“Don’t assume that I came to bring peace.” Matthew 10:34-35
For those celebrating Advent, this week marks a focus on peace. It’s a fitting theme of reflection at Christmastime – or anytime, really – for Christians.
Peace is a fruit of the Spirit, and Jesus was, and is, full of the Spirit. The Messianic prophecy found in Isaiah 9:6 calls Jesus the Prince of Peace, and Christ Himself said, “blessed are the peacemakers.” Given the premium Scripture places on peace, it’s no wonder Christmas hymns and decor are filled with its references, or that peace is one of the most searched-for words in the Bible this time of year.
It’s somewhat shocking, therefore, to learn that when the expected Messiah appeared on earth, He told His disciples quite plainly that He did not come to bring peace, but rather a sword (Matthew 10:34-35). According to Jesus’ own words, He wants us to assume He ushered in sharp division at His first coming.
This beckons the questions: How should we think about peace at Christmas? As we reconcile these passages, what thoughts should be going through our heads as we sing familiar yuletide tunes of “peace on earth, goodwill to men”? Here are some thoughts to help us orient our perspective on peace this Christmas.
How Christ brings peace
Understanding the distinction between Christ’s first and second advents (i.e., His first and second comings) is the key to making sense of the peace He brings. Christ wept for the residents of Jerusalem who missed “what would bring peace” when they expected the Messiah to immediately bring physical deliverance and earthly shalom (Luke 19:41).
While Jesus will usher in eternal peace for His people at His second coming, the primary purpose of His first advent was to bring peace between God and sinners. Romans 4:25-5:1 explains that this kind of peace is rooted in Christ’s death and resurrection: “He was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The sacrificial death of Christ transformed God’s enemies who were exposed to His wrath into God’s children who are sheltered by His love. This is why the song “O Holy Night” contains the lyric, “His law is love, and His gospel is peace.” It’s also why we can joyfully sing Christmas songs celebrating peace while news headlines describe a world filled with anything but.
How Christ brings a sword
But as much as the Gospel brings peace between God and sinners, it also brings division between those aligned with Jesus and those who reject Him. This separation is sharp enough to cut through the closest of family ties, even causing rifts, sometimes, between members of one’s own household (Matthew 10:35-39).
Christ’s promise of bringing a sword isn’t to cause unnecessary conflict. Indeed, Christians are supposed to live at peace with everyone “as far as it depends on you” (Romans 12:18). In pursuing this peace, however, Christians are also promised a life marked by necessary tension, because the kingdom of the world is at war with the kingdom of God.
This tension is why Jesus can say in the same sermon “blessed are the peacemakers” and “you are blessed when they insult you, persecute you, and say every kind of evil against you because of me” (Matthew 5:9-11). Peace with Christ in the period of waiting between His first and second comings always creates uncomfortable conflict with the world.
Living between two advents
Advent is a season of anticipation. A mistake this time of year would be to get swept away expecting the “spirit of Christmas” to solve all our problems. This vague notion that relies on nostalgia and wistful intentions to do good usually dissolves right around the time that New Year’s resolutions begin to lose their luster.
By contrast, Christians anticipate something much more solid that’s brought to remembrance through the actual Spirit of Christmas. This is the Gospel which points to Jesus’ first arrival that brought peace with God and division with the world. This is a great season to also foster anticipation for Christ’s second coming which will usher in eternal peace in a resurrected world with a resurrected people worshiping the promised King.
As you reflect on peace this Christmas, pause to consider the richness of the peace your spiritual adoption brings and the calling to courageously embrace the temporary battle that accompanies it as we await Jesus’ return.