God be with you

Dan Petru / freeimages.com
Dan Petru / freeimages.com

I write many, many more emails now than actual letters. And though in a letter I would automatically sign off with “Sincerely,” I would never do that in an email. Not that it would be offensive — just oddly out-of-place. Instead, I usually sign off with the word “Peace.” That’s not just a substitute for “Sincerely” or “Yours truly.” I mean it as a blessing, a prayer for God’s shalom or wholeness in the life of the other.

We’ve come to the end of Second Corinthians, perhaps the most heartfelt of all Paul’s letters. He’s had to say some difficult things to people who have yet to demonstrate their full allegiance to Paul and the gospel. How will he end a letter like that? Here it is as rendered in the Common English Bible:

Finally, brothers and sisters, good-bye. Put things in order, respond to my encouragement, be in harmony with each other, and live in peace—and the God of love and peace will be with you. Say hello to each other with a holy kiss. All of God’s people say hello to you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Cor 13:11-13)

This is not, “Sincerely, Paul.” Even “good-bye” may mean more than it seems to on the surface. The NIV (rightly, I think) translates the word as the command, “Rejoice,” because that is the word’s literal meaning, though it had come to be used as a greeting meaning either “Hail!” or “Farewell!”

Thus, it’s possible that Paul only means “goodbye” at the beginning. But earlier, in verse 9, he wrote, “We are happy when we are weak but you are strong. We pray for this: that you will be made complete” (CEB). The words for “happy” and “made complete” in vs. 9 are echoed by different forms of the same words in vs. 11, where they are translated as “good-bye” and “put things in order.”

Moreover, “good-bye/rejoice!” heads up a string of five quick commands: “rejoice, be restored, be encouraged, think the same thing, be at peace,” which Paul follows with a reference to the “God of love and peace” (the only place in the Bible where God is described exactly this way). Thus, given Paul’s penchant for transforming the letter writing customs of his day, it makes more sense to me that even when he seems to be saying “Goodbye,” he means more.

He begins by reminding them of what should give both him and them a reason to rejoice: their restoration to wholeness. Then he tells them to respond to his “encouragement,” meaning everything he’s already written to them in the letter. He also tells them to “be in harmony,” or more literally, to think the same way. That doesn’t mean they all have to think the exact same thoughts, but that they would be of one mind, particularly when it comes to Paul and the gospel (cf. Phil 2:2).

And the consequence of all this is that they would live in peace. That doesn’t just mean living without conflict. It’s as if Paul were praying that in their life together, the Corinthians would begin to positively demonstrate the character of a God of love and peace.

Maybe it would be worth pondering on the fact that “goodbye” once meant “God be with you.” What would it be like to say that to each other as we part — and mean it?

We’ll look at the rest of Paul’s closing words in subsequent posts. Meanwhile, may the God of love and peace be with you.