Editor’s Note: Tom Beutel, a regular contributor to PeaceSigns, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Balancing Acts is a monthly feature of PeaceSigns.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. Matthew 10:34 (NRSV)
Peace is without question one of the central themes of the Christmas story. The angels proclaimed to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:14) Handel’s Messiah, quoting Isaiah 9:6, reminds us that, “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
But, Jesus jarringly tells His disciples that He has not come “to bring peace to the earth … but a sword.” Lest we dismiss these troubling words thinking that some other idea of peace, some other word for peace is what Jesus is really talking about, a close look at this scripture verse shows that indeed it is eirene, the New Testament word that we associate with shalom, that is used here. Biblehub.com explains eirene as “one, peace, quietness, rest.” and “from eirō, “to join, tie together into a whole” – properly, wholeness, i.e. when all essential parts are joined together.”
So, in some sense, taking Jesus at His word, He came not to bring quietness and rest, not to join together, but to separate.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, quoted in the Advent devotional God is in the Manger, reminds us that “We are indifferent to the message [of Christmas], taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect.”
And C. S. Lewis, writing in Reflections on the Psalms, notes in the Introductory, “I begin with those characteristics of the Psalter which are at first most repellent.” Not all in the Biblical message is sweetness and light!
The gospel is indeed “good news,” Jesus is indeed the Prince of Peace, and God does seek peace, that is, well-being and wholeness for people and all of creation, but none of this is possible without separating “the sheep from the goats,” (Matthew 25:32) or the wheat from the chaff (Luke 3:17, just one chapter after the story of Jesus’ birth!)
As peace-makers, we seek to foster shalom, right relationships between people and God, themselves, each other and all of creation. This includes seeking justice and showing love. But, we dare not forget that making peace will most likely involve making changes. Peace comes at a cost as it did for Jesus who allowed Himself to be put to death to make peace possible between us and God. To make an omelet, you have to break the eggs!
So, Jesus tells us, that He has not come “to bring peace to the earth … but a sword.” This is as much a part of the Christmas message as the assurance that a child is born for us, Emmanuel, God with us.
Advent is a time of expectant waiting, but it is also a time of introspection and self-examination. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 13:5, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves.” As Christians, and as peace-makers, it is essential that we are “living in the faith,” not simply for our own well-being, but so that as we seek to bring shalom, to establish justice, and to show love, we will be doing so according to God’s will and in His power.
As we observe Advent and celebrate Christmas, let us do so expectantly and joyfully, but also with a sense of seriousness that respects Jesus’ own words, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”