What is the benediction and who is it for?
The benediction, or pronouncement of blessing, is not our creation because it is not our blessing that we either receive or pronounce. It is God’s blessing and so we receive it from him, and it is he who ultimately pronounces it. From Scripture it is clear that the benediction is always pronounced on those in God’s covenant community and never on those outside of it. We see these parameters in Numbers 6, from which the church takes her most common benediction.
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” (Numbers 6:22-27).
Several things are clear from this text:
1. The Lord institutes the benediction, and so it belongs to him.
2. The Lord tasks his priests with the pronouncement of benediction.
3. The benediction puts the divine name (i.e., reputation and power) on the people.
4. Following from (3), the benediction was not just an after-the-fact description of God’s blessing; it was the precursor to God’s blessing and prepared the covenant people for it.
In fact, the benediction was so important that, as John Kleinig notes: “From the people’s point of view this was the climax of the sacrificial ritual. It was the only spoken part of the ritual which had been instituted by the Lord himself.”
Other examples in Scripture of bestowing God’s blessing make it even clearer how significant the benediction is and that it belongs exclusively to the church.
In Mark 10:13-16 (parallels: Matthew 19:13-15, Luke 18:15-17), parents are bringing their infants to Jesus that he might bless them, but the disciples try to forbid them. Jesus rebukes his disciples by saying, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” The grounds that Jesus gives for receiving the children to himself to bless them is that the kingdom of God belongs to them (and ones like them). The only grounds a pastor has for blessing the people of God is that they are the people of God, and so the King and all his kingdom blessings are theirs.
Finally, Paul speaks a Trinitarian benediction to the Corinthian church as he ends his second canonical letter.
“May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14).
Here again, it is evident that the benediction is restricted to the people of God in Christ assembled in fellowship (an apostle’s epistle is read publicly to the assembled congregation) to hear his true word. It is for those who have communion in the Holy Spirit. The “all” is not “all people whoever they may be”, but “all of the assembled saints” — those who know the “grace of our Lord Jesus Christ”.
The Lord’s purpose for the benediction does not change from the moment it is instituted to the present day: it is given from the Lord through his minister exclusively to the assembled people of God in Christ for the purpose of putting his name and blessing upon them.
Timothy Maschke summarizes well everything I’ve said here: “Using the words of Numbers 6:22-27, the pastor speaks the trinitarian blessing on the people. The last word of the liturgy comes from God, who hosted the service. The Benediction is more than a prayer or a wish. By His most holy name, the Benediction bestows God’s blessing on the people for the rest of the week” (Gathered Guests, 2nd edition, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009; pp. 177-78).
Some have defended pronouncing the benediction on anyone and everyone on from Jesus’ command to “bless those who curse you” (Luke 6:28) . When, however, we understand what Jesus says in the previous verse it makes it clear that this is something other than the priestly benediction.
Love your enemies,
do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you,
pray for those who abuse you.
The way we are to bless those who curse us is to show love to them, do good to them, and pray for them. It is a command to act in a blessing way to those who are our enemies. This is not a command for the called and ordained servant of the Triune God to put His name on the rebellious and unredeemed masses.
Receiving the benediction is the unique privilege of the assembled people of Christ’s kingdom, and pronouncing it only on them is the unique responsibility of the called and ordained servant of Christ’s kingdom.