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On Benedictions, and Christ’s Ascension and Session

April 29, 2020 1 comment

Lately I’ve been thinking about the ‘Benediction’, as the ending in a worship service — practiced at confessionally Reformed church services.  I’ve heard it mentioned on podcasts, and also now observed it at a local church which we recently started attending (in person for a few weeks, before covid-19 shut churches down; and since then observed in online services).  I’ve also viewed this practice in a few other online church services in recent weeks.  The pastor speaks the words of the Aaronic blessing (Numbers 6:24-26), with his hands lifted up high, with palms facing the congregation.

An essay book on Christology, David’s Son and David’s Lord  (a compilation from the 2018 Spring Theology Conference at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary), includes a helpful chapter on this very topic — relating the Aaronic blessing of the priest upon the people of God, to the Ascension of Christ, to Christ’s means of blessing His people today.  Aaron’s blessing was the pattern for Christ’s ascension.  The connection from Aaron, to Christ our great High priest, to Christ’s body His church, is built on the covenantal understanding of the unity of scripture in all its parts, understanding that what was practiced by the Old Testament high priest, for God’s people then, was a type of Christ’s ascension and priestly work, as well as something that applies to God’s people throughout all time including us today.

Describing the activity in Numbers 6:22-27 and Leviticus 9:22, Ryan Speck in the chapter “Rejoice! The Triumphant Lord Jesus,” observes:

the priest lifted his hand high but with his palm stretched out towards the congregation.  Why? The minister is reaching high (to call down from the exalted God a heavenly blessing) and reaching towards the people (to place the blessing upon the people).

Then, the same things happened in Acts 1, when Christ blessed His disciples—and was parted from them:

Like the high priest when he came forth from the temple on great feast days, He lifts up his hands and blesses His disciples as the eternal High Priest.  And so, with outstretched hands, while the disciples look up to Him with receptive and worshipful hearts (Acts 1:9), He is parted from them and He, who had from all eternity been with the Father in divine glory, had again entered the Invisible World, and had returned to Him, but now with a human though glorified and heavenly body.  (Ryan Speck, quoting Norval Geldenhuys)

Importantly, explained in a Matthew Henry quote:

While he was blessing them, he was parted from them; not as if he were taken away before he had said all he had to say, but to intimate that his being parted from them did not put an end to his blessing them, for the intercession which he went to heaven to make for all his is a continuation of the blessing.  He began to bless them on earth, but he went to heaven to go on with it.

Christ’s intercession for His people today includes blessings upon us, in three ways.  The first of these is through the ministers at local church – the ministers of the Word that God gave to His church.

As you may hear Christ, the Good Shepherd, speak to you in the preaching of His word, so too you may receive Christ’s blessing to you at the end of the service. …As Aaron blessed the people and God promised that He Himself would bless them, so too Jesus calls His ministers to bless His people with the implicit promise that He Himself from heaven will bless them.  Thus, Christ’s blessing continues through the means of His church.

Thomas Watson’s Body of Divinity, makes a similar point regarding the preacher as Christ’s ambassador, in question 31 on Effectual Calling (a recent reading, per the Westminster Daily calendar readings):

So, perhaps, you think it is only the minister that speaks to you in the word, but it is God himself who speaks. Therefore Christ is said to speak to us from heaven. Heb 12:25. How does he speak but by his ministers? as a king speaks by his ambassadors. Know, that in every sermon preached, God calls to you.

Christ also pleads with the Father, as our Advocate, to hear our prayers – the Old Testament incense type (here, I also note Revelation 8:4, which also makes this direct connection).  In addition, Christ intercedes for us with His own petitions.  Romans 8:26-27 is a good reference; Paul notes that the Spirit Himself intercedes for us, “according to the will of God.”  Ryan Speck here provides some interesting illustrations and descriptions, including an excerpt from John Bunyan’s Holy War:

When this petition was come to the palace of the King, who should it be delivered to but to the King’s Son? So he took it and read it, and because the contents of it pleased him well, he mended, and also in some things added to the petition himself. So, after he had made such amendments and additions as he thought convenient, with his own hand, he carried it in to the King; to whom, when he had with obeisance delivered it, he put on authority, and spake to it himself.

Or, in modern terms:

Have you ever, in frustration, screamed in your mind, ‘That’s not what I prayed for!’  Yet, perhaps, that irritating outcome resulted from Christ’s editorial work in your prayers, which means that unexpected and undesired answer is the best answer to your (edited) prayer.

Throughout this reading (the chapter on this topic), comes the amazing discovery / reminder, the reality hitting home in a real way, that whenever I pray, Christ is (really, actually) interceding and adding to the prayer, bringing it before the Father.  Such is a great point to remember, the great love and continual presence, and intercession on my/our behalf, of our great High Priest.