If you’re old enough to remember it, sing these lines:
I’ve got peace like a river,
I’ve got peace like a river,
I’ve got peace like a river in my soul.
I’ve got peace like a river,
I’ve got peace like a river,
I’ve got peace like a river in my soul.
Why like a river? Not a lake. Not a pond. Not an ocean. A river.
We’re going to end this service in a little while with another song about peace like river.
Like a river glorious is God’s perfect peace,
Over all victorious in its bright increase;
Perfect, yet it floweth fuller every day,
Perfect, yet it groweth deeper all the way.
Stayed upon Jehovah hearts are fully blest
Finding as he promised, perfect peace and rest.
Why do song writers compare peace to a river? At one level the answer is this: because the Bible does.
Oh that you had paid attention to my commandments!
Then your peace would have been like a river,
and your righteousness like the waves of the sea. (Isaiah 48:18)
Thus says the Lord:
“Behold, I will extend peace to [Jerusalem] like a river,
and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream.” (Isaiah 66:12)
And the refrain of “Stayed Upon Jehovah” comes from Isaiah 26:3,
You keep him in perfect peace
whose mind is stayed on you,
because he trusts in you.
So that just moves the question back one step: Why does the Bible compare peace to a river?
That’s where we will end. But first, what is it? What is the biblical reality called “peace”? And how did we lose it everywhere and within? And how can we gain it back?
What Is Peace?
First, what is peace? Or to be more specific, what’s the biblical reality of peace that the word is pointing to? That’s the question.
To answer that question, you don’t go to a dictionary. All dictionaries do is give you options of meanings. To know what the Bible means by peace, you have to read the Bible. You have to read the verses where the word is used. And then you have to ask according to the context how is it being used to get across the reality? The reality is richer than you might think.
Peace Between Men
Deuteronomy 20:10, “When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it.”
So, what is peace? It’s the alternative to the fight that’s about to happen.
Psalm 120:7, “I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war!”
What is peace? It’s the alternative to war.
Ecclesiastes 3:1, 8, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven . . . a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.”
So the definition so far of the reality of peace is a relationship among people that avoids conflict.
That’s the first step in our explanation. A relationship among people that avoids fighting and war and conflict.
Peace Between Man and Nature
But there is more. Let’s go a step further.
Mark 4:37–39, “A great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. . . . And Jesus awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.”
So, what is peace? Peace is between natural forces and man and the removal of their conflict. This wind and these waves were about to kill these disciples. And Jesus said, “Peace!” And the conflict was over between nature and man.
So now my definition broadens. Not only is peace a relationship among people where conflict has been avoided, but it includes in its growing meaning a relationship between man and nature where conflict has been removed.
I’ll give you another example:
Leviticus 26:6, “I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid. And I will remove harmful beasts from the land” — snakes and lions and bears that kill your kids at night.
When peace is complete, it’s going to mean freedom from conflict between man and nature. So, whether the conflict comes from wind or waves or wild beasts or viruses or snake bites or floods or famine or earthquakes or cancer or heart disease or pneumonia or diabetes or Alzheimer’s — the reality of peace in its fullest biblical sense is freedom from conflict between all of nature and human life.
Isaiah describes our final future when God’s saving work is complete.
Isaiah 55:12–13 says,
You shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace. . . .
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle.
The conflict between thorns and my skin is going away.
“The wolf and the lamb shall graze together;
the lion shall eat straw like the ox,
and dust shall be the serpent’s food.
They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,”
says the Lord. (Isaiah 65:25)
When peace reaches its full biblical extent there will be no more conflict between natural forces and my life or your life. There will be complete absence of conflict between nature and man.
But there’s more. You can imagine a situation in which peace between people has settled on the world, and peace between you and nature has settled on the world, and inside you are in turmoil because there is no peace in your own soul. Anxiety. Turmoil. Racing thoughts. Panic attacks. Confusion. Indecision. Frustration. Feelings of guilt. Shame. Regret. The heart can be like a restless sea of inner conflict, even if everything is peaceful on the outside because there is something else wrong. My mind and my heart is in conflict with itself not because you don’t like me, or somebody wants to kill me, or a snake is about to bite me. It’s about me. Something is wrong with me. When you lay your head on the pillow at night, you know that.
Is that kind of peace included in the growing definition we are working on?
Jesus said in John 14:27, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” This is inner peace.
The apostle Paul put it like this in Philippians 4:6–7: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
That’s a precious phrase — “surpasses all understanding.” What that means is with my understanding, I can read my Bible, and I can look at the world, and I can accumulate evidences that there’s peace out there and peace with nature. But it doesn’t work because in my soul I am still irrationally tormented. You know that your panic attacks and your racing thoughts and your frustrations and the mental stuff that goes on that makes you so unhappy aren’t solved by just fixing things externally. You wouldn’t be able to just use your minds and make computations about what you hear and say, “Well that’s a good reason for peace.” Yes, that is the way we do it. And Paul is simply saying, “Do that! Listen to the preacher. Listen to all the verses. Mount up the evidences, and then pray down the miracle.”
Full Biblical Reality
So, the biblical reality of peace in its fullest sense includes (1) the freedom from conflict between man and man (individually, in your family, in your neighborhood, in the city, in the nation, in the world), and (2) the freedom from conflict between man and nature (disease, catastrophe, disaster, death), and (3) the freedom from conflict within your own mind and heart so that you know sweet, guilt-free, shame-free, anxiety-free peace.
Now that is so big and so amazing — it’s global, universal, natural, human, psychological — many people define peace (Hebrew shalom), as “human well-being, prosperity, and welfare.” And that’s the translation in many texts. For example, Jeremiah 29:11, “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare (shalom) and not for evil.” And it’s not wrong to point out that the biblical reality of peace includes well-being or human flourishing. I’m fine with definitions like flourishing, well-being, and welfare.
But let it be clear that there’s a difference between the biblical reality of peace and what we usually mean in English by “well-being” and “welfare” and “prosperity.” The biblical reality of peace pervasively signals that this well-being, this welfare, this prosperity, this tranquility, this calm, this flourishing is owing to the avoidance or the removal of conflict. Don’t leave that out because otherwise you’ll just define peace as happiness.
Which brings us now to the most important thing. Where did all this human, natural, psychological conflict come from? Everything is so broken! Where did that come from? And how will it be removed?
“All conflict in the world came from conflict with God and remains in the world until the conflict with God is removed.”
The reason there is a deadly conflict between man and man — at the individual, family, cultural, global levels — and the reason there is a conflict between man and nature — with all its diseases, and disasters, and death — and the reason there is conflict in our own hearts and minds with guilt and anxiety and shame, is because of our man’s conflict with God. All conflict in the world came from conflict with God and remains in the world until the conflict with God is removed.
Go back to the beginning with me. You know the story that so amazingly and frighteningly and terribly describes this origin.
In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve fell from being satisfied in God into the blindness of preferring their own wisdom and their own way, and they chose conflict with God over peace with God. They chose it and it ruined everything. Conflict with God has ruined everything. It has created conflict everywhere, both internal and external. Let me read you the steps of collapse.
First, when conflict with God entered the world, their relationship with their own souls was ruined. The first thing they became aware of was the conflict between what they had become and what they ought to be. They covered themselves with fig leaves, desperately trying to fix it. And that’s what we’ve been doing ever since. We can’t fix it. We leave with conflict in our souls while there’s conflict with God. It cannot be fixed. They sewed fig leaves to cover themselves (Genesis 3:7). God said, “How did you know you were naked?” (Genesis 3:11) It’s not a strange question. They were so gloriously free from conflict between what they were and what they were supposed to be that they didn’t have any self-conscious conflict at all. What a life that would be. We are always covering ourselves all over the place trying to fix ourselves. We’re so out of sync with what we’re supposed to be when we’re in conflict with God that we’ll do anything to fix it except deal with God.
Second, Adam and Eve’s relationship with each other broke. Have you thought about how immediately it broke? Conflict between the man and the woman entered immediately. “Have you eaten of the tree that I told you not to eat?” “She gave it to me. If you’re going to kill somebody, kill her.” (Genesis 3:12) It’s over. Human life is over in its peace — men and women, men and men, nation and nation, families and families — because of conflict with God.
And third, their relationship with nature was ruined with conflict. God said to the woman, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing” (Genesis 3:16). And to the man God said, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17). Everything is broken. It’s broken within. It’s broken between people. It’s broken in nature. Everything broke into conflict because of one thing: conflict with God. “I treasure creation more than Creator. I want to be God!” And conflict spreads like a tidal wave everywhere.
Conflict with God
What could be plainer from Genesis 3 and the whole Bible than that conflict with God is the root of all conflict between man and nature, man and man, and man and his own soul? There won’t be any peace anywhere until we deal with that. Not with nature. Not with man. Not with ourselves. All our misery is owing to conflict with God, all of it. Romans 5:12, “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” Death is the final conflict between nature and man.
This is the greatest problem facing the world. Don’t let the political strife distract you. It’s not the main issue. It’s the main issue in the Twittersphere, it’s the main issue on Facebook, it’s the main issue in all the news outlets. It’s not the main issue. And Christians have come into the light to know this: the main issue is conflict with God. And we exist to spread the light, not join the folly of the darkness. Every human is born at odds with God, and under the just and holy wrath of God. We are by nature Adam and Eve, all of us. We prefer our own way, not God’s way. We find satisfaction in what God has made, not him. And everything is broken because of us. And God responds to it with justice.
Unless the conflict with God can be removed, there will be no peace, either inner or outer. “‘There is no peace,’ says the Lord, ‘for the wicked’” (Isaiah 48:22). That’s us, except for one thing: Christmas, and all that flowed from it.
Prince of Peace
To us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)
His name is Jesus. Jesus is the Prince of Peace.
“Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:13–14). He came to do this. He came to fix this.
At the end of his life, Jesus came to Jerusalem and wept and he said, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But they are hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:42).
He brought terms of peace, and they killed him. Don’t be among their number!
How did he do it? How did he become the Prince of Peace? How did he fix it so that everything I described is going to come true? There will be nothing but peace between men, nothing but peace between man and nature, nothing but peace in your hearts someday, if you know how he did it and join him in it. So how did he do it?
Seven hundred years before the first Christmas, God inspired Isaiah to tell us how he would do it, how God in Christ would do it. We see it most vividly in Isaiah 53. Matthew 8:17, Luke 22:37, Acts 8:32–33, John 12:38, 1 Peter 2:22–25, and Romans 10:15 — so Matthew, Luke, John, Peter, and Paul — all quote Isaiah 53 as referring to Jesus. As far as the New Testament goes, that’s the chapter about Jesus. It is a stunningly detailed prophecy of how the Son of God would become the Prince of Peace. These are the key verses, Isaiah 53:4–6, 9.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned — every one — to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. . . .
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
In this passage there are five glorious, crucial, beautiful acts of God in Christ that show, in this text, how God took the initiative to make peace with God.
Five Crucial Acts
1. This Servant, this Son, lived without sin. Verse 9b: “He had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.” These sufferings were not because of his own sin.
2. He suffered and he died. Verse 4: stricken, smitten, afflicted. Verse 5: Pierced, crushed, chastised, wounded. Verse 12b, “He poured out his soul to death.”
“This is the center: God substituting God to bear the punishment of God to make peace with sinners.”
3. It was God who struck him and put him to death. Verse 4: “Smitten by God.” Verse 10: “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief.” This was not a fluke. The death of Jesus on the cross, the most horrible death was not a fluke, not an accident of history. This was God’s plan. God and the Son put their heads together (so to speak) from eternity and said, “We’re going to do this. We’re going to make peace between God and sinful man. And here’s how we’re going to do it.” This is the work of God and his Son to remove the conflict between man and God.
If you’re new to Christianity, whatever else you might think about Christians, realize that this is the center, this is the heart, this is the essence: God substituting God to bear the punishment of God to make peace with sinners.
4. The suffering of God’s Son was for us. Verse 4: “He bore our griefs, carried our sorrows.” Verse 5: “He was pierced for our transgressions. Verse 6: “The Lord laid on him the inequity of us all.” Jesus, the Son of God, didn’t die because he had a conflict with his Father. He died because we had a conflict with his Father. He died for us, to bear the punishment for us.
5. The result of those four glorious acts is peace. Verse 5: “Upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace.” Peace with whom?
First and foremost in the context it’s peace with God, because that’s the problem being solved in these verses: these transgressions are against God. These iniquities are against God. Turning to our own way is against God. The great conflict that has to be solved is between us and God. God in this text is saving us from God. That’s the essence of Christianity. God is saving us from the justice and wrath of God by inserting God between us and God.
He did it. We don’t do it. We don’t make peace with God. God makes peace. You can’t save yourself. This is the glory and heart of Christianity: God, substituting the Son of God, to bear the judgment of God on sinners like us.
What must you do to enjoy this peace with God? Romans 5:1, “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Peace with God by faith. You can’t earn it. You can’t work for it. You can’t be good enough to get it. God in Christ at Christmas became man to do it for you. And he did it perfectly.
“God is saving us from the justice and wrath of God by inserting God between us and God.”
How will you eat this bread and drink this cup peacefully with God? How will you do that, sinners that you are, every one of you? You will do it by embracing the gift of the substitute punishment of Jesus. Yes! He is my treasured substitute. He is my Prince of Peace. Yes! No more conflict. I’m laying down the arms. I’m not having my way anymore. I am yours. Yes, to Isaiah 53.
Peace Like a River
Why is peace like a river?
The Mississippi River is just a few blocks from here. I have walked by that river countless times. I love rivers. And I’ve thought: This river has been flowing right here for thousands of years. It flows. It’s not a lake or a pond. It flows. And it never stops. Day or night. Year after year. Century after century. Old Man River just keeps rollin’ along.
God’s peace is not static. Your peace is not static. I wrote this sermon backwards because I don’t want to send you out like a pond, like a dead sea. Did you know that the Jordan River flows into the Dead Sea and nothing lives there? Nothing lives in the Dead Sea because the river stops. It doesn’t flow anymore. And I don’t want us to be that as a church. I love peace. I love the God of peace. I love the Prince of Peace. I love this church. I want us to be a people of peace. I want us to be a people who receive the flow and then, according to Matthew 5:9, make peace. I want us to make peace at home, with our spouses, with each other, with the neighborhoods, with the world in the truth, by the power of the Spirit, on the basis of this gospel. It’s a perfect gift he wrought.
Perfect, yet it floweth fuller. That’s an intentional paradox. How can it be perfect, yet get fuller? Perfect, yet it groweth. How can it be perfect, yet grow? It is a perfect peace, and you experience it a little bit. And then bigger. I hope a little bit bigger each day.
God’s work is perfect. He accomplished a perfect peace. But for now, we taste this perfection as it grows deeper, fuller all the way.