Peace on earth. It’s one of the most cherished sentiments of the Christmas season – and like all the best Christmas traditions, it’s inspired by Scripture, taken from the Nativity account in the Gospel of Luke:

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:13-14).

Yet despite being such a well-known theme, the angelic declaration of peace on earth is commonly misunderstood, even among people of faith.

In the wider culture, peace on earth at Christmas is an expression of a more general desire for world peace. The traditions and imagery of the holiday season lend themselves to this conclusion. Good times with family, acts of kindness, a baby born in the quiet of winter: they all combine to spark a hope that humanity might one day live in harmony all year round.

It’s a compelling vision for believers and non-believers alike. Nevertheless, it rests on some misconceptions about the scope and nature of peace as defined in the Scriptures.

A vertical problem

To most minds, the absence of peace is a horizontal problem. It’s the result of people not getting along with other people, either at an individual or a societal level. If we could just break down the barriers of selfishness and strife between people, then we’d achieve peace.

According to the Scriptures, however, the problem of peace runs far deeper because it’s primarily vertical, between God and humanity. By birth and by choice, all of us are sinners, alienated from each other because we’re alienated from God. Our relationship with God desperately needs healing before all others, and only God can heal it. Only God can make peace with us.

And that’s precisely what he did when he sent his Son into the world to save his people from their sins. In fact, he declared his peacemaking strategy seven centuries beforehand, through the prophet Isaiah:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
. . . But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 9:6; 53:5).

At the birth of Jesus, the angelic host weren’t mouthing vague platitudes to the shepherds. They were announcing a unique historical event – God had entered the world in the form of a human being, in order to reconcile a sinful humanity to himself:

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!
(Luke 2:14).

Decades later, after encountering the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, the Apostle Paul devoted his life to preaching this same message of reconciliation with God:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1).

Peace at all costs?

As the Prince of Peace, Jesus had a fair amount to say on the subject. Not all of it, however, would sit comfortably on a Christmas card:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household (Matthew 10:34-36).

Most of us are people-pleasers to one extent or another. We prefer to go along in order to get along. We’d rather “keep the peace” by keeping quiet, especially with family and friends. Our cultural ethos tends to value peace at all costs, even at the expense of the truth.

But Jesus won’t allow this. He warns his followers that the Gospel message is divisive. Only as the Holy Spirit opens a heart will it respond positively to the truth. Otherwise, no matter how gentle or kind the messenger, there will be cold indifference or open hostility. Even in tolerant, pluralistic Western society, many believers can testify to losing friends or being disowned by family for becoming a Christian.

It’s a sober warning, but of course it’s not all that Jesus had to say about peace. He often reassured his followers with the words, “peace be with you,” or told them to “go in peace.” Once again, these aren’t clichéd social pleasantries, but authoritative pronouncements of divine favour from the Sovereign Lord. And they’re always linked, whether implicitly or explicitly, to faith in Jesus:

Your faith has saved you; go in peace. . . . Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace (Luke 7:50; 8:48).

After the Last Supper and before his betrayal, Jesus summed up the nature and extent of true peace in this present world:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. . . . I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world (John 14:27; 16:33).

The peace that Jesus offers is radically different from the world’s peace, because it doesn’t depend on circumstances or human relationships, but only on our relationship with him, which he has secured by his sacrifice. In fact, far from envisioning peace in the world, Jesus promised trouble and turmoil. And yet even this will pale in comparison to the peace believers enjoy with him.

The full scope of shalom

Ask a random sampling of people for a short definition of peace, and the most common answers will likely be “the opposite of war” or “the end of hostilities” or something along those lines.

But the scriptural concept of peace encompasses far more than that. The Hebrew shalom (and its Greek equivalent eirene) denotes not only peace, but also harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquillity. It has an active sense of thriving and flourishing, of being successful and living well. There’s also a teleological dimension, the fulfillment of an ultimate goal or purpose.

In short, it embraces all of creation, reconciled to God through Christ, being remade and renewed as he intended it to be:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross (Colossians 1:15-20).

Peace on earth. It won’t come through political or economic initiatives. It won’t come through education, technology or contact with space aliens.

But in fact it has already come, entering the world with angelic fanfare at the birth of Christ. And it will come to full fruition at his return, under his perfect reign in the New Heaven and the New Earth.

That’s a Christmas hope worth celebrating throughout the year, every year.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2016 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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