Caesar Augustus was the first emperor of Rome and its ruler when Christ was born (Luke 2:1). One of the challenges he faced when he came to power was the kingdom had been at war for two centuries due to either the expansion of its territories or internally though civil war. The result was a significant drain on its military, its economy, and other vital resources. But two hundred years of conflict had produced something else—many Romans had become entrenched in the thinking that prosperity could only come through war since much of the empire’s land and wealth had been acquired that way. Augustus needed to help them see that prosperity could come through peace as well as war, so rather than pursue an expansion of the empire he pushed for its consolidation.
One of the ways he did this was by closing the gates of Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings. Depictions of Janus show him with two heads that looked in opposite directions, symbolizing his ability to see the past and the future. His temple in Rome consisted of a statue of him with gates on opposite sides. According to Virgil, during times of war, the gates were left open. During times of peace they were closed in order to keep Mars, the god of war, inside. Prior to Augustus’ reign, the gates had only been closed twice. Augustus was able to close the gates three times during his reign. Rome enjoyed relative peace and experienced two centuries of prosperity.
And while Rome could be heavy-handed in its rule, the Mediterranean world nonetheless benefited from what Edward Gibbons labeled the Pax Romana—the peace of Rome. Its inhabitants enjoyed Rome’s protection and experienced their own prosperity. N. T. Wright and others point to this new found security as the reason emperor worship began and flourished, not in Rome, but in the provinces of Asia and the Mediterranean.
Rome’s peace was real, but it wasn’t right in the sense that it dealt with external power structures and didn’t touch the human heart. Something more was needed; something that neither Augustus nor any of the other emperors were able to provide. The peace of Rome was good, but the peace of God was better. And while the peace of Rome was delivered by an emperor, the peace of God came through a carpenter from Galilee.
Paul speaks of Jesus as our peace (Ephesians 2:14), and the cross as the way in which He brought peace to us (2:16). Through Jesus, we not only have peace with God (Romans 5:1), we can have the peace of God (Philippians 4:7). This peace “transcends all understanding.” We have it even though we don’t understand how we can have it. There may be chaos around us, uncertainty within us, but God’s peace rises above it all. Paul says it “will guard” our hearts and our minds. He was imprisoned at Rome when he wrote Philippians (1:12-14). As the soldier stood guard over him, Paul says that the peace of God will stand guard over our hearts and minds.
The world and the peace it offers comes and goes, but the peace of God is always available to everyone through Jesus Christ.