The Hebrew Bible uses a familiar but significant word, shalom. In its purest sense, shalom means "peace." The connotation is positive. That is, when someone says, "Shalom," or, "Peace unto you," it doesn't mean, "I hope you don't get into any trouble"; it means, "I hope you have all the highest good coming your way."
Most people in our world don't understand peace as a positive concept. All they know is the negative aspect of peace, which is merely the absence of trouble. The definition of peace in many languages of the world illustrates that. For example, the Quechua Indians in <!—?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" /?—>Ecuador and Bolivia use a word for peace that literally translates, "to sit down in one's heart." For them peace is the opposite of running around in the midst of constant anxieties. The Chol Indians of Mexico define peace as "a quiet heart." Those may be beautiful ways to put it, but they still seem to leave us with only the negative idea that peace is the absence of trouble.
Close to the meaning of the Hebrew word shalom is the word used by the Kekchi Indians of Guatemala, who define peace as "quiet goodness." The term they use conveys the idea of something that is active and aggressive, not just a rest in one's own heart away from troublesome circumstances.
The biblical concept of peace does not focus on the absence of trouble. Biblical peace is unrelated to circumstances; it is a goodness of life that is not touched by what happens on the outside. You may be in the midst of great trials and still have biblical peace. Paul said he could be content in any circumstance; and he demonstrated that he had peace even in the jail at Philippi, where he sang and remained confident that God was being gracious to him. Then when the opportunity arose, he communicated God's goodness to the Philippian jailer, and brought him and his family to salvation. Likewise, James wrote, "Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials" (James 1:2).
Where does a man find the kind of peace that is not just the absence of trouble—the kind of peace that cannot be affected by trouble, danger, or sorrow? It is ironic that what is surely the most definitive discourse on peace in all of Scripture comes from the Lord Jesus on the night before He died in agony. He knew what He was facing, yet He still took time to comfort His disciples with the message of peace:
Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful. (John 14:27)
The peace Jesus is speaking of enables believers to remain calm in the most wildly fearful circumstances. It enables them to hush a cry, still a riot, rejoice in pain and trial, and sing in the middle of suffering. This peace is never by circumstances, but instead affects and even overrules them.
The Nature of Peace
The New Testament speaks of two kinds of peace—the objective peace that has to do with your relationship to God, and the subjective peace that has to do with your experience in life.
The natural man lacks peace with God. We all come into the world fighting against God, because we are a part of the rebellion that started with Adam and Eve. Romans 5:10 says we were enemies of God. We fought against God, and everything we did militated against His principles.
But when we receive Jesus Christ, we cease being enemies of God—we make a truce with Him. We come over to His side, and the hostility is ended. Jesus Christ wrote the treaty with the blood of His cross. That treaty, that bond, that covenant of peace declares the objective fact that we now are at peace with Him.
That's what Paul means in Ephesians 6:15, when he calls the good news of salvation "the preparation of the gospel of peace." The gospel is that which makes a man who was at war with God to be at peace with Him. This peace is objective—that is, it has nothing to do with how we feel or what we think. It is an accomplished fact.
Romans 5:1 says, "Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God." We who trust Christ are redeemed and declared righteous by faith. Our sins are forgiven, rebellion ceases, the war is over, and we have peace with God. That was God's wonderful purpose in salvation.
Colossians 1:20-22 says that Christ "made peace through the blood of His cross.... And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach."
A sinful, vile, wicked person cannot come into the presence of a holy God. Something must make that unholy person righteous before he can be at peace with God. And that's exactly what Christ did, dying for sin, imputing His righteousness to sinners. So Paul says we are no longer enemies but are at peace because we are reconciled.
It is as if God were on one side, we were on the other side, then Christ filled the gap, taking the hand of God and the hand of man and placing them together into the same grip. We have now been brought together through the blood of the cross of Jesus Christ.
Whereas God and man were once estranged, they have now been reconciled. That is the heart of the gospel message, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:18-19. But Jesus is not talking about objective peace in John 14:27. The peace He speaks of here is a subjective, experiential peace. It is tranquility of the soul, a settled, positive peace that affects the circumstances of life. It is peace that is aggressive; rather than being victimized by events, it attacks them and gobbles them up. It is a supernatural, permanent, positive, no-side-effects, divine tranquilizer. This peace is the heart's calm after Calvary's storm. It is the firm conviction that He who spared not His own Son will also along with Him freely give us all things (cf. Romans 8:32).
This is the peace that Paul speaks about in Philippians 4:7: "And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." The peace of God is not based on circumstances like the world's peace, so it doesn't always make sense to the carnal mind; Paul says it is a peace that surpasses comprehension. It doesn't seem reasonable that such peace could exist in the midst of the problems and troubles Christians go through. But this is divine, supernatural peace; it cannot be figured out on a human level.
The word for "guard" in Philippians 4:7 is not the word that means to "watch," or "keep imprisoned." It is a word that is often used in a military sense, meaning "to stand at a post and guard against the aggression of an enemy." When peace is on guard, the Christian has entered an impregnable citadel from which nothing can dislodge him. The name of the fortress is Christ, and the guard is peace. The peace of God stands guard and keeps worry from the corroding our hearts, and unworthy thoughts from tearing up our minds.
This is the kind of peace men really want: They want a peace that deals with the past, one where no strings of conscience dipped in the poison of past sins tear at them and torture them hour by hour. They want a peace that governs the present, with no unsatisfied desires gnawing at their hearts. They want a peace that holds promise for the future, where no foreboding fear of the unknown and dark tomorrow threatens them. And that is exactly the peace through which the guilt of the past is forgiven; by which the trials of the present are overcome; and in which our destiny in the future is secured eternally.
The Source of Peace
This subjective, experiential peace—the peace of God—has its foundation in the objective, factual peace—peace with God. The peace of God is not obtainable by those who are not at peace with Him. God alone brings peace. In fact, in Philippians 4:9, 1 Thessalonians 5:23, and again in Hebrews 13:20, He is called "the God of peace."
Jesus Christ is also seen as the One who gives peace. Jesus said, "My peace I give to you." Notice He says "My peace." Here is the key to the supernaturalness of this peace: it is His own personal peace. It is the same deep, rich peace that stilled His heart in the midst of mockers, haters, murderers, traitors, and everything else He faced. He had a calm about Him that was unnatural and nonhuman. In the midst of incomprehensible resistance and persecution, Jesus was calm and unfaltering; He was a rock.
Those who knew Him might have come to expect it, but you can imagine how it must have confounded His enemies and those who didn't know Him to see someone that calm. When Jesus appeared before Pilate, He was so calm, so serene, so controlled, and so at peace, that Pilate became greatly disturbed. He was furious that Jesus was standing before him fearless; and in a near frenzy, Pilate said, "Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?" (John 19:10).
Then in perfect peace Jesus replied, "You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above" (John 19:11). That's the kind of peace Jesus is talking about. That's the kind He gives to us. It is undistracted fearlessness and trust. So the source of peace is Christ.
In fact, Christ is seen throughout the New Testament as the dispenser of peace. In Acts 10:36, Peter says, "The word which He sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ." Second Thessalonians 3:16 says, "Now may the Lord of peace Himself continually grant you peace." Jesus Christ gives us His own personal peace. It has been tested; it was His own shield and His own helmet that served Him in battle. And He gave it to us when He left. It should give us the same serenity in danger, the same calm in trouble, and the same freedom from anxiety.
The Giver of Peace
The Holy Spirit is the Giver of this peace, and He dispenses it as a gift. Galatians 5:22 says one aspect of the fruit of the Spirit is peace. You might ask, if it was Christ's peace, why is the Holy Spirit giving it? The answer is in John 16:14, which says, "He will glorify Me; for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you." The Holy Spirit's ministry is to take the things of Christ and give them us.
Notice that every promise Jesus made to His troubled disciples on the night before His death was rooted in the coming of the Holy Spirit. Christ promised life, union with deity, full understanding, and peace to those who are His disciples, but it is the Spirit of God who takes the things of Christ and gives them to us.
The Contrast of Peace
In verse 27, Jesus says, "Not as the world gives, do I give to you." In other words, His peace is not like the peace of the world. The world's peace is worthless. Since 36 B.C. there have been nearly 15,000 wars. Before World War II the world had an average of 2.61 new wars every year. But since World War II despite all of mankind's "enlightenment," and organized efforts for world peace, there have been an average of three new wars every year. The New York Times once observed that "peace is a fable."
The only peace this world can know is shallow and unfulfilling. Most people's pursuit of peace is only an attempt to get away from problems. That is why people seek peace through alcohol, drugs, or other forms of escapism. The fact is, apart from God, there is no real peace in this world. The peace of putting your blinders on, of going to bed and forgetting it, is fleeting and worthless. And yet people try desperately to hold on to this kind of mock peace.
It is futile pursuit. Godless individuals can never know true peace. They might know only a momentary tranquility—a shallow feeling, perhaps stimulated by positive circumstances mixed with a lot of ignorance. In fact, if unsaved people knew what destiny awaited them without God, the illusion of peace borne out of ignorance would evaporate instantly.
People today live in a form of existential shock. They don't understand their own being, they don't know who they are, where are going, or what they do when they get there—if they get there. I recently saw a sign on a man's desk that said, "I've got so many troubles that if anything else happens to me, it will be two weeks before I can even worry about it."
That is a commentary on the plight of modern man, but the truth is, the real reason a person can't find peace has nothing to do with emotions or environment. If you lack peace, it is not because of your mother, your father, your grandmother, the church you were reared in, or a bad experience when you were a child. The Bible tells us why people don't know peace. Jeremiah 17:9 says "The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick." The King James Version says "desperately wicked." Isaiah 48:22 says, "There is no peace for the wicked." Man's heart is desperately wicked, and thus he cannot find peace.
Throughout the land of Judah in Jeremiah's day, problems were rising up fast. A great army was coming in to destroy Jerusalem and take the people into captivity, and they were frightened. Peace was being removed from the land, and there was destruction coming like they had never experienced.
Jeremiah 6:14 says, "They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially, saying, 'Peace, peace,' but there is no peace." In other words, they tried to patch up their evil ways and then said, "Peace, peace, everything is okay." There was a lot of talk about peace, but there was not genuine peace. In chapter 8, he says, "We waited for peace, but no good came; for a time of healing, but behold, terror!" (v. 15).
A few chapters later, the prophet repeats the same observation: "Have You completely rejected Judah? Or have You loathed Zion? Why have You stricken us so that we are beyond healing? We waited for peace, but nothing good came; and for a time of healing, but behold, terror!" (14:19). Then, Jeremiah put his finger on the source of the trouble: "'Do not enter a house of mourning, or go to lament or to console them; for I have withdrawn My peace from this people,' declares the Lord" (16:5). Where there was sin, there could be no peace.
We can expect nothing different in the end times. Revelation 6:4 says that when the Tribulation begins there will be a brief period of peace, but after about three and a half years, peace will be taken from the earth. Luke 21:26 says people's hearts will fail them for fear.
The world's peace doesn't exist. It is a lie and cannot exist. No individual without Jesus Christ can ever have peace, and no world without God can ever know peace. If a person has a moment of peace in this world, it is only a camouflage hiding the eternal pressure of God's judgment.
The Result of Peace
Jesus shows us the proper response to His promise of peace, "Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful" (John 14:27). We ought to be able to lay hold of this peace. It is there, it is ours; but we must take hold of it. It is interesting that He says "I give you peace," then He says, "Do not let your heart be troubled." The peace He gives has to be received and applied in our lives. If we lay hold of the promise of the very peace of Christ, we will have calm, untroubled hearts, regardless of external circumstances.
If you have a troubled heart, my friend, it is because you do not believe God—you don't really trust His promise of peace. Anxiety and turmoil seldom focus on present circumstances. Normally, anxiety is trouble borrowed from either the past or the future. Some people worry about things that might happen. Others' anxieties come out of the past. But both the future and the past are under the care of God. He promises to supply our future need, and He has forgiven the past. Don't worry about tomorrow or yesterday. Jesus said, "Each day has enough trouble of its own." (Matthew 6:34). Concentrate on trusting God for today's needs.
The peace of Christ is a great resource in helping us to know the will of God. Colossians 3:15 says, "Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful." The word translated "rule" is the Greek word brabeuo, which means "to act as umpire." Paul is urging the Colossians to so depend on the peace of Christ that it becomes an umpire in the decisions they have to make in life.
Do you have a problem, or a decision to make? Let the peace of Christ make that decision for you. If you have examined a planned action in the light of God's Word—and His Word does not forbid you from going ahead with it—if you can do it and retain the peace of Christ in your heart, then do it with the confidence it is God's will. But if you find you do not have a sense of peace and God's blessing about it, don't do it.
Don't try to rationalize about your decision; you may find it makes good sense from the rational point of view. But will it rob your soul of rest and peace? Do you have a sense of confidence that God is in this? If you don't have peace, it is probably the wrong thing to do. Let Christ's peace be the umpire that makes the calls. That is how we are to govern our behavior.
There are two conspicuous reasons I don't like to sin. One is that sin is an offense to the holy God I love. He hates sin, and my love for Him makes me want to please Him. The other reason is that I don't like the way I feel after I sin! Sin destroys my sense of peace, and it breaks my sense of communion with God.
Look again at Colossians 3:15. Paul says here that peace belongs to every Christian. He calls it "the peace of Christ...to which indeed you were called in one body." Our peace with God and the peace of God that rules our hearts is a foundation of Christian unity. If we disregard that peace, if we refuse to let it be the umpire, we cannot have unity in the body of Christ, for everyone will be doing his own thing, and the body will be divided.
The peace of Christ is also an unending source of strength in the midst of difficulties. As Stephen sank bleeding and bruised under the stones of a cursing mob, he offered a loving, forgiving prayer for his murderers, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them!" (Acts 7:60). Paul was driven out of one city, dragged almost lifeless out of another, stripped by robbers, and arraigned before ruler after ruler. Yet he had an uncanny peace. He wrote,
Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern? (2 Corinthians 11:24-29)
That is the same peace you and I have; he just applied it. Paul also said,
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus' sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:8-11)
But he wrote,
Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. (vv.16-18)
In other words, Paul didn't focus on his problems, but on the promises of God to sustain and ultimately glorify him. Trouble comes and goes, but glory is eternal. Paul understood that, and that's why in the midst of his trials he could write to the Philippians, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!" (Philippians 4:4).
To have that supernatural peace available puts us under obligation to lean on it. Colossians 3:15 is not a command to seek peace, but rather a plea to let the Lord's peace work in us: "Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts." You have this peace, now let it rule.
Perfect peace comes when our focus is off the problem, off the trouble, and constantly on Christ. Isaiah 26:3 says, "The steadfast of mind You will keep in perfect peace, because he trusts in You."
In the midst of a society in which we are constantly bombarded with advertising and other worldly pressures designed to get us to focus on our needs and problems, how can we keep our minds focused on Christ? By studying the Word of God and being taught by the Holy Spirit and permitting Him to fix our hearts on the person of Jesus Christ.
Most people who lack peace simply have not taken the time to pursue it. God's peace comes to those with the personal discipline to stop in the midst of the maelstrom of life and take time to seek Him. It is a condition of peace that we cease from life's activity and know Him. He commands, "Be still, and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10, King James Version). And to those whose minds are steadfastly fixed on Him, He gives the gift of peace.
© 1983 by John MacArthur. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise identified, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.