You can learn a lot about a culture from the way people begin and end their letters.
Written correspondence in the email age, for example, is brief and functional. We start as quickly as we can (maybe with a “Dear” or a “Hi,” but often with nothing at all), and conclude with dismissive brevity (“Yours,” “Regards,” “Best”). By contrast, when people had more time and letter-reading was a moment of intimacy to be enjoyed by candlelight, correspondents would use ornate, florid sign-offs: “I need not say how much I am your ever-faithful friend,” “I have the honor to be your obedient servant,” and so forth.
In many parts of the world today, it is normal to begin by asking about the well-being of the recipient’s whole family; in the individualistic West, that is much less common. Our greetings communicate more than we realize.
One of the most striking examples of this in history, and certainly the most theologically significant, is in Paul’s epistles. In the first-century Greco-Roman world, letters opened in a standard format. You would give your name, then the name or names of whomever you were addressing, and then a one-word greeting: “Hilarion, to his sister Alis, many greetings.” Several letters in the New Testament follow this pattern exactly (Acts 15:23; 23:26; James 1:1).
But Paul (and subsequently Peter) developed a modified introduction. After identifying himself and the church he was addressing, he would offer “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Paul was obsessed with grace, so it might come as little surprise that he starts all his letters with it. The addition of peace, the common Jewish greeting, expresses a desire for the congregation’s well-being and displays Paul’s conviction that we have been reconciled through Christ, both to God and to each other. The order may even be significant: It is first grace and then peace, and never the other way around. The theological change, whereby the greeting comes from God and Christ rather than Paul himself, reflects his God-centered vision of everything. So far, so Pauline.
But there is another layer to the “Grace and peace” introduction. It looks very much like a deliberate reworking of Aaron’s blessing in Numbers 6:24–26. For over a thousand years, Israel’s priests had blessed the people by asking that God would “make his face shine” upon them, “be gracious” to them, “turn his face” toward them, and give them “peace.” By starting all his letters with grace and peace from God and the Lord Jesus, Paul appears to be condensing and Christianizing the Aaronic blessing. God still wants to “bless” and “keep” his people, but now the blessing includes Gentile believers, and it comes from God the Son as well as God the Father.
In some ways, Paul’s method of closing his letters demonstrates an even more pointed change. The ancient norm was well established: Vale in Latin and errōso in Greek both mean “farewell.” Like our English equivalent, these words communicated a desire for physical health and strength in the recipient. There is nothing wrong with that, of course; the apostle James does it too (Acts 15:29). But however subtly, the language emphasizes human rather than divine agency, our choices as opposed to God’s.
Paul changes the emphasis. He moves from valediction to benediction, from “Farewell” to “Grace be with you,” or some equivalent. Each of his 13 letters mentions grace in both the opening and closing greetings—and this in a world where introductions and conclusions were far more standardized than they are today. The most famous example comes in Trinitarian form: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:14). For Paul, even the most innocuous parts of a letter are opportunities to teach, bless, and worship.
Preachers often point out that a chasm of difference exists between the last words of the Buddha before he died (“Strive without ceasing”) and the last words of Jesus before he died (“It is finished”). We could say something similar about Paul’s letters and those of his contemporaries. There is a vast difference between “Farewell” and “Grace be with you.” From start to finish, hello to goodbye, we are a people of grace.
Andrew Wilson is teaching pastor at King’s Church London and the author of Remaking the World.
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