As we approach the time of year when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we will again turn to the story of the angels bringing tidings of great joy to the shepherds. Our carols will resound with the message of the heavenly choir, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men’ (KJV, Lk. 2:14). Some may be part of a choir singing Handel’s most famous oratorio including that wonderful chorus, using words from the prophet Isaiah:
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace (KJV, Is.9:6).
Yet for all the talk of Jesus as the Prince of Peace we live in a world of conflict. At the time of writing, Yemen is into its eighth year of a civil war; conflict continues between Israel and the Palestinians; Ukraine and Russia are in a horrible conflict with talk of a new Cold War or even worse to come. Closer to home, society seems to be more fragmented than ever. If Jesus was meant to bring peace into our world, how is it that two thousand years after he lived there is as much conflict as ever? Can we seriously sing those words about ‘Peace on earth, and mercy mild’?
We tend to equate peace with absence of conflict. When the guns fall silent and the bombing stops, then that equals peace. However, shalom, the Hebrew word which is translated as peace, is one of the richest words in the Old Testament. It is a positive word, conveying wholeness. It is the peace that would have been experienced in the garden in Eden before the serpent entered. There, Adam and Eve were in a right relationship with each other, with creation, and most importantly, with the Creator, enjoying the blessings which he was richly bestowing upon them.
Later, the priests would use the same word to bless the people who were in a covenant with God. He would be their God and they would be his chosen people, enjoying all that was promised to them in the covenant. Yet in practice this was, and is, difficult to maintain, because it entails being in a right relationship with God. That is something we all fail to do and so shalom is lost, with consequences stretching into every area of our lives. A restlessness enters our lives and we don’t have to live in a war zone to know something of that unease. Augustine said it well in his famous quote, ‘You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.’
The conflict resolved
Whilst shalom is more than the absence of conflict, where conflict exists it must be resolved for peace to be found. The root cause of our unease, the broken relationship between us and our Creator, needs to be resolved. We cannot accomplish it because we are the transgressors. We’re the ones who have offended God by walking out of fellowship with him. We’ve broken his fundamental rule for us, that we love him with all our heart, mind and soul, and love our fellow human beings as ourselves.
Yet God moved toward us, by coming to our world as one of us. The baby laid in a manger was not simply another human being but God the Son coming in human form, the eternal Word was made flesh. So when we speak of the one born in Bethlehem as the Prince of Peace, we cannot separate his birth from his life, his teaching and especially his death and resurrection. For ‘the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Matt. 20:28).
We are all condemned to die someday, but he chose to come, to live the perfect life that we have failed to do. Then he presented himself, the innocent, unblemished lamb of God as a perfect sacrifice. He took upon himself that which we deserve and in that terrible cry on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matt. 27:46) our Prince of Peace faced the utter darkness and desolation which we deserve.
Some may object to this, asking why should the God of love do this to his Son? Yet, he takes our actions seriously. We have all felt something of the righteous anger upon hearing how Russian troops invaded Ukraine this year. On the cross, the holy and righteous God is proclaiming his utter opposition to all that is unrighteous and evil in this world. Our sin is treason against the loving ruler of the universe. He cares for all who have been wronged in this life and on Calvary he proclaims justice to them.
There is more. If the consequences of our enmity to God have been dealt with on the cross, can paradise be regained? Scripture tells us that the cross was not the end of the story. Christ was raised from the dead on the third day and taken up into Heaven to sit at God’s right hand. In the words of Paul, ‘[he] was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification’ (Rom. 4:25). Jesus promised that those who put their faith in him would receive new life, a new living relationship with God. As he sits at the Father’s right hand side he intercedes for us, and the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Godhead, comes to dwell with us and in us, bringing God’s shalom to each one who believes.
On the night of his betrayal, Jesus told the disciples:
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).
They certainly did know fear during the next few days. Then Jesus appeared to them on the evening of the day of resurrection, and his first words to them were, ‘Peace be with you’ (John 20:19). He not only accomplished peace, he also brings peace, a peace which we will know fully when he returns in glory, wiping every tear from our eyes.
This Christmas, therefore, let us boldly sing:
Hark the herald angels sing,
Glory to the new born King!
Peace on earth, and mercy mild.
God and sinners reconciled.