Every year, Christmas cards proclaim, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men.” This is attributed to the Bible, but does it truly reflect the biblical message?
“The world took a dangerous turn in 2022.” That is the opening of a report compiled by the Council on Foreign Relations.
The council identified 30 conflicts around the world that could easily escalate, potentially bringing immeasurably more misery and destruction than the world has seen in decades (cfr.org, “Conflicts to Watch in 2023”).
This is a far cry from the feel-good sentiment of “peace on earth” that many Christmas cards proclaim!
Peace on earth, goodwill to men
These words, familiar to almost everyone in the Western world, are based on a single passage. Only the Gospel of Luke tells us that at the time Jesus was born, an angel appeared to shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem to announce His birth (Luke 2:8-12).
As the angel concluded his words, “a multitude of the heavenly host” suddenly appeared. They praised God and then made their oft-repeated statement: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (verse 14).
If angels proclaimed peace on earth nearly 2,000 years ago, then why has humanity suffered so many devastating wars since that announcement? Were they wrong?
What the angels proclaimed was not universal world peace at that time, but a prophecy of peace that will spread after the Messiah’s second coming. But the Bible also proclaims peace as a blessing for individuals with whom God is pleased now (John 14:27).
What do you mean, “peace on earth”?
And we are to live that way of peace now and to grow in peace, a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22).
But how can anyone enjoy peace in a world torn apart by continual conflict? Part of the answer lies in the Greek word eirēnē. Like the English word peace, it has a broad range of meanings. In essence, it can refer to harmonious relationships between nations, between individual men and women, and between humans and God.
The birth of Christ was a pivotal moment in God’s plan to reconcile a sinful human race to Himself. Our Redeemer had been born, and all humans would eventually have the opportunity to be reconciled to God through His shed blood.
During His ministry, Jesus made it clear that there would be opposition to His work of reconciliation. Some people, called by God (John 6:44), would respond, but much of the world would resist.
Not peace, but a sword
That’s why, when He was sending the 12 apostles out, Jesus warned them that they would face hostility and even persecution (Matthew 10:16-18). He made it clear that, at the time of His ministry, He had not “come to bring peace but a sword” (verse 34).
The next several verses show that Jesus expected His disciples to put Him before their family relationships. He did not promise peace then! True disciples, both then and now, willingly give up everything—in essence losing their lives (verse 39)—to follow in Christ’s footsteps.
But paradoxically, these same people will find their lives and, in the process, find true peace.
Making peace on earth
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus pronounced a series of blessings based on particular character traits important to God. Among these Beatitudes (from the Latin word for “blessed”) is one regarding peacemakers: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9; see our online article “Blessed Are the Peacemakers”).
This Beatitude puts some of the responsibility for personal peace on the shoulders of Christ’s disciples. Anyone who wants to enjoy peace must first be willing to make peace. It is this willingness that puts us on the path to becoming sons and daughters of the God of peace (Philippians 4:9).
That’s one reason Paul later urged the church at Rome, “As much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18). And that’s also why he exhorted the church at Corinth, which was facing divisions that could have torn it apart if left unchecked, to “be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10).
We humans are, of course, limited in our ability to make peace.
The true gift of peace on earth
On the night before Christ’s crucifixion—the very act that made reconciliation and peace between God and man possible—Jesus spoke of how the disciples would scatter at His arrest, leaving Him seemingly alone to face His trial and crucifixion. But, He explained, He would not be alone, for God the Father was always with Him (John 16:32).
It was at this moment that Christ comforted His disciples, assuring them that through Him they would have the gift of peace: “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (verse 33).
This peace is a peace that comes from a solid relationship with God the Father and with Christ our Savior. The path to this peace involves belief, repentance of sin, baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; study further in our free booklet Change Your Life).
Through this peace, Jesus faced crucifixion. And through this peace, we can face whatever tribulations come our way.
When the heavenly host spoke of peace on earth, they spoke of the peace that comes from a close relationship with the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). It is this relationship that offers us “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).
And, finally, it is this peace between God and His human children that will lay the groundwork for the peace that will exist among nations during the millennial reign of Jesus Christ.
See more in our article “How World Peace Will Come.”