In his famous poem, “Christmas Bells,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow captures his despair and hope as he wrestles with “peace on earth” or the lack thereof in the final two stanzas:
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
Part of the answer to Longfellow’s despair is that the text of Luke 2:14 actually intends a peace in the present time. The song of the angels has not failed in the present for they declared Glory to God in the highest (true then, at present, and forever) and peace on earth among people of favor. The text should be read as “people of favor,” that is, people on whom God’s favor rests (see NIV translation of this verse). Therefore, fundamentally the peace declared at Christmas time should remind us that the angels sang about peace to people on whom God’s favor rests, that is, those who have experienced his saving grace.
Christ Jesus fulfilled that declaration of peace in his first advent. Christ came to preach the favorable year of the Lord (see Isaiah 61:2; Luke 4:19-21). He ushered in this favorable year by shedding his own blood and inaugurating the covenant of peace (see Isaiah 54:10; Ezekiel 34:25; compare with the new covenant in Luke 22:14-20), which secured the forgiveness of sins for all who repent of their sin and trust in him (see Luke 24:44-49). Christ’s sacrifice made peace and created a people, a new humanity—the Church (see Ephesians 2:14-18; Romans 5:1; Colossians 1:20). Therefore, Longfellow should have rejoiced in the present peace the Church has with God in Christ. However, we can sympathize with Longfellow’s observation of the absence of peace on earth. The Church must regain a vital part of its mission of peacemaking, energized by the Holy Spirit bearing the fruit of peace within us.
The Bible describes the church as those who are to be at peace (1 Thessalonians 5:13), peaceable with all men (Romans 12:18), striving for peace (Hebrews 12:14), and maintaining unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3). A good example of the use of shalom (Hebrew for peace) is Jeremiah 29:7, where God instructs the people of Judah to seek the welfare (shalom) of the city (Babylon!), for in its welfare (shalom) you will find your welfare (shalom). Here “peacemaking” means that we should seek to be a blessing in whatever context God places us. First and foremost, we are to be agents of the gospel that brings peace to repentant sinners. Second, we are to be agents who seek the welfare and the good of the people with whom we come into contact.
This Christmas, may we be diplomats of peace between people and God and people and people as we reflect on the peace of God that dawned in the first advent of Christ Jesus.
By Dr. John Meade