Bill McFarland

May 21, 2006


One of the most beautiful descriptions of the gospel you will find in the New Testament is the phrase, “The Gospel of Peace.”  In Acts 10 Peter, a man of Jewish background, goes to the house of Cornelius, a man of a Gentile background.  The gap between these two culturally and every other way has been so great that God has had to use extraordinary means to convince Peter even to enter the house of such a man.  As you remember, when Peter gets there he finds out that Cornelius has gathered a crowd of people to hear what Peter will say.  How Peter will begin his address to this group may have profound implications even in the history of the world, as indeed it did.  But notice in Acts 10:36 that Peter begins, “As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all).”  Preaching the gospel of peace, good news in peace through Christ is the meaning of that phrase.

In Ephesians 6 when the apostle Paul has to write to Christians about standing, what it will take for them to endure the spiritual battles that they are facing and still to stand.  You may remember that he urges them to put on the whole armor of God.  He tells them that this will be needed because they are not wrestling against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places.  Therefore he tells them if they will put on the whole armor of God, they will be able to stand.  In verse 15 he says as a part of this armor, “as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.”  There is something about the gospel of peace that enables us to bridge the gaps with people in our lives and to be prepared to stand even in the midst of the most terrible spiritual forces that we might face.

If you think about this theme of peace, you are thinking about the theme of the Bible in a way.  It is easy to read the scriptures and to recognize that the center of the Bible is the story of peace.  Peace is first of all the blessing that God wants to give to his people.  In Numbers 6 there is the beautiful blessing that the priests were to put on the people of Israel.  They were to say, “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”  All the other phrases of that blessing are directed at the last word – that God might give his people the peace, the sense of wellbeing that we just sung about, the idea that he will be with them and they will be able to do what he gives them to do.  Peace is also the promise that the prophets said God wants to fulfill in the lives of his people.  In Isaiah 26 in verses 3 and 4 there is one of the most beautiful statements of the Bible.  It says, “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.  Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock.”  The reason God gives perfect peace is that here is somebody who puts his trust in someone who is worthy of that trust. 

Peace is not only the promised blessing that God wants to give and the promised home that he wants to fulfill.  Peace is also the life that God means for his people to have.  In Philippians 4, beginning at verse 5, there is this wonderful reading, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.  The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God.  And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.  What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things and the God of peace will be with you.”  That passage tells us that if we are willing to place all of our cares at God’s throne through prayer and to put our minds to work on things that are noble and honorable and lovely and to practice what God has called on us to do, then his peace will be at the beginning and ending of our days and it will keep us.

Peace, then, is the blessing, the promise and the life that God has in mind for his children.  But just as surely as it is easy to recognize peace at the center of the Bible story, it is easy to see that peace is not easy to practice in real life.  There are the cares that come.  It is not easy to keep our minds centered on the things that are worthy of our pondering.  We forget to pray, and we start assuming that God may be behind other things in our lives than blessing us. Fear takes over.  Peace departs. 

In August of 1875 one Sunday morning, a gentleman named Edward Bickersteth went to hear a preacher by the name of Gibbon in England.  That morning Mr. Gibbon delivered a lesson based on Isaiah 26:3, “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee.”  In that study that day the preacher pointed out that Isaiah 26 in the original language just says, “Thou wilt keep in peace, peace whose mind is stayed on thee,” and that in the English translation that emphasis had been translated with the phrase “perfect peace.”  It was pointed out in the lesson that perfect peace does not mean that you will only go through tranquil circumstances.  It doesn’t mean that you will never feel any pressures.  It does mean that God will see to it that the resources to sustain you through those things will be present.  Following the worship that day, Bickersteth went on to visit an older relative of his, a man by the name of Hill.  Mr. Hill was not only up in years, but he was sick and he was of somewhat of a troubled mind that day.  He wanted to know what had been the subject in the worship.  Bickersteth relayed to him a summary of what had been studied that day, and the old gentleman, though he was a long-standing believer, expressed his doubts and his concerns: “How can there be perfect peace when I am going through what I am going through?  How can peace be enjoyed by somebody who is hurting?  How can peace be a reality when somebody may be facing the end of his journey?  You talk to me about peace.  How is this perfect peace?”  Then the old gentleman, struggling with those thoughts, dropped off to sleep for a while.  Bickersteth picked up a piece of paper and started writing some stanzas – some stanzas in which he first raised the question, “Peace, in this dark world of sin?”  Then he offered an answer.  Then he brought up another question, and he offered an answer.  Those stanzas became the song which is in our book, song #530.  I would like for you to take your book and turn to 530 right now, and I want to point out to you that in our book it is not like it was originally.  Originally, all the first lines were followed by question marks, and the second lines provide the gospel answers to how there can be peace in a world like ours.  We are going to study these answers in just a moment.  Let’s begin by singing the hymn together.

That Sunday in 1875 when Bickersteth’s relative awoke, those lines were read to him and it said that they brought him comfort.  If you look at the answers that are offered to the problems peace has to overcome in this song, you will notice that they do reflect truly what the gospel answers are.  First, is there perfect peace in this dark world of sin?  Well, the blood of Jesus whispers peace within.  Remember that in Colossians 1:19-20, the apostle Paul wrote, “For in him (in Christ) all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things whether on earth or in heaven making peace by the blood of his cross.”  The idea that through the blood of his cross God overcame the barrier that sin brought between his creation and himself is what the gospel is about.  In Ephesians 1:6-7 we learn that God through the blood of his Son has given us redemption, the forgiveness of our sins.  In I John 1:7 we discover that for a Christian, as he walks in the light, the blood of Christ goes on cleansing him of his sins.  In Romans 5:1 says that we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  When you and I struggle with awareness of our failures, with the guilt of our sins, with the feeling that we have messed up, we ought to be reminded that that is no reason why peace cannot be enjoyed.  The blood of Christ is a perfect sacrifice.  It never will need to be offered again.  It can deal with those spiritual needs that might have separated us from God.  If you and I are willing to respond to the gospel of Christ in faith and obedience, the Lord will cleanse us of those things that need to be forgiven.  And if we will walk with him, the Lord will deal with our weaknesses by cleansing us according to our need.  Peace can exists in this dark world of sin because of the blood of Jesus.

Next, notice that there is the question of how I am going to enjoy peace when I am by thronging duties pressed.  You can identify with that statement.  Any of you who have burdens of responsibility, any of you who have jobs that sometimes seem like they are too much for you, any of you who have families to raise and bills to pay, obligations to meet, you can understand something of what this phrase means.  But this song says “To do the will of Jesus: this is rest.”  Even amidst those responsibilities, this is rest.  We sang about this earlier in our assembly.  Jesus in Matthew 11 looked out over a crowd of people who were burdened by thronging duties.  They were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.  Their needs would have appeared to be overwhelming.  Jesus said to them, “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  To translate that into our language, what Jesus is saying is that the rest you are looking for is found by being in the harness that I provide.  I have seen my grandpa harness up his old work horses or his mules.  He would do everything from plow his garden to drag logs with him.  Jesus is saying here that rest or peace is not found in irresponsibility.  We don’t find what we are looking for by running from our obligations.  Instead, they are to be found in submitting to his will.  The best example is Jesus himself in the garden.  Troubled in spirit so much that his sweat was like great drops of blood, prayed that the Father’s will might be done.  He was strengthened.  The Father’s will was done.  It wasn’t easy but it brought peace.

In Acts 21 Paul is on his way to Jerusalem, but he is being warned at every turn that if he goes there, they are waiting to take his life.  His friends are pleading with him not to make the trip, not to run that risk.  But Paul says, “I am ready not only to be in prison, but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”  Then, “since he would not be persuaded,” Luke says, “we ceased and said, ‘let the will of the Lord be done.’”  That is the secret to peace in the face of heavy responsibility.  The Hebrew writer ended the great book of Hebrews by saying, “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight through Jesus Christ to whom be glory forever and ever, Amen.”  The God of peace equips you to do his will.  Peace is found in the doing of his will and not in the ignoring of it.

Then, third, “Peace, perfect peace, with sorrows surging round?”  Again, we identify.  It doesn’t take long and you don’t have to look very far to find families or individuals for who sorrows are surging round.  Talk about peace in the presence of problems like that would to the world seem to be the height of ridiculousness.  But to Christians who take seriously Jesus and what he has done for us makes all the sense in the world.  On that night Jesus was betrayed and he was with his disciples, he had washed their feet dealing with their contentions with each other over pitiful little things.  And just ahead he was facing what he knew would be the heaviest burden that ever anybody would bear – the sins of the world.  That night he tried to prepare his closest friends and disciples for what they were facing.  In John 14:27 he said, “Peace I leave with you.  My peace I give to you.  Not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”  There were certainly things that could have been troubling and could have been fearful, but he gave them peace.  In John 16:33 his last words in his talk with them that night were, “I have said these things to you that in me you may have peace.  In the world you will have tribulation, but take heart, I have overcome the world.”  That is the reason why the song says that on Jesus bosom not but calm is found.

 “Peace, perfect peace with loved ones far away?”  Again, that takes in many of you who are here.  It only takes a grown child’s phone call with a little homesickness in their voices, to make us aware of what this means.  It only takes a time when someone has to be away to meet a responsibility or an obligation to cause us to think about this.  I hope Brent and Brenda won’t mind, but I am going to use Elaine for an example here.  I got a letter from Elaine this week.  Elaine let me know that my mom and some of her cohorts at the community building back home had sent her a care package and it had been shared with her “battle buddy,” she said.  But then in her letter she asked us to pray for her, not because of what you and I might be thinking, but because she said there are a lot of temptations around.  “Pray for me that I will be spiritually strong.”  When we think about loved ones being far away, how do we find peace?  The song says, “In Jesus’ keeping we are safe.”  I think it is interesting that he started with “we.”  We are the ones who are usually more concerned.  “And they.”  In Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, there are interesting comments made because Paul had only gotten to stay in Thessalonica three weeks.  He was run out of town by persecution, and he left a band of believers in Christ there for whom he was concerned.  He says to them at the end of both of his letters something I think that is enlightening.  I Thessalonians 5 starting at 23: “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord, Jesus Christ.  He who calls you his faithful, he will surely do it.”  Then at the end of the second letter he also asks for peace for these people he is separated from: “Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way.  The Lord be with you all.”  For loved ones far away, faith in Christ means the world. 

And then, “Peace, perfect peace, our future all unknown?”  Isn’t it something sometimes to pause and consider what it will be like?  Where is history headed in the future of this world?  What will become of our conflicts?  How will our country change?  What will happen in our families?  What will happen to us as a congregation?  Lots of things about the future seem unsettled, but this song advises, “Jesus we know, and He is on the throne.”  The idea in that statement is that the same Jesus who is made known to us in the New Testament is the one who will be in charge of where history arrives.  In Ephesians 1:20-21, the apostle Paul makes an astonishing statement about the rule of Christ.  He says here in talking about the working of God’s great might that “he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.”  As I read that, history is in his hands.  His rule is that supreme.  But then come over to Colossians 3:15 and look what it says about the rule of Christ.  Here it says, “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts to which indeed you were called in one body and be thankful.”  Again, the gospel of peace says that there is an answer to the obstacles to peace that you and I may confront in our lives. 

Edward Bickersteth didn’t know it in 1875 when he wrote those lines, but 25 years later they were going to be so, so important to him.  His oldest son, named after him, was a missionary.  He died.  The Bickersteth family had to gather at the grave of that young man.  Do you know what they sang?  “Peace, Perfect Peace.”  As far as I can tell, the last line to that song in our book was not there originally, but it probably needs to be added.  “It is enough; earth’s struggles soon shall cease, and Jesus call us to heaven’s perfect peace.”  It may look to us like peace is never perfect here, but it will be some day.  That is what Jesus has called us to through the gospel of peace.  That call needs to be answered here in this world.  It needs to be answered now.  If you need to lay hold on this peace, why don’t you step out and trust in Christ, repent of sin, be baptized into him and live faithfully for him?  If you need to make that beginning today, I wish you would do it.  If you would know the peace that comes by giving all and you are not faithful to the Lord, come back home to him with the encouragement of this song right now while we stand and sing together.