The soldiers came at night. The winter rains had begun, so the shepherds were not out with their flocks to take notice as the soldiers took up their positions on the hills surrounding the little village and began their advance. If the soldiers felt anger, it was because this duty promised little opportunity for plunder. Killing children was easy, but the families in and around Bethlehem possessed little in the way of wealth.
Bethlehem. Months earlier, the shepherds on these same hills had been surprised by “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!’ ” (Luke 2:13, 14, NKJV).1 The promise of peace had been so welcome. But on this night, as Herod’s soldiers went about their gruesome work—the systematic murder of all the boys two years old and younger, perhaps some of them the sons of those same shepherds—the angels’ declaration of “peace on earth” must have seemed a cruel joke to the grieving families in Bethlehem.
This took place during the famous Pax Romana, the “Roman Peace,” which is generally dated from about 27 B.C. to A.D. 180. Peace in this case is a relative term, for during this time multiple emperors were murdered, assassinated, or committed suicide. Indeed, of the first 11 Roman emperors, only two are certain to have died from natural causes.
Herod the Great, who ordered the “slaughter of the innocents” in and around Bethlehem, executed several people in his own family who he thought might threaten his rule, including his second wife Mariamne I. His son Herod Antipas executed John the Baptist at the behest of a young girl. The Roman army engaged in more than 30 major battles during this time of “peace,” including the four-year war that culminated in the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Such was the “Roman Peace.” As we survey history, we look in vain for extended periods in which people lived in peace.
Peace is still hard to find. With a resurgent Russia attempting to gradually swallow Ukraine by force, like a python ingesting its prey; with ISIS/ISIL declaring a new caliphate, in which beheadings are public-relations events; with Boko Haram kidnapping some 300 young girls;2 with China ever more belligerent in the Pacific, peace is a rare commodity. President Barack Obama promised to end the involvement of the United States military in Iraq, but after seeing the ghastly video of two American journalists beheaded, he found himself, in what CNN called “a stunning turnaround from his previous policy,” explaining why he now wanted to employ military force there.
Even when we look within nations not officially at war, we see protests in Ferguson, Missouri; reports of more than 1,400 rapes in Rotherham, England; drug cartels in Mexico; human trafficking everywhere; and piracy off of Somalia’s coast. Looking back through history, we search in vain for eras of real peace.
We can understand why Longfellow, in the midst of the American Civil War would write: “And in despair I bowed my head; ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said; ‘For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men!’ ”
Maybe the angels’ declaration of peace means that those who accept Christ as their Savior will live in peace. Unfortunately, we do not find encouragement for that in the lives of the apostles. We know that James was beheaded by Herod (Acts 12:2). Ten of the others, according to tradition, were stabbed, crucified, pierced with spears, clubbed, burned to death, or met some other violent end. Only John died of natural causes, but again, according to tradition, that was after he had survived being thrown into in a cauldron of boiling oil.
And that only describes the way their lives ended. Paul described his experience: “From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness” (2 Corinthians 11:24–27). And his ministry took place entirely within the protective embrace of the peaceful Roman Empire! Many of the other apostles ventured far outside Roman territory into what is today Russia, India, and China.
We should not be surprised at this. Jesus himself warned His disciples, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). The night before His crucifixion, He told them, “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20), and “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33).
What is “peace on earth”?
So what, if anything, does the angels’ declaration of “peace on earth” mean? Obviously, it does not mean peace among the nations, or Jesus would not have predicted continuing “wars and rumors of wars” (Matthew 24:6). And from what we know from both the teachings of Jesus and the examples of the apostles’ lives, it does not mean that those who follow Jesus will live at peace with everyone around them. So what kind of peace is this? What good is it?
On the same night He warned His disciples that they would face persecution and trouble, Jesus told them, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27). And the Bible shows us just what kind of peace Jesus possessed. We find the story in the fourth chapter of Mark.
“A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that it was already filling. But He was in the stern, asleep on a pillow. And they awoke Him and said to Him, ‘Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?’
“Then He arose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace, be still!’ And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm” (Mark 4:37–39).
Do you see that? The storm whipped up the waves to the point that they broke over the sides of their boat, filling it with water. And through it all—through the shrieking wind and the crashing waves—Jesus slept. When He said, “My peace I give unto you,” that’s the sort of peace He meant. That’s the sort of peace the angels declared to the shepherds. And in the end, that’s the only kind of peace anyone can possess on this earth.
For if our peace depends upon the nations or tribes or clans around us being peaceful, then it’s a peace that any of them can take from us at any time. And if our peace depends upon no one we come in contact with persecuting us, then any selfish or angry person we meet can take it from us. But if our peace comes from Christ within, no one can take it from us. And anyone can possess this peace. All we have to do is rely on Jesus as our Savior. There’s no other way to achieve it. As Ellen White put it, “The peace of Christ—money cannot buy it, brilliant talent cannot command it, intellect cannot secure it; it is the gift of God.”3
At the same time Jesus warned His disciples they would have trouble, He said, “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” (John 16:33).
There will be peace on earth
And there is the final piece, or, if you will, the final peace. So long as sin and death exist in this world, there will be trouble. But the time is coming when this world with all its strife and suffering will be replaced. Jesus showed the apostle John a vision of “a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (Revelation 21:1). In this new world “there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (verse 4). It’s a world where even “ ‘the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox. . . . They shall not hurt nor destroy on all My holy mountain,’ says the LORD” (Isaiah 65:25).
So peace on earth? Yes, someday there truly will be peace on earth.