Every year at this season, I get suckered in again. I start yearning for peace, both as an inner condition of soothing tranquility and as an outward ease and warmth in relationships. As Christmas approaches, I expect the peace of God to descend and enfold me like a comforting blanket, or like Isaiah’s river of peace (Isaiah 48:18; 66:12): wave upon wave, spreading out and bringing life. But every year, in me and around me, I find tension, anxiety, conflict, resentment. My wife and I talk with people who dread the holidays with their family gatherings and memories. Perhaps it may help to remind ourselves of some basic truths concerning Biblical peace:
1. Lasting peace, the healing reconciliation of God doesn’t come to us simply by contemplating the baby Jesus. Here part of the problem may lie in all the cards and carols that have the angels proclaiming,
Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace, good will toward men. (Luke 2:14, KJV)
In our best texts, eudokia (“good pleasure”) is in the dative rather than the nominative case, and so most modern translations say “and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests” (NIV) or “peace among men with whom He is pleased” (RSV); one could also render it “peace among men of good will.” (1)
The angels’ declaration is made to the shepherds, indicating that it may be God’s pleasure to extend peace along different lines than we would expect, whether our criteria are based on Mosaic Law or on Santa’s “nice” and “naughty” lists. Even outcasts who sleep outside, who have not waited patiently nor searched diligently for God’s salvation — even the unworthy and unlikely — are invited into peace; but we are given fair warning that it will change us to receive the peace of God. This echoes the prophecy of John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, that the Coming One will rise upon us like the sun and “guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79, KJV, RSV), a way we have not known (Romans 3:17; Isaiah 59:8).
2. Peace does not come to us automatically even when we direct our attention to Jesus and sing His praise. Nothing is easier, at a modern Christmas, than to go through these motions. But peace with God requires that we acknowledge that we are rebels, and lay down our arms, and even die.
Some 30 years after the nativity, on Palm Sunday, a crowd forms, centered on Jesus, hailing Him as their King, rejoicing, praising God. They cheer about “peace in heaven” (Luke 19:38). Even the great throng gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover joins in welcoming Him (John 12:12-13). Yet Jesus weeps, telling the city named for peace, “Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace! But now they are hid from your eyes” (Luke 19:42, RSV). The people laid down their garments rather than their hearts; they received Him in accordance with their own expectations, and thought He would make peace by destroying their enemies.
Jesus Himself says that He comes to bring, not peace on earth, but division, a sword (Luke 12:51; Matthew 10:34). Simeon, rejoicing over the baby Jesus, is ready to depart in peace, but also sees that disruption is coming for many, and that a dividing sword will go through Mary’s soul (Luke 2:29, 34-35). Something in her will die. And I too stand under the swordlike word of God (Hebrews 4:12-13; Revelation 1:16).
3. The birth announces the gift of peace, but peace cannot reign in our hearts until we have followed Jesus to the cross. He is our peace offering (Leviticus 3); His is “the punishment that brought us peace” (Isaiah 53:5, NIV).
Paul says that God has made peace with us through Jesus, in a process that began in the Bethlehem manger and ended at Calvary:
For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through His blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1:19-20, NIV)
We have peace with God as we receive Jesus by faith (Romans 5:1-2), and we enter into peace with other people as we allow Jesus to put to death our hostility. He is our peace (Ephesians 2:14-17; Micah 5:5).
God’s peace in me begins with the Incarnation, not because the baby “sleep[s] in heavenly peace,” (2) but because He is “wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12, NIV). As Luther says, God “sends, as it were, an earthworm lying in weakness, helpless without his mother, and [later] he suffers him to be nailed to a cross.” (3) Both in the manger and on the cross, He puts to death all my proud expectations. There is nothing left in me to draw me to Him, except the faith He gives; and so I die, and faith rises up in me. His life, wholeness, righteousness, salvation, health, well-being, reconciliation, rest — all the richness of the Hebrew shalom — become mine as I enter into His death.
4. The world still does not know “the things that make for peace” (Luke 19:42), but “the God of peace” continues to sanctify His Church, and each believer (1 Thessalonians 5:23). His river of peace washes over us and heals us. I like the Amplified Bible’s expansion of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper:
. . . in Me you may have perfect peace and confidence. In the world you have tribulation and trials and distress and frustration; but be of good cheer — take courage, be confident, certain, undaunted — for I have overcome the world. — I have deprived it of power to harm, have conquered it [for you]. (John 16:33)
“Let the peace of Christ rule [brabeuo] in your hearts” and in the Church, urges Paul (Colossians 3:15, NIV), even though others, particularly legalists, may try to rule against [katabrabeuo] us or disqualify us (2:18). (4) His peace rules in us as we die to earthly hopes and desires (3:2, 5). He is “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6) as His peace rules in us, and Isaiah also promises, “Of the increase of His government and of peace there shall be no end” (9:7, Ampl).
Around us, the whole creation continues to groan (Romans 8:22), and peace will yet be taken from the earth (Revelation 6:4). All are bound over to disobedience and unbelief, that all may receive mercy through faith (Romans 11:32, 20), finding life “from Him and through Him and to Him” (11:36), united with all creation, and at peace.
Now may the Lord of peace Himself give you peace at all times in all ways. The Lord be with you all. (2 Thessalonians 3:16, RSV)
(1) William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 4th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1952, 1957), 319; Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984, 1996), New Testament section, 671. Compare Lewis Foster, note on Luke 2:14, in Kenneth Barker, ed., The NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 1539: “Peace is not assured to all, but only to those pleasing to God — the objects of his good pleasure . . .” Through the risen Jesus, “the God of peace” now works in believers what is “well-pleasing” [euarestos] in His sight (Hebrews 13:20-21).
(2) Joseph Mohr and Franz Xaver Gruber, Stille Nacht (1818), tr. as Silent Night by John Freeman Young (1859).
(3) Roland H. Bainton, The Martin Luther Christmas Book (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1948), 48.
(4) Vine’s, New Testament section, 540, 537; Arndt and Gingrich, 146, 410.