“The Lord of Peace” 2 Thess. 3:16-18 Nov. 19, 1995
It is customary for Paul to conclude his letters with a benediction, extending to his readers the grace of God. And it is not unusual for him to add some expression of prayerful hope for their peace. He does as well, for example, at the end of his letter to the Ephesians and the second of his letters to the Corinthians. Here there is perhaps in the circumstances of the church a particular reason why Paul prayed that they might have peace. He has just concluded an exhortation to them concerning some of their number who were behaving badly and might, in fact, have to be disciplined for it. The ingredients for discord in the church were certainly present. So it was natural that Paul should wish for and pray for peace for this congregation, peace that would guard their unity and their hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Peace is a great thing in the Bible. In the OT and the NT “peace” is the summation of all of God’s blessings to man. The OT word for peace — shalom — means “completeness, soundness, or well-being.” When the saints, for example, pray for the peace of Jerusalem, they are not praying merely for political tranquillity, but every manner and kind of well-being and prosperity, physical, material, and spiritual, especially spiritual.
The messiah, the OT prophets foretold, would bring at last a kingdom of peace and, when the angels announced his birth, they did so by proclaiming “Peace on earth!” The gospel, when it came to be proclaimed throughout the world was described as “the gospel of peace” (Acts 10:36).
Paul says, in Romans 8:6: “…to be spiritually minded is life and peace.” Peace is a spiritual condition, a state of the soul, a condition of life that comes from the presence of God in our hearts and his grace in our lives.
Peace, or the harmony of love between believers, such as Paul would have hoped for the Thessalonian Christians, is not really this gospel peace, itself, so much as it is the consequence, or perhaps the effulgence, or overflowing of this peace.
Lloyd-Jones, in what was, unbeknownst to him, his last sermon preached in London’s Westminster Chapel, where he had such a long and fruitful ministry, made this point explicitly. Even Christian people fail to enjoy peace in their relationships with others primarily because they lack this central peace, this sense of well-being in God. “Lacking yourself in peace and in rest,” Lloyd Jones told his congregation, “you are all on edge, and so you react, and react generally in the wrong way when you meet others…It is people who are uncertain about themselves who are generally most critical of others…” [Biography, vol. 2, 583.]
It was this great peace that Paul was praying the Lord might grant in ever greater measure to the believers in Thessalonica. Should they have that in their hearts, unity and brotherly love would be a foregone conclusion.
Now it is not hard at all to demonstrate how the gospel answers to this peace and creates this peace, this shalom, this well-being, this sunshine in the center of our lives.
We were enemies of God and alienated from him, a vast gulf separated us from him on account of our sins and his holy wrath hung over our heads, but the gospel brings us news of Christ bearing our sin, or, as Isaiah put it, of his being pierced for our transgressions and of the punishment that brought us peace being upon him. And so those who believe in Jesus and are justified, Paul writes, have peace with God.
But then, amidst the troubles and sorrows and terrors of life, the believer now at peace with God has promise that God will be with him or her. Christ said, “My peace I leave with you” and says to the storms of our lives, “Peace be still.”
Now, Paul reminds us in verse 16 that this peace is a gift and a work of God. It is not something psychological, as if we might create it by a certain way of thinking or feeling about ourselves.
And, to distinguish it still more from all forms of human imitation, Paul says that this peace is impervious, indestructible. We can have it in all times and in every way. This is what distinguishes and has through the centuries always distinguished Christian peace, shalom, from its worldly imitations. It stands up to every test of life, however brutal, however painful, however wearying.
Think of how many ways and how beautifully the Scripture commends this peace to us as the Christian’s inheritance no matter what his or her circumstances may be: No matter what!
“I will never leave you or forsake you…”
“All things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to his purpose…”
“Every day was ordered for us before there was a one of them…” [The connection between the sovereignty of God over our lives and the peace of God’s children is often made in Holy Scripture. Perhaps it was this connection, so strongly emphasized in Reformed theology, that prompted Mark Twain to refer to someone as being “as confident as a Presbyterian with four aces!”]
“Cast all your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never suffer the righteous to fall…”
“No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart…and he will make your paths straight.”
“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink or about your body, what you will wear. Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more important than they?”
“He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how shall he not also, with him, graciously give us all things.”
“…we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are yet without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need.”
And so on; one magnificent sentence after another, telling us that in every way and at every time, if we are in Christ, we are safe and secure and all is well. Whatever the storms of our lives may be, Christ sits in the boat with us and can at any time he pleases calm that storm, and, if he should not choose to calm it, keeps us nevertheless, safe with him. This is peace, objective well-being, tranquillity and assurance and calm and prosperity. There is shalom, impenetrable and indestructible shalom at the center of every Christian’s life. The soul feels the radiant heat and light of that shalom more or less from time to time, but the shalom is there always.
This peace is one of the great stories of human history. The martyrs in cold dungeons, soldiers in the chilly dampness of a gray dawn before battle, the peasant struggling to evade starvation in the face of the cruelty of the elements, the King with the weight of the world on his shoulders, the mother cradling a dying child, and men and women of every station and circumstance in the hour of death — I say all of these and many more have known in their sorrow and danger and loss the peace that passes all understanding. Their hearts were guarded by that peace.
Speaking of Paul and Silas singing hymns in a Philippian dungeon, Tertullian wrote: the feet feel nothing in the stocks when the heart is in heaven.
The Scottish father, Thomas Halyburton, lying on his death bed, suffering terrible pain from swollen limbs, said: “lame hands and lame legs, but see a lame man leaping and rejoicing.”
I was reading the other day the last sermon that Alexander Whyte ever preached in the church where he had been pastor for almost 50 years. Strangely, it had snowed heavily that morning and the congregation was one of the smallest that he had ever had before him in the church. It was on the question Jeremiah poses in 12:5: “How wilt thou do in the swelling of the Jordan?” which Dr. Whyte took to refer to death, as the crossing of the Jordan had become a great symbol of death, the boundary between life and death, this world and the promised land.
And in that sermon he gave many examples from Scripture and from the history of the church of men who, because of the grace of God and by faith in Christ, died in peace and at peace. And one of his illustrations took him back those 47 years to his first pastoral visit when he came to Free St. George’s as Robert Candlish’s associate. He was sent to visit one of the church’s elders on his death bed. The man had a book open on the bed and asked the young minister to read where the book was opened. Do you know what that saintly old elder wanted read to him in the last moments of his life: it was the Westminster Confession of Faith and its chapter on Justification by Faith — read it for yourself, when you can; it is there is the back of the hymnal. And the young minister had no sooner read the chapter than the old man was with God. The one who is justified by faith has peace with God. And in that peace he died.
Now, to be sure, there are people who seem to have peace, but whose peace is not that of which Paul spoke, but rather the brutish ignorance of a unawakened conscience. I myself have seen and spoken to people on their death beds who are calm enough, but only because their minds are empty and they have banished from their thoughts all considerations of God, of judgment, of heaven and of hell.
The peace that God grants his children, the peace Christ leaves with those who follow him, is not that. It is tranquillity and a sense of well-being that stands even the sternest tests of the most honest reckoning with the facts of our lives, even our own sinfulness, and the prospect of God’s judgment. The martyrs, for example the Scottish covenanter martyrs, our own English speaking Presbyterian martyrs, as a class of Christians, probably as much as any Christians who ever lived in the world took with unqualified seriousness the full, terrible sinfulness of their lives. They were men and women of the most demanding and searching conscience. They knew themselves sinners and loathed sinned as few of us do today.
But what is so remarkable about the record of their martyrdoms is just this peace, this extraordinary spiritual and physical tranquillity that controlled them in the face of death and their first face to face meeting with that Holy God they knew full well they had so poorly served while in the world. Christ’s voice speaking peace was louder in the hearing of their hearts than was that of their own conscience. Listen, for example, to these immortal words, written by Archibald Campbell, earl of Argyle and Covenanter, to his daughter-in-law, on the morning of his execution in Edinburgh:
What shall I say in this great day of the Lord, wherein in the midst of a cloud, I have found a fair sunshine. I can wish no more for you, but that the Lord may comfort you, and shine upon you as He does upon me, and give you that same sense of his love in staying in the world, as I have in going out of it. [Fair Sunshine, p. 6]
Such is the peace of God! But now, you will notice that I have spoken of this peace in two different ways. I have spoken of it as an objective thing, a reality of the believer’s relationship with God, a fact, a condition that applies to every Christian. But I have also spoken of it as an experience, a sense in the heart.
This is the double way in which the Bible speaks of this peace and the double way Paul speaks of it here. He speaks of the Lord of peace. But Christ does not wax and wane in his peace. He is our peace and is always and to the same extent our peace. In him we have peace with God. But, Paul also prays that the Lord of peace might grant these believers peace. What he means of course, as the rest of the Bible demonstrates, is that he wants the believers to feel, to experience, to know, to enjoy, to draw help from the peace that is theirs in Christ. He wants the objective peace that is theirs in Christ to become more and more subjective peace ruling in their hearts and spreading a holy and happy calm in their souls. In this way we may have more or less peace; our hearts may be troubled or we may have peace like a river.
Now he prays for it on their behalf. He knows that the Lord must give it. And we must pray for it as well. “Lord, help us to possess our possessions; to know the peace that is ours because we belong to you!” That is the prayer we should often pray. The Lord alone will determine how strong our peace will be.
But, then, always with our prayers, we should work for that for which we pray. Those who pray for Christ’s kingdom in the heart, who really pray, are those who engage themselves to service and sacrifice for that kingdom.
And if you ask how does one serve the interests of the kingdom of God’s peace in our hearts, the answer of the Scripture always comes back the same: you must practice your faith in the peace that has been granted you and provided you by the Prince of Peace himself. You must believe in that peace and live in the reality of it.
And, if you ask, “how is that done?” Here is a very good example of how it is done. Here is a man, a very wise man, practicing the peace of God in argument with himself, in pressing the reality of his peace with God home to his own conscience and his own experience. This is Samuel Rutherford:
“Put the frame of the spirit in equilibrio, in a composed, stayed…serenity of mind, looking to both sides, black and white of God’s providence. Make sure this general: Christ is mine; at that anchor, in this harbour my vessel must ride. Whatever wind blows in externals, Christ died for me. If I live, it is in Christ; if I die it is to Christ; if I ride with princes on horses, it is good; if I go on foot with servants, it is good. If Christ hide his face and frown, it is Christ, it is good; if it be full moon, and he overshadow the soul with rays and beams of love and light, it is also Christ, it is also good.” [Trial and Triumph, 111]
Speak so to yourselves and often and especially when your peace is threatened. And when you are finished with that argument use the many others the Bible furnishes you with, Christ swearing it to be all absolutely true. And if you do, when you are near the end of your life, you will say as John Newton did near the end of his:
“I am now in my seventy-second year. I know what the world can do and cannot do. It can neither give nor take away the peace of God which passeth all understanding; it cannot soothe the wounded conscience, nor enable us to meet death with contempt. Only one can do this.”
And Paul tells us his name. His name is the Lord of peace!