Bible study 6
By Néstor O. Míguez
Translation: New Revised Standard Version
27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. 28You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. 29And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe. 30I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me; 31but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us be on our way.
Jesus offers an alternative, a difference, a dilemma: the peace he offers contradicts peace as the "world understands it.” In this way, he endows the word peace—itself powerful and highly significant in the Israelite tradition—with new meaning, new sense. He leaves us questioning and deciding what value it will have for our lives, knowing that this peace unites us with Jesus’ presence and love. This peace is his person, as the Apostle Paul acknowledges: “For he is our peace” (Eph. 2:14). It is with this in mind that we approach this Gospel text.
The text in its context
This text concludes the first part of Jesus' farewell discourse but also includes promises of his return. Verse 26 affirms the everlasting presence of the Spirit Paraclete as a condition in which the living memory of Jesus will endure in the community (John 14:26). The farewell should not cause sadness, for it is the fulfillment of Jesus' mission. At the same time, it is a way to prepare the disciples for the dramatic events to come. This explains the words that accompany the gift of peace: "Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid" (27). This move constitutes the reunion of the Father and the Son. The text reveals an emerging doctrine of the Trinity.
Fear may be caused by the ruler of this world, who could arrive at any moment and temporarily overshadow the presence of the Messiah. The power of the ruler of this world is completely different than the power of Jesus ("He has no power over me"). To live fearlessly is a gift of confidence in the Messianic presence.
The expression "ruler of this world” has been interpreted variously. Many commentators recognize in it the devil, the "father of lies" (John 8:44). He is the power of darkness who had reached into the heart of Judas Iscariot (13:2). Others see it as a reference to the power of the Roman Empire. Indeed, "ruler" (archon) is one of the titles of Caesar, who proclaims to be himself the sovereign of this world. Hence, when Jesus is confronted with the imperial power in his discussion with Pontius Pilate, he says that his kingdom, unlike Pilate's, does not proceed from this world, nor it is imposed by military force (18:36). If Jesus' kingdom were like that of Caesar's, he would also use force. There is much similarity between the two interpretations: Roman imperialism, for many, manifested satanic powers.
The key word of this Bible study is peace (Hebrew: shalom; Greek: eirene). Shalom is a rich term in the biblical tradition. The complex meaning of the Hebrew word does not allow for just a single translation. The Greek translation (Septuaginta) tends to use eirene for shalom. But, depending on the context, it translates it with other words: soteria (salvation, in Gen. 26:31 and others, especially when it is referred to sacrificial offerings) eleos (mercy, Gen. 43:23 and others); hygiaino (to be healthy, in Ex. 4:18; Ps. 25:6).
Shalom is used as ta greeting when friends run into each other daily; it is an expression of friendship with which the guest is received or when a visitor announces his or her arrival. Also, sleeping into death is regarded as shalom (Gen. 15:15). But in its depth shalom of God is about life, not death. It is a proclamation of joy about the best things in life: images that illustrate the word peace in Hebrew texts go well beyond the state of quietude and tranquility. The complexity of its meanings includes fullness, well-being, prosperity, a blessed life (Psalm 128, despite the patriarchal tone typical of that time). The concluding phrase, a summary of Psalm 128, calls for shalom, peace [“Peace be upon Israel!”].
For this very reason, peace is not possible as long as injustice prevails: there is no peace without justice, one requires the other (Ps. 85:10). Both peace and justice are gifts from God in response to the faithfulness of God's people; they are proclaimed as the highest expression of God's will (Ps. 72:3). Peace is part of the Messianic promise (Isa. 9:7).
Both the psalms and the prophets reveal the infidelity of the people of God, especially in breaking God's will by the powerful, who violate judgment and distort justice. Those who proclaim false peace in order to conceal their crimes are denounced (Psalm 28:3). Jeremiah says the same thing, when announcing the imminent destruction of Jerusalem (6:14). There are many similar passages in the Bible, which also sound relevant today.
In the Israelite tradition there is no peace without blessing; there is no peace when one in power abuses the powerless or when vulnerable people are deprived of their possessions. Again and again, prophets and poets remind us that shalom God offers is not stillness or immobility but, on the contrary, it demands energy, action for the sake of the divine purpose in creation, a power that sustains life. God brings about peace (well-being, blessing) and believers commit themselves to be active witnesses of God's will.
Western languages do not express the same connotation in the word peace. Outside the biblical context, eirene indicates a period without conflict, the absence of war, concord among persons, factions and peoples by virtue of which stable relationships are maintained without aggression. In other words, it becomes a virtue of relative stillness or tranquility that makes it possible to live without strife. Hence, in ancient, pre-Christian Greek texts the word eirene is accompanied by other words to complete its meaning: "peace and prosperity,” "peace and security,” "peace and honor.”
In the time of Jesus the word peace was part of the imperial propaganda. The Pax Augusta justified imperial rule. The imperial motto substantiated the fact that Pax romana was a gift (an imposed gift) that Rome offered to other peoples. This peace was identified as Pax deorum, the consent of the gods to bless the Roman legions with the glory of victory.
This Roman ideal of peace, which has been copied up to the present day by the empires that succeeded it, is reflected in the proverb: “vis pacem, para bellum” (if you want peace, prepare for war). This is how people in power, conquerors, justified their perpetual wars. According to the Roman historian Tacitus (1st-2nd CE), destructive peace is denounced in the speech of Calgacus, the Briton chief, proclaimed prior to his defeat, noting that the Romans "make a solitude and call it peace" (Tacitus, Life of Agricola, 29–32). The “peace and security” offered by the world rulers, in fact, brings about violence and fear. Also Paul expresses it clearly in his First Letter to the Thessalonians (5:3-5).
It is this distinction that Jesus introduces: peace that he offers is contrasted with the world's peace, the peace imposed by the "ruler of this world.” The latter is based on violence and thus is not a genuine peace. Violence will bring death to the body of Jesus, the Christ. In contrast, his peace does not imply any expression of superiority or imposition of power or need of war; he proposes himself as the abundance of life for everyone, as loving equality and shared freedom. It is not merely an individual virtue but rather a way of understanding the meaning and purpose of human life. This peace, granted to all who has faith in him, makes it possible to overcome the fear of peace imposed by armed forces. It is the peace that is achieved in being united with the Father and with brothers and sisters as all are commanded to do. It is the way in which Jesus himself builds peace: he does what his Father commanded him.
The greeting with which the Risen One met his disciples (John 20:19–23) is precisely shalom, a declaration of peace that is fulfilled in three acts: life as a gift from God to be proclaimed to all peoples (“so I send you”), the presence of the Holy Spirit that revives creation (“receive the Holy Spirit”), and forgiveness that restores human relationships (“If you forgive sins of others, you will be forgiven”).
While interpreting the meaning of Jesus' messianism, Paul draws new conclusions, seeing that the Kingdom of God multiplies in fruits of peace. This thought is expressed most deeply in the letters to the Ephesians (Eph 2:14–17). Notwithstanding, humankind (including most of the Christian peoples) continues to think that separating and strengthening border lines are warrants of peace. The ways of Jesus' peace is left aside in favour of the peace of this world.
The last phrase of this passage is a call to action: “Rise, let us be on our way.” Peace is not simply a nice and comforting discourse, but a witness to bear and a task to fulfill.
The text in our context
The passage in discussion from the Gospel of John has also been interpreted as a contrast between internal, personal peace and a worldly sense of anxiety. Although the personal dimension of peace as a divine gift is part of this message, it is different from the "peace of the world” that holds together various dimensions of the messanic peace (including social and political).
The opposition that Jesus establishes between his peace and that of the world does not belong to by-gone days: the idea that peace imposes itself through military superiority or can be secured by means of a "pre-emptive" war (as if a "preventive" war is not already a war) still dominates international politics. Exacerbating repression and the belief that the dissuasive force can replace a dialogue or the quest for justice and equity has been a repeated fallacy that has never brought peace; rather, it begets the next conflict. But the arrogance of empires, of their allies and protégés prevents them from seeing the dehumanizing consequences of these attitudes.
Before the colonial conquest, the native Americans greeted one another by wishing the peace. The Guaranís said sauidi, showing unarmed hands; the Sioux invited their visitors to smoke the peace pipe. This did not prevent both peoples from being attacked by the Christian invaders who came to bring their "peace” How credible will the Christian message of peace be for these peoples, and others who suffered similar experiences? Christianity has a history of denying the central affirmations of its faith. We cannot ignore history or actions as if they did not occur.
"Hao ren ping an" (好人平安) is a frequently-used phrase in Chinese culture. It literally means "Peace for a good person.” It announces that a good person lives in peace, harmony and security. It is a classical expression, also artistically represented by the traditional Chinese calligraphy and often seen hanging on walls of Chinese homes. According to the Korean language, the idea of peace is linked with sharing and equality, with a sense of communion. Hence, different cultures have searched for various expressions of peace.
Today in the world created and continuingly loved by God, physical and symbolic violence has taken over. Greed and pride, being far from the peace or justice of God, have become more powerful. Consequently, the cry for peace must be searched in the pain of those vanquished, those who suffered discrimination, victims of violence. The peace of the empire cost Jesus his life; it cost the lives of many of his disciples and of thousands of innocent people. It continues to do so. The catchword of new empires and their ideological justification is precisely the peace that they intend to bring, but the actual result is destruction and war.
Carlos Mesters speaks about the gospel as a "defenceless flower.” It is precisely what comes to one’s mind regarding peace in the face of belligerent powers that cause poverty and discrimination worldwide. A soldier who dies (because he was going to kill) is a hero, but innocent civilians bombed are "collateral damage"; in fact, it is peace that has been bombed. The words of the prophet resound again, as peace prizes are awarded to those who support war. Wars and injustice provoke horror and fear, but we are called to become faithful witnesses to God's peace in today's world.
Questions for reflection and discussion
- How can we identify paths to the genuine “peace of Christ” in our day-to-day lives, in our faith communities?
- How has the violence seen at the global level influenced the violence we find also at local levels?
- In a consumer society anxiety comes forth; can “the peace of Christ” bring an answer to it?
- How can our churches show signs of repentance for the various ways in which they have promoted violence (racial, gender, colonial) through history and today?
- “Peace is a defenseless flower”; yet flowers produce seed. How can we sow the seed of peace in our children and young people?
God, give us courage
to denounce the false peace of the world
and to announce the peace that makes us whole in your presence.
God of life, by your grace,
make us witnesses of your peace
and lead us to justice and peace. Amen
About the author
Néstor O. Míguez is professor of Bible at the Instituto Universitario ISEDET in Buenos Aires, Argentina.