The Beginning and the End of Worship
Steven F. Miller
It is important to say hello and to say good-bye. Words of greeting and farewell are carefully chosen among friends and loved ones. It is no less the case that, when we enter God's presence for worship and then leave, those moments should be marked by appropriate and carefully chosen words.
When we meet publicly with God, he comes with his greeting and welcome. And then, after having worshiped him, we depart with his blessing and assurance that he will go with us. We, in turn, look up with faith to receive his blessing, dedicating ourselves to go with him. These are precious and comforting moments during our week.
Our present Directory for Worship reminds us:
From its beginning to its end a service of public worship should be characterized by that simplicity which is an evidence of sincerity and by that beauty and dignity which are a manifestation of holiness.
God has supplied us with simple, dignified, and beautiful language to use. He has placed these words in the mouth of his servant so that his people may simply and in an orderly fashion worship him with a distinct beginning and end to their worship, and then depart in his peace.
The Beginning: The Call to Worship
The call to worship begins the service. It is historically considered to be inseparably connected to the invocation. The Westminster Assembly's Directory for the Public Worship of God says, "The congregation being assembled, the minister, after solemn calling on them to the worshipping of the great name of God, is to begin with prayer." The invocation is the prayer at the beginning of the service, which opens the service by calling upon the Lord to be present to be worshiped and to save the worshipers. The connection of the call to worship to the invocation is this: the call is the greeting or statement of warrant that enables us to approach God all together to call upon him at the same time, in the same words, by the one appointed voice of the minister of the gospel.
The call to worship is an initial address that breaks the silence begun by the orderly gathering of the whole congregation, which is seated and waiting in a reverent, prayerful silence, in order to call upon the Lord together. The Presbyterian Directory for Worship that was in use when the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was formed, and goes back into the early 1800s, states:
Let the people be careful to assemble at the appointed time; that, being all present at the beginning, they may unite, with one heart, in all the parts of public worship: and let none unnecessarily depart, till after the blessing be pronounced.
Once the people have been called to attention by the call to worship, then all together, led by the one voice of the pastor, they invoke the presence, blessing, and saving work of God in the worship service. The Word of God the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christis about to be read, sung, and preached. Will it be for our salvation and the salvation of our children? The whole body assembled calls upon the Lord to bestow what he has promised to his people as they gather in worship, redeemed by the Lamb of God and approaching through their permanent high priest (their mediator and surety of the covenant).
The first edition of Trinity Hymnal had a section at the front to help the minister in the conduct of worship. It was entitled "Opening Sentences," to be used for the call to worship. It consisted mainly of Psalm quotations. In addition, the current Directory of the OPC indicates this to the minister:
It is proper that the minister at the beginning of the service extend a welcome in God's name to the congregation by the use of the apostolic salutation, "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." At the conclusion of the service the minister may pronounce in God's name either the high-priestly benediction, "The Lord bless thee, and keep thee: the Lord make his face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: the Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace," or the apostolic benediction, "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all."... The salutation and benediction, as pronounced in God's name, are properly used only by an ordained minister and in a gathering of Christ's church.
The End: The Pronouncement of God's Blessing
The benediction, or blessing, closes the service. The original blessing that was to be placed upon the people of God with uplifted hands was given to Aaron to pronounce after the sacrifice had been offered:
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, emphasis added)
This blessing indicated that God's wrath was appeased, sin was forgiven, the covenant was intact, he would go with them, and they could go in his peace. It was not simply a prayer, but also an announcement of grace bestowed. That is why it is called a blessing.
In the benediction, the minister of the gospel places the name of God on his people in blessing. It is not simply a prayer, or the way to end a final prayer. It is a distinct action, separate from the final prayer, in which the forgiveness of sins is declared, the continued favor of and acceptance by God is announced ("the grace principle"), and the "Immanuel principle" of the covenant is pronounced as still in effect: "I will be a God to you, and you will be my people."
This Immanuel principle is secured by the sacrifice and obedience of our Savior and is announced in the gospel to our faith. Therefore, it is fitting that it be pronounced at the end of a gospel service. It gives an assurance of the grace and pardon that belongs to the gospel received by a true and sincere faith in Jesus Christ. The people of God may receive this assurance as they look up to the minister announcing the blessing, and they receive it by faith, as if from the mouth of Jesus himself.
This means that the service closes with a ministerial pronouncement on behalf of God. God is the one speaking. The priest is not the minister, but first of all Jesus Christ who is our high priest. The minister is just a functionary, transmitting words that are themselves authorized and empowered by Christ. The words speak of God's bestowing of his grace and the benefits of the gospel.
The people act as their own priests, in the universal priesthood of the believer. When the blessing is pronounced upon them, the congregants are to be assured, both as an aggregate and as individuals, that God, in Christ, secured their salvation, and that by their faith in Christ they really possess those blessings that God promised to impart to them in their salvation. They, the members of the congregation, look up and by faith exercise their office of the priesthood of all believers in taking to themselves the promise, comfort, and assurance of those words.
Therefore, they may be confident that God goes with them. He assures them that as he was present in the service of worship, his continued saving, keeping, and sanctifying presence will be with them as they depart. They are his. His name is upon them. Not only in baptism has he once for all put his name on them, but in this continued expression of grace he makes this promise once again.
We are not our own, but we are his. We live in his blessing and keeping and delighting in us in our union with our Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord. He presents us with his favor, his preserving grace, the smile of his delight, and the warmth of his love. In that blessing, we go to the labors of the weekdays before us. We do not leave the presence of the Lord behind, nor cease to be numbered among his assembly.
And so, when we depart, we are to go with the assurance that Moses sought from the Lord. We seek to know that the Lord is with and among his church in a vital and saving communion. The final blessing is a word from God's throne that is anchored in the ever-living presence of the Mediator, who secures us there in the heavenlies. The blessing at the end of the service is an assurance from heaven that comes to us here and now that the life and blessing from the throne of grace in heaven is ours today in our daily labors.
Jesus, by the Spirit, comes with the Father and abides with us as we go from where we are gathered together in worship to depart and go out into the world where we serve in our individual callings, walking with God.
The author is pastor of Nashua OPC in Pulaski, Pa., and also teaches at Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He quotes the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2009.