“Glory to God in the Highest; and on earth, peace to those on whom His favor rests.” (Luke 2:14)
When the angels appeared to the shepherds, they proclaimed a message of peace - but not peace to the whole world. This is very specific: peace to those who have God’s favor. So what is this favor? And what is this peace?
The shepherds were probably watching a temple flock 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. The priests maintained ceremonially clean stalls, and they carefully oversaw the birth of each lamb. The shepherds probably thought this angelic 'favor' was connected to their observance of the Law. Unfortunately, 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. According to Josephus, there were originally two hills standing next to each other. Herod paid thousands of workers to demolish one of the hills and level off the other. He dug his palace into the top of the remaining hill. It contained a garden, reception hall, Roman baths, countless apartments, an enormous pool, and a 600-foot-long terrace. Its buildings covered forty-five acres of land and were surrounded by nearly two hundred acres of palace grounds. The Herodion literally overshadowed the surrounding villages.
Keep in mind what this represented to the Jewish people. Herod made his name when he smoked out Jewish refugees hiding in cliffside caves, pulled them out with long, hooked poles and dropped them down a cliff. When he laid siege to Jerusalem, his soldiers raped and slaughtered the women and children and chopped the soldiers to pieces. When he saw that his death was near, he commanded his troops to execute other public figures when he died so people would mourn even if they did not mourn for him.
It’s in this context that the angels proclaimed peace on earth to those on whom God’s favor rests. So the Jewish people were certain they were favored, but they sure hadn’t found peace. So what is this favor? Where is the promised peace?
The proclamation clearly did not mean that peace would occur when Herod was dethroned or the Jewish people agreed on who the King of the Jews really was. It did not meant that schools were exempt from tragedy, hurricanes would disappear, or cancer would be cured. They announced a peace that could be found not around those who have God’s favor (though that happens too) but within those who have God’s favor. This ‘peace’ in Greek has the idea of wholeness, of having all the parts knit together. It's when heart, soul, mind and strength all love God. It's when our skin and soul are unified in purposeful, godly living.
This is not a promise of external calm. This is promise of internal stability. The Jewish people were expecting something to change in their political, religious or financial realities. But that was their definition. No wonder they were disillusioned and disappointed time and again.
Skip ahead about seventy 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 God 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)
What is peace? Reconciliation with God through Christ, empowered by His Spirit.*
In this case, 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 full of peace within them can truly bring about peace around them. We think of peace as the end of hostility, so we often start there: “Everybody stop fighting!” That’s good…but it’s the veneer of peace. Peace begins within. When writing to the church in Galatia, Paul had 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 understood God’s peace – he’d been reconciled with God through Christ and empowered by His Spirit, and now he had unshakeable identity. He understood mercy – a covenantal, compassionate love for others. Paul had been given much by grace; he would extend this principle to others. You can have this too (says Paul) if you live by this principle.
All that matters is that, through Christ crucified, we are made a “new creation.” That is what knits us together inside and makes us whole. That is the source of meaning, worth, and self-image. Peace begins in us, not around us when we are in right relationship with Christ. Here’s how this looks practically.
- "You look like you are putting on weight!” My body grows older. My boast is in Christ.
- “Where did you buy that!?” My fashion taste is lousy. My boast is in Christ.
- “You have a dead-end job! Wow, you really wasted your Saturday!” My accomplishments are straw. My boast is in Christ.
- “How could you have forgotten that thing? How could you overlook that person?” I am not perfect. My boast is in Christ.
- “I can’t believe you haven’t heard of Mr. X or the latest international event!” I don’t know everything. My boast is in Christ.
- “You haven't gone anywhere cool, have you?” I don’t have much money. My boast is in Christ.
- “People are gossiping about you.” Let them. My boast is in Christ.
There is great peace in being able to say, “I am nothing on my own, but I am reconciled with God through Christ and empowered by His Spirit. I will not fear my failures or worship my successes. He must increase and I must decrease. My boast is in Christ.”
Peace and mercy to all who live by this principle – they are the blessed children of God.
* "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