“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”1
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Peace on Earth?
Does it feel like the world is a peaceful place? Has it ever been a peaceful place? Jesus was born during a time often referred to as the Pax Romana or the “Roman Peace.” The Emperor Augustus came to power in Rome after a civil war in 27 BC and established a remarkably large and stable empire. It remained stable and expanded for approximately 200 years. However, it was really only peaceful if you were the right sort of person in the right sort of place. As just one example, was it peaceful for the citizens of Jerusalem in 70 AD when Titus ransacked the city and tore down the Temple? Basically, the Pax Romana was only “peace” for Roman citizens in Rome itself.
Further consider just the last century. The past 100 years have seen two World Wars, a Cold War, and a War on Terror that has lasted longer than any other conflict in United States history. In our own present, we have seen a startlingly amount of division within Western society. Our world seems to be fragmenting into deeply polarized camps. It seems that we all just can’t “get along.” Where or what exactly is this “peace” that the angels sing about?
Do You Hear the Bells?
The instinct to feel that the angels’ chorus rings false plays a major part in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem “Christmas Bells.” Longfellow was horrified by the American Civil War. Contemplating this supposed “peace on earth” he writes,
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!2
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
The narrator of Longfellow’s poem is despondent. The hate is too strong for there to truly be peace on earth.
Peace with God
Thinking of peace is those terms is probably misguided at this point in our story. Jesus himself says, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”3 That is from the same Gospel of Luke that has the angels singing “Peace on earth.” Is Jesus contradicting the message of the angels? I do not think that he is, but it takes a minute to get to a coherent explanation as to why.
Romans 5:1 starts to answer our primary question. Because of the justification available to us through Jesus, we have peace with God. In our sinfulness, we place ourselves at the center of our universe. In our sin, we forget to distinguish between the creator God and the creation. We, as created beings, try to assume positions only rightfully claimed by the creator, God. That introduces turbulence in the very fabric of the universe. It puts everything off-kilter. In this skewed situation, self-interest is our primary motivation. Out of selfish desires come strife, division, hate, arguments, and war.
In Jesus, our hearts are changed. We are free to orbit around God and love what God loves. Our hearts are unleashed to truly love God and love our neighbor. Getting this relationship right is the path to peace on earth. It is the path Jesus put us on when he came to us as a babe in Bethlehem.
It is a path that Paul also tells us about in Romans 13:8-10.
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
How would things change if everyone loved their neighbor? It would not solve all our problems, but it would change how we go about solving them. Advent is a time for us to contemplate how we can contribute to peace on earth through love.
That’s not the end of the story. Advent is also a time to celebrate that Jesus is coming again. When he comes, the world will be ruled by his perfect love and justice. The peace we might experience in the present is just a taste of the all-consuming peace that is in store. This is the note that Longfellow ends on in “Christmas Bells.” Here is the last verse.
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
Jesus is the ultimate argument that God is indeed not dead nor does he sleep. He is working actively for love and justice. The right will prevail in the end and peace will reign.
Singing with Angels
We started this journey through Advent by reading from Bernard of Clairvaux. He celebrated the three comings of Christ: his coming to earth, his coming again, and his coming into our hearts. The conclusion that Bernard reaches is that Jesus’s coming ends in our rest and consolation, in other words our peace.
So we can sing with Bernard, Longfellow, and the angels in celebrating Jesus’s birth. Peace is indeed available to us in Christ.
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace…
1 All quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV) unless otherwise noted. Also, the two verses we are considering today are two of the more famous textual variants in the New Testament. In the King James Version, Luke 2:14 reads, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” The question is whether the Greek reads εὐδοκίας or εὐδοκία? It would be a simple scribal error to leave off the final sigma. Bruce Metzger argues that the genitive reading of εὐδοκίας is more difficult and in the oldest witnesses. Therefore, it is more likely to be the original reading (Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament 2nd ed., p. 111). This reading is followed in all modern English translations. Either reading suggests that peace is available to us now that Jesus has come. Romans 5:1 is also a difficult textual variant. Does Paul use ἔχομεν or ἔχωμεν? They sound almost exactly alike. Metzger even argues that Paul’s secretary, Tertius, might have heard Paul incorrectly. In other words, the mistake might be in the original! It is the difference between the indicative (ἔχομεν) and the subjunctive (ἔχωμεν). The indicative is a statement of fact. we have peace with God. The subjunctive is a possibility, peace is possible with God. The editors of the UBS decided that the indicative is the only one that makes sense within Paul’s argument in Romans. They made this decision despite the fact that all of the oldest witnesses read ἔχωμεν. The editors decided that they know best what Paul could or could not have said. I am not arguing that it has to be the subjunctive ἔχωμεν. I am only arguing that the external evidence for ἔχωμεν is very strong, and I personally privilege external evidence in the majority of my text critical decisions. Either reading conveys the fact that peace with God is now possible because of Jesus and his faithfulness.↩
2 Longfellow is most likely quoting from the King James Version (see note 1).↩
3 Luke 12:51.↩