Living in Melbourne at Christmas time brings with it certain traditions: visiting the Myer windows in the Bourke Street Mall; midnight service at St. Paul’s Cathedral opposite Flinders Street Station and Federation Square; attending the “Road to Bethlehem” nativity play put on by the Seventh Day Adventists; walking down The Boulevard in Ivanhoe and looking at the many houses decorated and lit up to the nines; and of course, watching the Sidney Myer Music Bowl Carols by Candlelight.
This last is broadcast around the country, but I understand it is not as central to people’s Christmas traditions outside Melbourne as it is within. And, as wonderful as Carols by Candlelight is (though, not as good as it was when it was hosted by Ray Martin), it is also tinged with sadness when the miraculous joy of Christmas and its true, saving message are relegated to the brief moments stolen by Sylvie Paladino or Dennis Walter.
As wonderful as Carols by Candlelight is, it is also tinged with sadness when the miraculous joy of Christmas and its true, saving message are relegated to the brief moments.
Instead, we are presented with a Christmas that is all about family and friends; glittery lights and flashy colours; giving; and above all, the perpetually sweet “Peace on earth and goodwill to all men.” Christmas is presented— not as a remembrance of the birth of Jesus Christ, nor as a key to the Trinity’s eternal plan to save mankind—but simply as a time when we should all be kind to one another: a time for unusual generosity; for dreaming of a time when there will might be peace between all mankind. John Lennon’s immortal, if flawed, “Imagine” (“no countries” and “no possessions”) is often sung at nationally televised carols events such as Carols by Candlelight. But the key to Lennon’s hope is: “Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion, too.”
Where does this watered down, saccharin version of Christmas come from?
Ironically, many who espouse these ideas of “peace and goodwill” would tell us they come straight from the Bible. Many understand “Peace on earth and goodwill to all men” to come from the angels’ declaration to those stunned shepherds two-thousand years ago. More accurately, however, it reads “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14, ESV)
This is a twofold misunderstanding. First, a mistranslation which seems to suggest Jesus offers a general “peace and goodwill” between mankind, at the behest of mankind, done in the strength of mankind. Second, a misunderstanding of the type of peace the angels were singing about in the first place—a wilful and ignorant hope that, if we all behave well, treat each other kindly, stop killing, then everything will be fine. How removed this is from the heart of Jesus’ Gospel, summed up well decades later by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians.
I love the letter to the Ephesians: The letter was John Calvin’s favourite; FF. Bruce described it as “the quintessence of Paulinism”; William Barclay called it “the queen of epistles,” while poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge labelled it “the divinest composition of man.” Paul wrote a lot about peace in Ephesians, but not manmade peace—as if humanity were able to bring about its own utopian end. Rather he talks about two types of peace wrought by Jesus:
- a vertical peace between God and humans, and;
- a horizontal peace between believing Jews and Gentiles (traditional enemies) through a common inheritance in Jesus.
This multi-dimensional peace is what is meant in Ephesians 2:14-16: A peace between believing Jews and Gentiles, the making of a “new man in place of the two, so making peace”; and peace between believing mankind and God, reconciling “us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.”
When we look back at the angels’ chorus, we see this same multidimensionality:
Glory to God in the Highest, / and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.”
Those “with whom he is pleased” are those who Paul would later describe as those chosen in Jesus Christ “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4): believers, made into a new body, the Church. God’s pleasure with his believers is expressed in the abolishment of the hostility that existed between sinful humanity and our righteous Creator.
A Different Message, A Greater Peace
As odd as it may seem, then, the Bible does not preach a message of peace between nations, an end to hostility and bloodshed, hunger, suffering, illness, etc—or, rather, more accurately, the Bible preaches a peace which is only found and fulfilled in the end of all things, when the sheep are separated from the goats (Matthew 25:31-33) and our eternity begins. In fact, Jesus Christ and his apostles specifically warned of a deterioration in international relations and nature before the end:
[Y]ou will hear of wars and rumours of wars … nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.” (Matthew 24:7-9)
Stevie Wonder once sung that “Someday at Christmas there’ll be no wars / When we have learned what Christmas is for / When we have found what life’s really worth / There’ll be peace on earth.” There’s truth to this. There will one day be peace on earth, but it will be a new earth, and when we have all learned what Christmas is for, it will be too late for many.
It is important, therefore, when we come to writing and teaching and preaching at Christmas, that we understand the greater message and greater peace offered to us through Jesus. Christmas serves as a shining beacon to Christians, reminding us of the work that Jesus Christ would accomplish: A horizontal peace between those who believe in his name; his death for our sins, and his resurrection, regardless of race and clan; and a miraculous vertical peace, removing the distance caused by sin between God and humanity.