In the last few articles which we have written on the subject of the order of worship we have been talking about those elements at the beginning and the end of the worship service in which the minister himself speaks. We noticed that the minister speaks, sometimes on behalf of the congregation and sometimes as the mouthpiece of God through Christ. Those elements are called: the salutation—”Beloved in our Lord Jesus Christ”; the votum—”Our help is in the name of the Lord Who made heaven and earth”; and the benedictions—spoken at the beginning and the end of the worship services. In the salutation the minister speaks to the congregation as the mouthpiece of God in Christ. He addresses the congregation as God’s beloved; but it is God speaking through him and calling the congregation His own beloved people. In the votum the minister is speaking as the spokesman of the congregation. The congregation through her minister says together as a confession: “Our help is in the name of the Lord Who made heaven and earth.”
It ought not to surprise us that the minister has this twofold function in his official ministry. Surely no one will deny that he speaks as an ambassador of God, in God’s name, so that God speaks through him to the church. But we are not always as conscious as we ought to be in the worship service of the fact that the minister also speaks to God on behalf of the congregation. This is true not only of the votum, but also of the congregational prayers and the recitation of the creed. With regard to this latter, that is also one of the differences between the reading of the law and the reading (or recitation) of the creed. When the law is read, the minister speaks as God’s spokesman. God is then speaking to His people. When the Apostolic Creed is read or recited, the congregation through the minister confesses her faith before the face of God. The congregation is speaking. The same is true when the congregation prays to God. It does so through the words of the minister who speaks on the behalf of God’s people. So it is the congregation speaking when the minister says, “Our help is in the name of the Lord . . . .”
To put it a bit differently, in this holy conversation which takes place between God and His people in the worship service, the minister plays a vital role, sometimes speaking in God’s name to the congregation, sometimes speaking on behalf of the congregation to God. It is really only in the singing that the congregation directly speaks to God without the agency of the minister—and then in the words of the Psalms of the church. For the rest, what the congregation says to God is either spoken silently in the heart of the believer as he responds in faith to what the minister says, or is spoken by the minister for him.
Yet at the same time it must be remembered that whether the believer speaks to God in the quiet depths of his own heart or whether he speaks to God through what the minister says, he speaks. That is, he speaks to his covenant God and expresses what lies within his own heart. The believer is always active in the worship service. There is not one moment when he sits passively and lets the worship roll over him as the waves of the sea roll over him when he sits in the water of the ocean. When the minister speaks in God’s name, he must be attentive and listen, for God is speaking to him. When the minister speaks on his behalf, he must express through the minister what lies within his own heart. He must be conscious of what the minister says and make that his very own speech to God. This takes concentration and effort, but it is essential to all worship.
Having said all this, we must now turn to the benedictions.
Throughout our discussion of the various elements which make up the worship service, we have always faced the question whether each element is specifically commanded by Scripture, or whether each element is a matter of liberty and therefore left to the discretion of the individual congregation under the direction of the elders. We face the same question in connection with the benedictions. Our answer to this question is that the benedictions are indeed commanded by Scripture and are not therefore to be excluded from the worship service. The Scriptural proof of this is to be found in both the Old and the New Testaments. There are instances already in the Old Testament of those who occupied special offices in the congregation of Israel blessing the people. In Numbers 6:22-27 we read, “And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying, On this wise ye shall bless the children of Israel, saying unto them, The Lord bless thee, and keep thee: The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace. And they shall put my name upon the children of Israel; and I will bless them.” It is striking in this passage that the Lord tells Moses that when Aaron and his sons pronounce this blessing upon the children of Israel, they are putting the Lords name upon the people; and by putting the Lord’s name upon the people, God is blessing them. Jacob as a patriarch blessed his sons before he died and in them the tribes which would come from them (Gen. 49). Moses pronounced a lengthy blessing upon the children of Israel as recorded in Deuteronomy 33. This blessing is introduced with the words, “And this is the blessing, wherewith Moses the man of God blessed the children of Israel before his death.” Solomon, significantly, did the same at the time of his great prayer when the temple was dedicated. We read in the first verses of II Chronicles 6, “Then said Solomon, The Lord hath said that he would dwell in the thick darkness. But I have built an house of habitation for thee, and a place for thy dwelling for ever. And the king turned his face, and blessed the whole congregation of Israel: and all the congregation of Israel stood.”
It is a well-known fact that the apostles often began and ended their letters to the churches with benedictions. We need not refer to specific texts; one can find them by consulting the different books in Scripture. It must be remembered that these letters, infallibly inspired, were God’s Word through the apostles of His church. That so many begin and end with benedictions, therefore, is clearly meant to lay down the rule for the church of all time that benedictions are a part of the worship service when the congregation comes together to worship God.
It would seem that the raising of the hands in pronouncing the benediction also has Scriptural warrant. We read in Leviticus 9:22, “And Aaron lifted up his hand toward the people, and blessed them . . . .” The Lord Jesus did the same when He blessed His disciples just prior to His ascension: “And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them” (Luke 24:50). Certainly this raising of the hands is symbolic of the fact that God’s blessing comes upon the people through the minister called by God to speak in His name. There is nothing magic, of course, in the raising of the hands. No blessing flows from the fingertips of the ministers. No supernatural power runs like electricity from the outstretched hands of the minister to the congregation—as seems to be the position of some Pentecostals during healing sessions. God is speaking His word of blessing upon His congregation through the man whom He appointed to speak in His name.
So also it must be remembered that this is an authoritative Word of God. When the minister pronounces the blessing, he is not blessing the congregation. Nor is it true that he is merely expressing a pious wish on behalf of the congregation, a desire to see spiritual blessings come to his sheep. He is not expressing his personal longing to see a multiplication of spiritual virtues come to the flock. He is emphatically speaking the Word of God. That benediction is an authoritative word. In God’s name, speaking on God’s behalf, in a way as official minister that makes God Himself speak, the minister pronounces the blessing.
It is well to be conscious of this during the worship service. We so often become so accustomed to the worship service that we are scarcely aware of what is going on. When the minister says, e.g., “Grace, mercy, and peace be multiplied unto you. . . , ” this is God’s Word of blessing. This is what the text we quoted above means when, in connection with the so-called Aaronitic blessing, God says, “And they (i.e., Aaron and his sons) shall put my name upon the children of Israel; and I will bless them.” When the minister “puts God’s name” on the congregation, God is blessing them. This blessing is a fact. And the congregation must hear God bless them and appropriate that blessing by faith. The congregation must say, “Jehovah our God is blessing us through Jesus Christ. We believe this and receive this blessing in humility and gratitude.”
Heyns in his book on liturgy makes a comment in this connection which strikes us as somewhat strange. He claims that the benedictions are God’s response to the congregation’s confession in the votum (at the beginning of the worship service), and God’s response to the whole worship of the congregation (at the end of the worship service). It is possible, I presume, to understand this properly and in the right sense if we always remember what we have insisted upon throughout these articles: All our speech is the fruit of God’s speech; and never is God’s speech the fruit or result of our speech. God speaks first, sovereignly and efficaciously; our speech follows as created in us by God Himself. But it is true that God, Who creates in us by His speech even what we say, responds to that by answering us. It is better to emphasize the fact that God blesses His people as He comes to them to take up fellowship with them in the worship service. And, as they leave God’s house, they leave with the blessing of God ringing in their ears.
We shall have to wait to discuss the content of the benedictions.