On Earth Peace
- Goodwill Toward Men
These words form part of the message of the heavenly host at the Nativity. The record reads, "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, good will toward men." The way in which this was to be accomplished and the reason for the long delay, however, were hidden from those to whom the words were addressed, and the purpose of God in Christ is still a mystery to all save those who have been enlightened by the Holy Spirit to perceive the deep things of God. In order to understand how and when it will be true to say that there is "on earth peace, good will toward men" it is essential to appreciate Christ's method of dealing with evil, and also the mystical Body of Christ, composed of not one but many members.
The message had special appeal to the shepherds and those to whom they recounted the wonderful message that they had heard from heaven because their land had not known true peace for many years. Their background was one of captivity, warfare, rebellion, and severe suffering; they looked back upon the destruction of Jerusalem in the days of Nebuchadnezzar, and the consequent national disintegration. The restoration after the seventy years of desolation was only as a tributary nation under Babylon, later under the Medo-Persians, and then under the Greeks. The attempts of the Greeks to Hellenize them led to revolt which succeeded after dreadful persecution, not due solely to the military prowess of Judas Maccabeus, but more by reason of the collapse of the Greeks before the rising power of Pagan Rome. Under the Hasmoneans there was a period of unstable independence until 63 B.C., when Pompey marched his Roman legions into Jerusalem. From that time until 70 A.D. there were many rebellions against the invaders, and it is little wonder that all men were ln expectation of Messiah as they longed for relief from their sufferings. In 37 B.C., for example, Herod was sent to Jerusalem with the title "King of the Jews" and crucifixion was the legalised penalty for any traitorous act against the Roman yoke. While Jesus was a young child, however, a widespread revolt broke out and Jewish rebels held out for months in the fortress of Sepphoris a few miles from Nazareth. Eventually, the Romans put down this insurrection with all the savage cruelty of old-time Pagan Rome. Some two thousand male prisoners were crucified, while women and children were sold into slavery. These terrible happenings and similar episodes are reflected throughout the Gospels as, for instance, in Luke 13:1, where we read of "the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices."
In the midst of these conditions, Jesus grew to manhood's estate, and by reason of His inherent perfection He would naturally stand head and shoulders above His fellows. They would look to Him for leadership in confident anticipation that He would be able to free them from the Roman aggression. They expected, as do so many today, that "on earth peace, good will toward men" would come by means of armed force by which their enemies would be crushed in the same way as they themselves had been subjugated. How bitterly disappointed must they have been, therefore, when the One to Whom they looked for leadership on His return from the wilderness declared an entirely different policy. He exhorted them to love their cruel enemies and to do good unto them; if they were smitten on one cheek, as often happened in the streets, then they were to turn the other; if a Roman compelled them to carry a pack one mile, they were to go twain (two). There were many features of their own Law which were somewhat severe, but Jesus taught them by both precept and example to act in an exactly contrary manner. In Matthew 5 there are many of these contrasts: "Ye have heard that it hath been said," then follows, "But I say unto you," as in verses 43 and 44: "Ye have heard that it has been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you."
Next time—Part 2 The More Excellent Way