The cliché becomes a joke, as used in the movie Miss Congeniality. When beauty pageant contestants are asked what they wish for more than anything, they say, “World peace.” We may laugh or snicker, but peace is something we greatly desire. We long for peace on an individual, community, national, and international basis.
Perhaps we laugh because our experience has been that peace is elusive, impossible, whether in our hearts or between nations. It’s better to laugh and mock it than hope for real peace.
Peace is a running theme throughout the whole of scripture. Living in a world full of division and conflict, the Bible is honest about the corruption and war raging in the world and the supernatural realm. The word most commonly used in the Bible for peace is the Hebrew word shalom.
Shalom is a common greeting in Jewish culture. For Americans, we say “How are you?” when we greet one another and “Have a nice day” when we leave. For the Jews, the words are shalom aleichem (peace be to you) upon greeting and aleichem shalom (to you, peace) when they say goodbye. Kind words, but just like the rote American phrases, shalom can become just a word without much meaning.
Scripture, however, doesn’t throw the word shalom around as a nice gesture. Shalom carries deep and resounding meaning in the Bible because it is real and attainable in God. Peace isn’t a joke or a quick two fingers we throw up in a selfie. Peace isn’t elusive or impossible. Shalom is a peace beyond our imagination or understanding (Philippians 4:7).
Where Does the Word Shalom Come From?
The word shalom comes from the Hebrew shalem, meaning whole and complete. The first time we see the word used in the Bible, God promises that Abraham will go to peace when he is old and dies (Genesis 15:15).
An angel is the first to use the word as a greeting in the scripture. The angel appears to Gideon in Judges 6 and greets him with shalom, which helps since the young man is afraid of the glorious being in front of him. Gideon argues with the angel and questions the call to fight those oppressing the Israelites. After the angelic encounter, Gideon builds an altar to worship God and calls the altar Yahweh Shalom or “God is Peace.”
Shalom becomes a greeting for the remainder of the Old Testament in various ways. Jesus continues the practice, telling people to go in peace through the Gospels. After healing the woman with the issue of blood, Christ speaks to her and says, “Your faith has made you well; go in peace” (Mark 5:34). Paul opened and closed many of his letters with a greeting of shalom—“grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:3).
Again, we can use “peace” or shalom as a greeting that means nothing, a “have a nice day” sort of expression. When Jesus and Paul used that term, however, they hearkened back to the extensive and rich history of the word from the Old Testament, a complex and deep meaning with ancient implications. And yet, Jesus and the New Testament’s writers also spoke of a new kind of shalom, going even farther than the Jews understood.
What Kind of Peace Does Shalom Describe?
The world uses the term “peace” as an absence of conflict. Two nations go to war, leading to killing, violence, loss, and grief. Even if one country or side “wins” the war, no one truly wins. We feel helpless in such situations. In the modern age of constant 24-hour news and headlines dominating our social media feeds, we are inundated with massive tragedies on the world stage.
Yet the biblical idea of shalom doesn’t refer to the end of conflict. Simply reviewing an example already mentioned, the angel greeted Gideon with peace even though the Israelites were heavily oppressed, and God planned to take Gideon into outright war. Gideon identifies and worships God as peace before he picks a religious fight.
Shalom means wholeness, completeness, health, safety, harmony, and prosperity. Looking at the promise to Abraham, there’s a sense of eternal permanence to the idea. When we use shalom as a greeting, we wish the other person holistic and complete well-being.
We live in a world of constant conflict. Going back to the Fall in the Garden (Genesis 1-3), we see the beginning of all the division and war in our world. Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree, and death entered the world. That death was a complete physical and spiritual death and had an extensive impact. Because of the Fall, division entered every relationship we have.
Eve now had conflict with her husband, and her childbirth would bring pain. Adam was now at odds with the ground, tilling and fighting with nature to survive. With Cain and Abel, brother killed brother. The sin that grieved God and motivated the great worldwide Flood? The fact that violence was everywhere.
Looking through the Old Testament, we get a hint of God’s redemption within shalom. Shalom refers to peace on a personal level (1 Samuel 1:17), with reconciliation of the family (Genesis 28:21), “man of my peace” is a term for a friend (Psalm 41:10), following the way of God would bring blessing the ground and healing for the land (Deuteronomy 28). On the political level, God would bless Israel with peace if they obeyed him. “No sword will pass through your land” (Leviticus 26:6).
Notably, God promised or provided shalom in every area of life where the Fall had brought death, division, and conflict.
In Christ, however, God gave something far greater and more important with the Prince of Shalom (Isaiah 9:5).
Why Is God Called “the God of Shalom”?
A relationship can be reconciled but then broken again. The crops can yield abundance, but we can experience famine the next year. The things we build fall and require constant repair. A happy marriage can fall apart. Nations can come to a peace treaty and go to war again a generation later. As much as the Old Testament speaks of peace, it was always tenuous and rarely lasted more than a generation, a cycle we see clearly in the book of Judges. There is no lasting peace here, in this world.
We needed something different if we were to have the peace we long for.
Every division, every conflict we have in this world, has one particular issue at the core. We have been separated from God. God, as creator, is the source and standard. As creations, being out of alignment with the Creator twists and harms us. We can’t be at peace apart from being aligned with the Creator and his purpose, and that’s what we need before anything else. Peace with God.
Paul tells us that we were once “enemies” of God before we repented back to the Lord (Colossians 1:21), but God did the necessary work to bring us back into relationship and have peace with him, a work we couldn’t do. The solution? Himself.
We’ve already noted that God is peace. Peace isn’t something that God has to discover or hold onto. He is always completely and utterly at peace within himself. He is shalom, whole, complete, harmony, prosperity. Like love, peace is his nature. Therefore, separation from God places us in constant conflict with God, ourselves, others, and all of creation. All other peace is temporary at best, if possible, without peace with God.
On the night of Jesus’ birth, angels announced, “shalom on Earth, goodwill to humanity” (Luke 2:14). God, as Father, is shalom, so Jesus is the Prince of Peace. Paul teaches the truth that since we’ve been made right with God by faith and grace, we have shalom with the Father (Romans 5:1).
On the night of his death, Jesus declares that he gives his own peace, which again is the person of God. “Not as the world gives,” Jesus clarifies, “but my peace.” The world can give a brief and limited peace but no more. The entropy, death, and corruption of this world will always return. The only way to have a permanent, lasting shalom is if it comes from another, uncorrupted world.
This eternal peace happens in the church, where all relationships are redeemed beyond racial divisions, whether racial or ethnic (Ephesians 2:14). The peace of God will even work out an eternal peace with our environment, bringing a New Heaven and a New Earth (Revelation 22).
Christ and his Kingdom is the realm where God rules by love, a Kingdom “not of this world.” The Kingdom isn’t in what we do or eat but “righteousness, shalom, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). Those aspects exist within the third person of the deity, the Holy Spirit, eternal and righteous. Thus, we’re told to know God, cling to God, listen to God, and obey him. Not because God is a killjoy or a narcissist. Instead, our loving Father instructs us in these things for our good. In that right, submitted, and loving relationship with God, we find the intimacy, purpose, and holistic shalom we crave.
Let us go to him, then, who is our life, righteousness, and shalom. We find our completeness within him. And to wish shalom on others, we declare to them the opportunity to be reconciled unto God through the saving work of Christ. Then we can all be in peace together.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/ChrisHackett
Britt Mooney (with his amazing wife, Becca) has lived as a missionary in Korea, traveled for missions to several countries, and now lives in Suwanee GA as a church planter that works bi-vocationally with Phoenix Roasters, a missional coffee company. He has a podcast about the Kingdom of God called Kingdom Over Coffee and is a published author with Say Yes: How God-Sized Dreams Take Flight.