Summary: Grace, peace, blessing, keeping. God desires wonderful things for His faithful people! Blessing is a term that gets misused a lot - this sermon explores what it really means.
Have you ever noticed how the apostle Paul opens every one of his letters by wishing his readers “grace and peace”? It is also present in both of Peter’s letters, one of John’s and Revelation.
When they said, “grace and peace” these Biblical writers were not merely using a polite form of words to start a letter. In fact, they are very special words. To wish someone “grace” and “peace” is to desire for them something wonderful – it is to pray that they will be as close as possible to the heart of God.
When they said, “grace and peace”, Peter, John and Paul were also carrying on a tradition that dated back almost 1500 years; a tradition that started during the time of Israel’s wilderness wanderings between the Exodus and entering the Promised Land. God used this time to prepare Israel for life as His people in His land. One of the important things He did was to establish the role and ministry of the priests, who were to offer the sacrifices and lead the people in worship.
And an important part of their ministry was to “bless” the people. In Numbers 6 we read of God’s instruction for the priests to say these words:
“The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.”
And it adds that in this way “they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them”. I’m not going into detail what "putting my name on them" means, but the essence is this. Pronouncing this blessing affirmed the people of their special relationship with God and of the special place they had in His world.
We learn from Leviticus that the priests were to say these words with their hands held up above their heads. This was to signify that the words weren’t just being uttered by the priests, but were coming from God Himself to the people. The priest was the mediator, not the initiator. When the people gathered for worship, the priest would offer the sacrifices to establish them in fellowship with God, then he would raise his arms and pronounce the blessing.
What did it mean to say, “The Lord bless you”?
- ask congregation for possible answers.
The Hebrew word literally means “on bended knee”. It describes a servant kneeling out of respect for his master or a lover kneeling to ask his beloved for her hand in marriage. There is a wonderful moment near the end of “The Return of the King” when the four hobbits are stunned that the newly crowned king of men, Aragorn, kneels to honour them. That is something like what this passage has in mind. In this blessing, God is offering to come to His people “on bended knee” – that is, to come to serve them, to love them, to share Himself with them.
The second part of the first phrase of the Aaronic blessing calls upon God to “keep” His people. What do you think “and keep you” might mean?
- ask congregation for possible answers.
The Hebrew word for “keep” is used to describe the way shepherds would use thorn bushes to build a protective enclosure for the sheep, to keep them safe from predators. “To keep” literally means “to build a hedge around”. Thus, the key idea is that of protection from harm, putting around you and your life a sort of fence to keep out enemies that would snatch away the blessings that God has given you, and to keep you from wandering off.
Are these not staggering thoughts? That YHWH, the supreme and almighty God, who dwells in eternity, the creator of and ruler over all things, would get down on one knee as a servant to sinful and rebellious people like us! That He would then take the trouble to build a protective hedge around us to keep us safe? Yet that is exactly what the Bible says he instructed the priests to call on Him to do.
Most people do not think of God like this. In fact, I believe that many Christians don’t think of God like this. Yet, even more than the people of Israel, we should be able to see that this is how God has revealed Himself. His coming “on bended knee” was most completely put into action in the incarnation of God the Son. Jesus in the manger is God on bended knee; Jesus eating with sinners is God coming on bended knee; Jesus living as one of us, then giving His life on the cross is God on bended knee. Jesus ascending to heaven and sending His Spirit as our Comforter is God at work keeping our us secure, for as Peter wrote, “we have an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade, kept in heaven for you.”