Exciting phrases, easy acronyms, and memorable lists formed from dense works of systematic theology can be helpful for the everyday Christian. While these reductions of God’s Word and His nature help us understand general frameworks, they are unable to help us understand everything the Bible teaches. It is one thing...
Suppose you arrive home from work one day and find a white envelope, addressed to you, taped to the front door. You slide your finger under the back flap to open the envelope, which contains a single white piece of paper. On it a simple message is typed: Lunch at Calhoun’s Café.
The meaning is clear. You know what is being offered and where it will be offered, but the message is incomplete. You don’t know who has invited you, who will be paying for the lunch, when you should go to the café, or why you should go there.
A clear message is worthless unless it’s also a complete message.
An Incomplete Christmas Message
This time of year, we often receive incomplete messages about Christmas. For example, everyone from celebrities to congressmen to clergy emphasizes the need for peace among nations, ethnicities, and families. And whether we’re sitting in a church pew or shopping at a mall, we hear songs about peace on earth. The what is clear: peace on earth. The how, when, and who, however, is frequently omitted.
One peace-on-earth song that may be familiar to you is “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” written by Edmund Sears. Reflect on the words of the first stanza:
It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold;
“Peace on the earth, good will to men,
From Heaven’s all gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.
The angels’ message is clear: “Peace on earth, good will to men.” In this case, we also know who sent the message: “Heaven’s all gracious King.”
But does the song convey a complete message?
Missing the Point
When Sears wrote the lyrics of this Christmas carol in 1849, the nation was churning with conflict—not over election results but over national policy. Would states entering the union be Free States or Slave States? The horrific details about slavery revealed in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 autobiography, as well as the escape of Harriet Tubman and the formation of the Underground Railroad, divided both families and states. Sears, a Massachusetts’ clergyman, and hundreds of other abolitionists grieved the horrors of slavery and fought for the dignity of every person, regardless of race.
Note Sears’s longing for peace in this stanza:
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife
And hear the angels sing.
But, as he observed in another stanza, “the Babel sounds” of human conflict have drowned out the angels’ “heavenly music”:
Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever over its Babel sounds
The blessèd angels sing.
So Sears urges those “beneath life’s crushing load” to look away from the painful, weary, conflict-filled world in which they live and be encouraged by the angels’ message:
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!
Ironically, though, Sears fails to mention—even once in the carol—the one person who can “hush the noise” of human strife and bring peace. And that’s an omission thousands of other people have made and continue to make.
Our Only True Peace
The peace equation will never be solved apart from Jesus. Any heartfelt plea or suggested solution that omits his name will ultimately result in discord, not peace.
Yes, the angels began with a promise of “good news of great joy that will be for all people” (Luke 2:10 ESV). But before they mentioned “peace on earth” in verse 14, they proclaimed the only way peace on earth would ever be possible: “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11 NIV).
The sequence cannot be disregarded: The Savior, Christ the Lord, has been born, and therefore peace will be possible.
Note too the wording of Luke 2:14. The angels said, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” Again, the sequence is crucial to the complete meaning of their message. Yes, there will come a day when Jesus will be given “the throne of his father David,” and “his kingdom will never end” as Gabriel told Mary (Luke 1:32-33 NIV). But in Luke 2, the angels are proclaiming peace to those on whom God’s favor rests.
The Complete Christmas Message
Colossians 1:19-20 clarifies that part of the angels’ message: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Jesus] and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood shed on the cross” (NIV). Until Jesus returns to earth, the only peace possible is the personal peace of a life reconciled to God. That’s the current fulfillment of the angels’ proclamation of peace on earth.
So let’s avoid Sears’s mistake this Christmas. Let’s not communicate an incomplete Christmas message by suggesting the possibility of peace apart from Jesus. When others speak of peace, let’s bring the Prince of Peace into the conversation. When others focus on conflict, let’s offer the hope of unity in Christ. When someone asks why there’s so much hatred, let’s highlight the love of God for every individual.
Peace on earth is a message our world needs to hear, but it needs to hear the complete message: peace on earth through the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ the Lord.
With whom can you share that message today?