When we read of the Genesis account of God’s creation of the world, a Hebrew word, shalom, is used to describe the state Adam and Eve were in. They were at peace: with God, within, with others, and with the world. We often use the phrase, “It’s all good.” Well, it was. It’s a word that implies wholeness, completeness, unbrokenness.
And then we lost it #sin. And then we see what happens in a world without shalom:
- We hide from God rather than walk with him
- The natural world now brings hardship and pain
- Jealousy, deception, hate, and shame become the new normal
Now humanity is fragmented internally and the world is fragmented externally. We are incomplete, broken people in an incomplete, broken world. Look what happens in the first few chapters of Genesis after the Fall. Suddenly there is sin crouching at our door, and murder, and a world in which everything quickly becomes "evil continuously" (Genesis 6).
And here we are, thousands of years later, and we still feel the ripple effect of this. We will feel it until we either go to be with God or God finally wraps up history and brings about the New Heaven and New Earth, which will return us to a new a better shalom than when we started.
Meanwhile, we are people with broken hearts and minds who live in a broken world. We see it in our marriages, families, work, friendships, and even church. We see it in the news: the lifting of the veil of secrecy in Hollywood and Washington about sexual sin; the turmoil in the Middle East; the confusion about what is true and what is a lie. And there is only one solution that will help us to experience and bring about true peace: Jesus.
When the angels appeared to the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus, they proclaimed a message of peace: “Glory to God in the Highest; and on earth, peace to those on whom His favor rests.” (Luke 2:14)
Note: this is not a proclamation of peace to the whole world. As Jeremiah pointed out 650 years earlier (Jeremiah 6:14), there are plenty of people who will offer peace when there is none to be found. They say, “This will bring you peace,” but it doesn’t because it can’t. We see lots of proclamations today about what will bring about peace in our time:
- A better tax system
- Stricter (or more lenient) gun laws
- Safer borders
- A bigger house
- Better schools
- A higher minimum wage
- Free college
- Safe spaces
- More money, more sex, more power, more comfort….
None of these will bring shalom to earth. It’s not like we ignore issues related to justice and compassion, and I’m not suggesting these things have no significance at all. When used rightly, they can bring a lack of conflict in a particular area for a small amount of time, so it’s not that they are necessarily bad things. But none of these will make you whole –even all of them put together won’t make you whole. If you lack shalom, you could have your way on all those things, and you would still lack true peace. The nursery rhyme was right: this world is Humpty Dumpty, and no kings or people will put it back together again.
The angels reveal a very specific remedy for a broken world: the peace that comes with God’s favor. So what is this favor? And what is this peace?
The shepherds were probably watching a temple flock destined for sacrifice as they watched them from a tower called the Midgal Eder, the 'watchtower of the flock,' a lookout and a place of refuge close to Bethlehem for their flocks in case of attack. Shepherds brought ewes there to give birth. The priests maintained ceremonially clean stalls, and they carefully oversaw the birth of each lamb, many of which would be used in sacrifices.So…yeah. Of course they are God’s favored, right? How could they be that involved and not be?
But being ‘favored’ had not brought them the peace they were expecting. There was hardly a more obvious reminder than the palace that cast a shadow over their tower.
Herod’s mountain fortress, the Herodian, overlooked the town of Bethlehem. The Herodian was built on top of an artificial mountain that Herod had created specifically for him. According to Josephus, there were originally two hills standing next to each other. Herod paid thousands of workers for years to demolish one of the hills and level off the other. He built his massive palace-fortress into the top of the remaining hill. This seven stories high palace contained a garden, reception hall, Roman baths, countless apartments, an enormous pool, a colonnaded garden, a 600-foot-long terrace. The buildings alone covered forty-five acres. The Herodion’s circular upper palace could be seen for miles and literally overshadowed surrounding villages.
- Herod made his name when he smoked-out refugees hiding in cliffside caves, pulled them out with long, hooked poles and dropped them down the sheer cliff.
- Herod once laid siege to Jerusalem. The soldiers raped and slaughtered the women and children, and the Jewish soldiers were tortured and chopped to pieces.
- Hundreds of friends and family members and political rivals were tortured or slaughtered on the slightest of accusations.
- Herod went to Jericho to die in agony, hated by everyone. Fearing that no one would mourn his death, he commanded his troops to arrest important people from across the land and execute them after he died. If people would not mourn him, at least they would mourn.
It’s in this context that the angels said they were there to proclaim peace on earth to those on whom God’s favor rests. So what is this favor? Where is the promised peace?
When the angels came and announced that peace had arrived on earth, it was not because Herod was dethroned, or the Jewish people agreed on who the King of the Jews really was, or because schools were exempt from tragedy, or because there would be no more hurricanes, or because cancer was gone.
- It was only a matter of years before Herod slaughtered Jewish children precisely because Jesus had arrived. Joseph and Mary go to Egypt (!) to save Jesus’ life.
- The Romans were still in control when Jesus died, and for a long while after. In the first century alone there was massive slaughter of the Jewish people during a rebellion put down by the Roman army.
- Look at the life of the disciples. When you are run out of towns and sawn in half and crucified upside down, we wouldn't normally think about that as peaceful, and yet Jesus promised them, “Peace I give and leave to you – just not what you would expect by worldly measures.” (John 14:27) He follows that up with an encouragement not to be troubled or afraid – which suggests that troubling and fearful things would happen around them, but that their hearts did not need to conform to that pattern of the world.
They angels announced a peace that was not dependent upon what happened around those who have God’s favor but within those who are the children of God. This is not a promise of external calm (though sometimes that is the result). This is promise of shalom: internal stability and wholeness that is grounded in the work and the presence of Jesus.
70 years after the birth of Christ. Paul was writing letters to the start-up churches helping them to better understand the true message of the gospel. When he wrote to the church in Ephesus, he was writing to a largely Gentile (pagan) audience. They were having trouble forming a church community with the Jewish converts. Paul lets them know that Jesus has broken down the divide between God’s “chosen” people and the “unchosen” Gentiles. Here we begin to see an even clearer explanation of peace:
“Remember that at that time you (Gentiles) were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace…. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.“ (Ephesians 2:12-17)
We read similar thoughts in other places:
"Having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself." (Colossians 1:20)
“Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” (Romans 5:1-2)
What is peace? Reconciliation with God through Christ, empowered by His Spirit.* This is the favor that rests on us. In Ephesus, it should end hostility between the Jewish and Gentile converts – but that’s the fruit of peace, not peace itself. That’s what peace looks like when it’s embodied, but it didn’t start there. It started at the cross, and moved inside. Only people reconciled with God through Christ, empowered by His Spirit within them can bring about true peace. When writing to the church in Galatia, Paul has more to say about peace:
“Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised… May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who live by this principle—they are the Israel (the chosen people) of God.” (Galatians 6:13-16)
Because Christ died, Paul has been made part of this new humanity. Anything good in him is because of the person and work of Christ. There are no “works” that can save him or give him worth. He understands God’s peace – he’s been reconciled with God through Christ and made a “new creation” (v 15). That is what knits us together inside and makes us whole. That is the source of meaning, worth, self-image, etc. Peace begins in us when we are in right relationship with Christ.
There are all kinds of ways in which life tries to rob us of that internal sense of the ultimate wholeness and completeness that Jesus brings: Health issues; a connection of productivity with worth; lack of organization; a lousy memory; financial concerns; difficult relationships. All of these things bring turmoil because they threaten to break us apart, to separate us from fully living in the awareness of the reality of the completeness that the love of God brings. But the Bible is clear: nothing actually separates us from God’s love (Romans 8:38-39). And this should bring us great peace.
* New Testament The Greek word eirene corresponds to the Hebrew shalom expressing the idea of peace, well-being, restoration, reconciliation with God, and salvation in the fullest sense. God is “the God of peace” ( Romans 15:33 ; Philippians 4:9 ; 1 Thessalonians 5:23 ;Hebrews 13:20 ). The Gospel is “the good news of peace” (Ephesians 6:15 ; Acts 10:36 ) because it announces the reconciliation of believers to God and to one another (Ephesians 2:12-18 ). God has made this peace a reality in Jesus Christ, who is “our peace.” We are justified through Him (Romans 5:1 ), reconciled through the blood of His cross (Colossians 1:20 ), and made one in Him (Ephesians 2:14 ). In Him we discover that ultimate peace which only God can give (John 14:27 ). This peace is experienced as an inner spiritual peace by the individual believer (Philippians 4:7 ; Colossians 3:15 ; Romans 15:13 ). It is associated with receptiveness to God's salvation (Matthew 10:13 ), freedom from distress and fear (John 14:27 ; John 16:33 ), security (1 Thessalonians 5:9-10 ), mercy (Galatians 6:16 ; 1 Timothy 1:2 ), joy (Romans 14:17 ; Romans 15:13 ), grace (Philippians 1:2 ; Revelation 1:4 ), love (2 Corinthians 13:11 ;Jude 1:2 ), life (Romans 8:6 ), and righteousness (Romans 14:17 ; Hebrews 12:11 ; James 3:18 ). Such peace is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22 ) that forms part of the “whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6:11,Ephesians 6:11,6:13 ), enabling the Christian to withstand the attacks of the forces of evil. Thus, the New Testament gives more attention to the understanding of spiritual peace as an inner experience of the individual believer than does the Old Testament. In both the Old and the New Testament, spiritual peace is realized in being rightly related—rightly related to God and rightly related to one another. From the Holman Bible Dictionary. “Peace, Spiritual.” www.studylight.org