Peace on earth?

Well, I meant to post this at Christmas, but Christmas got in the way.

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:13-14 KJV)

It’s such a familiar passage, and such a beloved one – the first Christmas angels’ wonderful, universal message of God’s peace for all people. For many it’s a timeless source of hope and comfort in a troubled world.

But I’m always here to complicate the simple and cast doubt on the blatantly obvious 😉

I really love this passage, but it raises some difficult questions for me. Where is this long-promised peace? Is it really for everyone? And does the peace Jesus brings look anything like the kind we expect and want?

Where is the peace?

So my initial and somewhat cynical reaction to the angels’ message is ‘Peace on earth? Fat chance’. Looking around at the world, the ancient promise of peace can seem pretty hollow – at best an idealistic pipe-dream that can never become reality.

Right now I see the unending tragic bloodbath of Syria’s civil war, in turn helping fuel an ever-worsening refugee crisis as well as terrible terrorist atrocities, in turn encouraging the rise of right-wing extremist parties in Europe. I see a divided UK post-Brexit, a divided US post-election, an unravelling Europe, a terrifyingly unstable Middle East, and a frighteningly autocratic and aggressive Russia.

And looking inward at my own heart and life I often see precious little peace there either. I see a legion of anxieties, fears, stresses, guilt and countless other things that make for un-peace.

So, over two thousand years since the Christmas angels first brought their words of hope, why are we still not seeing the peace they promised?

Of course, the promise could just be a lie, or perhaps a mistake – but I don’t really believe that.

It could be merely a salutation or greeting – the heavenly equivalent of “Hello” or Happy Christmas!” That’s more plausible, but I still don’t quite buy it.

Perhaps we’re simply still waiting for the promised peace to come.

Or perhaps – and I think this is most likely – we’ve simply misunderstood the peace the angels are promising and how to enter into it. Perhaps God’s peace has already come to us, but it’s not how we imagined so we miss it.

Who is the promised peace for?

In the King James translation it’s “on earth peace, goodwill toward men” – unequivocal, universal and inclusive. But have a look at the New International Version (henceforth the Not Inclusive Version):

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to all on whom his favour rests”.

Looking at this you’d hardly know it was the same verse of Scripture – in the NIV it has become a limited and exclusive peace only for those whom God specially favours. How do we make any sense of this?

I’m not a Greek scholar, but looking at other versions you get the impression the translators are struggling to make sense of an unclear clause which can be read in various ways. Some have a half-way version: “Peace to all men of goodwill (or men of favour)”.

So it’s either God’s peace and goodwill (favour) to all men, or it’s God’s peace to all men of goodwill (favour). And if it’s the latter, it could either be peace to the people whom he favours, or to those who embody goodwill.

This highlights to me one of the problems of relying on the Bible as our sole source of truth, because in some key places like this its meaning is unclear and ambiguous.

So which version is true? I think this is where you have to decide what kind of God you believe in. Is he a God who only cares for a limited few, perhaps only those who believe in him or follow his ways? Or is he a God whose mercy and grace are unbounded and for all?

For me it has to be the latter. It must be peace and goodwill for all, not merely a few. Perhaps not all will want it or accept it, but it is freely offered and available to all, always.

What is God’s peace like?

I’ve said that maybe we don’t see the angels’ promised peace because it isn’t the kind we expect.

Perhaps the peace Jesus brings is not an overwhelming peace that forces itself on our notice, a peace that everyone can see and that we cannot help but receive. Perhaps it is rather a quiet, hidden, even shy peace which we have to discover and nurture for ourselves, and within ourselves.

A little paradoxically, I also believe that God’s peace – shalom – is an active, living thing, the vibrant presence of his life and love and hope. God’s peace is not merely a passive or empty thing, an absence of conflict and strife.

Indeed, God’s peace is most present and active in the midst of our troubles. It does not take away the turbulence and turmoil of life on this earth but transforms and redeems it from within. “In this world you will have trouble”, says Jesus (none too comfortingly), “But take heart – I have overcome the world.”

Why do we not choose peace?

I also suspect that God’s peace may be something we have to welcome actively – it doesn’t always occur in us automatically.

But this can be hard. The path to healing and so to true peace often requires us first to open ourselves up to pain, perhaps the pain of acknowledging things about ourselves and our lives that we’d do almost anything to avoid facing. So we too often lock ourselves away in refuges which become prisons. God calls to us to come out, and until we do we are not truly at peace.

The other thing is that Jesus’ peace is not always obviously desirable. It can be deeply troublesome to any who have a vested interest in the current world order, the status quo. Perhaps this is how Jesus, the promised Prince of Peace, can proclaim “I have not come to bring peace but a sword”. His peace is paradoxical, sometimes problematic and even divisive.

God’s peace is available to all, but not all want it. I believe God is seeking ‘people of peace’, or ‘people of goodwill’; people who truly desire the kind of life and world that God offers and are prepared to work with him to bring it about. God excludes no-one, but perhaps we may exclude ourselves if we wish.

So in response to the angels’ message, I acknowledge that all too often I’m not a person of peace, and that too often I do shut myself out of the peace God wants to bring to the world. I pray that I – that we all – will be able truly to welcome God’s active, living, surprising peace within our hearts, our homes, our work, our worries, our weaknesses and problems, the whole messy reality of our lives.

And I wish you all a truly peaceful and happy New Year.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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12 Responses to Peace on earth?

  1. jesuswithoutbaggage says:

    Good post! And it raises a very good question.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Terry says:

    Some good thoughts as always, Harvey.

    Luke 2:14 is indeed quite an awkward phrase, but the KJV translation is likely to be regarded as unhelpfully antiquated. The NIV (and NRSV, CEB, ESV, etc.) provide more feasible translations of the original Greek. The interpretation need not be the either/or you suppose, though. One commentary I’ve consulted says that the angels’ song alludes to Israel’s election – so, to paraphrase, ‘Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s chosen people, Israel.’ This covenantal understanding clearly stands in continuity with the Old Testament, in my opinion, and with all the preceding material (e.g. the Magnificat) in Luke’s Gospel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Terry says:

      Oh, and happy new year to y’all!

      Like

    • Terry, I’m shocked. Our mutual hero Jack Chick knew well that the King James is the ONLY true and inspired translation of God’s Unerring Word. May Chick forgive your heresy and intercede for you. (And to anyone else reading this, no, I’m not being serious.)

      The commentary you cite does make sense, but I’m not entirely convinced – it sounds to me like a very slightly tortuous rendering of the angels’ reported words, however translated. But I do see that God’s favour and peace starts with Israel and then through Jesus reaches out to all – so perhaps the ambiguity in the message is intentional or at least unproblematic.

      Completely fair point about it not being either/or – I was simply comparing the two translations which (to me at least) do appear to present a bit of an either/or choice of reading!

      And a very happy New Year to y’all too. 🙂

      Like

    • PS on reflection, ‘tortuous’ was a bit harsh – I just meant that it seems to be reading more into the verse than the words directly suggest, based on historical/theological assumptions which are sound but may possibly be misplaced here. To my thinking, it may be more significant that Israel isn’t mentioned in the angels’ message – in which case it’s legitimate to read the words both as peace to God’s historically chosen people and also to all those who will in future become part of the extended Israel through Jesus. And so possibly to everyone, at least in potential. Maybe. 🙂

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      • Terry says:

        ‘Tortuous’ wasn’t harsh, but I do think it was misplaced. To see 2:14 as referring to Israel seems to make more sense of the passage, given the context. According to the same commentary I mentioned above, the phrase is paralleled in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls where the context makes it absolutely clear that ‘all on whom his favour rests’ is the people of Israel. So, if anything, it seems ‘tortuous’ to interpret this verse to mean anything other than Israel.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Good points and reminders: Peace is often only achieved, not merely received.

    Your opening reminded me that this ambiguity perhaps encapsulates that irony within the Gospels (and Paul, etc.): That God is loving, forgiving, etc. BUT you only get those goodies if you are one of us, the true followers of God. (Most people are still in rebellion, or otherwise on the outside.)

    Most NT readers (or “believers”), unhistorical as we tend to be, are ignorant or ignoring of some key context re “peace on earth”. The Gospels were written in a time and around (if not within) a place where peace had long NOT been present in terms of social environment and national conflicts. Or only briefly so, and even then conditions not very settled or comfortable. But the BIG context was this:

    Rome had just squashed, in a massively brutal way, the rebellion of Jews of 66-70. Destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple after a starvation campaign and brutal wall-breach and house-to-house slaughter. Jerusalem had still been the headquarters for Jesus-as-Messiah belief. (Mark, almost certainly the earliest Gospel, may have been written just before the “end”, near or earlier in 70, and from a location some distance from Jerusalem… with clear expectation that the Kingdom was soon to be brought in because of signs that all was soon to be fulfilled – 13:4). Mark seems clear and confident (via his report of Jesus’ words) that the coming peaceful reign of Messiah was probably mere months (no more than a number of years) away: “… this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (13:30, NIV).

    At least Matthew and Luke, probably 10 to 20 years or so later, hold onto this kind of apocalyptic hope, while the split between Jewish Jesus-followers and other sects of Jews widens and tensions increase, including persecutions in some (but not all!) areas. Again… not “peace” by any stretch, although hope for it remained, via hope of God’s supernatural intervention to impose it…. But impose it violently!

    Already had the Gospel writers, and presumably many who they sought to address, departed from Jesus’ approach of nonviolence and his view of God as forgiving and accepting of ALL – a nonviolent God. This was perhaps the true core of Jesus’ message, leading to broadening of “neighbor” to even “enemy”, whom we are to love, even if persecuting us. We are to love universally because God loves universally, and is NOT coming to miraculously kill all those who supposedly “oppose” him (as some seemingly do, knowingly). THIS is the foundation of peace, inwardly and interpersonally, internationally. Not waiting in hope of rapture (snatching up) or of God’s vengeance on his presumed “enemies”, evil though some may be.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Howard – that approach makes the most sense to me too. I’m not sure I’m anywhere near up to the task of loving universally – my reaction to Trump shows that fairly clearly – but I know what I need to be aiming for.

      A very happy New Year to you 🙂

      Like

  4. Jenny Rayner says:

    Thanks Harvey (and Terry). Surely we have got to understand peace in light of Jesus’ farewell words: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” John 14:27 ESV. It’s the peace of God that surpasses all understanding (Phil 4:7) so maybe we shouldn’t even try to understand it!
    Maybe we ought also to consider who the angels were talking to. According to E Stanley Jones in “Abundant Living” (1946), before Jesus gathered a group movement around Him, there was another group movement which preceded it. This has been called “The Redemptionists” – made up of those who were “looking for the redemption of Israel” at a time when there was decay within Israel: the voice of prophecy had ceased and religion was formal and dead. Also called “the remnant” this group “held aloft the torch of reality amid the encircling gloom”. He traces the Redemptionists in the opening chapters of Luke’s gospel by what he calls “the family likeness of ideas running through them all” and surmises that it included Zacharias and Elisabeth, Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna, and the shepherds. So that may well explain why the angels brought the news to the shepherds – news of peace and goodwill to people of goodwill, who were then given the responsibility of declaring that good news to “all people”. It is only as we seek the One who brought redemption that we can know the peace that only He gives.
    (Sermon over!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Jenny – good thoughts!

      I completely agree that the peace Jesus gives is beyond our understanding – but I’d like to try and understand it as far as possible anyway 🙂

      Interesting about ‘The Redemptionists’ – not something I’ve come across before, but it makes sense and perhaps ties in with Terry’s comment about the Dead Sea Scrolls.

      I think you’re right in your closing remarks – ‘it’s only as we seek the One who brought redemption that we can know the peace that only He gives’. Though I’d say that Jesus may also sometimes give peace to people who are not directly seeking him…

      Like

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