Shalom and the Mission of the Church

Bart Byl
12 min readOct 15, 2020

God has created and is redeeming a world meant to dwell in peace with him and with itself. He has sent his Son and Spirit to reconcile the world to himself and to create the church: the community of those called to bear witness, in word and deed, to the peace of God.

Peace in the Old Testament

The Hebrew word shalom is one of the richest in the Old Testament. Cornelius Plantinga defines it, simply, as “the way things ought to be:

The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing wholeness, and delight — a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.¹

In the Pentateuch shalom frequently occurs as a verb in piel form, which is associated with repayment and retribution. Exodus 21:34–22:14, for example, deals with various situations where an Israelite might make restitution for stealing, injuring, or killing his neighbor’s animal. As P.A. Barker notes, “this indicates that an essential ingredient for peace is the payment of recompense for wrongs with the two parties being reconciled.” A key related noun is selamim, often translated as “peace-offering.” R. E. Averbeck observes,

It was a “fellowship,” or “communion,” offering that indicated and enacted the fact that there was “peace” between God and his people and that the person, family or community was, therefore, in a state of “well-being.” This is why the peace offering was always the last offered when it was presented in series with other kinds of offerings.²

The Law of Moses, then, considered in both its legal and cultic aspects, assumes that peace is relational and communal, and that it cannot be enjoyed unless the party who has broken the peace has made restitution for their guilt. Justice and peace are thus inseparable: peace is the enjoyment of harmony arising from just relationships. When Psalm 85:10 exclaims,

Steadfast love and faithfulness meet;
righteousness and peace kiss each other,

we are not surprised to see these qualities together: they kiss because they are married. The happy state this Psalm celebrates, incidentally, comes only because guilt had been dealt with: “You forgave the iniquity of your people; you covered all their sin” (v. 2).

The Psalm signals a shift in emphasis from the Pentateuch. The Mosaic Law put the burden of restoring shalom onto the guilty party, yet in the Psalms and the Prophets Yahweh is the one who vows to restore his erring and exiled people. Divine intervention is needed because the people have repeatedly shattered shalom: the poor are oppressed, the worker exploited, the Sabbath violated, and Yahweh worshipped with hearts far from him. By definition there can be no peace where evil and injustice reign, which is why Jeremiah and Ezekiel denounce the false prophets who proclaim “Peace, peace” when there is no peace (Jer 6:14, 8:11; Ez 13:10). As Darrell Guder notes,

In the prophetic vision, peace … comes hand in hand with justice. Without justice, there can be no real peace, and without peace, no real justice. Indeed, only in a social world full of a peace grounded in justice can there come the full expression of joy and celebration.

Amidst their calls for repentance the prophets unveil the divine mission: God’s faithfulness to unfaithful Israel will culminate in shalom that causes the surrounding nations to lay down their weapons and stream up to Mount Zion to worship Yahweh, as Isaiah 2:2–4 describes:

It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the LORD
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.

This eschatological picture celebrates the mission of God through his people intended from the very beginning: that in the blessing of Abraham and his seed all the families of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:-3). What is significant for our purposes is the shape this blessing takes: the joyful rest and fruitfulness of universal shalom. The nations bow to the sovereignty of Yahweh (known to them through Israel as “the God of Jacob”) as they submit to his law and judgment, joining with the people of God instead of fighting against them. This peace includes, of course, the cessation of hostilities, but it is not merely negative: the swords and spears are not flung into the sea, but hammered into plowshares and pruning hooks, the gardening tools of a new humanity in a new Eden.

In Isaiah a messianic figure emerges, a child who will be called “The Prince of Peace:”

Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore. (Isa 9:6,7)

True shalom will only be present under the reign of this Davidic king, who rules with such justice and righteousness that the endless “increase of his government and of peace” are one and the same thing.

But in Isaiah this happy state only comes about through the redemptive suffering of a darker figure — the servant of the Lord. He willingly bears the sins of God’s people in order to satisfy the justice needed for bring shalom: “upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace”. Israel rejoices in this unexpected development:

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

Isaiah describes the announcement of these evangelists with four parallel terms: “peace,” “the good news of happiness,” “salvation,” and “Your God reigns”. Fundamentally, these phrases all point to the same reality: the good news of salvation is that shalom has arrived under the kingship of God.

Peace in the New Testament

The Greek word eirene was used to translate shalom in the Septuagint and New Testament, and takes on the richness of its Old Testament context. At Christ’s birth the angels chant, ““Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14) His healing miracles are a self-conscious fulfillment of Isaiah 61, and its “everlasting joy” brought about by the freeing of the captives.

All Jesus’ disciples who participate in the shalom of Jesus bear the character of his Father: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt 5:9). Those who themselves have been reconciled to the Father manifest their sonship by joyfully obeying his call to announce peace to the world. “Through the sending,” Jurgen Moltmann observes, “the fellowship of the Father and the Son becomes so all-embracing that men and women are taken into it, so that in that fellowship they may participate in Jesus’ sonship and call on the Father”.⁴

Before his crucifixion he tells his disciples, “Peace I leave you” (John 14:27). Even though they will have “much tribulation” in the world, the disciples will enjoy a true foretaste of everlasting shalom (John 16:33). After his resurrection, Christ appears to his disciples in order to commission them:

Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ … Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.’ (John 20:19,21–24)

The deliberate repetition of “peace be with you” makes it more than a polite greeting: it is the announcement of what the suffering servant, now the triumphant king, has achieved through his death and resurrection. But the gift is not for the disciples alone to enjoy; as the Father sent his Son, so Christ is sending his disciples: on God’s mission to bring shalom to Israel and the world. To empower them for this awesome task, he breaths the Holy Spirit on them and gives them authority to grant or withhold the forgiveness needed for shalom, depending, as the book of Acts makes clear, on how people respond to the gospel.

The apostolic announcement was that through Christ God was pleased “to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col 1:19,20). Graham Cole observes that shalom comes only through sacrifice. “Atonement brings shalom by defeating the enemies of peace, overcoming the barriers both to reconciliation and to the restoration of creation. This is God the Peacemaker’s mission”.⁵ Paul expands on Christ’s and the church’s mission of peacemaking and reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 5:

If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Cor 5:17–20)

The church is the fellowship of those who participate in the new creation through the reconciling death of Christ. But God’s reconciling mission did not end at the cross: he is now “making his appeal through us” in order that the whole world might be reconciled to God.

Joyful Flourishing

From our brief biblical survey we may summarize shalom as follows. Shalom is the state of joyful flourishing that results when God, humanity, and the whole creation are rightly related to one another. It is oriented toward relationship, community, and all of creation. Shalom is present wherever the reign of God is embraced, and is absent wherever the reign of God is resisted. There can be no shalom when every man does what is right in his own eyes. As Stanley Porter observes, “The biblical concept of peace is one in which God’s authority and power over his created order are seen to dominate his relations with his world, including both the material and the human spheres”.⁶ When we imagine the kingdom of God in its fullness, we are thinking about shalom. Since obedience to God involves righteous relationships, there can be no shalom without social justice, especially toward the poor and oppressed. When we imagine a society of perfect justice, we are thinking about shalom. For broken shalom to be restored, the guilty party must make restitution to bring justice back into balance. Sin and injustice must be looked in the face and thoroughly dealt with.

The Mission of God

The mission of God is to bring about shalom by sending his Son to effect reconciliation with the world through his atoning death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead as the victorious head of a new humanity.

All who by faith are in Christ become not only beneficiaries but participants of his mission: by the Spirit we manifest our sonship by becoming fellow-peacemakers with him. This it does in two ways, as Leslie Newbigin points out:

“The church is a movement launched into the life of the world to bear in its own life God’s gift of peace for the life of the world. It is sent, therefore, not only to proclaim the kingdom but to bear in its own life the presence of the kingdom”.

The mission of the church is therefore twofold: to manifest and proclaim the peace of God in Christ. This proclamation of the gospel is the task of evangelism: not the whole task of mission but its heart, what Guder describes as “the center or core of the missio Dei”. The oft-cited advice of Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel at all times; use words if necessary,” is somewhat misleading: there is no gospel apart from words. If the church is silent, its inner life will be confused (first by outsiders, and then its own members) as a merely human project. But as Charles van Engen reminds us,

The missionary church grows, not toward some human utopia, nor toward individual salvation, perfect fellowship, or spiritual identification with the values of justice, truth, joy, and love. The Church points to something far more significant — the rule and reign of the King over the cosmos.

The task of evangelism is to announce what God has done in Christ and to call men and women to put their faith in him and so experience peace with God. The church’s evangelism is itself part of God’s mission, for the death and resurrection of Christ would be in vain if no one was told about it. As Paul writes, “How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’” (Rom 10:14,15)

Nevertheless, the power of the church’s witness is directly proportionate to its own experience of the gospel. No evangelistic technique can cover up the bad odor of a loveless church. “If the world is little convinced that Jesus is God’s Son and that we are the children of God, it is due less to any apologetic deficiency and more to the disunity and dysfunction of our life together as the family of God.”¹⁰

A Sign to the World

On the other hand, a church enjoying restored relationships is itself a powerful demonstration of the gospel of God’s peace. “God the Father and God the Son are not fundamentally known privately and ethereally. They are instead encountered through a holy people, a community set apart, a light to the world, a city on a hill, a tribe bearing promise to all other tribes.”¹¹ The church itself powerfully authenticates the gospel.

The church is itself the creation of the gospel and its most powerful sign in the world, revealing the mystery of the gospel whereby Jew and Gentiles are made one in Christ (Eph 2). As Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed, Christ remains the one mediator among humanity:

Without Christ there is discord between God and man and between man and man. Christ became the mediator and made peace with God and among men… Christ opened the way to God and to our brother. Now Christians can live with one another in peace — they can become one. But they can continue to do so only by the way of Jesus Christ.¹²

The reconciled relationships the church enjoys are thus a witness to the reign of the Prince of Peace. In a world marred by racial tension, political polarization, class resentment, and gender conflict, “the church displays the firstfruits of the forgiven and forgiving people of God who are brought together across the rubble of dividing walls that have crumbled under the weight of the cross.”¹³ The church is thus the foreshadowing, in this age, of what redeemed humanity will be in the age to come, what E.A. Arnold calls “the harbinger of God’s kingdom.” He observes, “In the same way as each individual living body consists of millions of independent cells, humankind will become one organism. This organism already exists today in the invisible church”.¹⁴

Citations

  1. Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 10.
  2. R. E. Averbeck, “Sacrifices and Offerings,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2003), 715.
  3. Darrell L. Guder, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 91.
  4. Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God (London: SCM, 1981), 75.
  5. Graham Cole, God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom (Downers Grove, Intervarsity, 2009), 229.
  6. S. E. Porter, “Peace,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, Intervarsity, 2000), 682.
  7. Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 48,49.
  8. Guder, The Continuing Conversion of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
    2000), 49.
  9. Charles Van Engen, God’s Missionary People: Returning the Purpose of the Local Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 113.
  10. Alfred Poirier, The Peacemaking Pastor: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Church Conflict (Grand Rapids: Bakker, 2006), 91.
  11. Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996), 109.
  12. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (San Francisco: Harper, 1954), 23,24.
  13. Guder, Missional Church, 103.
  14. E. Arnold,Why We Live in Community (Farmington, Plough Publishing, 1995), 21.

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Bart Byl

Th.M. student at Regent College. Canadian in Georgia. 🇨🇦🇬🇪