On Grace and Peace: Ephesians 1.2

In the previous post in this series on Ephesians, we looked at who we meet in the text: who the author is, and who the recipients are — and what the author has to say about both. Today, we’ll explore the second half of the greeting, which can be found in 1.2:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Just as we saw with the reference to the address as ‘saints’ and ‘faithful’ in 1.1, so too are blessings described here formulaic. This is the typical greeting in a Pauline letter. But again, that doesn’t make it any less meaningful. For what Paul does in these greetings is actually really interesting because he twists the normal greetings in both Greek and Hebrew and thereby turns them from generic ‘hellos’ and into prayers or blessings. Let’s take a minute to unpack this. The normal Greek greeting was a form of the verb khairein; it technically meant ‘Rejoice!’ but due to overuse, it really just means ‘hello’ in most contexts — just as in English, we say ‘Goodbye’ without thinking that the original greeting meant ‘God be with you!’ In order for it to have that original meaning, we’d need to do something to emphasize it and make it a bit unexpected. And that’s exactly what Paul does. He uses a play on words, not using khairein, but kharis, that all-important Christian theological word we translate as ‘grace’. The next concept, eirene, ‘peace’, was the Greek translation of the traditional Hebrew greeting, shalom. Because he’s already gotten the reader’s attention with the play on words at the start of the sentence, it seems clear that he intends this too to be a prayer or blessing rather than a simple greeting.

And what a wonderful blessing it is! Grace is probably the most important theological word in the New Testament. New Testament Scholar Klyne Snodgrass notes that “The basic connotation of the Greek word is whatever causes delight and rejoicing: beauty, kindness, charm, favor.”* In reference to God, it refers to God’s openness, generosity, and favour towards the world generally, and to the faithful in particular. The result of God’s grace in action is shalom, or true peace — not simply the absence of conflict, but the presence of whole, harmonious relationships.

This grace and peace is “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” While the idea of God’s fatherhood was certainly not absent from Judaism in the first century, it became a central part of the early Christians’ conception of God. This can be seen in Jesus’ teachings, such as the Lord’s Prayer, which begins “Our Father…” (Matthew 6.9), the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15.11ff), and Jesus’ referring to God as “my Father and your Father” (John 20.17). Eventually, this association of God with the title Father became enshrined in the Creeds, changing it from one title among many to formal dogma. In a similar way, from very early on, Jesus became associated with the title ‘Lord’, which means ‘master of the house’. These are very traditional titles that Christians use without thinking too much about. But feminist critics would remind us that these titles are most naturally in the Roman context all about power and domination. A Roman father had almost full legal control over his children through their adulthood — one famous story has a father putting his war-hero son to death because the son had disobeyed him telling him not to go to war. Likewise, the lord of a house or estate had power over everyone and everything within it. So even as we accept these titles, we would do well to consider what exactly they mean in a Christian context. As Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza notes, “This is necessary, as we are so used to seeing such domination-, male-centered language in Scripture that we tend to overlook the need to read these titles against their imperial/kyriarchal [i.e., ‘lordly’] grain.” (For some thoughts on feminine imagery in the Scriptures for God, see my post, “Symbols and the Divine Feminine.”)

The interesting thing is that, if we actually allow the New Testament to define ‘Father’ and ‘Lord’, we see that it does a lot of this work of conceptual deconstruction for us. For example, the image of ‘father’ that we get from the Lord’s Prayer is a person who feeds us, forgives us, and protects us from harm. The story of the Prodigal Son presents God as the kind of father who not only welcomes, but eagerly waits for and rushes out to greet a lost child, and who is generous with his wealth. Jesus also describes God as a father who gives good gifts and not curses to his children (Luke 11:11-13). In addition to this, there is the theological motif of adoption — of making and expanding family out of generosity and love — that we see throughout the New Testament (including in a few verses from now). Even from this very cursory sample, the New Testament describes fatherhood in terms of nurturing, protecting, welcoming, and making family.

Jesus similarly deconstructs the concept of ‘lordship’ for his disciples:

You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you, but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave, just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. (Matthew 20.25-28)

We might equally need to deconstruct the language of ‘slave’ here, but for our purposes, it seems clear that the image of being a ‘lord’ that Jesus offers us is far from one involving power trips and domination. Christians are not to “lord” authority over others, but to be humble and offer our lives as servants, following the very example of our Lord, Jesus.

Once again, this has been a pretty long post about just a few words. But, again, it’s helpful as we set the table for the rest of the book. In place of normal, thoughtless greetings, Paul offers a prayer and blessing for his readers that helps to clarify what exactly the holiness and faithfulness they are called to live into (see 1.1) look like: that they may be filled with the blessings of God’s openhearted generosity, which produce the true peace of harmonious relationships. These are from God, our loving, generous, and nurturing Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, whose lordship reveals true authority and power as service to others.

 

* See the series Bibliography for the series for details on all works cited.

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