A hymn calls us to “Count your blessings.” Counting our blessings to see what God has done is undoubtedly a good idea, but it is not the theme of this article. I do not want to consider blessings from God in general, but rather to consider the character of blessings spoken as part of our worship of God.
In the liturgical tradition of the Dutch Reformed churches, the pronouncement, by the minister, of God’s blessing upon the congregation occupies a prominent place. Usually near the beginning of the service comes a blessing historically called the salutation. The words of the salutation most often used are: “Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.” Usually near the end of the service comes a second blessing usually called the benediction. The words of the benediction are usually either the Aaronic blessing (Numbers 6:24–26, “the Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace”) or the apostolic blessing from 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”).
What exactly are these blessings and what is their purpose in our worship services?
Often during the salutation and benediction, worshipers bow their heads and close their eyes. So are these blessings really prayers that the minister offers for the congregation or are they something else? Let us look at the Bible’s teaching on this matter.
While the act of blessing is found already in the Book of Genesis, instruction in blessing is given particularly to Aaron and the priests of Israel. God taught Moses, “Tell Aaron and his sons, This is how you are to bless the Israelites ….” Then follow the words of the Aaronic blessing to which God adds, “So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them” (Num. 6:23,27).
These instructions on blessing make it clear that a blessing is not a prayer, A prayer is directed to God, but a blessing is from God directed to the people of God. So then what is a blessing? It is a word of promise, comfort and reassurance that God gives to His covenant people. Like all of God’s promises, the promise of blessing must be heard and received in faith to work its effect of blessing. To hear such promises at the beginning and end of our worship is a high privilege indeed. Our worship is bracketed with comfort and hope that God speaks to us through His ministers.
The blessing which God speaks through His ministers is a part of that gracious, covenant relation God has established with His people. The Lord’s people recognize their need of His blessing and pray for it: “Look down from heaven, your holy dwelling place, and bless your people Israel and the land you have given us as you promised on oath to our forefathers, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deut. 26:15). God on His part promises blessing and calls upon His people to live faithfully before Him: “You have declared this day that the Lord is your God and that you will walk in his ways, that you will keep his decrees, commands and laws, and that you will obey him. And the Lord has declared this day that you are his people, his treasured possession as he promised, and that you are to keep all his commands. He has declared that he will set you in praise, fame and honor high above all the nations he has made and that you will be a people holy to the Lord your God, as he promised” (Deut. 26:17–19).
God instructed Israel not only in the character of blessing, but also in the physical posture for blessing. We read, “Then Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them” (Leviticus 9:22).
The lifting of the hand toward the people reinforced the point that this blessing was not a prayer to God, but a gift from God to the people.The lifting of the hands in blessing was part of the ministry of the priests of Israel.
This background of priestly blessing is important for our understanding of the last earthly act of Jesus described in Luke 24:50,51: “When he [Jesus] had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.” Jesus, our great high priest, lifted His nail-pierced hands in priestly blessing upon His people. Those hands of blessing reminded them, and remind us, that only through the sacrifice of Jesus can we know the blessing of God. Jesus is priest sacrificer and sacrifice for the sins of His people. Only from His hands and mouth can we receive the grace and peace promised in the Aaronic blessing. Only in His face do we see the face of God turned to us with Gospel mercy. As Paul wrote, “For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
The blessing of Jesus continued to be ministered to His people through the apostles. Many apostolic letters begin and end with blessings pronounced on the congregations receiving the letters. The apostles were not acting as priests, but were applying the priestly ministry of Jesus. As they brought His message and His sacraments, so they also brought His blessing. Today the church in its worship continues to follow this apostolic practice. The ministry of blessing is as much a ministry of the Word as is preaching or administering the sacraments.
Just as a blessing is not a prayer, so it is not a doxology or ascription of praise to God. I have often attended worship services where the printed order of worship states that the service will conclude with a benediction, but where the minister pronounces a doxology. Often the doxology used is: “To him who is able to keep you from falling and present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy — to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen” (Jude 24,25). The use of such words to ascribe praise to our God is wonderful and very appropriate to a worship service, but is not a benediction. Such a doxology, like a prayer, is directed from the people to God, not to the people.
Congregations need to hear the words of God’s blessing pronounced upon them in worship to encourage and strengthen them. Such a divine blessing will send us out to be a blessing in our week of work. Just before Jesus pronounced His last earthly blessing, He reminded His disciples that His blessing of forgiveness and peace was not just for them, but was to be preached around the world. They were to be not only the blessed. but also witnesses to the blessing to be found in Jesus (See Luke 24:46–49).
The theme of the blessing of God’s people resulting in blessing for the nations is developed in Psalm 67. That Psalm is something of a meditation on the Aaronic blessing and then extends the blessing to the world: “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine upon us, that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations” (Psalm 67:1,2).
The importance of the blessings pronounced in our worship is a significant teaching of Scripture. Ministers need to insure that the people of God understand its meaning and value. They also need to pronounce those blessings faithfully and clearly.
Dr. Godfrey is Professor of Church History and President of Westminster Seminary in CA.