Peace Through His Blood

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.

 

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Advent

Year by year, I try to prepare my heart for the coming of the Christ. As I grow older, I notice two changes. The obstacles and distractions seem to grow more formidable; at the same time, my practice becomes simpler. There are readings, music, prayers, church gatherings. But the one essential lies outside all these. I need to sit awhile where I can see a baby.

No doubt of it: I am a romantic. Babies are hard work, bottomless wells of need. I can never quite overlook the frazzled, exhausted mother or father, the frantic grandparent, the neglected sibling. If babies perpetuate us, they also bring us pretty quickly to the end of ourselves.

But babies are also beautiful, glorious. Even if I am on a crowded airplane, craving sleep, dismayed to hear a baby’s cries, I smile if I can glimpse its face, or hand, or foot. Here is life straight from the Father’s hand, life that is all potential, all promise. Something softens in me, and relaxes into wonder.

If truth be told, I am afraid of babies. All my inadequacies surface: I will drop them, wake them, scare them, fail them. I joke that I can never hold a baby without spilling some, out one end or another. Fortunately, proud parents ignore my protests and thrust their child into my arms — and I am transfixed. As I hold this little being and watch the act of breathing, I feel my own heart rise and fall. As C.S. Lewis says, most of us have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the kingdom of heaven.

Afterwards, I always think of Immanuel, God with us. Not like corrupt and pagan gods, assuming a human disguise for the sake of an afternoon’s dalliance. No; in earnest He became flesh, turned into one of us. So much so that He was tiny, needy, helpless. Weaker than a toddler. Dependent on His parents. So much so that for many months He had no words.

Most years, December finds me discouraged. I will have been struggling with problems that to me seem both big and important. I will have prayed and read and waited to hear the voice of God, only to stumble on, in the dark, in a resounding silence. My flickering faith will be the proverbial smoldering wick, lightless, on the point of going out. I will feel forsaken.

But Immanuel is the God who comes too close for words. Beneath the prickly radar of intelligence, He arrives with the insistence of present, utter helplessness. Not bothering to address ears grown too dull to hear, He shares our darkness, our hunger, our exposure, our heartbeat, our flesh.

He comes. And we have only to open our arms.

For to you is born this day in the town of David a Savior, Who is Christ, the Messiah, the Lord! And this will be a sign for you [by which you will recognize Him]: you will find after searching, a Baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. (Luke 2:11-12, Amplified)

. . . open wide your hearts also. (2 Corinthians 6:13, NIV)

Merry Christmas.