Is ‘peace’ the heart of the gospel?

B76_1024x1024What is the heart of the gospel? Should we consider justification, or forgiveness, or freedom, or power as the central idea? Or is there a case for understanding peace—with God and with one another—as the heart of the matter? The latest Grove Biblical booklet, Peace in Luke and Paul, makes this case. It is written by Michael Gorman, who is the Raymond E. Brown Professor in Biblical Studies and Theology at St Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, Maryland. Appropriately, Gorman is a United Methodist working in a Catholic seminary, so he knows something about peace and reconciliation (at least amongst Christians) from his personal experience.

From the beginning, Gorman spells out the significance of this question.

Many Christians would be quick to say that ‘peace’ is an important Christian word; indeed, that it is a gift of God in Christ (Luke 2.14), the result of justification via Jesus’ death (Rom 5.1), part of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5.22), and a necessity for healthy church life (Eph 4.3). But it is worth wondering whether the church has made peace and peacemaking as central to its life as it is in Scripture.

Of particular interest to us in this booklet is the theme of peace in the writings of Paul and Luke. We focus on these biblical authors in part because peace is a prominent theme in each, and in part because both Paul and Luke employ the term ‘new covenant’ in association with the promise of God fulfilled in Jesus, especially through his death. For them, the promised new covenant that has arrived in Jesus is also the covenant of peace. And the people of the new covenant are, therefore, God’s peace-filled and peaceable people (p 3)

He focusses on Luke and Paul, since these two authors in the NT have an obvious interest in Jesus as the one who brings the new covenant of peace—but, rather surprisingly, not all have noticed the importance of peace in either Luke or Paul. One notable exception is Tom Wright.

N T Wright, on the other hand, in his magnum opus, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, sees Pauline theology quite differently. Because he believes that for Paul Jesus is first of all the Jewish messiah, Wright repeatedly refers to the prophetic hope for an age of peace and justice, claiming that Paul believed that it had arrived—at least in some sense, though clearly not exactly as the prophets had hoped and equally clearly not in its fullness—through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Moreover, Wright argues that reconciliation is at the heart of Paul’s own ministry and a cardinal mark of the church. With a number of other scholars, Wright believes that Paul’s gospel of peace and justice challenges the Roman gospel of so-called peace and justice, but he insists that the origin of Paul’s belief in this peace and justice is christological, or messianic: the prophetically promised peace and justice of the messianic age have arrived in Jesus (p 5).

Gorman notes how some of the uses of ‘peace’ in Paul are treated as marginal or formulaic—but that their significance has been underestimated.

What if ‘grace and peace’ is more essential, more central to what Paul is about? What if ‘peace’ is not merely inner calm, as in the popular imagination, or a relatively minor aspect of salvation? What if every Pauline letter is an exercise in reminding followers of Jesus that the gracious gift of the Messiah is the promised shalom of God?

Gorman’s thesis is in three parts. The first (which he focuses on in the booklet) is that the promised age of peace (shalom) has been brought to pass in Jesus, in his life, ministry and most particularly in his death and resurrection.

For Paul, the prophetically promised age of eschatological, messianic peace has arrived in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, an age characterized especially by reconciliation and nonviolence. Jesus’ death and resurrection were congruent with his teaching ministry. For Luke, the age of peace has also been inaugurated; for him it arrives not only in Christ’s death and resurrection, but already in the birth, ministry, death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus and in the gift of the Spirit. This new age is characterized by reconciliation and nonviolence, but also especially by justice characterized by status-reversal and inclusion (pp 8–9).

Gorman adds to this two further aspects: that the cross is the thing which effects this peace; and that this peace is the ongoing focus of divine activity, and (therefore) an ‘ecclesial identity marker’. In other words, peace-making and reconciliation should be the ongoing mark and interest of the people of God.

In order to demonstrate this, Gorman looks first at the hope of the new covenant of peace in Isaiah and Ezekiel, and notes 11 aspects of this hope and expectation.

  • Peace as good news (Isa 52.7; cf 61.1)
  • Peace as the peaceful reign of God and/or God’s son/Davidic king/delegate (eg Isa 9.6–7; 11.1, 10; 32.1; 52.7; Ezek 34.23–24; 37.22, 24a, 25, 26)
  • Peace as a reconciled covenant relationship with Israel’s loving God (Isa 54.10; Ezek 34.24, 30–31; 37.23b, 26)11
  • Peace as deliverance from and/or the defeat of Israel’s enemies (Isa 9.4–5; 11.4b, 14–16; Ezek 34.27)
  • Peace as the redemption/restoration of Israel (eg Isa 9.2–3; 11.10–13, 16; 52.9; 65.18; Ezek 34.22–23; 37.21, 25) and the inclusion of the Gentiles/nations/ends of the earth in God’s salvation (eg Isa 2.2–3; 9.1–2; 52.10)
  • Peace as the reconciliation of natural enemies/those who have been divided, and resulting harmony (Isa 11.6–9, 13; 65.25; Ezek 34.22–23; 37.22, 24a)
  • Peace as the absence of violence (eg Isa 2.4; 11.9; 60.18; 65.25; cf 59.6–8; Ezek 34.28)
  • Peace as inclusive of righteousness and justice (eg Isa 2.4a; 9.7; 11.3b–4a, 5; 32.1, 16–17; 60.17; cf 59.6–8; 61.1–11; Ezek 37.23a, 24b)
  • Peace as security/safety (eg Isa 11.6–9; 32.18; 54.12; 65.19b–23, 25; Ezek 34.25, 28; 37.26)
  • Peace as enabled by God/God’s Spirit and inclusive of God’s presence (eg Isa 11.2; 32.15; 52.8; Ezek 34.24–25; 37.26–28)
  • Peace as joyful flourishing and abundance, salvation, and even a new creation (eg Isa 52.8; 55.12–13; 60.18; 65.17–18, 21–24; Ezek 34.26–27, 29; 37.25–26)

Mike-Gorman_111Gorman then traces these themes in Luke and Paul, with extensive citations of the respective texts (you will need to buy the booklet to see the detail here!). An obvious objection to this is to question whether this is just imposing a framework on these texts that they would not have recognised—perhaps a theological reading which might be interesting, but was hardly intended. To answer that, Gorman looks in detail at the role of peace and the new covenant in both Paul and Luke, and demonstrates that these ideas are central within the texts.

Much more could be said, especially about Jesus’ death as God’s act of peacemaking, and about the ecclesial practice of peace and peacemaking that flow from the life and death of Jesus. But the main point is abundantly clear: according to the witness of Paul and Luke, peace is not a supplement to New Testament theology and spirituality; it is at the very centre (p 26).

This is a nicely written booklet, offering detailed engagement in the texts whilst retaining a clear and accessible style. Gorman’s case is compelling—and if accepted, has a significant impact not only for the study of the New Testament, but for our understanding of the shape of Christian ministry and the task of the church in the modern world. Indeed, it includes a direct personal challenge: am I a peace-filled and peaceable person? Are peace and reconciliation key concerns for me in my life and ministry?

You can order the booklet on the Grove website, and it is sent post-free. You can also sign up to receive email news of new titles each month.

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8 thoughts on “Is ‘peace’ the heart of the gospel?”

  1. Jesus did not seem to expect his message to bring about Peace, I come to bring a sword, and to set brother against brother.
    The book of Revelation does not seem to contemplate much peace, at least for the wicked! This would be true even if you think the judgments are for this life only, but many think they describe or include the future.

      • Ian,

        I must admit that I struggled with this, but I was eventually reminded from the Beatutudes that “peace-making” is the distinguishing trait of God. Christ Himself highlighted this characteristic as the one that identifies us as the children of God.

        There’s a balance here of stoutly upholding God’s honour, while enduring personal rejection, injury and defamation in furtherance of the gospel.

        That said, there’s a need to clarify that peace is not the same as worldly negotiated settlement, or compromise of principle.

    • “Matthew 10:34–36 describes Jesus telling the disciples that He came not to bring peace to the world, but a sword. Jesus’ sword was never a literal one. In fact, when Peter took up a sword to defend Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus rebuked him and told him to put away his sword, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). ”

  2. I enjoyed reading this today, and it clarified a few things,but it has left me with the question why we have not used Ezekial more in the reconciliation process, ? After all he appears to be the one prophet that everyone accepted as a prophet, therefore he was no threat hew was of Jewish heritage. The combination of Paul’s present and active alongside Luke’s expectation of a new people really did give the Hope of peace that unity would be the result.When it talks of removing the mountains it put me in mind of the unification of Wales and England yet this work is undone through devolution.How can we have peace? When separation means the covenant with God in real time cannot be realized, because of separation and people pulling in different directions. It mentions about not eating the sheep but feeding them so they produce more sheep and wool etc, it seems the parallel is Peace is achieved through hope and therefore although Jesus is the Hope that is constantly in the future whilst the sheep’s clothing ie the wool is the now, the wool represents the people like the sheep represents the word. I am thinking right now that sounds confused, but it isn’t if a way of understanding the cycle of sheep , provision of spiritual food and sacrifice, . Which is a common denominator of feasting Jesus died for us not the sheep. Does that make sense to you ?

  3. I won’t argue with you, though I am one of the ‘forgiveness’ guys mentionned in the first paragraph. Didn’t Jesus pray for the forgiveness of his killers?

    It seems to me that what a Christian says is the heart of the Gospel is based on how they encounter God. I have been forgiven much and say that forgiveness is the heart of the Gospel. When Jesus gave the Lord’s prayer the only bit he commented on was the forgiveness bit.

    I have hope and peace in the Gospel: It comes through the forgiveness of Jesus.

    And we are both are the people who say it is freedom and the rest. The Gospl is much bigger than what can be summed up in one word.


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