Grace to You and Peace: The Message of Christmas
It’s that time of year again. As November draws to a close, we once again make the month-long journey toward Christmas. Here in northern Italy, the telltale signs are beginning to emerge: lights are being erected in every piazza; grocery stores are stocking up on panettone; and vendors sell hot vin brulé to people out for their evening stroll. In America, it means hearing Christmas music at Home Depot, getting Starbucks coffee served in red cups; and watching the mall reach its zenith as the epicenter for human activity in our communities.
In the midst of the commercialism, craziness, and comedown, however, most of us still manage to find time to enjoy some form of family tradition. Cards are sent, parties are attended, and pleasure is taken in watching the anticipation build in the hearts of our little ones. Yet, for the Christian, there is much more to Christmas than both the materialism we chide and the memories we cherish. Christmas, of course, marks an annual remembrance of the greatest drama ever staged: the coming of the Son of God into the world in order to accomplish redemption on our behalf. It is a festive holiday that celebrates God’s promise of peace on earth.
While ‘peace on earth’ is a slogan in our culture that gets a lot of mileage during the Christmas season, true peace on earth comes at a very high price. True peace must be made between God and man. This requires God’s justice to be satisfied. Without sin being dealt with, there can be no peace. Without the righteousness that God requires from the sinner, there can be no reconciliation.
The joy of Christmas comes from knowing that God himself has made that peace for everyone who believes. Jesus Christ paid the price for peace by coming in the form of a servant, living a life of perfect obedience to God’s law, and going to a Roman cross of shame to face the unmitigated wrath of God for every person he represented. This is the peace that was promised to our first parents, Adam and Eve, after the fall, that One would come to crush the Serpent’s head. This is the peace proclaimed by the prophets, that Israel’s true deliverance would come through Immanuel. This is the peace that was announced to the shepherds by the heavenly host of angels. This is the peace that, as Paul says, is ours “since we have been justified by faith” (Rom 5.1). Peace that comes to us by grace alone, through faith alone, because of the work of Christ alone.
While believers now enjoy this peace because of Christ’s first advent, they will experience this peace in its fullest measure at Christ’s second advent. When the King returns, he will bring everlasting peace on earth as he ushers in the glory of the age to come. This present evil age, with all of its sorrow and suffering, will finally and forever come to an end for God’s people. In that day, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev 21.4)
In the meantime, as those living between the two advents of Christ, we have the blessed privilege of hearing God’s salutation of peace whenever we gather together for worship. As God’s covenant people, we call upon his name in the invocation at the beginning of every worship service. In response, the Lord greets his people. As God’s ambassador, the minister raises his hands and – not with magical powers, but as a divinely appointed emissary – blesses the people with God’s blessing. God’s own words, such as those found in every one of Paul’s salutations, are used: “Grace to you and peace…” Hearing these words at the beginning of every worship service, we are reminded that we are assembled together in the presence of God; we are reminded that the Lord responds to the cry of his people; we are reminded that we are forever at peace with our Creator. By these words “grace to you and peace” we are also able to look back to what Christ has done in his first advent and look forward to what he has promised to do in his second advent.
Of all the salutations in the New Testament, probably the most clear in this regard is Paul’s greeting to the Galatians: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” (Gal 1.3-5) These words of peace are ours because Christ “gave himself for our sins.” We look back, not merely to a nativity scene of baby Jesus meek and mild, but to the whole mission he accomplished. Without the horror and offense of the cross, the manger is meaningless – something our sentimental culture fails to understand.
But we also look forward to the completion of our redemption, that is, to be delivered from “the present evil age” in the resurrection. Only then will true peace on earth be realized, when all things are made new. Not a superficial peace that comes from mere warm and fuzzy thoughts about the world coming together with chestnuts roasting over an open fire. Rather, a true peace that comes when the King returns with a sword to remove all evil and suffering from the world.
So, as we make our way into this festive season, let us rejoice that the Son of God invaded human history and came into this world to save us from sin, death, and hell. And let us remember that we have something for which all of the world longs and gropes. We have peace – peace with God presently and peace on earth in the future. And this same peace is announced to us, morning and evening, every Lord’s Day. May God give us a passion to bring that message of peace to the culture in which we live, so that we might see others be the recipients of those blessed words: “Grace to you and peace.”