Violence, war, and news of war are persistent in human experience. Any history, including scriptural history, seems merely to alternate from war to brief peace and back to war. And if (as is rare) a current newspaper fails to report war somewhere, it is probably by oversight or out of weariness. The drone of violence never relents. Yet the Savior promised peace.
In his play about the martyrdom of Thomas á Becket, T. S. Eliot has a touching scene in which Becket, who senses that he is soon to suffer death, delivers a sermon on Christmas morning, A.D. 1170. His text is “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will.” (Luke 2:14, Vulgate version.) As he addresses his flock for the last time, the archbishop discusses this announcement of peace:
“Now think for a moment about the meaning of this word ‘peace.’ Does it seem strange to you that the angels should have announced Peace, when ceaselessly the world has been stricken with War and the fear of War? Does it seem to you that the angelic voices were mistaken, and that the promise was a disappointment and a cheat?
“Reflect now, how Our Lord Himself spoke of Peace. He said to His disciples, ‘My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.’ Did he mean peace as we think of it: the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbors, the barons at peace with the King, the householder counting over his peaceful gains, the swept hearth, his best wine for a friend at the table, his wife singing to the children? Those men His disciples knew no such things: they went forth to journey afar, to suffer by land and sea, to know torture, imprisonment, disappointment, to suffer death by martyrdom. What then did He mean? If you ask that, remember then that He said also, ‘Not as the world gives, give I unto you.’ So then, He gave to His disciples peace, but not peace as the world gives.” 1
I find this reference to the Savior’s distinction between his peace and that which the world gives vitally important. The world gives only momentary absence of war. But to define peace merely as non-war is to define it negatively. Christ spoke of something else.
Isaiah had prophesied that “The Prince of Peace” would come. (See Isa. 9:6.) While the Jews, under imperial oppression, were hoping for a king greater than David to liberate them, angels heralding the birth of Christ proclaimed “Peace on earth.” (See Luke 2:14.) To those who knew the prophecy and believed Jesus to be the Messiah, it must have been at least mildly disappointing and somewhat puzzling that there was no outward victory, no overthrowing of imperial rule. This king did not even oppose the burden of taxation; he was comfortable among publicans and said, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.” (Matt. 22:21.) And toward the end of his ministry he still maintained, “Peace I leave with you” (John 14:27), even though his followers were threatened with violence. Peace in the prophecy, peace at the advent, peace at his departure—all amid strife and expectations of political rebellion. What did he mean?
The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, has many associated meanings, including welfare, safety, tranquility, and friendship; but its primary meaning is completeness, wholeness, or even perfection. It occurs frequently in place-names and in the everyday idiomatic language of the Old Testament, but it also has deep religious meaning. As Gerhard von Rad has written, “Seldom do we find in the Old Testament a word which to the same degree as [shalom] can bear a common use and yet can also be filled with a concentrated religious content far above the level of average conception.” 2 In the Old Testament, to have peace meant to keep a formal covenant of peace (renewed ritually by “peace offerings”) with Jehovah, which was to enter into friendship with him.
The Greek word eirene (peace) in the New Testament contains the meaning unity or harmony, and it is used to translate the whole semantic range of Hebrew shalom. That which is not peace lacks unity or concord. This sense is apparent, for example, in Ephesians 4:3 in which the saints are urged to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (italics added) [Eph. 4:3] and in 1 Corinthians 14:33: “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace.” [1 Cor. 14:33]
I believe that Paul, who uses the word peace more than twice as often as it is used in the four Gospels and Acts together, had a profound perception of Christ’s peace. The apostle sees the atonement as the great peace offering, as the real fruition of the Old Testament covenant of peace: “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 5:1.) He often refers to Christ as the Lord or God of peace. (See Rom. 15:33; Rom 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:11; Philip. 4:9; 1 Thes. 5:23; 2 Thes. 3:16.) The apostle also equates the sense of Christ’s presence with a feeling of peace: “Now the Lord of peace himself give you peace always by all means. The Lord be with you all.” (2 Thes. 3:16.) And in Philippians, he alludes to the sustaining power and incomprehensibility of this peace:
“And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. …
“And the God of peace shall be with you.” (Philip. 4:7, 9.)
But how did the Savior himself use the word? Even commonplace idioms must have taken on richness when Jesus spoke them. For example, the Jewish phrase used in leave-taking was “Go in peace.” Christ spoke these words in performing what is to me one of the most touching of his miracles. A woman who had had an issue of blood for twelve years and had spent “all her living” on physicians to no avail approached Jesus in a throng and touched the border of his robe. He stopped and asked, “Who touched me?” His disciples thought it a strange question considering the multitude that was pressing around him, but he was adamant. The woman fell before him trembling and confessed. And he said: “Daughter, be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole [remember the basic meaning of shalom]; go in peace.” (Luke 8:48; italics added.) The Master gave warmth to this idiom. Can we imagine what the woman must have felt, and those who witnessed the miracle, when Christ spoke the words “Go in peace”?
It is in light of this formulaic way of saying good-bye that we must consider the familiar words in John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.” Christ has just told his disciples that he will soon leave them, but that the Father will send a Comforter who will recall his teachings to their minds and instruct them further. Immediately following this announcement and assurance, he says, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27.) The Savior alludes to the idiomatic way of saying farewell, yet he does not merely wish peace: he gives peace. This peace is of a special kind. It gives no assurance against hardship; the apostles suffered all kinds of trials and finally death by martyrdom. And indeed, shortly hereafter, Christ tells them, “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation.” (John 16:33; italics added.)
We encounter this seeming paradox again in the Doctrine and Covenants. The Prophet and his companions had been in prison for months. The Saints were suffering persecution. The Prophet Joseph calls out to the Lord: “O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?” (D&C 121:1.) There follows a long lament and a plea for the Lord to succor his people. What does the Lord answer? “My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment.” (D&C 121:7.) The persecution continued, and five years later the Prophet was slain.
Clearly, then, freedom from violence in this world is not promised. But with Christ’s peace comes the deep, inner assurance that all things, even our greatest sufferings, will be for our good. Just as Jesus hushed the storm with the words “Peace, be still” and brought forth “a great calm” (see Mark 4:39), so can he speak peace to the troubled mind and soothe the grieving heart.
When the Lord instructed Adam concerning baptism and the Holy Ghost, one of the names by which he referred to the Comforter was “the peaceable things of immortal glory.” (See Moses 6:61.) This relationship between peace and the Holy Ghost is also strongly suggested in John’s account of Christ’s appearance to the apostles after His resurrection. The disciples were locked in a room “for fear of the Jews” (see John 20:19); their hearts were very much troubled and very much afraid. The Savior appeared in their midst and greeted them with the words, “Peace be unto you.” He showed them the wounds in his hands and side, and they recognized him and were gladdened. The Master then transformed and enriched the greeting:
“Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.
“And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost.” (John 20:21–22; italics added.)
Because of this correspondence between peace and the Holy Ghost, the receiving and reaffirming of testimony is accompanied by a sense of peace. One of the most beautiful illustrations of this I know of is the story of the conversion of the multitude of Lamanites who had cast Nephi and Lehi, sons of Helaman, into prison. An encircling fire protected the missionaries while a cloud of darkness entrapped the host. At the repeated urging of a heavenly voice, the Lamanites repented:
“And behold, the Holy Spirit of God did come down from heaven, and did enter into their hearts, and they were filled as if with fire, and they could speak forth marvelous words.
“And it came to pass that there came a voice unto them, yea, a pleasant voice, as if it were a whisper, saying:
“Peace, peace be unto you, because of your faith in my Well Beloved, who was from the foundation of the world.” (Hel. 5:45–47; italics added.)
Less dramatic, though I think in a way as moving, are the Lord’s words to Oliver Cowdery reminding him of a witness he had received while staying at the home of the Prophet’s father:
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things.
“Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?” (D&C 6:22–23; italics added.)
Righteousness results when testimony is consciously nourished with spirit and strengthened by works, and the condition and concern of righteousness is peace. This is a recurring theme of exultation in Isaiah and the Psalms: “And the work of righteousness shall be peace; and the effect of righteousness quietness and assurance for ever” (Isa. 32:17; cf. Isa. 48:18; Isa. 60:17); “Righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Ps. 85:10; cf. Ps. 72:3, 7). With a beautiful metaphor, James also suggests this bond: “And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.” (James 3:18.) And in the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord promises peace as the immediate reward of righteousness: “But learn that he who doeth the works of righteousness shall receive his reward, even peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come.” (D&C 59:23.)
In attempting to describe the Lord’s peace, Isaiah employs a rich and fertile image of peace as a river. (See Isa. 48:18; Isa. 66:12; 1 Ne. 20:18.) All that a river could be to a desert—a soothing, life-giving, life-sustaining force—peace can be to the soul. Indeed, Paul conceives of peace and life as closely related: “To be spiritually minded is life and peace.” (Rom. 8:6.)
The Savior’s atonement places before us the possibility of peace—which in its fullest sense is ultimate wholeness and perfection. Such peace does not depend on external circumstance but grows as we become one with Christ. If we inherit eternal life, we will have “received his image in [our] countenances” (Alma 5:14), we will “be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (Moro. 7:48), and we will mirror back to him the joy and peace of his countenance: “The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.” (Num. 6:26.) The peace of Christ is a summation of all beatitude. In my own experience, even a momentary, fleeting refraction of it has left me with an unspeakable sense of being filled, and at the same time with an inconsolable longing to regain his presence.
Murder in the Cathedral, in The Complete Plays of T. S. Eliot (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1935), pp. 32–33.
In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1964), 2:402. See also the Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, ed. and rev. Francis Brown, et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952), pp. 1022–24; and Douglas J. Harris, Shalom: The Biblical Concept of Peace (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970).