By Pastor Jim Mullins
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6 ESV)
What comes to mind when you think of the word “peace”? Do you think about hippies sitting around a campfire singing folk songs? Do you think of international relations and peace treaties between hostile nations? Perhaps you think about the serenity of sitting on a beach during vacation.
In English, the word “peace” has been used to describe a wide array of activities. Most of them are good, while others seem inaccessible or cheesy. What’s clear, however, is that the English word “peace” isn’t potent enough to convey the Hebrew concept of shalom (שָׁלוֹם), which carries the connotation of spiritual, social, and physical flourishing that comes from God.
When the prophet Isaiah looked forward to the coming Prince of Peace, he wasn’t envisioning the chief hippies, a U.N. Peacekeeper, or an essential oils salesman. He was envisioning something greater, a peace that’s infinitely more beautiful and comprehensive. In order to help us understand the idea of shalom, I want to share quotes from two theologians—Cornelius Plantinga and Timothy Keller—who have reflected deeply on this word.
Cornelius Plantinga, in Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, describes shalom as “the way it’s supposed be.” He shows how the prophets engaged their imaginations to dream of a day when God would restore shalom to the earth. He says, “They dreamed of a new age in which human crookedness would straighten out. The foolish would be made wise, and the wise would be made humble. They dreamed of a time when the deserts would bloom, the mountains would run with wine, people would stop weeping and be able to sleep without a weapon under their pillow. People would work in peace and work to fruitful effect. A lamb could lie down with a wolf because the wolf had lost its appetite. All nature would be fruitful, benign, and filled with wonder upon wonder. All humans would be knit together in brotherhood and sisterhood, and all nature and all humans would look to God, lean toward God, and delight in God. Shouts of joy and recognition would well up from women in streets and from men at sea.
The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets called shalom. In English we call it peace, but it means far more than just peace of mind or ceasefire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom was used to refer to universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts are fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as the creator and savior opens doors and speaks welcome to the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is “the way things are supposed to be.”
Fabric of Shalom
In his book Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, Tim Keller helps us understand the concept of shalom through the metaphor of “weaving a garment.” He says:
The Bible describes the making of the world not only as the building of a house, but also as the weaving of a garment. God turned a chaos into a cosmos, and also turned a tangle into a tapestry. Woven garments were long in the making and valuable in ancient times, and therefore they were an apt metaphor for the wonder and character of the material world. The sea (Psalms 104:6), the clouds (Job 38:9), the lights of the sky (Psalms 104:1), and all the forces of nature (Psalms 102:26) are called garments that God has woven and now wears.
As a result, the world is not like a lava cone, the product of powerful random eruptions, but rather like a fabric. Woven cloth consists of innumerable threads interlaced with one another. Even more than the architectural image, the fabric metaphor conveys the importance of relationship. If you throw thousands of pieces of thread onto a table, no fabric results. The threads must be rightly and intimately related to one another in literally a million ways. Each thread must go over, under, around, and through the others at thousands of points. Only then do you get a fabric that is beautiful and strong, that covers, fits, holds, shelters, and delights.
God created all things to be in a beautiful, harmonious, interdependent, knitted, webbed relationship to one another. Just as rightly related physical elements form a cosmos or a tapestry, so rightly related human beings form a community. This interwovenness is what the Bible calls shalom, or harmonious peace.
What about us?
How are we supposed to pursue shalom, especially in a world that seems to so hostile, when the fabric of shalom seems to be ripped? We are certainly not the first group of Christians to ask that question. The early church wrestled with how to seek shalom in the Roman Empire, which demanded supreme allegiance as they spread their version of hostile “peace” throughout the world by military conquest. The early church knew that they couldn’t just hide from the dangers of society. They were called to love their neighbors and glorify God in all of life; therefore, they needed to participate in the life of the city. They also knew that they couldn’t just bow down to the idolatrous and unjust ways of the Roman Empire. They knew they were called to seek the peace of the city (Jer. 29:4–7), proclaim the gospel of peace as ambassadors of God (2 Cor 5:17–21), and to be enemy-loving peacemakers (Matthew 5:43–48). However, they couldn’t be conduits of peace unless they knew the God of peace.
That’s why Paul encouraged the Colossian church with these words:
And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Col 3:15-17).
In order to be peacemakers and proclaimers, they needed to have a deep encounter with the Prince of Peace himself. They needed to nourish their spiritual lives through hearing the word of God through preaching and song. They needed to see his generosity, even in a seemingly scarce world, by cultivating lives of gratitude. The peace of Christ needed to rule in their hearts before they could, in word and deed, bring the peace of Christ to the streets.
In this Advent season, as we reflect on the Prince of Peace, it’s good for us to think about how we can be conduits of shalom in our work, family, friendships, neighborhood, and nations. We will have ample opportunity to seek the flourishing of our neighbors through our Advent offering, Affordable Christmas, family celebrations, and witness in our neighborhoods. However, we cannot give what we have not received. Therefore, let’s be intentional during this season to listen to the word of God, worship him with our vocal cords, and give thanks. Let the peace of Christ dwell in your hearts so that you can be conduit of shalom and a witness to the Prince of Peace.