How should ordained pastors close a service of worship? Just dismiss the people with a hand signal? Have them join in the singing of a hymn? Pray over them a closing prayer? Give them a rousing exhortation to go out and be good witnesses for the Lord?
All four means have been used, but there is one better. It is to pronounce over them a “benediction.” In other words, bless them in the name of the Lord, and send them away with the guarantee that the Lord will go with them.
That’s what a benediction is. it is a “good word” pronounced over the Lord’s people in the Lord’s name. Numbers 6:22-27 introduces us to the great priestly benediction. God ordered Moses to instruct Aaron and his sons to use this blessing to dismiss a gathering of his people. The priest would raise his hands and say:
“The Lord bless you and keep you; / the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you; / the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”
In this blessing there is a reflection of the mystery of the Trinity. Note the threefold reference to “the Lord.” That is, as you go, the triune God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — will be with you.
God’s instructions to Moses for the priestly blessing make this clear. This benediction is more than a mere collection of empty words. The Lord adds that when it is pronounced, “So will I put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.” It is a promise of God’s favor.
Some pastors may feel that this is all too Old Testament and priestly. When rightly understood, the pastor’s ministry is both prophetic and priestly. Think of such priestly ministries as the pastoral prayer, the wedding ritual, the serving of the sacraments, or the graveside sentences. In these, pastors are carrying out the priestly aspect of their calling.
The blessing of God’s people at the close of a service of worship is one more wonderful privilege covered in pastors’ ordinations.
A benediction is important because a local congregation does not cease to exist when it disperses. A local church can be considered both a gathered and a scattered community. When it is together for worship, it is gathered. When its people disperse to their many locations, that church is scattered. In both cases it is still a church. Peter wrote an epistle to the church “scattered” abroad.
How appropriate it is, then, that before believers leave their place of assembly they are sent forth to take up their varied stations with a promise that God will also be with them in their many and sometimes isolated locations.
During this week of New Year’s here’s my benediction for you, my dear reader, as you depart the old year and enter the new in great hope:
May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. (Heb. 13: 20, 21)