By Douglas Redford
(This article, reprinted here with minor updates, first appeared in Christian Standard on December 22, 1985.)
During the Christmas season in 1984, an event occurred which served as a revealing commentary on the times. Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, an Anglican church leader, was in Oslo, Norway, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. But the presentation was held up for more than an hour after an anonymous telephone caller told an Oslo newspaper that a bomb had been placed in the reception hall and would explode in 10 minutes. Although a careful search turned up nothing, it is ironic that an award for peace could not be given because of the absence of peace.
Though numerous peace prizes have been awarded through the years, yet another Christmas season is approaching in which peace on earth is far from a reality. Once more the angels are singing, but who is listening?
One of the fervent hopes of human beings everywhere during this season will be “peace on earth.” It is so every Christmas. The fact that peace is still a hope and a dream indicates that the peace the world seeks has not yet been achieved. It isn’t that the world does not desire peace. Humankind has presented awards for peace, sought and signed peace treaties, and promoted peace talks, yet our world is falling into pieces, not falling into peace.
If only the world could, as the carol says, “rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.” Society’s longings for peace are energized, not by God’s power, but by human ingenuity. People seem to have forgotten that the declaration of peace on earth came not from earth, but from Heaven to earth.
It came at the point in time when Jesus Christ entered the world. Peace is not found in a human pact, paper, or program, but in a divine person. Of this person, Paul would later write, “He himself is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14). This person declared, as he faced death by crucifixion, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).
The peace on earth which Jesus came to bring is far different from the peace of earth. This difference is crucial.
In the first place, when the world speaks of peace, it is trying to achieve it by focusing on the wrong sets of circumstances or situations. Peace is usually defined in terms of an end to global conflict or a cessation of strife between nations. Treaties or agreements concerning weapons are carefully constructed. A call for a ban or moratorium on weapons is issued, that there might be peace.
Yet such circumstances as these were not Jesus’ primary concern. He dealt with the timeless, universal obstacles to peace, which lie within each of us. Even if at this very moment no more nuclear weapons were built and the others that we have could be disposed of, we would still not have the real peace Jesus desires for us.
Numerous other problems and crises remain in our world. There would be an abundance of other reasons for our hearts to be troubled and afraid, as Jesus put it. What the Bible calls the “works of the flesh” (King James Version) would still be rampant (Galatians 5:19-21). Whatever “world peace” might have been attained through human effort would not affect the strife in individual hearts and homes caused by sin.
The world also looks to the wrong people for aid in achieving peace. It proposes that if we can bring the right leaders to the same table, there will be a greater chance for peace among the nations represented by those leaders. But the Christmas message declares that the problem is not nation versus nation; it is people versus God. God’s leadership makes peace possible. This peace is attained not on a national level, but on a personal level.
Usually when Luke 2:14 is read during the Christmas season, it is rendered, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (King James Version). This is not the best translation of the text. Many of the more modern versions offer a more accurate reading—such as the New Revised Standard Version (“on earth peace among those whom he favors!”), New American Standard Bible (“peace among people with whom He is pleased”), and the New International Version (“on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests”). In these translations the emphasis is not merely a general condition of peace on earth; it is peace to people. It is a personal peace, specially possessed by individuals pleasing to God.
The peace of Jesus is not a quality one looks around and sees in the society surrounding them. The world believes, “Let us have peace in our society or our world and then we will have a better world and thus a better chance for personal peace.” This is not the “peace on earth” which the angels announced.
The peace of which they spoke can remain within a person regardless of what may be happening on earth. This peace abides despite circumstances and can sustain and encourage even when the world’s attempts at peace are frustrated. Jesus did not come to change world conditions by altering the conditions; he came to change individuals regardless of the world conditions under which they might be living.
He even indicated that acceptance of his peace might well produce conditions of conflict and tension, much of this brought on by an unaccepting world. He spoke of this paradox on different occasions, as in John 16:33: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Even when there is very little peace on earth (as today), the individual can have peace.
The Scriptures seem to indicate that world conditions may not improve; certainly they will not improve as long as people seek peace without God. “Evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse,” wrote Paul, “deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:13). Yet God’s personal peace can abide.
Where Peace Is Found
These truths are perhaps no more clearly seen than in the details of the Christmas story itself. The surroundings were the worst under which a baby could be born. Mary was forced to make the grueling trip to Bethlehem in her condition, an innocent victim of an emperor’s scheme to generate more income. When the child was born, he did not even have a decent place to sleep. But what mattered in all of this was not the circumstances; the focus was upon Christ the Lord, who had just entered our world. Many things were absent from that stable, but peace was not one of them.
The political climate of the time was also far from ideal. We look at our world, and we may shudder at brutal leaders such as Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Kim Jong-un of North Korea. But we can only speculate as to whether either of these men could “hold a candle” to Herod the Great, whose palace was no more than a few miles from the manger. Herod’s atrocity (recorded in Matthew 2:16-18) is the most horrifying detail of the Christmas story. Yet the Herods of the earth did not disappear when Jesus was born, nor was the burden of Rome lifted. Herod remained cruel to the day of his death; Rome remained unyielding. On the surface, nothing seemed to change, and yet everything had changed.
Luke 2:13 states that “a great army of heaven’s angels” (Good News Translation) appeared to the shepherds. This army was present because a battle was beginning to rage. The Prince of Peace had come, and he did not rest until he had paid the price of peace—his own life, given for the sins of the world, given so that individuals in all times and places could have peace. The treaty has been established by his death, burial, and resurrection; the price of his own blood has been paid. When this peace is received and becomes a reality in any individual’s life, it means indeed, “Glory to God in the highest.”
The peace which the angels announced has come! It is not a wish or a fantasy, to be constantly frustrated by the failures of governments and their leaders. The peace of Christmas did not depend upon the efforts of any government to be maintained in the time of Christ. Neither does it depend on such efforts today!
When circumstances are most trying and world conditions seem to deteriorate daily, personal peace remains an individual’s secure possession. Let us not be overwhelmed by such conditions (or influenced by the efforts of many churches in our society to devote themselves to “peace” as the world defines it).
Let us offer peace on the terms of Heaven, not of earth, for peace is Heaven’s Christmas gift—for all peoples in all times and seasons. As Peter declared to the house of Cornelius, “[This is] the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all” (Acts 10:36).
In 1985, when he wrote this, Douglas Redford was serving with Christ’s Church at Plymouth in Indiana. Currently he is the minister at Highview Christian Church in Cincinnati. In the intervening years he was an editor of adult Sunday school curriculum and a Bible college professor.