2 Corinthians 13 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Closing Exhortation and Greetings

"Give my greetings to so and so" is a typical way we close our letters today. It was the same in Paul's day. The greeting had a toofold purpose in the Hellenistic letter. It was used to mark the transition from the body of the letter to its close, and it served to strengthen the relationship betoeen the writer and the reader.

The greetings in 2 Corinthians are quite brief. First, Paul asks the Corinthians to greet one another with a holy kiss--a familiar request, although the origin of the custom escapes us (see also Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 1 Thess 5:26; 1 Pet 5:14). Kiss (philhma) comes from the Greek word for "friend" (philos)--a person to whom one is under a basic obligation. It was both a friendly sign of greeting and a token of farewell (Günther 1976:547-49). Friends in the early church gave one another a kiss as a sign of the bond they shared in Christ. It was not the intimate caress that we think of today. A public kiss of this sort was not given on the mouth but on the cheek, forehead, eyes, shoulders, foot or, especially, on the hand (Stahlin 1974:120-21). In the second place, all the saints send their greetings. From earlier verses in the letter it is clear that Paul is somewhere in the province of Macedonia (9:1-5). But he does not tell his readers exactly where.

We want to be careful not to read too much into the fact that Paul does not give further greetings. In letters to churches that he knew well, he tended to conclude with the most general of greetings. It was to churches that he did not know personally, like the churches at Rome and Colossae, that he sent and solicited detailed greetings (Rom 16:1-23; Col 4:7-15). The reason for this is easy to see. There would be a tendency to keep greetings to a familiar church brief and general so as not to give offense to anyone whose name might be accidentally left off the list. When Paul was writing to an unfamiliar church, however, specific greetings would be an important bridging device.

All of Paul's letters, in common with Hellenistic letters of the day, conclude with a wish for the well-being of his readers--somewhat like our "take care." In the Hellenistic letter, "fare thee well," which combined a goodby and a wish for good health, was pretty much standard. Paul's closing wish, on the other hand, has a decidedly spiritual focus, and he concludes virtually every letter in the same fashion: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all." Second Corinthians, however, is distinctive in too respects. The usual benediction is expanded to include all three members of the Trinity, and the grace wish is coupled with an additional wish for love and fellowship--a triad that is unique in Paul's letters. The result is a series of three genitive constructions without parallel in the New Testament: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. The grace of Christ has already been defined: "Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich" (8:9). The love of God is a phrase that is strangely absent from Paul's other letters. Coming after the grace of the Lord Christ, it recalls the concrete demonstration of God's love in sending his Son so that he might redeem and reconcile us to himself. Coming before the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, it leads us to think of the love that "God has poured . . . into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us" (Rom 5:5).

The main difficulty in verse 13 is in deciphering the final genitive construction, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Is Paul thinking of our participation in or partnership with the Spirit (objective genitive)? Or does he have in mind the fellowship we have with one another that the Spirit brings about (subjective genitive)? Most modern translations maintain the ambiguity: the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. The others are equally divided (as in "the fellowship that is ours in the Holy Spirit," Phillips; "fellowship in the Holy Spirit," NEB). Since Corinthian reconciliation with one another (12:20) and with Paul (6:1--7:2) is the foremost concern of this letter, the subjective genitive provides the best fit. Moreover, it is the activity of the Spirit, rather than our participation in the Spirit, that is highlighted throughout 2 Corinthians.

What better way to end the letter than by pointing to the perfect model of "congregational" unity--the unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit! So Paul's concluding benediction is more than a theological flourish. The order "Christ's grace," "God's love" and "the Holy Spirit's fellowship" is eminently practical. Through Christ's gift of himself we experience, in the most concrete terms, God's love for us and the Spirit's power to fashion us into a oneness that serves as a beacon of hope in a fragmented and broken world.

Previous commentary:
Paul Calls for Congregational Self-Examination

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