Experiencing the Peace of God
This week’s post has a little different feel to it. Rather than share something I’ve been reading, I wanted to continue with the larger theme for 2017. Most recently, the focus has been on the tools we have at our disposal: study, meditation, and prayer.
But today I wanted to get back to the higher level and consider a core purpose of those tools. If our time here is best spent seeking Him, and if our actions play a role in that seeking, there must be an end result that benefits us. And there certainly is.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism starts off by stating that the purpose of man is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever”. The folks at Desiring God put it another way: God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in him. I love how John Piper expresses the challenge in our walk:
The essence of the Christian life is learning to fight for joy in a way that does not replace grace.
So we fight the battle with our tools, the disciplines mentioned above (and others). But the result is what’s most important. We should not focus overly on the tools themselves, but the goal for which we use them. And that is joy. And peace. And satisfaction. And so many other things.
But today I’d like to focus on peace. Today’s newsletter is based primarily on a Sunday school class I taught last winter. Our local congregation had spent the fall season focusing on being still in order to seek and enjoy God’s presence. This led me to focus the class on the sense of peace we receive when that happens. I hope it may be as much of a blessing to you as it was for me!
Being Still: Experiencing the Peace of God
I need a little less peace in my life. Who thinks this way? Not too many of us I imagine. In our hurried, fragmented days, most people are seeking a way to find a sense of peace among all the notifications and busyness.
If you're a Christian, there’s good news. We have a source of peace that is beyond any other. We have promises to stand on, to put our hope in. Hope and assurance are ours and should result in a peace that overwhelms all our worries. And yet so many of us struggle with experiencing peace day to day.
It shouldn’t be this way. I say this not in the sense of “you should be doing something different”, but more in the sense of “this is not what God has intended for his children”. Let’s dig deeper.
The Bible has a lot to say about peace, but Phil 4:6–7 is the key passage that drives this home for me:
Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God. And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
It’s hard to separate these two verses, but I’ll focus on the second. Each aspect that sentence deserves some meditation. But in reality, the two verses are different sides of the same coin.
Peace throughout the Scriptures
A review of how the Bible talks about peace is an important way to look at this topic. Let’s just look at a handful of verses and contemplate what they convey in terms of peace.
Only 2 verses use the exact phrase “peace of God”. The passage above, as well as Col 3:15:
Let the peace of Christ be in control in your heart (for you were in fact called as one body to this peace), and be thankful.
The two verses are similar in form and intent. I equate the peace of God with the peace of Christ (indeed, some translations use peace of God in Colossians here). This peace controlling our heart is a similar expression to the idea of it guarding our hearts and minds in Phil 4. Both verses mention thankfulness, an extremely important idea (one to come back to a in a future newsletter).
And there are many more verses that mention peace itself:
- In John 14:27, Jesus gives his peace to his disciples
- In Rom 5:1, Paul tells us we have peace with God through the work of his son
- And in Rom 8, Paul compares the spiritual mind vs. the carnal mind, including the culmination: “For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace”
- In Rom 14:17, we see that God’s kingdom consists of peace (and righteousness and joy)
- In Eph 2:11–22, Paul uses this peace to talk about how God has brought Jews and Gentiles together into one body (the body of Christ)
Of course, these are all Paul’s writings. But we get some beautiful imagery in the Old Testament as well. The entire chapter of Isaiah 55 is a wonderful image, including this verse:
Indeed you will go out with joy; you will be led along in peace;
And Isaiah 26:3 is a favourite verse of mine (although the context of this verse may be targeted more at Jewish people needing safety from foreign armies, talking of safety more than peace, I still enjoy the sound of it and believe it’s applicable in a broader sense):
You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you!
There are many more verses, but hopefully this small sample gives us a sense of how God speaks about peace.
Let’s Define It
We have to address the fact that our English words often have more than one meaning. In peace, we see two primary use cases in the Scriptures:
- a lack of conflict
- a feeling, a sense of well being and contentment
What are the words we see in Scripture?
- ειρήνη (eiríni): from the verb “to join”, peace, implies prosperity, one, peace, quietness, rest
That’s it. Other words we see in the NT refer to the idea of one “holding your peace”, which means keeping silent. Any other word is some derivative of the word we see here (example: Matt 5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”)
Matthew Henry, in his commentary on Phil, describes this peace:
The peace of God, the comfortable sense of being reconciled to God, and having a part in his favor, and the hope of the heavenly blessedness, are a greater good than can be fully expressed. This peace will keep our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus; it will keep us from sinning under troubles, and from sinking under them; keep us calm and with inward satisfaction.
This sense of well being and reconciliation is the peace that Phil 4 is alluding to.
Another way to understand the peace of God is to understand his character. Many verses refer to God as the “God of peace”: Rom 15:33, Rom 16:20, Phil 4:9, I Thess 5:23, and Heb 13:20. In essence, he is a God of order and his dominion is peaceful as a result. He is not unstable, whimsical, or disordered (i.e. chaotic). Because of who he is, we can experience peace.
While we’re defining it, let’s consider what this peace is not:
- It’s not fear and anxiety of what is to come. Well, of course it’s not: it’s the complete opposite.
- It’s not peace with God. That is a result of Christ’s work and should result in the peace of God, but they are two different ideas.
- It is not inactivity, the lack of doing. Sometimes we picture peace as laying on a beach somewhere and doing nothing all day. While that can be peaceful, that is not how Scripture describes it. Peace can be found in the busyness of life as well as our times of rest.
On this last point, Wayne Grudem puts it well in his Systematic Theology. And this fits so well when considering peace as a result of his character:
This peace certainly does not imply inactivity, for it was at a time of intense growth and activity that Luke could say that "the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was built up" (Acts 9:31). Furthermore, although God is a God of peace, he is also the one who "will neither slumber nor sleep" (Ps. 121:4). He is the God who is continually working (John 5:17). And even though heaven is a place of peace, it is a place also of continual praise to God and service for him.
Thus, God's peace can be defined as follows: God's peace means that in God's being and in his actions he is separate from all confusion and disorder, yet he is continually active in innumerable well-ordered, fully controlled, simultaneous actions.
This definition indicates that God's peace does not have to do with inactivity, but with ordered and controlled activity. To engage in infinite activity of this sort, of course, requires God's infinite wisdom, knowledge, and power.
Often we see the Psalmists use chaotic imagery. Psalm 46 is a good example:
God is our strong refuge; he is truly our helper in times of trouble. For this reason we do not fear when the earth shakes, and the mountains tumble into the depths of the sea, when its waves crash and foam, and the mountains shake before the surging sea. (Selah)
God is a contrast to the chaos. He is the foundation, the rock, the very thing that makes peace in this chaotic world actually possible.
Breaking It Down Further
I’ve found it helpful to take Phil 4:6–7 and break down each concept within.
How does this peace “surpass all understanding”?
There are 7 different words translated as "understanding" in the NT. The one used in Phil 4:7 is nôus:
the intellect, i.e. the mind (divine or human; in thought, feeling, or will); by implication meaning: mind, understanding
To paraphrase it, I would put as "our ability to grasp a concept". And so our verse states that this peace is greater than all the things that we can understand. It can take a hold of us, even when it makes no sense to us. Or to the world.
This would have been very applicable and understood by the audience in Paul's time. They faced persecution for the stance they were taking, both from their fellow Jews, as well as Gentiles.
Looking at the word translated as "surpasses" is also a good exercise. Hupêrêchō:
to hold oneself above, fig. to excel; as an adjective: superior, better, excellency, higher, supreme
The peace of God is better than understanding. It is superior to knowing the details.
While we're undertaking this exercise, let's consider the last word. All here means all. The peace of God goes beyond all we can understand or grasp, and all we can ever understand or grasp. No matter how wise we get, how much we grow in knowledge, God's peace will always be greater.
This peace guards our hearts and minds. What does that mean? The Greek word here (often translated as “keep”) means:
to be a watcher in advance; to mount guard as a sentinel (post spies at gates); to hem in, protect
As Paul often employs, the phrasing here has a militaristic sense to it. But what is it guarding against? What obstacles stop us from experiencing this peace? The enemy and spiritual attacks? Doubt? Falling back to thinking about and responding to situations the way we did when still enemies of God?
Likely, all of these. My feeling is the peace we experience when in communion with Christ guards against external and internal threats.
What do our hearts and minds entail?
So we can take confidence knowing that we have a God who guards us from the world and from our sinful nature. But what exactly is he guarding? What do the Scriptures mean when it says “hearts and minds”? What is a (wo)man made of?
Throughout the Bible, we get quite a few body parts mentioned: heart, mind, spirit, soul, or body. What do they all represent? What are the actual Greek and Hebrew words being used? Our passage in Phil 4 brings this important and interesting area of Scripture to mind.
In a nutshell, it means all that we are.
That idea is explained really well in MacLaren's Commentary (Expositions Of Holy Scripture):
What does he mean by ‘the heart and mind’? Not, as the English reader might suppose, two different faculties, the emotional and the intellectual--which is what we usually roughly mean by our distinction between heart and mind--but, as is always the case in the Bible, the ‘heart’ means the whole inner man, whether considered as thinking, willing, purposing, or doing any other inward act; and the word rendered ‘mind’ does not mean another part of human nature, but the whole products of the operations of the heart. The Revised Version renders it by ‘thoughts,’ and that is correct if it be given a wide enough application, so as to include emotions, affections, purposes, as well as ‘thoughts’ in the narrower sense. The whole inner man, in all the extent of its manifold operations, that indwelling peace of God will garrison and guard.
In short, the peace of God guards how we think & feel, and in turn, how we act.
In Christ Jesus
Last, this passage in Philippians uses a crucial expression that is introduced in the New Testament. This is a very lengthy and detailed topic deserving of its own space.
But imagine that you're finally getting beyond the superficial with someone you met recently. A coworker, a neighbour. Or maybe it’s a brand new baby Christian who has just started to learn to read the Bible. You’re in a conversation with this person, and they ask you a big question … but you know your time is limited. You have 30–60 seconds to give a generalized response before the moment passes. (Parents, you’ve been in this situation before). You’re going to have to give your elevator pitch for this question:
What does it mean to be “in Christ Jesus”?
We see this concept repeated through Scripture: God in us and we in God. What does it mean? In reformed theology, it was referred to as:
Or, mystical union. Charles Hodge describes it this way:
The technical designation of this union in theological language is ‘mystical’, because it so far transcends all the analogies of earthly relationships, in the intimacy of its connection, in the transforming power of its influence, and in the excellence of its consequences.
Different theologians will categorize this concept in different ways, but I like Wayne Grudem’s approach. He lists being in Christ Jesus under the doctrine of redemption and breaks it down 4 ways:
- We are in Christ
- Christ is in us
- We are like Christ
- We are with Christ
However, you want to categorize, it deserves our meditation. Why? Because the phrase occurs between 40–50 times in the NT (depending on your translation). There’s a concept here that deservers our attention.
While we don’t have the space here to go deeper, there is one thing to take away. If you a person is not in this union with Christ, are not “in Christ Jesus”, then this perfect peace of God is not attainable.
Well, that is a lot of material. My hope is it gets you thinking at the least and inspires you at the best. Preparing this class (and this newsletter) was a blessing for me. Regarding how to apply the doctrine of a God of peace in your life, I’ll refer back to Wayne Grudem’s commentary:
As you think about reflecting God's peace in your own life, think first about your own emotional, mental, and spiritual state. Can you say that by-and-large you have God's peace in the sense that your inner life is separate from confusion and disorder, and is frequently or continually active in well-ordered and well-controlled actions that further God's glory? Then ask the same questions concerning what may be called the "external circumstances" of your life, that is, your family relationships, your relationships with neighbors, your activities in studying or at your job, and your relationships in church activities. What about the overall picture of your life, viewed as a whole? Does it exhibit God's peace? What might you do to reflect God's peace more fully?
I’m just a regular guy with a busy life. We’re all busy. I want to order my hours, days, and weeks to ensure that I’m taking the time necessary to seek God and experience the peace that comes from fellowship and communion with him.
My prayer is the same for you. Have a blessed week!