The “Three Graces”: a First-Century Perspective on Grace in Action

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The “Three Graces”

a First-Century Perspective on Grace in Action

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The “Three Graces”: a First-Century Perspective on Grace in Action

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Dr. David deSilva, professor of Greek and the New Testament and an authority on first-century culture, describes the symbolism and obligations of grace as understood at the time:

“A popular mythical image in Greco-Roman art was the ‘three Graces’ (Charites), three goddesses frequently depicted dancing hand in hand or hand over shoulder in an unbroken circle . . . [The Roman writer] Seneca explains this image thus: a benefit ‘passing from hand to hand nevertheless returns to the giver; the beauty of the whole is destroyed if the course is anywhere broken’ (Seneca, [De Beneficiis, meaning “On Favors”] 1.3.3-4).

“Initiating the circle dance with a gift was a matter of free choice on the part of the giver; accepting the gift implies acceptance of the moral obligation to return favor where favor has been shown: ‘The giving of a benefit is a social act, it wins the goodwill of someone, it lays someone under obligation’ ([De Beneficiis] 5.11.5).

“Seneca refers here to one and the same ‘someone:’ A gracious act naturally ought to arouse reciprocal feelings of goodwill and appreciation in the one benefited. Thus ‘favor is ever giving birth to favor’ (Sophocles, Ajax 522). At the same time, a gift creates an obligation to respond graciously, such that Seneca can refer to the ‘debt of gratitude’ or ‘owing favor.’ Or, in the words of Euripides (Helen 1234), ‘favor is due for favor.’

“Gratitude was a sacred obligation, and the client who failed to show gratitude appropriately was considered ignoble . . . Those who failed to respond with gratitude, however, or who had insulted a benefactor ‘will not be thought worthy of a favor by anyone’ (Dio Chrysostom, [Orations] 31.36, 65) . . . Or, in the words of Seneca, ‘Not to return gratitude for benefits is a disgrace, and the whole world counts it as such’ ([De Beneficiis] 3.1.1)” (An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods and Ministry Formation, 2018, pp. 102-103).

To summarize, the “three graces” visually represented how grace was understood to function in the first century Greco-Roman world in which the apostle Paul wrote his letters. Grace (charis) originated with a generous giver (represented by one of the three graces), was accepted by the recipient (represented by the next of the three graces), who in his or her thankfulness and gratitude in turn extended grace to others (represented by the last of the three graces), and this in turn benefited the original giver. In this unbroken circle, everyone was understood to benefit.

Many of Paul’s comments about grace or charis are consistent with this view that was common at the time. For example, as Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 9:8 2 Corinthians 9:8And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work:
American King James Version×
, “God is able to make all grace overflow to you so that because you have enough of everything in every way at all times, you will overflow in every good work” (New English Translation). He notes here that since we have been the recipients of God’s abundant grace, we should extend that grace to others in the form of “every good work.”

In 2 Corinthians 8:7 2 Corinthians 8:7Therefore, as you abound in every thing, in faith, and utterance, and knowledge, and in all diligence, and in your love to us, see that you abound in this grace also.
American King James Version×
Paul, encouraging the church in Corinth to give generously to a collection for famine relief he was organizing for Christians in Judea, writes: “But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving” (NIV). Paul reminds them that since they have received so much from God, they should generously share with their fellow believers who were suffering.

Giving ministerial instruction in Titus 2:11-15 Titus 2:11-15 [11] For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, [12] Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; [13] Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ; [14] Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify to himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works. [15] These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no man despise you.
American King James Version×
, Paul writes: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people . . . Jesus Christ . . . gave himself for us to set us free from every kind of lawlessness and to purify for himself a people who are truly his, who are eager to do good. So communicate these things with the sort of exhortation or rebuke that carries full authority” (NET). Paul tells his fellow minister Titus to instruct people that, having received salvation through God’s grace, they are to be “eager to do good.”

The apostle Peter, writing about spiritual gifts, tells us, “Just as each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of the varied grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10 1 Peter 4:10As every man has received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.
American King James Version×
, NET). His point is that we express our thanks to God for His gifts by using what He has given us to serve others.

As these and other passages note, we who are the recipients of God’s incomparable gifts of grace are obligated in turn to become people who personify grace and willingly and gratefully extend that grace to others for the benefit and blessing of all. In this way we come to develop and reflect the nature and perfect character of a grace-giving God!

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