Peace is a word often proclaimed but rarely experienced in our world. There's a tragic irony in much of its use, and it's been that way for most of the human experience. Jerusalem, "the city of peace," has rarely experienced its namesake. Patrick Henry, the great American statesman, implored his fellow assemblymen that "Men cry Peace, Peace! But there is no peace!" He then concluded with these famous words: "Give me liberty, or give me death!," igniting a revolutionary war in the process.
A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of co-teaching a preaching course with Dr. Hershael York on behalf of Southern Seminary at The Metropolitan New York Baptist Association building, their extension campus in NYC, for several weekends. While there, I took some time to tour Manhattan (and parts of Brooklyn). I walked down to the East Side and came across the easily recognizable UN building along the riverfront. The entire area was blocked off by barricades and security, which I expected. What I did not expect was the inscription engraved across the street, taken from Isaiah 2:4:
"They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore."
An organization that has had limited success in preventing and averting war has the only hope for war's end within eyesight of its headquarters, a hope that has largely been rejected, including by many of the people to whom it was originally addressed. Jesus himself, the "Prince of Peace," tells us that in order for true peace to come, though, there must first be strife (see Matthew 10:34-42). This conflict has been stirring from the beginning, with God himself telling the serpent in Genesis 3 that there will be enmity between the evil represented by the snake and humanity's offspring. This "seed of the woman" will one day crush the serpent's head, but the serpent will first "bruise his heel." Warfare, violence, and bloodsheed all point to a foreshadowing of this bruising, when Jesus Christ took upon himself all the vileness of human sin, breaking its curse and paving the way for an everlasting peace.
This peace, though, is different from the world's peace. It is not the absence of conflict or tepid unity among the nations: it is a peace brought by a God who became man, who entered our world when we could not enter his, who tells us that when we are persecuted and slain for the righteous sake of his message, the gospel, we will have peace, even when it doesn't look anything like peace. Sometimes we experience this peace when our spouses, parents, or children don't profess the same faith we possess. Sometimes this peace is realized on a foreign mission field when the longing for family and friends intermingles with the isolation and loneliness of the journey. It's a peace observed even when many of the values and principles long upheld by one's country seem to be crashing like giant waves against the cliffs. It's peace, but peace in the midst of strife, a peace not yet fully realized.
One of my favorite poems is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day," which he penned on Christmas Day 1863. Longfellow writes of hearing the bells on Christmas Day, "their old familiar carols play, and wild and sweet the words repeat, of peace on earth, good will to men."
The poem then takes a tragic turn, though: Longfellow looks around and wonders how peace could even be possible, having recently lost his dear wife in a tragic fire and seeing no end in sight to his present day Civil War, in which 600,000 American lives would be lost, father divided against son, brother against brother (one of the casualties was Longfellow's own son). Casting Crowns has written an excellent modern rendering of the old hymn based on this poem's lyrics titled, "Peace on Earth." What makes their version great is they've written the song in a minor key, lamenting the awful circumstances surrounding its writing. Longfellow moves from happy harmony to tragic melody: "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!"
Yet, Longfellow remembers the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living when he hears the church bells ringing out the message of Christmas: "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'."
The prophet Isaiah continues in his 2nd chapter by telling us what this peace will look like: "For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up--and it shall be brought low;" and "the haughtiness of man shall be humbled, and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day."
He then concludes the chapter with these words: "Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?" The God of heaven will one day bring an everlasting peace to those who long for it. Everything that is wrong in this world he will one day make right, for he is making All Things New.
So take heart, believer, when you can't always sense his peace, because the Prince of Peace is seated at the right hand of the throne of God, and he ever lives to make intercession for you.