And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest. And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” – Luke 2:14
“On earth peace among men.” These words rung out from heaven upon the birth of Jesus Christ. The heavenly host announced the arrival of a peace among God’s people, and each Christmas season we echo their call with the blessing “peace be with you.” But what does that mean?
But what is this “peace”?
A dictionary definition of peace contains a number of elements. According to Miriam Webster, peace can mean “a state of tranquility or quiet” or “freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions” or “harmony in personal relations” or “a state of mutual concord between governments.” In essence, it’s an absence of conflict. Whether conflict in our community, our minds, our relationships, or our geopolitical world – we see peace as conflict voided or avoided. And if in most cases, the peace is perceived as a product of our own doing.
But does this capture the peace the heavenly host sang about? Is this the peace of God?
No, it’s not. It can’t be, because God’s peace is not of this world, and not attainable by men or women. We are not the source, only the recipients. In fact, Jesus Himself distinguished true peace from that of the world when He comforted His disciples saying “peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you. Not as this world gives do I give it to you.” – John 14:27
So the peace of Jesus is not of this world. And as a consequence, the world can neither comprehend it nor explain it. As Paul told the church in Philippi, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” – Phil. 4:7. God’s peace is so deep, so rich, so unfathomable that it surpasses all understanding by the human mind.
Yet still we wonder, what then is this peace that the world cannot understand? What is so unfathomable about it? The answer is actually found in understanding the war we are in. The war that Jesus arrested.
The people of this world cannot understand the peace Jesus gives unless they grasp and accept the war they are in. It’s a fully orbed war, a war we wage against ourselves, against each other, and against God. And we are hopeless to stop it. It is the war waged by our sinful nature, which is characterized by enmities, strife, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, and factions, among other sad things.
So even though heart after heart clamors for “world peace”, especially this time of year, we can’t achieve it because there is no such thing. Sure, there have been peace accords struck throughout history, but none have achieved true peace. Whatever agreements, pacts or concords humans manufacture among themselves, they are not peace. They are merely a temporary suspension of a sinful state to which we inevitably will return.
Sin is deep within us, a part of the nature we inherited from Adam, a part of who we are. As King David so painfully lamented: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; and in sin my mother conceived me.” – Psalm 51:6. Moreover, sin divides us against ourselves and separates us from God. And without His intervention, we can’t do anything about it and we will always go back to it.
Only when we understand and accept the fact of the war we are truly in can we begin to fathom the gift of God’s peace. Until this war against sin is resolved, all other peace is merely a temporary cease fire. Whether achieved by concord or apology, medication or law, the peace this world gives is not the true peace we so desperately need.
So what then is true peace? What is the peace of God?
It is the peace accomplished by Jesus. The peace made possible through His incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. The peace He bestowed upon us by paying the price for our sin, and reconciling us with the Father, our Creator. The peace of God is peace with God.
Again, as Paul informs us: “For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in [Jesus], and through [Jesus] to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.” Col. 1:19-20.
The Greek word for peace used here and throughout the New Testament is ειρηνη (eirene). Strong’s Greek Lexicon defines it, in relevant part, as “the tranquil state of a soul assured of its salvation through Christ, and so fearing nothing from God and content with its earthly lot, of whatsoever sort that is.”
True peace, then, is the tranquil state of the believer’s heart no matter the circumstances of the believer’s life. Peace is what the believer has in the middle of war, not the manufactured cessation of the war. Peace is what we have knowing that through Jesus the sin that leads to war no longer has hold of us.
The Hebrew word for peace is probably familiar to you. It is שָׁלום (shalom). Unlike our traditional understanding of “peace”, however, shalom it has many components. Shalom can mean welfare, soundness of body, safety, tranquility, contentment, friendship, and yes, peace from war or conflict. But it also can mean “completeness.” It means whole, or in the case of restorative peace, the making whole of that which is lacking. Our need for peace, therefore, demonstrates that something is lacking.
Tim Keller often talks about the “God-sized hole” in the human heart. It is a hole everyone is trying to fill. Some with human love, some with material wealth, some with human achievement, some with philosophies, some with drugs or alcohol. But nothing, absolutely nothing, of this world can achieve the completeness of shalom. The hole just is too big.
God knew this. And knowing this, He sent the only solution to our pitiful void. He sent His Son for us, to close the otherwise insurmountable divide between Himself and His people. That is what the heavenly host was talking about when it declared peace is now among men. Peace is not a thing. Peace is a person; the person of Jesus Christ. What a gift this peace is. May every soul open the gift, accept Him, and know true shalom.
Father in Heaven, You gave Your one and only Son to be the only source of true peace. Through Him You reconciled us to You and through His peace, we are made complete – restored once more to the state You desired. As this world clamors for an end to conflict, we pray that in this very season a multitude would lay hold of Your true peace. In the name of Him who made peace possible, we lift our prayers. Amen.