The other day I was making ornaments and trying to figure out slightly-meaningful phrases to put on them. "Merry & Bright", "Joy", and "Let It Snow" weren't doing it for me. As I painted the words "Peace on Earth," I immediately recoiled, realizing that this was a concept so misunderstood that it has become hollow, even cheap.
"Peace on Earth" is used so broadly in holiday art and festive greeting that we haven't stopped to evaluate what it means. Is Christmas a time for mankind to come together and, despite their differences, have peace with one another? Did the birth of Jesus prove that miracles can happen and maybe our planet-dwellers can all get along someday? Was Jesus an inspiring pacifist who never intended to stir up any trouble? I'm guessing these are the cultural assumptions behind the popularity of the phrase "peace on earth", so I'd like to debunk them because, like I said, they're cheap. A general sense of "peace on earth" gives Christmas about as much depth and fortitude as a potato chip.
Also, just because the King James Version translated the angels' announcement to the shepherds in Luke 2:14 as "peace on earth, goodwill toward men" doesn't mean that it's the best translation of what the biblical author intended.
Now listen. I’m an uneducated 25-year-old, not a scholar. I will not attempt to "go into the Greek" on this one. Though I think studying ancient languages can be helpful for people who are able to properly do so, I don't think we need extrabiblical information to understand the Bible. But I also don't think we as a culture understand this extremely popular phrase. So, using the Bible, I would like to offer normal-person-level reasons why a) Jesus's birth didn't bring peace on earth, b) Jesus's birth did bring peace on earth, and c) Jesus's birth will bring peace on earth.
A) Jesus's birth didn't bring peace on earth.
To use His own words from Matthew 10, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." This isn't a verse that people like to mention when they are trying to make Jesus look good. But Jesus said it, and I believe He is true and good, so let's wrestle with it.
We get clarity about what Jesus meant about "bring[ing] a sword" by the obvious context and also by further “contradiction”: other places in scripture make it clear that Jesus did not come to actually bring war physically. Remember when He was being arrested and He rebuked Peter for slashing a guy's ear? He said "For all who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Matthew 26:52) and in John 18:36, Jesus said "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world."
So what was Jesus talking about in Matthew 10 if fighting isn't His strategy? The surrounding verses tells us that He used sword imagery to illustrate that He is divisive. He's not pretending to be some ecumenical religious figure. He made it clear that His father is God and He is God. Elsewhere you'll find Him saying things like "whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him." That doesn't give people warm fuzzies, and it certainly would never award Him a Nobel Peace Prize.
Jesus didn't come to the earth with the good news that everyone can stay the way they are and that peace will come and all will be well and all people can have hope. Jesus came with the bad news that anyone who doesn't follow Him will suffer forever. That is the kind of divisiveness He is talking about in Matthew 10. The message of Jesus is disruptive, offensive, and so hard to accept that not even His brothers believed in Him (John 7:5.) The message of Jesus is what drove people to hate him so viciously that they screamed for a notorious criminal and murderer to go free so that a homeless, miracle-worker could be crucified.
B) Jesus's birth did bring peace on earth.
So the general idea of Jesus bringing "peace on earth, goodwill to men" seems to be, biblically and from personal experience, bogus. The earth certainly doesn't have peace now and it never ever has. My preschool-age children and I learned this very quickly as we studied world history. There have always been greedy men with bloodthirsty followers, the oppressed often become the oppressors, and every culture has its own vile practices. Peace on earth has never happened, and we've never been on a trajectory where it looks likely. There isn't exactly a reason to have hope that the world will someday figure out how to vastly improve.
Unless, of course, the angels really did mean that peace would come to the earth, and the prophets meant it hundreds of years before Jesus was born when they said He would be a "Prince of Peace." To explain:
The inhabitants of the earth have, since the beginning, been warring with God whether we realized it or not. Adam and Eve's choice to disobey God in the garden was mutiny, an attempted dethroning, and an act of spiritual war. Everyone since has spent their lives attempting the same, whether we're loathed criminals or beloved clergy. We constantly consider ourselves to be the supreme authority of our lives, so we disregard our Maker's ways and establish ourselves as god. God is not okay with this. His bow of wrath is aimed toward us for this (see Psalm 7:12.)
But the fact that Jesus came gives specific hope for specific people. This savior is for the whole world, yes—scripture drips with God’s global love for every single culture; I literally weep for joy at the thought of this. But He came specifically for those who would believe. If you don’t have any interest in God but you've been told that you're His child and He loves you just as much as He loves everyone else, no wonder He's so unappealing! My husband certainly doesn't live all kids as much as He loves our kids. And I would be appalled if my husband claimed to love all women as much as he loves me. Having a special affection for the people who are your own is not unfair; it's love.
The coming of Jesus, which began His perfect life, His subbing-for-our-sin death, and His resurrection, was indeed "good news of great joy" that is available to all people.
Other Bible translations interpret the second half of Luke 2:14 like this:
"...on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (ESV)
"...on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests." (NIV)
"...peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased." (NLT)
The specificity of who receives peace with God makes it rich. If you think your default position with God is "peace" and that you're already a child of God, then there is nothing left to do about all those feelings you have of guilt, shame, fear, and confusion. But if you believe that peace with God is possible through Jesus, then you have every reason to throw yourself into Jesus's arms and have true hope (see Romans 5.)
Jesus made it clear that He has come to bring peace, but not as the world gives it (John 14:27.) He introduces a whole different kind of peace, not merely the absence of conflict (which all of us would be content to have!) but the presence of blessing. Peace with God doesn't merely mean that He isn't mad at us, but it means He actively loves us, delights in us, and works for our good. This peace extends even now to believers; since we have peace with God, we can have peace with each other. And, even beyond that, we can have peace with all people—even people who wrong us or have nothing in common with us—because all our needs have been met by the “peace with God” factor, and we are free to live peaceably with others to the best of our ability (Romans 12:18.)
C) Jesus's birth will bring peace on earth.
Here's the part where we get to dream. It's thrilling to imagine a world that not only lacks the stuff we all despise (injustice, death, pain, sorrow) but is full of the stuff our hearts have always longed for (peace, justice, joy, unity, diversity.) We can't rightly enjoy anything unless we enjoy it how the Maker intended. We don’t even know what justice or righteousness is unless we look to the One of whom it is said in Psalm 97, “righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne.”
Take a minute to read Revelation 21 and 22 and be thrilled at the great hope for eternity, Heaven, aka the New Earth, aka the Resurrection, aka The World We’ve All Been Longing For. This hope is for those who believe in Christ, anyway. The whole reason our planet is such a mess is because of the people in it, self included. But after Jesus died, he began a new kind of resurrection life that will happen to all whose sins went with Him to the grave, were buried, and are now gone (see Romans 6:4.) The resurrected life of the Christian is another one of those already/not yet situations that is both confusing and thrilling: we already have new life in Him once we believe in Him, but one day we will really experience new life in Him, perfectly and completely. And on this day when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14), there will be peace. Glorious, perfect peace not messed up by sin anymore.
So, next time you see the phrase “Peace on Earth” or hear Linus telling the Christmas story, remember the richness of that idea. If you think you’ve experienced “peace on earth” to the full extent the angels were describing, you could certainly afford to dream and hope about something much, much better than what you see now…if you believe in the peace-disrupting Prince of Peace. :)
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My name is Hope.
I'm 25, married to a former skater dude, and raising little people ages 5, 3, 1, and not-yet-born. I like lime green and sarsaparilla, and I wear my Crocs until they melt. (Florida problems.)
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