The apostle Paul ends his letter to the Philippians in the same way he ends all of his epistles, with a benediction: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (4.23). We hear similar words at the end of a worship service when the minister raises his hands and pronounces a benediction upon God’s people. But what is the benediction, exactly? What is the point of this practice? Why does the minister lift up his hands? And what are we supposed to do during the benediction? Should I bow my head or look up? Perhaps you have wondered about these very things. If so, you are not alone. While the benediction is an ancient practice in Christian worship and found at the end of every Pauline epistle, many Christians are unclear on its meaning and treat it as little more than a pious way of ending a worship service. It is important, however, that we gain an understanding of the benediction. The benediction is God’s Word to us, both in Scripture and during the weekly public assembly. Each week, God pronounces his benediction upon us, telling us that his promise, and not our experience, gets the final word to all who are in Christ.
In order to understand the benediction more clearly, let's consider its content, source, and object.
I. The Content of the Blessing
The content of the benediction is God’s grace. That is why we call it a “benediction.” Benediction is a word that simply means blessing. It is a compound word from Latin: bene, which means ‘good,’ and dicere, which means ‘to speak.’ From that comes the Latin word benedictio, which means “blessing.” A benediction is a pronouncement of God’s blessing upon his people. And that is what Paul does at the end of his epistles. He pronounces God’s blessing upon the members of the churches at Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, etc. Usually he says, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” Some times he states it more fully, as at the end of 2 Corinthians where he says those beautiful and familiar words, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” Other times he says it more succinctly, as at the end of his letter to the Colossians and his first letter to Timothy, where he simply says, “Grace be with you.”
But what he says in every one of his benedictions is “grace.” That is the content of the blessing that he pronounces: God’s grace. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (Phil 4.23). The blessing that he pronounces upon them is God’s grace.
This was also true of the benedictions in the old covenant. In the book of Numbers the Lord commanded Moses to tell Aaron, the high priest, to bless the people with these words: “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). That was the benediction throughout the old covenant, a benediction of God’s grace, his blessing of favor and peace upon his people. Now in the new covenant, Paul says, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (Phil 4.23).
Not a Prayer, But a Pronouncement It is also important for us to understand that a benediction is not a prayer. Paul is not praying in this verse that God will give his grace to the church at Philippi. Rather, he is pronouncing God’s blessing of grace upon them. There is a big difference between a prayer and a pronouncement. They are in totally opposite directions. A prayer is a request from us to God. A pronouncement, on the other hand, is a declaration, a statement. And in the benediction, it is from God to us. The same is true of the benediction at the end of a worship service. It is not a prayer from us to God. The minister is not praying and asking God to give his grace to his people. Rather, he is pronouncing, declaring, stating, God’s blessing upon them. It is speech from God to us, not from us to God.
In fact, this is one of the reasons why it is appropriate to look up at the minister as he lifts his hands and pronounces this blessing. It is not wrong to bow the head or close our eyes during the benediction, so long as we understand that it is not a prayer. It is a pronouncement of God’s blessing upon us, much like the absolution, the declaration of pardon after the confession of sins. God is declaring his blessing upon all who receive it in faith.
Not All Words are Meaningless This declaration is not a collection of meaningless words. It is common in our day of cynicism and letdown to think that words are empty and meaningless. We hear slick words in advertisements designed to market a product and get us to part with our money. We hear vague words from political candidates that promise far more than they are capable of delivering. We hear incoherent words from people in a culture where it seems as though everyone is talking and no one is listening. But not all words are meaningless and empty. Think of all the words we may hear in our lifetimes that change our lives forever: “You got the job.” “The cancer is in remission.” “We the jury find you not guilty.” Words most certainly do matter. There are many cases in life in which the very words we hear actually bring about the action they describe: “I pronounce you husband and wife.”
That is what happens in the sermon on the Lord’s Day: God’s Word delivers what it declares. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ,” as Paul says in Romans 10. And that is also what happens in the benediction. The blessing of God’s grace is pronounced. Paul does not say, “I pray that God will give his grace to you.” Rather, he says, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” The blessing which he pronounces is the blessing that God gives us: his grace.
Do you realize that every time you receive the benediction, you are receiving the blessing of God’s grace? Do you realize that God himself is declaring that he gives you – not that he might give you or that someday he will give you, but that right now he gives you – the very thing you need for the journey: his grace? How else can we live the Christian life but by his grace? How else will we do all the things that God calls us to in this epistle but by his grace? How will we rejoice in the Lord in all circumstances (4.4)? How can we do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than ourselves (2.3)? How can we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (2.12-13)? How can we do all things without grumbling (2.14)? How will we press on toward the goal of becoming like Christ (3.13-15)? How will we learn to be content both in times of plenty and times of lack (4.11-13)? Only by the grace of God.
God’s grace is for the weak. God’s grace is for us to endure trials. It is not an escape from trials, but the necessary means to go through them. His grace is the supply we need to be like Christ and bear the fruit of the Spirit. You are already equipped with everything you need to live the Christian life and be conformed to Christ. And every Lord’s Day, the Holy Spirit brings grace to you, working in your heart through his means of grace. The benediction is part of those means. It is his Word that says to you, “My child, I give my grace to you. You can do all things through him who strengthens you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”
II. The Source of the Blessing
The content of the blessing is his grace. The source of that blessing is in the next few words: “the Lord Jesus Christ.” The blessing that God gives us ultimately comes from and through Christ. While it the Holy Spirit who conveys this blessing and carries it into our hearts, it is Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, from whom and through whom this blessing comes. The blessing of God’s grace to us is based entirely upon him and his merits.
Our entire salvation depends on God’s sovereign favor toward us in Jesus Christ Apart from his person and work, there is no grace of God. Apart from what Christ accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection, there is no blessing of God’s grace and favor upon anyone. To be sure, there is what we call “common grace” for everyone, that is, God’s providential kindness that he showers upon the whole earth and all people. He makes the sun to rise on the evil and the good alike, and send rain on the just and the unjust. All people experience God’s goodness and kindness generally simply by being alive and breathing the air and enjoying the common blessings of food, drink, laughter, and sunshine.
But God’s redemptive grace and favor toward sinners can only be known and given through Jesus Christ. There is no other way to be blessed by God with any sort of redemptive blessing other than through Christ, for Christ alone is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one can come to the Father except through him. As Peter said, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4.12). God’s blessings of grace, both for our justification and sanctification, only comes through Jesus Christ.
The Change in Name The old covenant benediction was in the name of YHWH: “The LORD [YHWH] bless you and keep you; the LORD [YHWH] make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the LORD [YHWH] lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace” (Num 6.24-26). The Lord told Moses that the benediction placed the name of the Lord upon the people.
But now in the new covenant, the name of YHWH gives way to that name above every name, the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, YHWH Incarnate! It is into this name that the Christian is baptized, and it is in his name that the Christian is blessed. It is through Christ that God’s blessing has come to us as Gentiles, for in him we have been made Abraham’s offspring, “heirs according to promise” (Gal 3.29). He is the source of the blessing.
Lifted Hands Perhaps nowhere in Scripture is that made more obvious than at the end of Luke’s Gospel where we read of Jesus leading his disciples out as far as Bethany, “and lifting up his hands,” which was the same posture of the priests in the old covenant, “he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.” Here we have a clear picture of Christ as our faithful high priest and his fulfillment of the entire Levitical priesthood. We don’t know what words he used in that benediction, but we do know the words that he uses through his apostles: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.”
Our great high priest continues to bless us from heaven. He officially and actually pronounces that blessing every time he summons his people together in worship. He sends an ambassador to raise his hands at the end of a service and declare this blessing. This is why only a duly ordained minister in a true church should give a benediction. It’s not that he has some sort of magical powers to dispense God’s blessing, but that he is Christ’s appointed and ordained representative to declare the Word of God. A minister has been given both the authority and responsibility to lift his hands and pronounce the blessing of Christ upon the people of Christ. The minister is not the source; Christ is. And yet, Christ uses human means by the power of the Holy Spirit to bring that blessing to his people. This has been the practice in the church since the days of the apostles, and it continued during the early church, medieval era, Protestant Reformation, and into the present day.
III. The Object of the Blessing
The content of the blessing is “grace.” The source of the blessing is “the Lord Jesus Christ.” Finally, the object of the blessing is found in the last words Paul writes: “be with your spirit.”
It is interesting that Paul couples a singular noun (spirit) with a plural pronoun (your, plural): your spirit rather than “your spirits.” The pronounced blessing seems to be connected to 1.27: “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel.” Such unity was certainly Paul’s prayer. Its only possible origin is in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. That was true for the Philippians in the first century, and it is no less true for us today.
This is God’s final word to us in the covenant assembly of worship: those who belong to him are not under his judgment, but under his grace. They are not objects of his wrath, but the objects of his love. The benediction is his holy announcement that we are sealed with his name and our whole life is covered by his grace. How we need to hear this each week! We live in a world where things are uncertain. Our future is uncertain. None of us knows what will happen to us tomorrow or next week or next year. Any number of tragedies can befall us at any given time. But whatever may happen in your life, whatever may be your set of circumstances, know this: the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ will be with you. It will be sufficient for you. It will hold you, sustain you, and even enable you to rejoice in tribulation. It will strengthen you, establish you, keep you, and cause you to persevere to the end. It will see you through and cause you to attain the resurrection from the dead. This is God’s Word to you in the benediction! The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.