Peace in the Epistles of St Paul

Previous Post:  Christ Proclaims Peace. Christ is Our Peace.

Peace, peace, to the far and to the near, says the LORD…  (Isaiah 57:19)

“For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”  (Ephesians 2:14-22)

Willard Swartley (COVENANT OF PEACE: THE MISSING PEACE IN NEW TESTAMENT THEOLOGY AND ETHICS) contends that some modern biblical scholars and ethicists do not treat “peace” as prominent  a  theme as it deserves based on how frequently the word “peace” occurs in the New Testament.  These scholars fail to see how “peace” is a lens through which we need to read the New Testament.  In this  the last post in this series we will look at a few things which Swartley notes from the epistles of St. Paul the Apostle.    As mentioned in the previous posts, the word “peace” occurs 44 times in the  greater Pauline corpus,  while  ‘God of peace’ occurs seven times in his writings.  Paul never uses  ‘God of wrath’ or ‘God of judgment’ as titles for God.  Says Swartley: “Paul, more than any other writer in the NT canon, makes peace, peacemaking, and peace-building central to his theological reflections and moral admonition” (p 190).   Just in the above quote from Ephesians 2:14-22, Paul uses the word peace 4 times and also uses the word reconciliation – this is Paul’s understanding of who Jesus is and what salvation He brings to the world.  In Christ God is reconciling the world to Himself, as well as reconciling and bringing to peace both Jews and Gentiles.  Additionally, Paul in using Isaiah 57:19 in his theology  clearly ties the Messiah to the promise of peace which God made through the prophets.

In Ephesians 2:14-17 Paul draws on Isaiah, just as Jesus and the Gospel writers also did.  Paul sums up Jesus’ life and work by joining two Isaiah texts, 52:7 and 57:19.  Christ proclaims peace is from the rich Isaiah declaration, ‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace’ … This oracle continues by describing further this messenger as the one ‘who announces, who says, to Zion, “Your God reigns.”’  It concludes with the universal vision: ‘all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of God’ (52:10b).  (p 200)

As noted in Ephesians 2:14-22, for St. Paul not only does Christ proclaim peace, He is our peace.  It is in Christ that we are reconciled with God – made one with God, ending our enmity with God due to our sin, making us at peace with God – and also ending the division between Jews and Gentiles, making us all into one people again.  We are all united to one another in Christ and made into the people of God who turn out to be a living temple for God.  Salvation is thus for St. Paul not just something individualistic – something that happens between “me” and God – it is social and relational in its full dimension, establishing a proper relationship between each human and God, but also between every human with each other as well as with all humans and the rest of creation itself.  God’s peace brings an end in each of us to personal desire which is opposed to the good of all because God’s peace also means loving everyone as well as all of God’s creation.  The denial of self that Christ taught is so that we can love everyone else and live at peace with them.  In this we imitate Christ who is our peace.

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called the uncircumcision by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ.   (Ephesians 2:11-13)

If we live in Christ, we live in Christ’s peace, because He is our peace.  St. Paul describes what this means for us –

Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.    (Romans 12:17-21)

As with the idea of shalom in the Old Covenant, we the people have to live this peace.

…in Philippians 2:1-12 … (v.12) exhorting recipients of Christ’s salvation-work to ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling.’  God’s gift of salvation-peace is thus matched by the human responsibility to ‘work it out,’ to do those things that manifest the new life of peace with God and peace with one another.  (p 211)

 

Quote of M.L. King

We are to work out our peace with God, with neighbor, with enemy and with all of the created order.  Thus being in Christ changes everything for us.  No longer are we to live for the self, but rather we live in love for all and everyone which and whom God loves.  St. Paul’s ideas of salvation are thus opposed to ideas that “I” am to be concerned about my salvation as opposed to everyone else’s.  The Church isn’t set up for me to work for my salvation with no regard for anyone else.  I am to work out my salvation in love for others and for creation itself.  I am saved with others and with all creation.  The “us vs them” thinking which sometimes almost seems to be a defining mark of various Christians denominations is thus not the life in Christ which St. Paul imagines.  All dividing walls come down in Christ, which makes is possible for all to be reconciled in Christ.  I am to live in peace with everyone and everything, not become disinterested, neglectful or indifferent toward others.  Nor is it correct for me to see myself working out my salvation as disconnecting me from the rest of humanity.   “I” work out my salvation with the rest of humanity.   The freedom Christ brings us is not freedom from others, but the freedom to work out my salvation with all others.  “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another.”  (Galatians 5:13; see also 1 Peter 2:16).  The Church opted in its history for a “catholic” vision rather than a sectarian one – for the life of the world (John 6:51) as Fr. Schmemann so famously proclaimed .  As Swartley points out:

The aim of atonement is redemptive solidarity, not penal substitution. (p 193)

Christ dies for our sins not mostly to fulfill some legal demand by a wrathful God that someone has to suffer for our sins, but in order to end the walls of enmity that pitted us one against the other and against God Himself.

Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.   (2 Corinthians 5:17-21)

Not only are we reconciled to God in Jesus Christ, but we are to be actively reconciling the world to God.  This is the very vision, mission and purpose of the Church.

God’s act in Christ reconciles humans to God (not God to humans by pacifying divine wrath) and that reconciled-to-God humans are then enlisted into the ministry of reconciliation.   . . .  Christ, who knew no sin, but became sin for us in dying on the cross, ‘so that we might become the righteousness of God’ (cf 1 Pet 2:24).  (pp 203-204)

Salvation in Christ does not pit us against others – “we” are saved but “you” are not.  Rather, in Christ, we work to be reconciled with all others in the world, so that we might bring all to Christ.  Those tendencies in Christianity which cause us to want to run away from the world and not be tainted by the world, fall short of St. Paul the Apostle to the Nations vision of what it means that Jesus is Messiah and Savior of the world.  Christ Himself proclaimed that His Body given as food is not just communion for the faithful few but is given as life for the world.

“I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  (John 6:51)

We are to go into all the world, for the life of the world and to make disciples of all nations (Mark 16:15; Matthew 28:19).  We are not called to withdraw into the salt shaker, but to be the salt of the world.  We are not blessed to hide our light under a bushel, but rather to be a light to the world (Matthew 5:13-16)

In Christian terms, a prayer for world peace is a prayer that Christ will prevail – not only in the world but especially in our hearts and minds.  We pray constantly in Orthodoxy “in peace”, for the peace of the whole world, for the peace from above, that we might spend the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance.  This peace we pray for is Christ.   If the words of our prayers are not to be emptied of all meaning, then WE have to live in peace with each other, with God, with neighbor, and even with our enemies.  Peace is not something God will impose upon us, but rather something we must  choose and we must will, for the kingdom of God is within us.

Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, Jesus answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”   (Luke 17:20-21)

3 thoughts on “Peace in the Epistles of St Paul

  1. Dear Fr. Ted, This series on Mr. Swartely’s book is quite interesting. I understand he is Anabaptist Mennonite, and, of course, this does not mean he is removed from truth and inspiration, but is there any caveats as Orthodox readers we should be aware of before taking your advice and purchasing the book?
    Thank you!
    James

    1. Fr. Ted

      His comments are based almost exclusively on or a reaction to other modern biblical scholars. There is virtually no references to how any of the Fathers interpreted or used the biblical texts. So we don’t see in his book how Christians in antiquity or through the centuries related to the notion of peace. His book considers only current biblical exegesis. And while he is well read in the current literature, and while he makes excellent use of that scholarship to present his own reading, Orthodox readers will not find any references to the Fathers and the Patristic Tradition which shapes our understanding of the text. Apparently few or no modern Orthodox scholars have written on ‘peace” at a level which has gained notice in the world of modern biblical scholarship.

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