One of my favorite things to do when leading a worship service is getting to pronounce the benediction over the congregation at the end of the service. A benediction is a divine blessing from Scripture pronounced by the minister in order to equip God's people as He sends them out into the world to live for Christ. The benediction is found throughout Scripture. Consider the following examples:
In the Old Testament, God charged Aaron and his sons to pronounce the divine blessing over the people of God:
"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).
This, of course, typified the divine blessing being prounced by the great High Priest, Jesus Christ, as He lifted up His hands when He ascended to heaven (Luke 24:50). How fitting that this was Christ's last act on earth. Jesus ascended to heaven as our great High Priest, in order to continue the work of redemption on our behalf in the presence of God. The efficacy of the priestly blessing pronounced on God’s people is utterly dependent on His nail-priced hands. Jesus' hands had to be pierced on the cross in order for Him to lift them over us in triumphant pronouncement and assurance.
The New Testament epistles are also full of apostolic benedictions. In his book, The Law of God, William S. Plummer categorizes the benedictions we find scattered throughout the New Testament. He wrote,
"Of the twenty-one epistles, five do not close with a benediction. These are the epistle of James, 2 Peter, 1 and 2 John and Jude. James nowhere has any form of blessing. In the opening of his second epistle, Peter has this form: "Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord." So, near the beginning of his second epistle, John says: "Grace be with you, mercy and peace from God the Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love.' So also Jude, at the beginning, says: 'Mercy unto you, and peace and love be multiplied.' So that there are but two epistles in the Bible entirely without some form of benediction. These are James and 1 John.
The shortest benediction in the Bible is that of 3 John: 'Peace be with you.'
In Colossians we have: 'Grace be with you. Amen.'
In Titus we have: 'Grace be with you all. Amen.'
In Peter we have: 'Peace be with you all that are in Christ Jesus. Amen.'
In 1 Timothy we have: 'The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.'
In Philemon we read: 'The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.'
In 2 Timothy it is: 'The Lord Jesus Christ be with thy spirit. Grace be with you. Amen.'
In Romans, Philippians, and 2 Thessalonians, it is: 'The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.'
In 1 Corinthians it is: 'The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.'
In 1 Thessalonians it is the same, with the addition of the amen. In Galatians the apostle says, 'Brethren, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.'
In Ephesians he says: 'Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. Amen.'
In Hebrews we have two forms of blessing in the last chapter. The last is the same as that in Titus. The other is exceedingly rich, and might be appropriately used with much greater frequency than it is:
'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.'
In 2 Corinthians we have what has often been called by way of pre-eminence, the apostolic benediction, though it is no more entitled to that designation than others. Yet it is rich and full:
'The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost be with you all. Amen.'
But the fullest form of benediction is that given by John in Rev. 1:4, 5:
'Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful Witness, and the First begotten from the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth.'
Besides these seventeen forms of blessing, we have in the beginning of ten of Paul's epistles this form of blessing:
'Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ."
And in each of his three pastoral epistles this form:
'Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.' Thus we have nineteen forms of benediction given us in the New Testament...
The last thing said in the Bible is a benediction: 'The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.'"
God intended for ministers to pronounce each of these benedictions over the people of God with his hands uplifted, symbolizing that the blessing was being pronounced by God Himself. The lifting up of the minsters hands is clearly taught in Scripture.*
But what about congregants holding out their hands to receive the benediction? The practice of congregants holding out their hands as a symbolic act as they receive the divine blessing in the benediction at the end of the worship service is common in many churches. But where did this practice originate? Is there biblical support for it? Should we teach our congregants to do so?
It is important for us to know why we do what we do in worship, and whether or not it is supported by Scripture. After all, we ought to bring into our worship something that is not clearly binding--whether by description or prescription--in God's word.
When Reformed theologians have spoken about what we are to do in worship, they have generally categorized them as falling into one of three categories: elements, forms, and circumstances. The elements are those things that God has commanded to be done in worship (e.g. the reading and preaching of Scripture, prayer, the observation of the sacraments, the singing of God's praises, confession of faith, giving, etc.). The forms are the postures in which the elements may be carried out (e.g. standing when the Scripture is read, kneeling for prayer, etc.). The forms may vary according to biblical examples and teaching; however, they may never be forced on the people. No minister can command God's people to bow while they pray. However, bowing is certainly an acceptable and biblical form of private and public prayer. Whenever forms are done in public worship in Scripture, they are carried out collectively. There is always a corporate nature to what is done in Lord's Day worship in Scripture. The circumstances are those adiaphora that assist in the performance of the elements and the forms without become an element of worship (e.g. a building, lights, musical accompaniment, etc.). Everything that we do in worship should fall into one of these three categories, without cutting across the authority of God's word regarding the elements of worship.
In light of that framework, I would suggest that the putting forth of the congregants hands in worship is a proper form of receiving the benediction from the minister. There is biblical precedent for congregants holding forth their hands when the benediction is pronounced. For instance, in Nehemiah 8:6, we read, "Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground." This seems to be a very clear example of the people responding to the ministerial blessing of God by collectively raising their hands and saying, "Amen!" Though in the context of the public prayers of the members of the church, Paul charged Timothy to instruct the congregation with the following words: "I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling" (1 Tim. 2:8). Here then is another example of collective hand raising in the context of corporate worship.
Although the examples cited above may not convince everyone of the appropriateness of stretching forth ones hands when the minister lifts up his hands to pronounce the benediction over the congregation, they should serve to help explain such a practice in churches that wish to bring their bodily posture into conformity to the biblical forms while in the public worship service.
* If you want to grow in your understanding of benedictions, Ligonier Ministries recently released a teaching series in which H.B. Charles exposits many of the benedictions found in the pages of Scripture.