Grace to You and Peace: Paul’s Prayers, Jesus’s Instructions & Your Enemies

the words grace and peace on a light background

I love the New Testament letters. From Paul’s discourse on adoption in Romans to his discussions of love and resurrection in 1 Corinthians; from his powerful defense of gentile Christians and Christ’s finished work in Galatians to his wonderful demand that the Ephesians live as children of the light—I love the theological richness found in this important scriptural genre. I love the finely crafted arguments that have formed so much of the church’s doctrine. I love the places where Paul, ever the preacher, gets caught up in his own line of thought and just leaves a fragment of miraculous awe for us to look at with him. I love the window the letters provide into the lives of the very first Christians and the structure of the earliest church. The letters add meat to the milk of our faith.

But recently, it hasn’t been the profound discourses in the bodies of these letters that have jumped out at me. It’s been the often skimmed and skipped, easily overlooked greetings at the beginnings that have spoken to me deeply and strongly:

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

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

Letter after letter addresses its audience with that formula or something very similar. Paul always wished the grace and peace of God through Jesus on his hearers, sometimes adding mercy to the list—and to the Galatians adding a doxology to drive the point home. Peter, John, and Jude similarly open with blessings of grace, peace, and sometimes mercy.

In other words, when the leaders of the early church greeted Christians with encouragement, exhortation, and instruction, their message flowed from a desire that the congregations they spoke to would experience God’s grace by which we are saved, God’s peace which passes understanding, and God’s mercy which spares us from wrath.

Paul’s aspirations

However, these letters weren’t written to places where grace, peace, and mercy were obviously in the ascendancy. The vigor of Paul’s writing in Romans suggests precisely that the gospel was not clear in the center of his known political world.

The factious Corinthians turned a blind eye to sins in their midst, yet were proud enough to judge anyone and everyone, including Paul himself. Those foolish Galatians, bewitched as they were with a false gospel, had fallen away from gospel teachings Paul thought crystal-clear. Paul’s calls to friendship and walking in light in his letter to the Ephesians suggest that he was confronting discord and darkness.

John’s letters, likewise, are full of warnings of antichrists coming out from among the faithful. Read 1 Corinthians with an eye open for the communion of the saints in Corinth, and see if you don’t get a deeper appreciation for where Paul got the idea of hoping in patience for things not seen. In short, the communion the writers wanted for their readers was much more aspirational than factual.

But what a glorious aspiration! As I write this, I live in a deeply divided community. Our school system has become a battleground over today’s political flashpoints, and it’s hard not to feel that people with evil intentions are using my kids as pawns in their power games. In this environment, it’s easy to have ought against my neighbor, to see tax collectors and Samaritans all around me.

I confess that at times during the last several months, the imprecatory Psalms have been my refuge—if David could wish divine destruction on the wicked, surely I can indulge in some wishing that a proverbial fall would come quickly after all the pride on such ready display.

Imprecations and supplications

I view the Old Testament as inspired and authoritative, just like the New. At the very least, violent imprecations like Psalms 137:9, 139:19–22, 141:10, and 143:12 ratify some of our negative emotions; certainly, they give us leave to bring anything at all before the Lord. As much as they shock us now, these thoughts are in God’s Word and are not explicitly condemned.

But there is, after all, a New Testament, a story of what happened when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In the Old Testament, we see that people can make themselves enemies of God and that God will bring about justice in his time. We see kings and prophets fervently seek that justice, even if we may think they sometimes went too far in identifying enemies and praying for retribution.

However, in the flesh, God reminded us that to love God and our neighbors is all the Law and the Prophets, and that vengeance is his alone. It is not always clear how imprecation and love of enemies hang together, but that was Jesus’s challenge to us when he insisted that on love of God and neighbor hang all the Law and the Prophets, hard words included. Jesus commanded us to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile.

When asked who someone’s neighbor is, Jesus told a story but didn’t answer the question he was asked. He didn’t help that lawyer figure out who his neighbors might or might not be. Instead, he implied that it was up to the lawyer to be the neighbor, and let the One with the winnowing fork sort the wheat from the chaff in the fullness of time. Indeed,

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say unto you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. … For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Matthew 5:43–44, 46

And he continues—and can’t you just hear the wink in his voice? Forgive me if I imagine a sly smile toward Matthew here: “Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” If Old Testament imprecations were figures of “thy kingdom come,” the New Testament exhorts us to seek God’s kingdom while showing a more excellent way.

It seems Jesus came to call the unrighteous not to continue as sinners, sick, and tax collectors, but to become neighbors, peacemakers, and joint heirs—adopted children—with himself in the renewal of creation. When his church began to communicate among its congregations, however contentious the talks might be, they greeted each other in love.

Paul blew the factions away: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.” In the church, the people have become simply members of the body of Christ. Nothing more, but certainly nothing less.

The Lord bless you and keep you

A teacher of mine used to lead a choir that ended every performance with “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.” If we part with people by asking the Lord to make his face shine on those we leave, how can we think ill of them? If we ask God’s grace, peace, and mercy on all those we meet, won’t we reflect Christ to them all the more? Might we ready ourselves to see Christ in them?

So join me as I wish the grace, peace, and mercy of God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ to those around me, especially those I’m tempted to call my enemies. Join my wife, who works with kids who don’t always make good choices, in her echo of 1 Peter 4:8, with her constant refrain to “love them anyway.” Join me in praying that Ephesians 4—“one body and one Spirit … one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and father of all”—would become ever closer to lived reality, that God would fulfill our patient hope for things not seen.

Lord, in your mercy, give us grace to be instruments of your peace.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

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This article was originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.

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Written by
Robby Lockett

Robby Lockett is a Christian in the Anglican tradition, a husband, a father, an East Tennessean, and a recovering lawyer.

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Written by Robby Lockett