Peace is a perennial topic as one year ends and another year approaches. Signs proclaim, “Peace on earth!” Wishes are made for world peace. And sometimes, when Christmas lights are aglow, the cider and cocoa are hot, the children are quiet, and nostalgic carols play in the background, we think we may have found it.
Perhaps it’s the absence of negative things — warfare, division, sickness, poverty, or injustice. Or maybe it’s the presence of positive things — friendship, unity, health, economic flourishing, or justice. These are good things to desire. Even the best of us hope and long for such a state. And we ought to; the Lord created us to dwell with him in paradise.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that peace in our world is a fragile, fleeting thing. Nations continue to wage war against one another, bringing death and destruction to countries and their people. Fifty million people — more than one in every 200 on the planet — are considered enslaved, a reality only exacerbated by the pandemic. The World Food Programme estimates “828 million people go to bed hungry every night.” Corrupt leaders and governments exploit people and power to benefit themselves at the cost of others. Two millennia after the shepherds heard that heavenly announcement, we continue to lament with the poet Edmund Sears, who wrote “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”:
But with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring.
No sooner had the angel of the Lord proclaimed the good news of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds than the night sky became a magnificent scene. “Suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people he favors!” (Luke 2:13–14). This simple chorus of praise was a revolutionary and counter-cultural proclamation in the first century. It remains so today.
These things took place, we know, when Caesar Augustus ruled the Roman Empire. Augustus’ reign inaugurated the Pax Romana. The Roman Peace promised more certain prosperity and glory for Rome than might have been possible in a time of warfare. Inscriptions in Asia Minor celebrate the Romans as “the saviors of all.” But “peace and concord meant submission to Roman rule and showing goodwill to the Romans through obedience in all things,” Baylor University’s David E. Garland writes about this period. The Pax Romana was won through political victory and maintained by military enforcement. Though its two-century span was hailed as a miracle, the Roman Peace, like the Roman Empire, was temporary.
When we hear “heavenly host,” we often think of an angelic choir. But Luke indicates nothing of the sort. A “host” is a military term that refers to armies (The Lord of Hosts is, literally, the Lord of Armies). You might read it again now. An army of warriors employed in God’s service appeared in the night sky with the angel. The Lord had sent his chief messenger, accompanied by his royal army, to proclaim a message to the Roman Empire, Judea, and all the earth’s kingdoms. A new King, and a new kingdom, had arrived.
Worldly peace — Egyptian, Roman, or American — typically arrives through kings wielding power, politicians winning elections, and generals winning wars. It is established by humans and is as temporary as we are — ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But the peace the heavenly host proclaimed was something extraterrestrial, an alien peace that breaks into our world. Unlike the passing worldly peace any one of us may have the privilege of seeing, heavenly peace comes from God and is as undying and eternal as the Lord himself. And unlike the ways the peace of nations, communities, businesses, and schools too often depends on how their citizens, employees, staff, and students relate to them, the peace from heaven is not a wage purchased through good behavior.
The heavenly host proclaimed “peace on earth to people he favors” — or, as Linus recites in Charlie Brown’s Christmas play, “on earth peace, good will toward men.” The idea here is that grace, favor, or “good will” has come to earth, to people from heaven, to us from God.
“Peace on earth to people he favors” is good news. Because if divine favor had its origins in us and our behavior, it could (and would) end with our misbehavior. But if God’s “good will” toward us originated in himself while we were sinners, then our sinful condition cannot now thwart it.
This peace breaks into this world without invitation: When we were sinners, enemies of God, he “rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. In him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:13–14).
Our flesh looks to the things of earth to give us the peace of heaven. We fight and divide over which politicians can make us great again and build us back better. We forget that such greatness is folly, that whatever we build will one day fall (again). We set our sights on wealth building and preservation, working not for the Lord but for bigger silos that may guarantee rest for our souls. We grasp at beauty, fame, and power, forgetting that every supermodel, celebrity, and executive is slowly but surely returning to dust. The loss of these things is only one unfortunate incident away, and the pursuit of them alone only produces more anxiety.
Rather, the peace of Christ brings the flourishing we were made for. We no longer seek economic surplus as though our futures depend on it. Our flourishing is secure, so we gain wealth to give it away so that others may flourish. We no longer seek leadership positions because they come with a special power for self-preservation, so we do not exploit others in our own self-interest. We no longer seek wisdom solely to advance in the world, pursuing glory in the eyes of others. The glory of God has come to us in Jesus. Therefore, we take up the cross and follow him so that others might live.
The night before his crucifixion, Jesus told his disciples, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Don’t let your heart be troubled or fearful” (John 14:27). Jesus left the peace of God to us as an inheritance, peace that rests on the finished work of Jesus cannot be thwarted by anyone — not even by Caesar in Rome. That is “peace on earth to people he favors.”