What does it mean to “offer” the benediction? To ask this question is to raise a number of related questions; Who may offer the benediction? When may the benediction be offered? What is a benediction? ‘The answers to these other questions are closely connected with the answer to the first one.
Certain things seem adequately clear. A worship service of the church is properly concluded with a benediction. A minister has the right to pronounce the benediction when he appears officially before the congregation of believers which has gathered to meet with God. A benediction is more than merely a good wish.
Certain practical implications are not so clear. Why isn’t a seminary student permitted to give the benediction? Isn’t it just as appropriate to offer the benediction at funerals and other gatherings of Christian people? Why is it that people often show so little respect during the giving of the benediction? The answers to these questions are dependent ·on the answers to the ones above.
In the Scriptures, benedictions are found in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, the Aaronic benediction was given to Aaron and his sons as a part of their ministry to the children of Israel. It is characterized as putting God’s name upon the people (Num. 6:22–27). ]n the New Testament, the parallel is found in the apostolic benediction given by the Apostle Paul. The significant change here is the emphasis on the Trinity (II Cor. 13:14).
There are also certain other Scriptural statements which are treated as benedictions by ministers and other Christian leaders. Examples of these are the following: “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be the glory in the church in Christ Jesus unto all generations for ever and ever” (Eph. 3:20–21); “Now the God of peace, who brought again from the dead the great shepherd of the sheep with the blood of an eternal covenant, even our Lord Jesus, make you perfect in every good thing to do his will, working in us that which is well-pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be the glory for ever and ever” (Heb. 13:20–21); “Now unto him that is able to guard you from stumbling, and to set you before the presence of his glory without blemish in exceeding joy, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and power, before all time, and now, and for evermore” (Jude 24–25).
The question to be settled here is whether these are true benedictions or whether they are really prayers. In practice there does not seem to be much difference between offering a benediction and offering a prayer. Many people have never given thought to the fact that there is a difference. Actually there is a significant difference between the two: in offering a prayer, the minister is representing the people before God; but in giving the benediction, the minister is representing God before the people! In prayer, the minister is an intercessor pleading the cause of the people by means of the petitions which he makes to God on their behalf. In the benediction, the minister is an intermediate pronouncing the blessing of God upon the people; and he does this as the representative of God.
It seems evident, therefore, that in the strict sense of the term there is only one benediction in the Old Testament and one in the New Testament. The other passages used as benedictions are really prayers, whose imperative forms are easily explained as expressing the urgency of prayer (as in the case of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer). The implications of this are widespread regarding ministerial practice. If these Scriptural quotations are not suitable for use as benedictions, it follows that the practice of composing benedictions, even if in the language of Scripture, is of doubtful standing.
All of this is of immediate bearing on the question of offering the benediction, The benediction is not “prayed” by the minister, but is “pronounced” by him. In the Old Testament, the benediction was pronounced by the priest, as an ambassador of God acting in God’s stead (Num. 6:23). In the New Testament, the minister is an ambassador of Christ acting in Christ’s stead (II Cor. 5:20). He therefore offers the benediction in like manner as the priest of old; but he does so in the light of, and by the authority of, the more complete revelation in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the pronouncement of the benediction is clearly in line with the Reformed view of the ministry as “speaking for God” because the giving of the benediction was one of the few clearly prophetic functions performed by the Old Testament priests.
We come now to the matter of “offering” the benediction The significance of this expression is that the blessing of God is truly “offered” and not forced. As in the case of the salutation, the blessing may be rejected. In regard to the salutation, Jesus instructed his emissaries, “And into whatsoever house ye shall enter, first say, Peace be to this house. And if a son of peace be there, your peace shall rest upon’ him: but if not, it shall turn to you again” (Luke 10:5–6). The parallel in the case of the benediction is that only he who receives the benediction believingly really shares in the blessing which it confers.
But it seems to me that we must distinguish between the subjective and the objective elements in the giving of the benediction. (Perhaps here are grounds also for making a distinction between the significance of the benediction and that of the salutation.) In the Old Testament, the statement of the benediction is immediately followed by the explanation, “So shall they put my name upon the children of Israel” (Nom. 6:27). Later on we learn from such passages as the prayer of David that this involves the reputation of God more than the response of the people (II Sam. 7:18–29, esp. vs. 23). Since there is no such explanation of the benediction in the New Testament, we must draw our conclusions by parallel inference. We conclude therefore that in the apostolic benediction as well, God actually confers a blessing upon his people and that this blessing is guaranteed by the faithfulness of God rather than the faithfulness of the recipients.
It appears that there is a paradox here in that the blessing is really given and yet may be rejected, but the contradiction is only apparent. In the benediction, the blessing is not conferred upon individuals as such; but it is pronounced upon the congregation as a whole. While the blessing may he rejected by individuals in the congregation, it is divinely given to the congregation as the corporate body of Christ. In a real sense, therefore, the benediction is “offered” to the individual; but it is in fact “pronounced” upon the congregation.
We have here discovered the answers to the related questions asked in the beginning. The benediction may be pronounced (and this is a better expression than “offered”) only by those who are officially appointed and ordained as ministers of the Word, and therefore as representatives of God. The benediction may be properly pronounced only when the church is assembled as the church; and it ought not to be used for unofficial gatherings, even though only Christians are present. Finally, the benediction is a declaration of the actual granting of the divine blessing upon the congregation of the Lord; and it ought to be solemnly received. To say that the benediction is “offered” is merely to emphasize that only the individual who receives it believingly personally shares in its blessing.