Blessing, protection, grace, peace, seeing the shining face of God and living in his favor—this is God’s blessing to those who come to meet with Him. It expresses all that we’re meant to experience in worship and all that we’re meant to carry with us as we walk out of the sanctuary and into the world.
God crafted this blessing to be prayed over the people of Israel every time they gathered for worship. This priestly blessing wasn’t reserved for special occasions but was integrated into the daily experience of God’s people. From the moment that Aaron and his tribe, the Levites, were appointed priests up until the first century when Jesus would have come to the Temple to pray, this blessing was an essential thread in the fabric of Israel’s worship. Even though the blessing was incorporated into what we might identify as formal liturgy, it isn’t a formality. God doesn’t author formalities—he authors life. And there is life in this blessing if we receive it.
The blessing is composed of three perfectly balanced phrases that encapsulate the rich goodness of all it means to live each day in the presence of the Lord:
The Lord bless you and keep you
The Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you
The Lord lift up his countenance and give you peace
YHWH, YHWH, YHWH—all three of the phrases of the blessing begin with the name of God so holy that orthodox Jews still don’t pronounce it out of reverence. We are meant to feel the repetition of the name. The repetition has a way of emphasizing the Lord, alone, is the source of blessing—He alone is the giver of these particular gifts.
This blessing is fundamentally relational. The content of the blessing encapsulates God’s desire for those in relationship with him. To ensure that we don’t miss this vital point, the blessing concludes with the clarifying statement: “So shall they [the priests] put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” God, alone, is the one who extends blessing to his people and when He blesses them, they bear His name. Naming is an intimate, powerful act because it is about bestowing identity. Those who are named with God are part of His family and should bear a family resemblance. Above all, they should reflect his character. In this blessing, they become mirrors of His shine.
The Law given at Sinai delineated one tribe—the Levites—to serve as priests with the authority to bless. And those men were obliged to submit to a complicated system of ritual cleansing and purification rites to approach the holy place suffused with God’s presence. But Christ’s ministry, death, and resurrection established a new covenant that obliterated the biological requirement for membership in the priesthood. Peter tells us that as we come to Christ in faith, “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5).
Anyone who comes to Christ is invited into the priesthood. In Christ the spiritual DNA necessary to serve as a priest is inscribed into our hearts. Peter tells us that anyone born of the Spirit is called to offer spiritual sacrifices. The rite of blessing once given to the Levites alone, is now given to all who are in Christ. Within the old covenant the priests mediated God’s blessing to the people, but as children of a new covenant established by God in Christ we are called to mediate God’s goodness and grace—his shine—to one another. Anyone in Christ can bless, because in Christ we have been fashioned into a royal priesthood. Everyone who has experienced God’s shine in the face of Christ is called to reflect that shine into the world.