Reflections and Blog

A Study in Salutations

On Sunday, Pastor Babij took us through the opening salutation or greeting portion of Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Considering the theologically significant language Paul uses in his greeting to the Colossians, I thought it would be interesting to compare briefly the other greetings we see in the New Testament letters to see what we might discover.

Greetings in Paul’s Letters

The apostle Paul wrote most of our New Testament epistles and had a characteristic way of opening and closing his letters. Paul would begin by identifying himself as an apostle and/or as a slave of Christ (Rom 1:1; 1 Cor 1:1; 2 Cor 1:1; Gal 1:1; Eph 1:1; Phil 1:1; Col 1:1; 1 Tim 1:1; 2 Tim 1:1; Titus 1:1), then note the particular “saints” who were recipients of the letter (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1; Eph 1:1; Phil 1:1; Col 1:2), and then give his formal greeting: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3; Eph 1:2; Phil 1:2; 1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:2; Philemon 1:3). Sometimes Paul included additional words and explanations, but this pattern in Paul’s letter openings is remarkably consistent.

The instances where Paul deviates from his pattern, though, are interesting. Paul does not specifically identify himself as an apostle or slave to Philemon and the Thessalonians, electing instead only to identify himself as a prisoner (Philemon 1:1) or simply “Paul” (1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:1). Paul does not use the term “saints” to address his recipients in Galatians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, or his letters to individuals (Timothy, Titus, Philemon). And Paul deviates in his formal greeting in only a few instances: to Timothy, Paul adds “mercy” to grace and peace (1 Tim 1:2; 2 Tim 1:2); to Titus, Paul refers to Christ Jesus “our Savior” instead of “Lord” (Titus 1:4); and in Colossians, Paul only says “Grace to you and peace from God our Father” (Col 1:2). The Colossian greeting’s deviation is perhaps the most surprising since one might expect that a letter concerned with restoring Christ to his proper place of supremacy in the minds of believers would mention Christ as a source of grace and peace alongside the Father, per Paul’s norm! But Paul apparently had a different approach in mind for Colossae.

The endings of Paul’s letters also have a pattern. Paul generally closes his epistles by passing on greetings to/from specific persons (Rom 16:3-16, 21-23; 1 Cor 16:19-20; 2 Cor 13:13; Phil 4:21-22; Col 4:10-15; 2 Tim 4:19-21; Titus 3:15; Philemon 1:23-24; but not Galatians, Ephesians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, or 1 Timothy), commanding the recipients to greet other believers in the Lord (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; Phil 4:21; 1 Thess 5:26; Titus 3:15; but not Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, or Philemon), and giving a formal, closing salutation that includes the phrase “grace be with you” (Eph 6:24; Col 4:18; 1 Tim 6:21; 2 Tim 4:22; Titus 3:15), especially the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 16:20; 1 Cor 16:23; 2 Cor 13:14; Gal 6:18; Phil 4:23; 1 Thess 5:28; 2 Thess 3:18; Philemon 1:25). Intriguingly, the “you” of “grace be with you” or “grace be with your spirit” in Paul’s closings is always plural in the original Greek, including for the personal epistles, suggesting that even these personal letters were meant to be read publicly for the whole church’s benefit.

Greetings in Other NT Letters

Was Paul the only NT writer to send salutations in the way outlined above? Well, when we look at the other NT letters, we find, on the one hand, that each writer had his own stylistic preferences, and, on the other hand, that there are many parallels to Paul’s general pattern.

Though not all the other NT letters feature introductory greetings (see Hebrews and 1 John), those that do usually introduce the writer as an apostle and/or a slave of Christ (James 1:1; 1 Pt 1:1; 2 Pt 1:1; Jude 1:1; and Rev 1:1). John uniquely refers to himself in 2 and 3 John as “the elder” (2 John 1:1, 3 John 1:1), which probably is a reference to John’s advanced age at the time of writing—and his being the only apostle still alive near the end of the first century.

Furthermore, we see formal greetings reminiscent of Paul’s “grace and peace” in several of the letters: “May grace and peace be yours in the fullest measure” (1 Pt 1:2); “Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord” (2 Pt 1:2); “Grace, mercy and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love” (2 Jn 1:3); and “May mercy and peace and love be multiplied to you” (Jude 1:2).

As for closing greetings, not all of the letters have a closing greeting at the end, but we again see several letters that pass on greetings (Heb 13:24; 1 Pt 5:13; 2 John 1:13; 3 John 1:15), command greetings (Heb 13:24; 1 Pt 5:14; 3 John 1:15), and then express a closing salutation similar to “grace be with you:” “Grace be with you all” (Heb 13:25), “Peace be to you all who are in Christ” (1 Pt 5:14), “Peace be to you” (3 John 1:15), and “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all” (Rev 22:21).

Some Suggested Application

While all this represents some fascinating data, is there any point to it? Is there anything we Christians can take away as practical help for us? I submit that studying the greetings of the NT should lead to our application in at least three areas:

  1. Recognize Your Need for God’s Grace and Peace. There is something instructive about all these greetings wishing for grace and peace on behalf of believers in all sorts of places and situations. What’s the lesson? That no matter what, all of us are in need of God’s grace and peace! As has been said, no success puts you beyond the need of God’s grace, and neither does any failure preclude your access to it.  As in the NT letters, from beginning to end, we need God’s grace and peace—not that we don’t already have enough or are running out, but that we need to experience afresh, grow in, and rely more upon the grace and peace of God we have already received abundantly in our Lord Jesus (Rom 5:17). So, practically speaking, how might you grow in appreciation of God’s grace and peace?
  2. Be a Giver of God’s Grace and Peace. If you are in need of God’s grace and peace, then certainly your brethren are, too. These greetings that we’ve looked at are, really, prayers that God’s grace and peace will be more realized in the lives of fellow believers. It is good and right, not only to pray for our brethren’s grace and peace in Christ, but to speak to them and serve them in a way that we might be agents of God’s grace and peace to them ourselves. After all, God has called us to steward the manifold grace of God that we have received (1 Pt 4:10). So how are you giving God’s grace to others in your speech and actions?
  3. Be Purposeful in Greeting Believers. Clearly, the NT writers put thought into how they would greet fellow saints, with most writers eschewing the normal Greek greeting of “Chaire!” (literally “Rejoice!”) or normal Hebrew greeting of “Shalom!” (literally “Peace!”) for something more meaningful. Even when the NT writers use the customary terms, the writers use them in a way that emphasizes the sincerity of the speaker and the actual theological reality of the terms (e.g. compare James 1:1 and 1:2). Consider also how many times the NT writers command believers to greet fellow believers, even with a “holy kiss” of love (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Thess 5:26; 1 Pt 5:14). Kissing generally means something different in modern American culture than in first century Hebrew/Greco-Roman culture, but the principle of our need to express genuine familial affection to one another in Christ persists. So how might you use even your greetings toward your brethren to manifest the grace and peace of God?