Elie Wiesel won the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize for the work he did in response to war. A survivor of the Holocaust of World War II, Wiesel’s book Night describes his experiences as a young Jewish boy trying to survive the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp and what that experience did to his own heart and soul. Wiesel survived the camp but lost his younger sister, mother, and father to Hitler’s “Final Solution of the Jewish Problem.”
The experiences of Elie Wiesel are a small but intensely personal portrait that mirrors the death and destruction characterizing the last century. Due to the nearly constant state of conflict around the world the twentieth century was the bloodiest century in human history. Technological advances only amplified the carnage, giving nations the capacity to wipe out human beings by the tens of thousands. Estimates of those killed in twentieth-century conflicts rise to almost 88 million killed. Fifty-four million of those casualties were civilians (http://necrometrics.com/all20c.htm).
Today, news of events around our ever-shrinking global community bombard us in an unsettling, unceasing drumbeat of violence, danger, hate, and destruction. As the stories multiply, we feel the weight of the fear and desperation.
But violence isn’t the only thief of peace and security. Peace is emotional, intellectual, and physical, and it can be threatened on any of these fronts. When it is, we are robbed of something we do not know how to get back. The uncertainty that comes when our sense of peace is threatened, whether physical or emotional, can make us panic, want to run and hide, or look for that peace in places and from sources we shouldn’t. It’s little wonder we live in a world desperate for an end to the violence that ravages our minds, souls, and bodies.
While people strive and yearn for peace, the peace we ultimately crave and the peace the Bible describes is more than just the absence of conflict.This peace is the wholeness of the Hebrew word shalom—a condition that “can refer to either peace between two entities (especially between man and God or between two countries), or to the well-being, welfare or safety of an individual or a group of individuals.”
In reality, we cannot separate the two. The peace we long for in our hearts is found only when we have peace with the God who loves us, enabling us to be at peace with one another. This makes peace more than just the absence of conflict; it is a quality of life that breathes of the goodness of our God. This is the essence of Paul’s words in Romans 14:17: “For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
Paul’s description of the kingdom speaks of the character of what is present—not what is absent. The kingdom speaks of righteousness and joy, but also speaks of . . .
peace that calms our weary hearts;
peace that nurtures our hungry souls;
peace that strengthens our personal relationships.
Fear is the natural consequence of living in a dangerous world. Fear robs us of joy, hope, and peace and possibly makes us part of the problem. Where can we turn for help? Where can we find the promise of real, meaningful peace? For answers, we can look to a night long ago where fear and confusion reigned in the hearts of Jesus’s followers, and He offered them peace to overcome those fears.
A Night of Fear
As a boy, I delivered morning newspapers to over a hundred families on two streets connected by an old graveyard. Walking through that graveyard in the dark (at about 3:00 a.m.) made me more than a little uncomfortable. Every sound was accentuated, every movement a concern. All of us have experienced that type of fear. There is something threatening about the dark of night that takes our fears and multiplies them. Things that in the daylight would create little or no concern become worrisome in the night.
As adults, we face a very different set of fears. Fears that are not mere illusion but the terrors that flow out of a broken world where, as one writer put it, “Hurt people hurt people.” Fears that call for a deeper, more abiding peace than can be achieved by turning on a light bulb.
This was the need of the hour in John 14. In an upper room, the night before the cross, the atmosphere stretched and strained by the tension of the moment, there may not have been active conflict—but there certainly wasn’t peace. On that night, sadness and fear had overtaken the disciples.
For several days, Jesus’s followers had been on an emotional roller coaster. Jesus had warned them over the last few months about what awaited Him in Jerusalem—betrayal, suffering, and death. So heavily did this information weigh on the disciples that when Thomas heard Jesus was heading in the direction of Jerusalem, he said, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him” (john 11:16).
But when they finally approached the ancient city, they were not greeted by threats or angry mobs. Just the opposite. They encountered crowds welcoming Rabbi Jesus with shouts of “Hosanna!” and waving palm branches. This certainly was not what the disciples had been told to expect! But in spite of the hero’s welcome of Palm Sunday, as Jesus gathered His followers in the upper room for a final Passover feast (john 13), the mood had once again turned somber.
Jesus, in an act of supreme servanthood, washed their feet before taking elements of Israel’s Passover and creating His new memorial meal symbolizing His suffering and death. The meal that had once been intended to represent Israel’s rescue from slavery in Egypt was now to picture humanity’s rescue from slavery to sin and brokenness.
As their minds struggled to comprehend all that Jesus was telling them, Judas abruptly left to prepare for his betrayal of Jesus (vv. 21–30). The remaining disciples didn’t know why Judas had walked out in the middle of the memorial feast, and that confusion likely only added to the weight of an evening that would mark them for the rest of their lives.
Finally, Jesus predicted Peter’s coming denials (vv. 36–38). It was this final revelation—that even Peter, the leader and the strongest, would defect—that sent His disciples into confusion and doubt. Perhaps they murmured to one another, “How can this be? Where did Judas go? Why is Jesus leaving? Where does that leave us? Will Peter really fail? Will I?”
In this confusion Jesus spoke words of comfort that have become familiar to Christ-followers everywhere—and He spoke them specifically to Peter. And while Peter was the primary focus of Jesus’s words, we, like the other disciples, find that those words can give us comfort in our own seasons of struggle as well.