Biblical Shalom: Finding the Common Ground

As I have visited churches in different parts of the United States and in countries overseas, particularly in Europe, Eurasia and China, I am saddened by the lack of substantive teaching on Biblical shalom. In fact, many Christians I meet are unfamiliar with the word shalom and don’t know how to respond when I greet them with this Biblical word.My study of shalom has convinced me that there is ample “common ground” for agreement among Christians on this topic and that a deepened understanding of shalom would greatly impact the ministry and influence of Christians if they knew more about Biblical teaching on this powerful, dynamic subject.

“Garden of Eden” Jan Bruegel, c. 1600
Here are the “Biblical basics” on shalom that I think are important to understand:

  1. God desires peace for the world. The Biblical concept of shalom is a magnificent picture of God’s view of peace that involves wholeness, well-being, health, contentment, tranquility and sound relationships (Judges 6:24; Psalm 147; Isaiah 55:8-12; Jeremiah 29:11; I Corinthians 14:33). The Hebrew understanding of shalom reflects the original state of affairs in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1:29-31 and 2:7-9) before sin entered the world. Biblical peace involves a “right relationship” with God the Creator, with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with nature – a fourfold vision that no human-created ideology has ever matched! God’s view of peace is radically different from the world’s view (John 14:27). Peace is not just the absence of violence; it is not just a stable environment that allows people to be left alone to “do their own thing.” God’s peace, “which passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7), is much richer, much more constructive in character.
  2. The Bible clearly demonstrates that peace is a “gift of God” (Psalm 20; Isaiah 26:12; John 14:2&). Scripture repeatedly describes God as a “God of peace” (Isaiah 19:18-25; I Corinthians 14:33; Hebrews 13:20-21) and his Son, Jesus Christ, as the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). The origin of peace is not to be found with humanity or as a logical result of human reasoning, but in the very character of the Triune God. God, not humanity He created, gives peace (Isaiah 2:2-4; Isaiah 11:1-9; Hosea 2:18; Zechariah 9:9-10). Peace will not come as a result of humanity’s efforts, but by the gracious gift of the Creator as men and women choose righteous living in obedience to His commandments. There is a difficult tension in Scripture on this subject: God grants peace as He chooses and no “theology of works” will ever enable us to “earn” it, yet God also instructs us that being in right relationship is best and will bring shalom.
  3. Biblical peace is linked to justice and righteousness (Isaiah 59:8; Jeremiah 6:14). Scripture repeatedly shows that peace, as a characteristic of God, is intimately related to justice and righteousness, which are also parts of God’s character. To work for peace without seeking to overcome structures of injustice makes little sense in light of God’s Word. There can be no “military solution” which brings the real peace of shalom. Peace will only come when people are in right relationship — or living justly – with each other. Again, unlike the way most people view peace, the Biblical view is not just negative or individualized. Peace linked to justice involves wholeness, health, and tranquility for a community of people.
  4. Jimmy Carter shaking hands with leaders of Egypt & Israel paving way for 1980 treaty
  5. Sin and evil break relationships and cause violence to occur. Scripture gives us a clear picture of the radical nature of evil (Genesis 3; Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Zechariah 7:8-14; Romans 7:7-25). Although God is the Lord of history, Satan craftily seeks to oppose and frustrate God’s rule. The Apostle Paul warns us that the real struggle in history is on a spiritual plane and that demonic forces are evident in historical events bringing violence, destruction and death (Ephesians 6:10-18; II Thessalonians 2:7-12). Just as Biblical peace is more than an absence of violence, so evil – according to the Word of God – is not merely the absence of good; evil is the terrible enemy of humanity and the source of human misery. Men and women can never overcome evil, manifested in individuals or in corporate structures, by their own power. Only God can overcome evil (Psalm 37; Amos 5) and God enables us to resist it (James 4:7-8). We need to be realistic in our understanding of evil and place our hope not in human ingenuity or human reason, but in the victory of the cross of Jesus Christ. The power of Satan has been broken and, although he still is the source of violence and suffering in the world, we know that God can and will subdue evil and bring judgment on the wicked.
  6. The Holy Spirit is the Enabler who helps Christians in their pursuit of peace. Despite sin and its resulting violence in the world, we have been empowered by our Sovereign God. Once again, in contrast to the world’s view that humanity must work for peace with its utmost energies out of a sense of fear or out of a desire for survival, the Bible encourages Christians by telling us that the Spirit of God will strengthen us and give us the ability to do infinitely more than we could ever do on our own strength (Ephesians 3:20). In fact, God tells us a remarkable truth: in our weakness and dependency on God we will find strength (II Corinthians 12:9-10).
  7. The beginning point for any Christian peacemaker must be a “right relationship” with the Triune God (Romans 5:1-11; Philippians 4:4-7). If we are not at peace with God ourselves, how can we truly be peacemakers? If we do not know the love of God for us and have not experienced God’s grace toward us despite our lack of merit, then we know very little about the true nature of peace. If, on the other hand, we have peace with God, then we have a glimpse of the kind of peace for which we should be working. It is deeply troubling to see Christians, claiming to be peacemakers, in conflict with other Christians because they differ on the practical solutions that, in their judgment, would lead to peace. A saving faith in Jesus Christ, which makes a person into a new creation (Ephesians 4:22-24), is where a Biblical peacemaker must be grounded.
  8. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech
  9. Working for peace on a corporate level, between nations or among political groups or even in a family, requires the practice of peacemaking on an individual level. If we are not reconcilers and healers in our own personal relationships, how can we meaningfully work for peace on a grander scale? Scripture calls us to “seek peace, and pursue it” (Psalm 34:14), but how can we pursue what we have never experienced? When Isaiah tells us that separation from God results in our not knowing the “way of peace” (59:8), the opposite is also true! As we learn to live a life of love, according to the teachings and deeds of Jesus (John 15:9-17), as we learn to offer ourselves as a servant to others as Christ did for us (Philippians 2:5-11), then – and only then – can we meaningfully work for peace on a national or international level.
  10. As a Biblical people, we need a vision for peace. We cannot work for peace in a practical way without a vision shaped by our hope for the future that Scripture beautifully provides. Hope, not fear, should motivate us. The Bible describes God’s desire of shalom for the world, a shalom that has implications not only for our personal lives but also for how society itself should function. The graphic picture portrayed by Isaiah (chapters 60-62)

    and Micah (4:1-5) or recorded in Revelation (chapter 21) is a divine norm that God has given us as our hope. While we will never experience this peace in its fullness until Jesus returns in all His glory, we can understand our present reality in light of that promised future. Here is another one of those tensions in Scripture: the peace of the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom that is both a present reality and a future hope, will never be complete until Jesus’ second coming; yet our task is to live as peacemakers in our present situation with that vision of God’s peace as a goal toward which we are working.

  11. Volunteers at Martha’s Table, serving homeless population in Washington, DC
  12. As a Biblical people, we need a practical understanding of peace that we must apply to our present situation. We cannot honestly hold to a vision of peace if we do not try to apply a vision of peace in practical ways. We must be committed to work for peace, not just committed to a general vision that is solely future-oriented. Being committed to work for peace means beginning with prayer and meditation, not political action; but it also means engaging in political action, not just prayer and meditation. Peacemaking, as a part of our lives as followers of Jesus, should be an active calling, not a passive posture (Matthew 5:9; Hebrews 12:14). Scripture instructs us to resist evil and to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21); it also challenges us to seek the peace of the land (Jeremiah 29:4-9; Proverbs 24:11-12). This is the “ministry of reconciliation” which the Apostle Paul wrote about in Ephesians (2:11-18).

NOTE: This is a revised excerpt from my chapter in Perspectives on Peacemaking: Biblical Options in the Nuclear Age (Regal Books, 1984).