s desolate cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Now we can come boldly to the throne of grace and God will look on us, listen to us, and attend to us.
“And give you peace.” It is this birthright of the believer that meets us when the bottom falls out of the markets or when children wander far or when the doctor’s word was ominous or relationships storm. Here are prodigals in the arms of Abba and sufferers who sing for joy. Jesus echoed this blessing when he said, “My peace I leave with you.” And behind the curtain of this blessing are the portals of glory, our promise of the day when there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.
I do not suppose that all these things pass through our congregation’s mind when I pronounce a benediction over it. But it holds all these treasures nonetheless.
Dare to be a priest
Pronouncing the blessing over God’s people is a priestly function. In ancient Israel only the priests could do it, and they did it every time. We pastors—at least in my tradition—don’t think of ourselves as priests very often. We believe in the priesthood of all believers. (And I do believe that any believer can give this blessing to another.) But believe me; when a pastor stands before his people, quietly, till they stop their fidgeting and fix their attention on him; and raises his hands over them (a gesture unique to church); and when he says these words as one who means them, as an emissary of the Lord himself, then God’s people really are blessed.
That’s why the benediction felt strange to me when I first pronounced it years ago. It was too weighty for my voice, too big for a man of my character. I felt peculiar—a little ostentatious—raising my hands over people like a priest. But that is what Aaron did from the very beginning, according to Leviticus 9:22: “Then Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them.” So I do it, too, for the Lord’s sake.
The benediction is an act of faith. These words must be pronounced by someone who is confident that they are true. They are true for God’s people, I suppose, even if spoken by unbelieving lips, but there is a force in them when they are uttered as they were meant to be—by one who believes he or she conveys God’s vows of love to his Bride. These words are still a blessing to be given to those who love the Lord. Christ certainly fulfilled this blessing, so when we say these lines now they are sprinkled with his blood, filled with his breath, and carried forward in his New Covenant. The New Testament writers, most notably Paul, adapted the essence of the Aaronic blessing into other forms, rich with the language of “grace and peace.” As New Testament people, it is good for us to pronounce these New Testament blessings as well.
Perhaps some churches do not use the benediction because it sounds foreign to the unchurched whom they want to reach. But that is the point! It is foreign. Visitors won’t hear this kind of thing anywhere else. That is exactly why they should hear it when they are with us.
I have some blessing biases. One is that we should use the blessings of Scripture most of the time, rather than writing our own. The reason for this is simple: I think there is more authority in the direct words of the Bible.
Another bias is that there is a great benefit to the repetition of a few of these benedictions again and again, week after week. I would love it if these magnificent pronouncements became as familiar and unforgettable to the people in our congregation as their own names. They are, after all, our essential identity.
Finally, I believe it is important to memorize these benedictions. Looking at God’s people while we say these words slows us down and helps us weigh God’s words rightly when we say them. Often during the benediction, I find myself making eye contact with someone who desperately needs this blessing.
For what it’s worth, I have taken to singing benedictions quite often. I know that isn’t for everyone, but since I can sing passably, I’ve come to love this form. I use two musical benedictions, both written by Michael Card: “Barocha” (his rendition of Numbers 6:24–26) and “Grace Be with You All” (from Hebrews 13:20–21). All I can tell you is that sweet and holy things happen when I sing these blessings to God’s beloved people.
Blessings do not need to be reserved only for the ends of services, of course. Sometimes I give the blessing to people I visit in the hospital. I require students in a course I teach on pastoral counseling to memorize the Aaronic blessing word perfect, because sometimes it is a healing gift in helping people. I write it sometimes in letters to faraway friends. I always say it or sing it at a Christian wedding, explaining that this is God’s wedding gift for them. I almost always say it when I’m bidding farewell to someone dear. When I know it is someone’s last Sunday at our church I usually point to them as I begin to sing the benediction. On our tenth anniversary at this church, my family joined me on the platform and the congregation sang the blessing to us. My teenaged son was especially moved.
Receiving what’s given
In ancient Israel when the priests would pronounce this blessing, the people would all respond, “Amen.” In some churches, the people have been taught to hold their hands out, palms up, so they remember this is something to be received.
Ultimately, that is the secret of being blessed. We must receive what God gives and we do that by faith. From time to time we need to remind God’s people not to go numb with familiarity, but to take this pronounced blessing as the gift of God that it is.
Here are just a few of the blessings that you can pronounce on your congregation.
Acts 20:32 Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
Romans 15:13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
2 Corinthians 13:14 May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
2 Thessalonians 2:16-17: May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.
Lee Eclov is senior pastor of Village Church of Lincolnshire, Illinois.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.
Source: CHRISTIANITY TODAY