For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.
Isaiah 9:6-7 (NIV)
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth: it is not peace I have come to bring, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set son against father, daughter against mother, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law; 36 a person’s enemies will be the members of his own household.”
Matthew 10:34-36 (NJB)
“Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you like the world gives. So, don’t let your heart be thrown into turmoil, and do not be afraid.”
John 14:27 (my translation)
One of the reasons that Christians derive hope from Advent is because of the promise of peace. We may not always understand what peace is, but we know that we need it. And we know that, at least as far back as Isaiah, Israel’s prophets saw lasting peace as one of the quintessential results of God’s decisive action in the world.
But like many promises that are said to have their fulfillment in Christ, the promise of peace is fraught with ambiguity. Jesus himself seems to repudiate any notion that peace is a natural consequence of his ministry, and it is not difficult to understand why. Regardless of whether one follows the traditional Protestant reading of the first-century religious situation or subscribes to one of the many theories that have arisen since E. P. Sanders published his groundbreaking study Paul and Palestinian Judaism, one thing is clear. His message was radical, and it was bound to engender controversy.
Indeed, the conflict that Jesus inaugurated was more than just a clash of ideas or a struggle for worldly power. Revelation 12 indicates that, by coming into the world, Jesus set off a cosmic conflagration—an all-out war between the forces of evil and the Triune God. Jesus won that war by obediently submitting to death on the cross and by rising from the dead, but the forces of evil have not surrendered. Instead, they have turned their murderous fury upon those who profess their allegiance to the risen Christ, the Son of God.
And yet, in the midst of this conflagration, Jesus promises his followers peace. How can this be? After all, our own lives are often a microcosm of the social and cosmic maelstrom that was set off by Jesus. We face opposition to our efforts to live faithfully for Jesus, not only from cosmic powers and cultural forces that oppose Christ’s reign but also from our own rebellious psyche. We experience tragic losses of life, destructive upheavals in the natural order, debilitating illnesses, and other calamitous events. We endure the violent criminality of people who have no interest in the peace and justice promised by Israel’s Messiah.
None of this sounds like peace. None of it looks like peace. None of it feels like peace. And that is because it isn’t peace. But it is precisely in this context that Jesus promises peace to those who put their trust in him.
This, too, is part of the matrix of our experience. Yes, we experience opposition, but we also find love and support in the hearts and the hands of those who share our commitment to Jesus. Yes, we experience the unfathomable pain that is so often the defining characteristic of human life, but we also receive a healing that is deeper and more profound than we can express in words. Yes, we experience the consequences of other people’s sin, but we also obtain the wisdom not to participate in their criminality and the strength to forgive them when that criminality impacts us. And in all of these situations—and a million others besides—we walk hand in hand with the risen Christ through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.
Peace is, first and foremost, an all-embracing wholeness of life. It reaches to the very core of our being and reaches out to the bonds that we have with one another and with God. In that sense, peace has not yet fully come. But we eagerly anticipate its arrival because we have seen its residue in our lives. We know what Christ has endured to bring it about, and we know that he can be trusted to complete the good work that he has begun.