Introduction: The Gesture Jitters
The benediction is the capstone of covenant renewal worship. A benediction—from the Latin words bene and dicere, meaning “good word”—is merely an “utterance of blessing.” It is the final pronouncement of blessing that we are given before returning to our work in God’s world. However, there is much confusion in the Church today about the nature and purpose of the benediction. Indeed, we are often tempted to think about it merely as a glorified goodbye, a pious “peace out.” Further, the entire hand-opening drama of the benediction can feel strange. We typically associate such behavior with the emotionally driven culture of worship in the broader Evangelical or Pentecostal wings of the Church. As such, we are right to be leery. What, then, is the benediction, and why do we do it with outstretched hands?
In order to get to the specifics of the benediction, we must remember three more general things about worship: first, God is enthroned on the praises of His people (Ps. 22:3). Though it has been said many times around TRC, it is worth repeating that during the in-person worship of God’s people on Sunday morning, our King meets with us in a particular and special way that He does not on other days of the week. His presence is always with us; but when we gather as the covenant community to renew and reinforce our covenant with the Lord, certain promises—or rather, a certain promise—is given to us—namely, that God will be there (Gen. 3:8; 4:16; Exod. 33:14-15; Deut. 4:37; Deut. 12:7, 18; 14:23, 26; 15:20; Judges 18:6; 2 Kings 13:23; 17:18-23; Ezek. 48:35; Matt. 18:20; 1 Cor. 5:4; 11:18ff; Heb. 12:18-24; Rev. 4-5).
Second, God serves us on Sundays (Ps. 50). Though this statement may chafe against our self-determining sensibilities, it is nevertheless true that we gather not primarily to give but to receive from God. Jonathan Edwards somewhere says that the only thing we contribute to our salvation is the sin that made it necessary; the same may be said of worship. All we bring with us on Sunday morning is the dull-heartedness that makes being called into worship necessary, the transgression that makes confession necessary, the needs that make the prayers necessary, the uncleanness that makes baptism necessary, and the hunger that makes the Supper necessary. We cannot offer anything to God that He has not given us first, including our love, our time, our money, and our worship. But the good news is that God is the eternal giver, the Father who delights to give us all things in Christ (Rom. 8:32; 1 Cor. 3:21; 1 Peter 1:3). Week-in and week-out, we gather not to serve but to be served, offering only the fruit of our lips, the words of thanksgiving, as the sacrifice of praise (Heb. 13:15; Eph. 5:20; Col. 1:12).
Third, God made us with bodies (Ps. 8). We must resist the perennial trap to gnosticize the faith, making it seem as if the body is useless and evil while only the spirit is useful and good. This heresy is directly repudiated by Scripture (Cf. 1 John 1:1-5; John 1:1-14; Luke 24:39; Col. 1:19; Philip. 2:5-8), and it was the bane of the Church’s earliest apologists. Even if we claim to repudiate this ancient heresy, we can still (ironically) embody this tendency to dis-embody our faith by denying that what we do with our bodies directly affects our soul. We are, however, integrated selves—bodies and souls inseparably and reciprocally dependent on each other. TRC’s anti-gnostic theology is most evident not merely when we confess in the words of Nicaea that God is the Creator of all that is visible and invisible, that the Son of God took on flesh, or that baptism grants the remission of sins but when we join ourselves publicly to church membership, kneel for confession, and stand for God’s Word.
With these three crucial things in mind, we can move on to note that the benediction is merely the extension and consummation of these ideas. In the benediction, we are blessed by God as His final word to us before going back out into His world as His ambassadors. We see as much when we turn to Scripture.
To the Text
First, we can see the importance of the benediction pattern in the covenant-making and covenant-renewing passages throughout Scripture. After God creates the world and places Adam and Eve in the Eden, He consummates His creation by blessing humanity before commissioning them and taking His rest (Gen. 1:28). When God re-creates the world in the days of Noah, the pattern of benediction and commission is repeated on Mount Ararat (Gen. 9:1). God pronounces a three-fold benediction while making his covenant with Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3). Under the Mosaic covenant, the sacrificial offerings ended with a benediction, often referred to as the Aaronic blessing, which Aaron would perform in front of the Tabernacle (Lev. 9:22-24; Num. 6:22-27). When David desires to bless God with a house of Cedar to dwell in on Mount Zion, God flips the script and pronounces an eternally secure blessing over David and his offspring (1 Sam. 7). Later, Solomon blesses the Lord of Heaven and Earth and His people Israel for keeping steadfast love—covenant love—to David his father, and all of Israel’s generations from Abraham onward (1 Kings 8:12-66). After sealing the New Covenant in His blood, the Lord Christ pronounces a benediction over his apostles immediately before His ascension (Luke 24:50). From beginning to end, God has been on a mission to bless humanity. This mission is, of course, fulfilled in the Church, the new humanity in Christ. In Jesus Christ, we are graciously blessed (Gal. 3:9; Eph. 1:3-6; Rev. 20:6). To be in Christ is to live and move and have your being in eternal benediction.
Second, in each of these benedictions and other general pronunciations of blessing, the physical sign that attends and communicates the Spirit-wrought blessings in each of these scenes is always lifted hands. Aaron, at the door of the tent of meeting, lifts his hands to bless the congregation of Israel, newly married to Yahweh her Warrior-King (Lev. 9:22). After Ezra reads the Law before the people in their covenant renewal, everyone raises their hands during the blessing (Neh. 8:6). And our Lord’s final word and deed on earth, in fulfillment of these other passages, raised his hands to bless his disciples before his ascension (Luke 24:50). This sets a precedent for us—namely, that the pronouncement of a benediction and the raising of hands are correlative events. In each case, a covenant is confirmed with the uplifted hands of blessing. In Scripture, lifting hands and pronouncing a blessing, even when not mentioned together are synechdochically related—where one is present, the other is implied. We should not expect to have an apostolic footnote with hand-raising instructions every time an epistle ends with, “Now may the God of peace . . .” Indeed, the posture of lifted hands is the biblically assumed position of blessing.
Thus, when we hear the benediction, we are not to think of an elevated farewell, and we are not to raise our palms to say, “This feels right.” This over-sentimentalizes and over-personalizes this moment of objective offer-and-response of the good favor of the Father. Rather, we are to lift out hands to accept the blessing of the Father that is grounded in the work of the Son and made presently potent in the Spirit through the person of the minister. The benediction and its attendant hand-raising gesture is a thoroughly biblical practice, and it is the natural flow of the covenant renewal service as presented throughout redemptive history.
Gage Crowder teaches literature and Bible at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. In addition to his studies at Birmingham Theological Seminary, he is a contributing member of the Huntsville Literary Association and the Academy of Philosophy and Letters. His poetry and prose can be found in the The Legend, Poem Magazine, the Birmingham Arts Journal, Panoply and elsewhere.
Here are some of our other articles about Covenant Renewal Worship
See “Benediction” in the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., 20 vols. (Oxford, ENG: Clarendon Press), 2:109.
“Let us know and be fully persuaded, that wherever the faithful, who worship him purely and in due form, according to the appointment of his word, are assembled together to engage in the solemn acts of religious worship, he is graciously present, and presides in the midst of them.” John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1979), 122.