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The Benediction

Gregory E. Reynolds

There is confusion among us regarding the benediction—its nature and performance. It is either misunderstood as a prayer or improperly performed by using a doxology. I would, therefore, like to fire a liturgical shot across the bow of informality. Liturgical traditions tend to get it right. Although we Presbyterians are not usually referred to as liturgical, we have a strong liturgical tradition, that is, a way of ordering worship based on Scripture.

Most officers are aware that only a minister of the Word is to pronounce the benediction. But many do not recognize the difference among benedictions, doxologies, and prayers. Since we forbid the unordained to give the benediction, we ought to know precisely what we are forbidding, and especially its importance at the close of worship.

Admittedly a survey of the ways in which the Western church has offered blessing at the close of public worship would show some variety. However, I am concerned here to articulate a narrow definition of a benediction, which is the sense most often used in the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition, especially among English Puritans as expressed in the original Westminster Directory for the Publick Worship of God, as well as the OPC's present and proposed Directory for Public Worship: "The utterance of a blessing ... as pronounced by the officiating minister at the conclusion of divine worship."[1]

The reason that the benediction is to be pronounced by a minister of the Word is that a benediction is God's word of blessing upon his people, the church. The Final Proposed Revision of the Directory for Public Worship (FPR) describes the benediction as an essential aspect of the ministry of the Word.

By his Spirit working through the ministry of the Word, God addresses his people in the call to worship, in the salutation and benediction, in the reading and preaching of the Word, and in the sacraments. (I.C.1.a)

The salutation and the benediction are blessings pronounced in God's name and in his own words. Accordingly, they are properly used only in a gathering of Christ's church and by a minister of the Word. (II.A.5.a)

The FPR has this to say by way of definition.

A benediction is the pronouncement of God's blessing upon his people at the conclusion of the worship service. Words of benediction taken from Scripture are to be used. The high priestly benediction, "The LORD bless thee [you], and keep thee [you]: the LORD make His face shine upon thee [you], and be gracious unto thee [you]: the LORD lift up His countenance upon thee [you], and give thee [you] peace," (Numbers 6:24-26) or the Trinitarian apostolic benediction "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all" (2 Corinthians 13:14) are distinctly appropriate. If, however, the minister deems another benediction taken from Scripture more fitting for a particular occasion, he may use it. (II.A.5.c)

A classic example of mistaking a doxology for a benediction is found in the KJV of 1 Timothy 1:17, "Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen." Note the clear earth-to-heaven direction of this text. Similar is Jude 1:24-25:

Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

The trajectory of these words is not that of a benediction.

So, how may we determine what is and what is not a benediction? God's Blessing is not a prayer or a doxology. Here is how to distinguish. The word benediction, from its Latin origin, literally means a good word. It is God's good word of grace to his church. The movement of a benediction is from heaven to earth, whereas the movement of a doxology or a prayer is from earth to heaven. A doxology is the church's good word of praise to God. So, a prayer or a doxology is God's people speaking to God, whereas a benediction is God speaking blessing to his people. He must be the speaking subject addressing the church.

Several examples will illustrate the difference. The benediction in Numbers 6 reads, "The LORD bless you, and keep you." The benediction in Romans 15:33 reads, "May the God of peace be with you all." It is easy to see the heaven-to-earth direction of these words. Now let us look at a few examples of doxologies that are often mistaken for benedictions.

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen." (Rom. 16:25-27)

The phrases "Now to him" and "to the only wise God be glory" gives us the clue that this is a doxology. The church through the inspired apostle is addressing God. Ephesians 3:20 and Jude 24 have the same clue, "now to him." Hebrews 13:20-21 raises a question for me as to whether we are looking at a benediction or a prayer. The FPR (III.C.8), following the present DPW (IV.C.3), treats it as a benediction appropriate to closing the Lord's Supper.

Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

All modern translations (cf. ESV, NKJV, and NIV) treat it as a prayer by using the modal verb "may," as in the ESV "Now may the God of peace ..." The New Jerusalem Bible translates it, "I pray that the God of peace ..." The problem is that the text used by the present and the proposed DPWs is the KJV, which treats it as a benediction, omitting the modal verb. The problem is that the main verb connected with "may" in the translation is in the next verse (21). "Equip" (katartisai, καταρτίσαι) in the ESV or, "make you perfect," in the KJV is an active aorist optative. This Greek mood expresses a strong contingency. The particular form in verse 21 is a "voluntative optative," which is "expression of a wish,"[2] hence a prayer. According to Ernest de Witt Burton, author of Syntax of Moods and Tenses in New Testament Greek, of the 35 times this "optative of wishing" is used in the New Testament it "most frequently expresses prayer."[3] A benediction, on the other hand, is never contingent because it is given directly by God to his people. In their commentaries on Hebrews, Calvin and John Owen each refer to Hebrews 13:20-21 as a prayer.

Finally, I believe that the presence of what is clearly a benediction at the end of the letter in verse 25 "Grace be with all of you," is one indication that this text, located prior to verse 25 is a prayer. Most benedictions in the New Testament come at the end of letters. Other prayers that may be mistaken for benedictions, but are followed by what are clearly benedictions, at the very end of the letters, are found in 1 Thessalonians 5:23-28 and 2 Thessalonians 3:16-18.

Similar uses of the optative that give the appearance of benedictions, while in fact being prayers, are:

May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom. 15:5-6)

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Rom. 15:13)

Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. (1 Thess. 3:11-13)

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess. 5:23)

Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word. (2 Thess. 2:16-17)

May grace and peace be multiplied to you. (1 Pet. 1:2)

May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. (2 Pet. 1:2)

These latter two are examples of how the location of the text at the beginning, rather than the end, of the letter determines that this is not a benediction or a prayer, but rather an apostolic greeting or salutation. Both salutations and benedictions are God's word to his people, but the former begins worship, while the latter concludes it.

A benediction is performative. Forms communicate spiritual realities. The forms themselves are not distinct from the substance they impart. Performative language refers to speech as an act performing a specific function. The utterance itself is the act intended. When someone makes a promise or forgives, this is performative. When a minister during a wedding service says: "I declare you husband and wife," this is a performative statement. The FPR describes this performative power:

Public worship should be conducted in a manner that enables and expects God's people by faith actively to embrace the blessing of the Lord in the salutation and benediction. (I.C.2a)

Thus, it is appropriate for congregations to hold up their heads and for pastors to hold up their hands for the benediction. As Professor Edmund Clowney once told my class on worship, as he held up his right hand "Don't do this. You're not stopping a train." Then he held up both hands over the class, saying, "This is the way to bless God's people." Scripture does give instances of raised hands as the appropriate posture for prayer. But raised hands are clearly used in Scripture for corporate blessing. "Then Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them" (Lev. 9:22). Christ, before ascending, "lifted up his hands and blessed them" (Luke 24:50). Notice that in both of these instances not one but both hands are used.

When in doubt, opt for those Scriptures that are clearly benedictions. The best New Testament counterpart to the Numbers 6 benediction is found in 2 Corinthians 13:14.

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. (Num. 6:24-26)

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. (1 Cor. 16:23)

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Cor. 13:14)

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen. (Gal. 6:18)

Peace be to the brothers, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible. (Eph. 6:23-24)

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. (Phil. 4:23; Philemon 25)

Grace be with you. (Col. 4:18; 1 Tim. 6:21; 2 Tim. 4:22)

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. (1 Thess. 5:28)

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. (2 Thess. 3:18)

Grace be with you all. (Titus 3:15)

Grace be with all of you. (Heb. 13:25)

Peace be to all of you who are in Christ. (1 Pet. 5:14)

Peace be to you (3 John 15)

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen. (Rev. 22:21)

In a culture that is in love with informality such distinctions may fall on deaf ears even in our circles. But if we believe, as I think we do, that worship is where heaven meets earth, then we will want to get this right in order to be a blessing to our Lord's church.

Endnotes

[1] Oxford English Dictionary online, "benediction," definition 1.c.

[2] H. E. Dana and Juluis R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Toronto: Macmillan, 1957), 172-3.

[3] Ernest de Witt Burton, Syntax of Moods and Tenses in New Testament Greek (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1898), 79.

Ordained Servant February 2010.

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