We live in a troubled world, fraught with hostility leading to neglect and violence and abuse. And this happens at all levels, from the international stage to that of the home. According to one statistic, there have been 263 wars since 1900 alone; with over 77 million battle-deaths (this does not include the deaths due to disease and famine). But wars happen not only on the battlefield, too often they happen at home, “with an estimated 1.9 million women and 3.2 million men physically assaulted annually, and domestic violence is a large part of that problem, with 22.1% of women and 7.4% of men having been physically assaulted by a current or former spouse, cohabiting partner, boyfriend, girlfriend or date in their lifetime.” Our world is not characterized by peace.
And there is a reason why the world is not characterized by peace. It is because, no matter how many peace conferences there are, no matter how many times government officials try to iron out peace initiatives, no matter how many laws are passed against domestic violence, the problem behind all the aggression and hostility and anger in the world is not something that can be solved by signing documents or reaching political agreements or passing laws. These things only scratch the surface. Peace is not something that can be ultimately achieved by changing the circumstances in which we live. It can only be achieved by changing the heart. In particular, it can only be achieved by dealing with the sin that is in the heart.
Which is what sets this Beatitude apart from all other peace initiatives. The peacemakers that our Lord has in mind are those who are characterized as the children of God. No one can just be a peacemaker in the sense in which our Lord is speaking here, because not everyone is a child of God in this sense. What does it mean to be a child of God? In Biblical language, you are not a child of God simply by virtue of being human. The apostle John writes, for example, “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother” (1 Jn. 3:10). In other words, the children of God are those who practice righteousness, who love the brethren. Later, he will identify them with those who are born of God (1 Jn. 5:1, 2; cf. Jn. 1:12). A child of God, therefore, is a member of that subset of humanity who has been born again to newness of life in Jesus Christ, and whose life has been accordingly changed.
Or to put it another way, a child of God is someone whose life is characterized by the preceding Beatitudes. We need to remember what we said at the outset: all these Beatitudes describe all of God’s people. The peacemaker that our Lord is referring to is someone who has been humbled to see his/her emptiness before God Almighty, who has been led to mourn over the blackness and depravity of the heart, who has been changed from being self-willed to being a person who lays down his/her life for another, who hungers and thirsts for righteousness as the ultimate happiness, who is merciful as Christ is merciful, and who is pure in heart.
Another way to look at it is that not only is this Beatitude conditioned and contextualized by the previous ones, but it is also made inevitable by them. Someone who shares the characteristic of poverty of spirit, and so on, will also be a peacemaker.
In connection with this, Lloyd-Jones makes an interesting observation as to the structure of the Beatitudes. According to Lloyd-Jones, the Beatitude of verse 6 forms a sort of central statement for the Beatitudes that the three preceding it lead correspond to the three that follow it. Thus, poverty of spirit corresponds to being merciful for the one who has seen his own desperate need for grace is going to be willing to extend it to others. Those who mourn correspond to those who are pure in heart, for once we have mourned over the sinfulness of our own heart we will not be content to wallow in it but will want to see it purified. And meekness corresponds to peacemaking, because a meek person is exactly the kind of person who will be the perfect peacemaker. What stands so often in the way of harmony? Is it not our own self-will and selfishness? This is exactly what James has told us in his epistle: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (Jm. 4:1-2). But if we are meek, if we have learned like Christ to master ourselves for the sake of others, then our gentleness will put us in the category of peacemakers.
The bridge between the Beatitudes is verse 6, because we are only able to be this kind of person as we are filled and satisfied by Christ as we thirst for his righteousness. The Beatitudes, we must remember, were never meant to be a legalistic, Christless set of demands that we meet by pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We can only become this kind of person first and foremost by recognizing our need of the grace of God, or our fundamental need for Christ, and then finding our need met by him. And then as we are filled, we don’t sit down and do nothing, but get up and start being the kind of people that God has called us to be – in his strength and by his grace.
What then does it mean to be a peacemaker? We begin with what it does not mean. It does not mean peace at any price. John Stott, borrowing from Bonhoeffer’s phrase in the Cost of Discipleship, says that there is such a thing as “cheap peace.” Our Lord does not mean the kind of person who just wants appeasement. He is not referring to those who just “look the other way.” This is not the kind of person who cries, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.”
There are times, in fact, when peace is impossible, and when doing what is right will lead to the hostility of others toward you. We are reminded of this very fact in the next two verses. Those who are Christ-like, will like our Lord, meet with the opposition of others. This does not mean that we are wrong or that we should change course; no, our Lord tells us that in such a case we should rejoice with exceeding joy for great is our reward in heaven. We should never back down on our Lord. Our faithfulness is to him first of all. Peace with our fellow men and peace with God is not always possible at the same time. If it is one or the other, we must obey God rather than men. I think this is why Paul wrote in Romans, “If it be possible, as much as lies in you, live peaceably with all men” (12:18).
In fact, in a few chapters, our Lord will remind his disciples that we should not expect complete peace in this world. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household” (Mt. 10:34-36). Now, I think it is important to point out that this does not mean that we are to go hunting for trouble. This is no license for obstreperousness or for being difficult to be around or for being contentious. It is clear from the context, that the point of contention lies not with the Christian but with those who are against the Christian. In other words, as our Lord puts it, if we are going to suffer, let it not be on account of anything bad that we have done, but on account of righteousness. At the same time, we must recognize that faithfulness to Christ will not always lead to peace and it will be this way until Christ returns. Only then will swords be turned into plowshares.
Let us now turn to the positive aspect of our Lord’s meaning. It’s actually relative simple. A peacemaker is that person who seeks to foster harmony and peace between himself/herself and others or between two or more other parties in a way that is consistent with a life of obedience to the Lord. Real peace cannot happen outside of righteousness, so they must be sought together. Thus, Paul says that the kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17). A peacemaker recognizes that what prevents peace is just sin – anger, selfishness, bitterness, an unforgiving spirit, and so these must be dealt with if there is to be real peace.
Note also that our Lord does not say, “Blessed are those who are peaceable;” no, he says, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” by which is he referring to those who are willing to do something about it. They not only want harmony and peace, but they do all they can to make it happen. They are going to be “endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). As much as lies in them (Rom. 12:18), they are going to live peaceably with all men.
What characterizes such people? Well, first of all, such people are fundamentally those who are at peace with God. You cannot be the kind of person who seeks the peace that Jesus offers unless you are at peace with God through him. You hear all the time the mantra, “Be at peace with yourself.” But you don’t need to be at peace with yourself: you need to be at war with yourself! “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (Rom. 8:13). So be at war with yourself, but be at peace with God.
Jesus offers peace with each other, but this peace is first of all rooted in the peace he achieved through the cross that brings us first and foremost back to God. Once this is achieved, then comes the peace between each other. This was very clearly demonstrated in the early church when you had these two disparate groups – Jew and Gentile – who were hostile to each other but who through Christ were reconciled on the basis of their common redemption. “But now in Christ Jesus you who sometimes were far off [Gentiles] are made nigh [to God] by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of two one new man, so making peace; and that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby” (Eph. 2:13-16).
How was this possible? And how could it be possible today? There are still a thousand things that separate people from each other: socio-economic status, race, family background, and so on. But according to the apostle Paul, these barriers to fellowship and peace are brought down by Christ.
How? It goes like this: when a person understands the depth of their need before God and that only Jesus can save them from eternal destruction and that it is of pure and sovereign grace that alone explains why they have been saved, then such a person is no longer in a position to look down on anyone else. There is no longer any room for self-righteousness, or even for thinking that my group is better than someone else’s group. There is no longer any room for any kind of ethnocentrism. And when we realize further that Jesus is not only the propitiation for my sins but also for the sins of the whole world (1 Jn. 2:2), then how can I want to exclude someone from the sphere of fellowship just because they are different in some way? Or when I hear the refrain in heaven, “Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” (Rev. 5:9), how can I any longer refuse to be at peace with a brother in Christ, just because his skin color is different from mine?
Moreover, an understanding of the cross not only makes me embrace brethren though they are different from me, it also causes me to embrace and to seek peace with those who are at odds with me. Someone has wronged me; very well, what am I going to do about it? Fundamentally, if you are a Christian, you are going to come at it from the perspective of the cross. The peacemaker realizes that he/she was reconciled to God by Christ, not because they were good, but because they were bad; not because we were at peace with God but because we were his enemies. The redeemed man cannot look on his enemy without seeing himself as opposed to God, and this makes him first of all very patient and longsuffering – which is essential if peace is going to be achieved.
Moreover, the peacemaker realizes that sometimes we have to endure hardness if peace is to be accomplished – a cross – and they are willing to do that if that’s what it takes. They are willing to lay down their life for others, they are willing to put self behind them in order to serve their spouse, or their children, or their neighbor, or their co-worker. Thus, if we want to be peacemakers in the sense in which Jesus is speaking here, we need to understand and believe the gospel first and foremost.
But how particularly does this gospel attitude work itself out? Let’s get practical here. First of all, as Lloyd-Jones put it, “it means that you learn not to speak.” James’ epistle, which has been called a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, says that we need to “be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (Jm. 1:19). How often when someone has wrong us, or when they have wrong someone we love, we want to get back at them with the sword of the tongue. How often has discord been worsened by unkind words spoken in haste and anger. But it’s not only that we need to learn to shut up, it’s also that we need to learn how to speak well. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” (Prov. 25:11). “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger” (Prov. 15:1). But again, this is why we really need to understand and apply the gospel to our hearts. What is so often behind the defensiveness and impulsiveness that leads to rash and hasty words is often a self-righteous spirit, a self-centeredness that can only be done away by the real embrace of the gospel in the heart.
We also need to try to see things from the other person’s point of view. This is just another part of the selflessness that is the natural outflow of a gospel attitude. What leads to so much contention is an unwillingness to consider the other person and their problems and their point of view. “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem [the] other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:3-5). We need to listen, to rid ourselves of prejudice, to strive to understand the opposing point of view. After all, if the other person doesn’t think you are listening to them and trying to understanding them, they are probably not going to want to listen to your concerns either. Deadlock!
And then we need to be approachable people. There are people I would never bring a problem to because I am afraid they would bite my head off. Such people are never going to be called the children of God. Listen to what James says in his epistle: “But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion, and every evil work. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace” (3:14-18). Are you “easy to be entreated”? Are you “open to reason,” as the ESV puts it? Though Jesus didn’t say “peaceable” but “peacemaker,” it is clear that we have to be the former before we can be the latter.
Finally, we need to be the kind of people who are willing to take the initiative to bring about peace. Surely that is implied in being a peacemaker. Not just a peacekeeper, but a peacemaker; someone who does what they can to establish unity in Christ when there has been breaking of fellowship between others. We have this word from Paul, again in Romans 12: “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place to wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore, if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good” (v. 19-20). It’s not enough that you don’t harm your enemy; you must do him good as you have opportunity.
I want to end this morning by applying this specifically to the church. The church of God has been rent asunder by many divisions and schisms, some certainly necessary. But too often, division is brought about, not by a righteous cause, but because genuine brethren did not see eye to eye and ended up coming to verbal blows (or worse) over it. Anger ensues, hardness of heart is entrenched, and a split occurs. I’ve seen this all too often myself. Most of the church splits I’ve seen over the years should have been avoided, and could have, if we would just have listened to what our Lord said here. The fact of the matter is that no matter where you go to church, you are never going to agree 100% with everything. The question then becomes, when disagreement occurs, how are we going to handle it? Are we going to become defensive and entrenched in our own position, or are we going to be willing to listen, and to try as much as possible to sympathize with a brother or sister with whom we disagree? Are we going to paint ourselves to be a martyr and everyone who opposes us a devil, or are we going to keep loving the brethren – even those who disagree with us? Are we going to be gracious and gentle, or are we going to be despiteful and bitter and hateful? One of the things I often pray for this church is unity – because it is by unity that our visibility to the community will be most to the glory of God. For it is when we are peacemakers that we can be legitimately called the children of God. When a church is truly unified and at peace, even that can be an evangelistic statement. That is what the church was meant to be! For where else will you be able to find this peace in community? You won’t find it at work! You won’t find it in the government! It can only be found in the community of those who know peace with God. My prayer is that this will be the reality displayed by this church.