Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: November 15, 2005, p. 85.
The Apostolic Blessing
Grace be to you and peace from God the Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ.
All of Paul’s letters begin with a blessing that he pronounces on the church or churches to which he writes. In fact, not only does every letter begin with a blessing, but in every letter the blessing is identical, even when Paul writes to an individual such as Timothy and Titus. However, the word “mercy” is added to these private letters: “Grace, mercy, and peace….” Paul’s letter to Philemon uses the same formula as the one used for the churches.
This blessing is sometimes called the “apostolic blessing,” and it is used, following the example of the apostle, in the worship services of many congregations. It is proper that this be so. The worship services ought to begin with the use of the apostolic blessing, although many times congregations fail to recognize the importance of this blessing.
The same blessing that is found in the epistles of Paul is also found, with some modification, in Peter’s two epistles, John’s second epistle, Jude’s epistle, and the book of Revelation. It is not found in Hebrews, or in I and III John. Given the fact that the apostles were divinely inspired and that they spoke authoritatively in the name of God, these blessings mean that God Himself pronounces His blessing upon His church. In every case in which this blessing is found, the meaning is: Jehovah God says to His church, “I give to you my grace, my mercy, my peace, because you are my church.”
When this apostolic blessing is pronounced in the worship services of the church of Christ throughout the new dispensation, the same truth concerning this blessing applies. The minister speaks in the name of God and on God’s behalf. So much is that true that the voice of God in Christ is heard in and through the voice of the preacher. God is saying to the congregation assembled: My grace and peace are on you.
That blessing is a profound wonder. So often the congregation, accustomed to the cadences of the liturgy, pays almost no attention to the blessing and simply hears it said. Or, if they are inclined to superstition in the worship, they might find some magical power in the formula or in the upraised arms of the minister—as if special power flows from his fingertips. But this is abominable worship. If the saints who are assembled together in the name of Christ worship from the heart, they must receive this Word of God, which comes to them through the benediction, by faith and appropriate it as their own. They must respond in their hearts to the benediction by saying: We receive as our very own God’s word of grace and mercy and peace. We believe that we are the objects of His grace and mercy and the recipients of His peace.
The word “mercy” in the benedictions in Paul’s private correspondence is omitted in his letters to churches. This is no essential omission, for mercy is included in grace.
Grace has especially two meanings in Scripture. Its first and primary meaning is “unmerited favor.” In this sense the apostle uses it in Romans 11:5, 6: “Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace. And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.” Grace is God’s favor. God looks with favor on His church and people. He smiles when He sees them. He is filled with delight when He contemplates them. He has pleasure in their company and fellowship.
Such favor as is implied in grace includes, quite obviously, love, mercy, longsuffering, and compassion. At the same time it is clear that such favor as God has towards His people can only be unmerited. It is the height of a towering pride that makes man think that he receives God’s favor because he deserves it. The favor of God is wholly unmerited. It is never of works, always undeserved.
The reason is obvious—as Paul himself makes clear in verse 4. We are, in ourselves, totally unworthy of God’s favor and deserve only His raging fury against us, for we are sinful, enemies of God, blasphemers, and despisers of all that is holy. God is a holy God, who cannot abide sin in any way, for to do so would foul His own infinite holiness. When He looks upon us in His favor, therefore, He looks upon us, not as we are in ourselves, but as we are in Christ! That is why grace is “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Second, grace, while remaining unmerited favor, is also the power that God exercises in saving us. Such a meaning is on the foreground inEphesians 2:8: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.” As the power that saves us fills us and makes us strong in salvation, grace is the power to walk as God’s people in the world. In fact, in a very striking passage, grace is defined by God Himself as the power that would enable Paul to continue his work as a missionary of the gospel in spite of the thorn in his flesh, which he thought had to be removed. God assured him, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (II Cor. 12:9).
Peace is an equally to be treasured gift of God.
Let it be emphasized first of all that peace is indeed a gift of God. No individual in the church can establish peace and import into the fellowship of the saints this treasured gift. Peace can come only from God because the opposites of peace (strife, envy, warfare, bickering, hatred, selfishness, and quarreling) are all integral and inescapable consequences of sin. Sin is opposition to God. Man is at war with God. He fights against God with every ounce of his strength. In his war with God, wicked man is proud and haughty, selfish and self-seeking, taking the attitude continuously, “Me first, and the devil take the hindmost.” To advance himself he will resort to every cruelty as he climbs the ladder of success on the rungs of the people whom he has betrayed, crushed, thrown aside, and brutally used for his own selfish purposes. And so life is characterized by war, and violence fills the whole earth. As long as man is a sinner, nation fights against nation, race against race, husband against wife, parents against children and children against parents, labor against management and citizens against their government. In spite of man’s loud boasts, there is no peace, saith the Lord, to the wicked (Is. 48:22).
But what is worse, God fights against man. After all, in all his raging against God, man can do God no harm. God is infinitely beyond the reach of puny man. But when God fights against man, it is terribly different, for God in His fury destroys man for his sin and finally drives him forever into hell.
Peace comes, therefore, only when sin is removed. And sin is removed through the cross of Christ: “And having made peace through the blood of his (Christ’s) cross, by him (Christ) to reconcile all things unto himself” (Col. 1:20). Thus peace is a gift of God to the church through the Lord Jesus Christ, given by means of the forgiveness and removal of sin. God says, in the benediction, “I bring you peace in the power of the sacrifice of my Son.”
How great a blessing is peace in the church: peace between saint and saint, between husband and wife, between parents and children, between officebearers and members, between ministers and sheep—all flowing as a river of peace from the peace between God and His people. A church torn by controversy, characterized by bickering and jealousy, constantly plagued by division and anger, is a church unable to perform the great task of manifesting in the world the cause of Christ. It is the laughingstock of neighbors and the object of ridicule and scorn by those who know what goes on among the members. But a church where peace is a living reality is a church in which there is joy and happiness, love and unity. No wonder we are called to strive earnestly for the unity of the Spirit (Eph. 4:1-3) and to pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Ps. 122:6-9).
When a church possesses God’s grace and peace, that church is blessed beyond description. When the minister pronounces this benediction of Paul in the worship services and the people of God appropriate that Word of God by faith, that congregation is blessed!
This official and spiritually efficacious blessing pronounced upon the church is “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
The same is true here as was true in verse 1: the apostle does not mean to define two sources of blessing independent of each other: God the Father and Jesus Christ. The point is rather that God is the Author and divine source of the blessings of grace and peace; but these blessings come to us and can come to us only because of Jesus Christ. He performed the great work of paying for our sins and guilt. He is now ascended on high as the Head of the church. He sends His Spirit into the church to make the church the heir of the blessings He merited for His people. God’s eternal Son, in our flesh, now glorified, is the One through whom the blessings of grace and peace come to us.
God is called, in the apostolic blessing, “Father.” He is the Father of Christ. He is the eternal Father within the Trinity, for the first person of the holy Trinity is the Father of the second person. That inter-trinitarian relationship is revealed in the relation between the triune God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The triune God is Christ’s Father. When Christ prayed to His Father, He prayed to the triune God, not to the first person, ignoring the third person. The triune God is the Father of Christ in the incarnation, for the Holy Spirit came upon Mary, the power of the Highest overshadowed her, and the holy thing born of her was the Son of God (Lu. 1:35). But Christ is also the Son of God through His resurrection from the dead. He is the Son of God through the resurrection because of His total abandonment in hell when He suffered for the sins of His people. He is “declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). Paul tells the people in Antioch of Pisidia, “God hath fulfilled the same (promise) unto us their children, in that he hath raised up Jesus again; as it is also written in the second psalm, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee” (Acts 13:33).
But God is also our Father, as Paul confidently affirms. God is our Father for Christ’s sake. He begets us and adopts us as His children. He cares for us in all the weary years of our pilgrimage. He leads us by His counsel. He prepares for us a house of many mansions. He brings us into the full enjoyment of His own covenant family.
What a marvelous thing it is when the apostolic benediction is pronounced in the worship at the beginning of the service. It was marvelous for the Galatians who heard this. Paul was angry with them and his anger comes out in his letter. They had it coming, for they were foolish and are following the wicked notions of some among them that would lead them away from God and into death. But they are God’s church. And in their sin and foolishness they are still God’s beloved upon whom He sends His grace. If now the controversy with the Judaizers has sowed dissension among them, God comes to His children with the blessings of grace and peace and assures them that they are His children for Christ’s sake. They must repent of their sins, put away the evil heresies that are contrary to the gospel, and receive this Word of God by faith. And believers, with heads bowed in humble joy at God’s goodness, ready to join in worship of praise to Him, receive this Word of God at the lips of their minister: “Grace to you and peace from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
This too must be in the consciousness of the people of God as they join in worship under God’s blessing.