What is peace? Is it the absence of conflict between individuals or groups or having a tranquil state of mind? Is it something we can attain? And, probably more importantly, who gets to define what peace really is?
The word “Peace” can elicit a variety of pictures in the mind from the iconic symbol borne out of the Nuclear Disarmament movement to doves holding olive branches to tie-dye garbed people with their index and ring fingers up speaking a message in a form of cultural sign language.
For those familiar with the Bible, peace is a very familiar concept. There are more than four hundred references to peace in the Bible. The Psalmists refer to peace between the nation of Israel and its neighbors (29:11), as something to pursue (34:14), and as an inheritance for the meek and righteous (37:11, 37). Isaiah the Prophet makes multiple references to peace, stating that it will be taken from the wicked (48:22), and given by the Lord to those who trust in him and are his children (26:3, 54:13, 66:12). Perhaps the most significant reference to peace by Isaiah is in 53:5, where he prophesies of Jesus Christ, “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.”
So then how can Jesus – the “Prince of Peace” – say, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”? The rest of the New Testament is rife with verses that extol the peace that is brought to us through Jesus Christ. Jesus even told his Disciples later on in John 14, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.” How can this be? Simple.
Context is the key to understanding the paradox of how Jesus both gives and takes peace. One of the most instructive passages to understand this is also one of the most misquoted and flippantly abused verses in the Bible – Luke 2:14. Most people have heard it this way: “Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace and goodwill to men.” By that reading, Jesus came to bring peace to everyone. Since lasting peace on Earth has eluded us for thousands of years, the angels were either lying or misinformed. However, that’s not what that famous verse actually says. What is says is, ““Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.”
Context is very important whether it’s the immediate context of a verse or the entire metanarrative of the Bible. Matthew 10:34-42 must be interpreted within the context of the surrounding verses where Jesus is warning his Disciples that persecution and suffering will come on account of him and the Gospel. In verses 34-36, he points out that the division will be so sharp and personal it will cause families to split and believers in Jesus to be ostracized and even martyred as the early Jewish Christians experienced, and as we see today especially within Islamic countries. Paul said in 2 Timothy 3:12, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (emphasis mine) In the rest of Matthew 10 Jesus basically tells his Disciples they will need to turn their notions of life and prosperity upside down – “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
“But, persecution and martyrdom isn’t very peaceful,” you might be thinking. True. But, Paul also warned and encouraged the church in Philippi of the cost of following Jesus and of the need to esteem him above all worldly comforts and pleasures; and then he concluded by assuring them the “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” would guard their hearts and minds “in Christ Jesus.”
The solution to the paradox is this: Jesus gives peace – not as the world gives it – that is so deep and meaningful we cannot even understand it. This is the kind of peace that allows a person to suffer and die for Jesus with a smile on their face and words of “forgive them for they know not what they do” on their lips. That’s the peace Jesus gives to “those with whom he is pleased.” For everyone else, Jesus brings a sword. Because the world is full of sinful people, pride-driven conflict at all levels – from interpersonal to international – will prevent any lasting semblance of whatever definition of peace people have in their minds. Division and strife because of borders, classes, races, sexual identities and just about anything else we can disagree about will continue to mar our attempts at harmony. This is all for a reason though: to enflame our inherent and God-given desire for lasting and true peace that can only be found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ that reconciles us to God and to each other.