As another year comes to a close, we are again faced with how we, as believers, should view the changing of the years. The Chinese may have started this practice with special dishes symbolic of good luck and prosperity along with fireworks to attract the attention of benevolent gods and to frighten away evil spirits. Today there is a celebration of the close of another year, and we welcome the prospect of a better year with noise, bubbly, and New Year resolutions. But what should believers wish each other for the New Year? Perhaps Paul’s words in his final farewell to the Corinthians might be applicable here.
“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 Corinthians 13:14
We need to look at Paul’s words within the context of the chapter’s warnings about his third visit to “not spare those who have sinned” (vv. 2-3) and encouragement of self-testing to “see whether or not you are in the faith” (vv. 5-6). And we cannot ignore his desire to “not have to be harsh in the use of authority—the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not tearing you down” (v. 10). The repetitious references to Paul’s visits to the Corinthians (12:14, 20, 21; 13:1) take on a certain tone of anxiety about a potential confrontation. This may be why his final instructions to the Corinthians are to “aim for perfection,” to “be of one mind,” “live in peace” (v. 11), and “greet one another with a holy kiss” (v. 12). We have to assume that the interpersonal issues among believers still weighed heavily on his mind. It is this concern for his next visit to Corinth that sets the context for this verse.
We can easily view Paul as a crusty guy who took no prisoners but with a soft side that did not threaten or compromise his hard side. We see how both sides are fully integrated and seamless in his self-disclosure of his struggles over the next visit to Corinth. This may explain why Paul is equally concerned about their congregation’s spiritual experience with each other as much as their doctrinal fidelity. It is this spiritual dynamic that was so much a part of Paul’s relationship to this churches and also the core of his wish for them in this verse. This is not simply a theological statement about what happens to the Corinthians when they accepted Christ. It was to be a shared experience that they first had with God and were to live out with each other in their daily lives. It was to become a spiritual lifestyle. In this sense, Paul uses the words “grace,” “love,” and “fellowship” as his parting wish for these congregations.
The Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ is the concept that dominates Paul’s understanding of the salvation event. Paul’s idea of grace begins with our theological foundation of sola gratia—they were saved by grace alone. It is established through Christ’s death on their behalf. But grace is not only the basis of justification. Paul uses it as the dynamic of what is inside them, both individually and corporately. It is also used in the sense of thanks and thankfulness as seen in his greetings and the closings of both Corinthian letters. God’s grace was sufficient for Paul’s weakness in 2 Corinthians 12:9 and also responsible for the generosity of the Macedonia churches or what Paul called the “grace of giving” in 2 Corinthians 8:1-7. Its goal is to produce every good work (2 Cor. 9:8). It’s the experiential and operational aspect of grace that transcends salvation and was to be a vital part of the Corinthian community’s daily experience. This was not a static theological construct or a repetitious benediction, but a dynamic, living reality that was to flow from their salvation into the very life of the Corinthian churches.
In Acts, the idea of grace appears to have been a significant early church custom of commissioning and then commending their members to the “grace of God” as they were sent on their missions (Acts 14:26; 15:40). It also shows up in this sense during solemn farewells when the elders of the church were commended “to the Lord and the word of his grace” (Acts 20:32). We have to conclude that believers regularly practiced placing one another under the grace of God as a form of commissioning and farewell.
The Love of God occupies the second part of Paul’s wish for the Corinthians. It is both the love that God shows to those who have accepted Christ as their Savior and the love that the Corinthian community demonstrated to each other. It is Christ’s love that compels Paul and the Corinthians to the ministry of reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 5:14, and it is greatest of the triad of faith, hope, and love in 1 Corinthians 13:13. Its operational characteristics are described in verses 4-7, and they are instructed to follow this way of love in 1 Corinthians 14:1. Love is superior to knowledge because it builds in 1 Corinthians 8:1-3. It is to be a living, interpersonal reality in the lives of Corinthian believers. Like Paul’s grace, the love they comprehend from God was to be practiced with each other in the Corinthian congregations.
The Fellowship of the Holy Spirit is the final part of this wish. We need to remember that the Holy Spirit is as much a Person, and His work is as important as the Father’s and the Son’s. Without the Spirit, we do not have the grace and love in the first part of this verse. In Romans 8:16 Paul makes it clear that our assurance comes from the objective reality that the Holy Spirit communicates to us that the believer is the child of God. But unlike the grace and love that comes to us as a gift through salvation, this fellowship appears to have been their responsibility and not a gift directly given by the Holy Spirit. Paul also uses this phrase in Philippians 2:1-2 with the same context of a plea for unity, If you have any encouragement of being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. This was to be an interpersonal fellowship between believers over our common experiences and goals such as life in the Spirit as spelled out in Romans 8. I think Paul is implying that outward fellowship in a congregation setting is not enough. This fellowship of the Holy Spirit must reach the functional level that was to be seen in the way they related to each other.
Paul’s concept of grace, love, and fellowship are not to be understood in a mechanical sense but rather as living, constant, flowing, moment-by-moment experiences with God and then with each other. Without this quality life, we miss an important reason for our defense of the faith. We defend it so we can experience and live it as God has instructed us in Word. As we close out one year and begin another, let’s wish for each other, as Paul did for the Corinthians, this quality of spiritual life for all of us in 2007.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
Dave Becklund is retired and lives in Littleton, Colorado, with his wife, Cindy, and 50 goldfish. He has been a youth pastor, a Greek and Psychology instructor, the founder of the American Wilderness Institute, and a member of the initial welfare delegations to China and Vietnam. For the past 25 years, he has been president of Benefit Management Systems that manages large corporate health and welfare benefit plans. This article is an adaptation from an unpublished series, The Streets of Corinth.