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Peace in a Hostile World

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Though he died in 1980, John Lennon’s music remains influential. His lyrics from the song “Imagine” have become a kind of contemporary mantra:

Imagine there’s no countries,
It isn’t hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
And no religion too.
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace.

You may say I’m a dreamer,
But I’m not the only one.
I hope someday you’ll join us,
And the world will live as one.1

The aim of achieving harmony isn’t unique to Lennon. It’s a desire innate in the human heart. Families long for peace in homes marked by hostility. Parents want relationships with their children to be free from strife. Employees wish for an office that isn’t filled with gossip, conflict, and disintegration. Citizens long for a homeland that isn’t marked by division and death.

But is Lennon’s solution the answer? His worldview assumes that if our world would know peace, we must do away with religion. Others in our society may not advocate for the end of religion, but they instead believe we would achieve peace in the blend of religions. It’s the claim to exclusivity that’s the issue, they assert. Both views see a watering down of fundamental belief systems as the solution to true unity—which, ultimately, is a naive and sinister notion.

Jesus isn’t merely one option for unity among many.

We all agree that our world is broken, filled with hostility. Men and women disagree, however, on questions pertaining to the cause and solution to this problem. Yet where the philosophies of men differ widely, the Bible speaks with clarity and consistency regarding this foundational issue.

The Problem at Ephesus

Hostility spans time and space. Writing to the first-century church in Ephesus, the apostle Paul addressed the problem of disunity. Ancient Ephesus, like other communities then and now, bore the marks of separation and hostility. And with neither fear nor compromise, Paul argued that Jesus of Nazareth was and is the person through whom peace may be realized: “He himself is our peace …. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (Eph. 2:14, 17).

Incredibly, Paul experienced Jesus’ peace firsthand. Before his enlistment as an apostle, he was a persecutor of Christ and His followers. He hated the church to the point of imprisoning many, even “breathing threats and murder” against them (Acts 9:1). But then he encountered the Prince of Peace, the one who told His followers, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (John 14:27). The peace that transformed Paul was and is able to transform the world, one individual at a time.

We must acknowledge that Jesus isn’t merely one option for unity among many. He is peace, and He is the truth and life (Eph. 2:14; John 14:6). Only the cross of Christ and all it represents offers enduring peace.

In Christ, the church is one.

It was Paul’s conviction that the church, as a people reconciled to God through Christ, is the showcase of God’s peace to the world. In Christ, the church is one. His peace supersedes the barriers that divide one person from another. And in Ephesians 2:14–18, Paul gives three reasons for why the church ought to be a beacon for peace in a hostile world.

A Broken Wall

First, Paul suggests, we can display peace to a hostile world because Jesus has broken down the wall of hostility in the church: “He himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14).

Some of us lived through the construction and demolition of the Berlin Wall, which divided East and West Berlin. Many thought it would never come down. And then, in June of 1990, the Wall’s demolition began. The event is etched indelibly in many of our minds. It was an astounding moment in world history. In a similar but even more significant way, Christ demolished the wall of hostility which once divided people of various ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.

The Jew/gentile divide was especially prevalent in the first-century churches, and no doubt Paul had this issue in mind as he penned his letter to the Ephesians. The Jewish temple courts featured a literal wall dividing Jews from non-Jews in their worship. Not only that, but a kind of spiritual wall was placed around the Jew in the Mosaic law. God imposed divine regulations on Israel to set them apart from the world, carving them out as special men and women (Lev. 20:26).

God’s people meet for worship in the New Jerusalem; we are His temple.

The regulations expressed in the Mosaic law, however, were only ever to be an interim arrangement. The rituals, food restrictions, and material sacrifices all pointed forward to their fulfillment in Jesus (Col. 2:16–17). In Christ, the wall dividing Jew from gentile has now been broken down. The believing Jew and the believing gentile have access to God on the same basis: through one mediator, Jesus Christ. Those in the church are united because of Christ’s finished work.

One in Place of Two

The church ought to display peace in a hostile world, next, because God has made one in place of two:

… by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. (Eph. 2:15–17)

This idea of oneness that the apostle introduces is reminiscent of marriage. In marriage, one plus one equals one. “What therefore God has joined together,” Jesus taught, “let not man separate” (Mark 10:9). And since marriage is a picture of Christ and His church, we see in the church a kind of wedding: our Lord has taken those who were once separated from Him and estranged from one another and has reconciled them to Himself and each other, creating “one new man in place of the two.”

The insider/outsider sentiment which once marked the Ephesians’ context was obliterated at the cross of Christ. He “preached peace” to those far from God, the gentiles, and to those who were near to God, the Jews.

We would do well to think about the implications of Paul’s message. In one church fellowship, Jew and gentile would worship together. It’s as if Nicodemus and the woman at the well joined hands, worshipping side by side. The only basis on which they could ever do this is that which Christ established. Killing the hostility, He brought them near.

The message for local churches today is clear: we must not tolerate unbiblical divisions among us. We can’t elevate one over another because of status, ethnicity, or giftedness. We two are one in Christ.

“We Both Have Access”

Finally, the church displays peace to a hostile world because we’ve been granted access to God. Each person of the triune God is involved in this great mystery: “Through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” (Eph. 2:18)

Jew and gentile share the same access to God in Christ. And this access isn’t to a temple building in Jerusalem but directly to the Father. Christ’s death on the cross and the tearing of the temple curtain effectively did away with need for the physical temple (Heb. 10:19–20). God’s people meet for worship in the new Jerusalem; we are His temple (Heb. 12:22; 1 Cor. 3:16).

Elsewhere, Paul describes the great lengths to which God went to achieve this access for us. “If while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son,” he writes, “much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Rom. 5:10). God reconciles enemies in the Gospel.

Christ Our Peace

With the biblical conception of peace before us, how does Lennon’s vision square with it?

Imagine there’s no heaven,
It’s easy if you try,
No hell below us,
Above us only sky.
Imagine all the people
Living for today.2

The final line isn’t hard to imagine; indeed, it’s the heart of the issue when it comes to humanity’s restlessness. So many are living for today, without thought of yesterday or prospect of eternity, “having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).

And into this hopelessness and alienation steps the Prince of Peace. Taking our punishment on Himself, He grants us a forgiveness that we don’t deserve. Having reconciled us to Himself and one another, He looks at the cities of our world and says, as it were, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace” (Luke 19:42).

Peace is to be found not in the ending or in the blending of religion but in the acknowledging of our need for a person, Jesus Christ. He must reconcile us to God, transform our hearts to love like Himself, and, by His Spirit, make one new man in place of the two.

This article was adapted from the sermon “Peace in a Hostile World” by Alistair Begg.

John Lennon, “Imagine” (1971). ↩︎

Lennon, “Imagine.” ↩︎

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