As a minister of the gospel, I am often asked to pray at group meal times. Sometimes this request is phrased, “Pastor, would you bless the food?” From time to time, as the occasion permits, I respond in a jesting tone but with an instructive aim: “I have no power to bless the food, but I would be happy to request that blessing from the One who can.” Then I lead the group in prayer, thanking God for the food we are given and asking for His blessing on our meal.
I am sure that my hosts know I cannot bless the food. Their desire is simply for me to ask the Lord to bless the food, despite the wording of their request. Yet the words suggest that somehow there is power within me or my words to ensure that the eating of this food will benefit us. Such an assumption goes too far when it comes to food. However, things are quite different for benedictions in corporate worship.
Blessing as an act of God goes back to the creation of the world, when our Creator blessed the living creatures and our first parents so that they might be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:22, 28; 5:2). God also blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (2:3), that it might be for us as it was for Him: a day of rest and refreshment in the enjoyment of all that God has made and given to us (Ex. 20:8–11; 23:12; 31:12–17; Deut. 5:12–15).
God has also provided that blessing for His people be given through human agents, and Scripture gives numerous examples. Chief among these are the blessings given through the Lord’s appointed priests (Lev. 9:22; Deut. 10:8; 21:5). The best known of these is the special formula given to Aaron and his sons when Israel set out from Sinai to march into the wilderness:
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.” (Num. 6:22–27)
These words are familiar because they are a regular part of Christian worship in many places, often spoken at the close of worship services, weddings, funerals, and other special gatherings. But the very repetition that makes them so familiar, as well as their placement at the end of the service, can easily dull us to their significance and cause us to take them for granted or treat them with indifference. By the time they are pronounced, we might already have disengaged from the service, allowing our hearts and minds to begin focusing on things that will be happening later. We close our hymnbooks, pick up our belongings, and prepare to exit the sanctuary or meeting hall. Indeed, by this time in the service, some have already departed, thinking that the important things are now finished and that the benediction is just the spiritual-sounding conclusion.
Yet the words were spoken to Israel as powerful words of blessing. The formula is framed with statements of its purpose and effect: “Thus you shall bless the people of Israel. . . . So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them” (vv. 23, 27). This blessing, as James Philip has said, “is not the mere expression of pious hope” (Mastering the Old Testament: Numbers, p. 88). It is not a prayer offered by the priest on behalf of the people. It is not, therefore, a word to God from us, or from one of us on behalf of all. It is a word from God to His people, a royal proclamation spoken through His appointed representative, declaring that the Lord’s blessing is given.
The blessing of the Lord’s name then rests upon the people as they go from Sinai into the wilderness. Derek Kidner has appropriately commented, “The blessing of the people was no empty gesture but an effective transmission of power” (Leviticus, p. 116). If we had that view of the benediction, we would certainly not let our minds wander off while it was pronounced. It would be eagerly awaited, and we would receive it as rain falling on thirsty ground.
While the New Testament puts an end to the Aaronic priesthood, it continues the benediction. Our Savior gave such a blessing as He ascended into heaven (Luke 24:50–51). Nearly all the New Testament Epistles close with an Apostolic benediction. As ministers have succeeded the Apostles as the preachers of God’s Word, so they are appointed to proclaim God’s words of blessing. Like all spiritual blessings, they must be received by faith. They are not mechanical sources of blessing to unbelieving people. But when spoken to believers, the blessing empowers and sustains, refreshing faith and renewing hope, confirming God’s promises to us so that we can meet life’s challenges. Don’t leave church without it.