A Fulfilled Priestly Benediction

A Reflection on Worship's Closing Blessing

A Scriptural Pattern of Divine Blessing

In the Christian tradition in which I grew up, worship services began and ended with a prayer. The faith-nurturing I received there also included my pastor’s encouragement to read through the Bible every year. I did that several times before experiencing a different worship style that began with a divine blessing and ended with a benediction.

Right away I recognized this as the pattern followed in the apostolic letters in the New Testament, and it moved me deeply. As the Lord drew me into the Reformed tradition, I learned a great deal not only about theology and church history, but also about liturgy, preaching, and worship. The emphasis the ordained minister gave to God’s Word—not just words about that Word—deepened my appreciation for the blessing and benediction: God, through the minister, was declaring God’s own welcome and care for God’s people, for each of us who embraced that blessing or benediction in faith. I came to treasure the opening and ending of the service, when a divine blessing and a benediction enveloped us.

Before becoming a history professor at Redeemer University College, I served for eight years as a pastor in Reformed churches. It was always a humbling privilege to pronounce the blessing and the benediction (as well as the assurance of pardon and the message in the sermon). In those few years and in the three decades since then, I recognized a couple of patterns that struck me.

Bound to the Word

The first is that in past decades many ministers (including me) hesitated to go beyond the precise words of Scripture’s particular greetings and benedictions. So at the beginning of the service, the minister would raise a hand and, following the apostle Paul’s most common greeting in his letters, declare, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2; Phil. 1:2; 2 Thess. 1:2). Sometimes, the salutation would be the abbreviated “Grace and peace to you” (1 Thess. 1:1) or “Grace to you and peace from God our Father” (Col. 1:2). Periodically, the blessing might be the slightly expanded version found in the letters to Timothy: “Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord” (1 Tim. 1:2; 2 Tim. 1:2) or the one in the letter to Titus: “Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior” (Titus 1:4).

Ministers’ responsibility to be bound to the Word they are to proclaim shaped this caution. At the time, the greeting in worship would typically not mention the Holy Spirit—not because the pastor was not Trinitarian, but because the Holy Spirit was not directly mentioned in the apostolic blessings.

But being bound to is not the same as being bound by: one can be faithful to Scripture without simply limiting ourselves to specific wordings used in Scripture. After all, we accept that the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort, Our World Belongs to God, and the Belhar Confession are bound to the Word of God even though they do not limit themselves to specific Scriptural wordings in presenting what we believe. Similarly, when ministers bring the Word of God to the congregation, they do not simply read a series of Scripture passages; they interpret and proclaim what the Word of God teaches, directed by but not limited to specific wordings used in Scripture itself.

Therefore, I have welcomed the now-common practice of including reference to the Holy Spirit in the divine blessing with which worship begins: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit”—sometimes with reference also to “mercy,” or using “through the work of the Holy Spirit.” This makes explicit the Trinitarian faith we embrace and the delight the triune God has in welcoming God’s people into God’s presence. With this common development, it is almost jarring now to hear the salutation without mention of the Holy Spirit.

Expressing the Fulfillment of Scripture

The second pattern I have noticed concerns the benediction, which the minister proclaims on God’s people as they go forth from the worship service to serve God in the coming week. These benedictions are found in a variety of forms and wordings in the New Testament, almost inviting pastors to splice them together and sometimes even to pull together other teachings of Scripture about God’s care for God’s people into recognizably biblical presentations of divine benedictions that do not appear as such in Scripture itself.

Recognizing this readiness to expand blessings and benedictions to encompass more fully what we believe from Scripture invites me to consider specifically the remarkable Old Testament priestly benediction often used to conclude worship services. With it, Aaron and his sons—and ministers today—have the extraordinary privilege to put God’s name on God’s people, with the assurance that God will bless them (Numbers 6:27). Aaron and subsequent Old Testament priests were to declare: “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” (Num. 6:24–26). Unchanged, unadorned—and, I would assert, unfulfilled—this benediction is still used today.

But all the promises of God find their “Yes” in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). The resurrected Lord told his fellow travelers on the road to Emmaus that all the Scriptures spoke of him and what he would accomplish (Luke 24:27). In Christ we find all God’s promises fulfilled: salvation, forgiveness, eternal life, protection, leading, and comfort, as well as (regarding what we are here considering) blessing, keeping, God’s pleasure in us (the shining of God’s face upon us), grace, and peace. The apostle Paul assures us that “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1).

In keeping with what the New Testament clearly teaches, it would be faithful—and faith-enhancing—to make explicit the fulfillment in Christ of that beloved Old Testament priestly blessing. All the loving care promised in it is ours only in Christ and because of Christ. A forthrightly Christocentric version would be: “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 through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Since this all comes to us out of the triune God’s everlasting love for us, that last phrase could become the decidedly Trinitarian one appended to several Anglican prayers: “. . . through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, reigns forever.”

In this way we today could even more fully welcome and embrace this ancient benediction as coming to us in Christ, as the blessing from the ever-living and ever-reigning triune God, who has loved us from before the beginning of creation and watches over us every moment. The ancient priestly benediction has been fulfilled. We should declare that boldly and gratefully as we use it.

James R. Payton Jr. is professor emeritus of history at Redeemer University College and is the author of Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings (IVP Academic, 2010).

Reformed Worship 126 © December 2017, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.