A peacemaker (εἰρηνοποιός) is one who helps to reconcile disagreements. Philo described God as the one who is the “giver of peace” using this word (Spec. Leg. 2.192). As with each of the beatitudes it is important to hear the saying in the context of the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple period Judaism. Although this saying is often associated with pacifism, to “make peace” goes beyond non-participation in the military. The kind of peace Jesus refers to here is shalom, the state of the world as God intended it to be. To “make peace” is to create conditions in the world which reflect the character of God. This may be peacemaking in interpersonal relationships, but as is often the case in the beatitudes, the disciple of Jesus will be instrumental creating conditions which encourage shalom.
In some prophetic texts, the kingdom begins with a slaughter of the enemies of Israel. The “wedding supper of the lamb” is the slaughter of Armageddon (Revelation 19:11-21, Ezekiel 38-39). The result of the destruction of all of the enemies of Israel is a kingdom of peace! So peacemaking in the Hebrew Bible is something God will do to put an end to the enemies of Israel.
Peace making is therefore not tolerance of difference so everyone can get along, but stepping in between two warring parties in order to reconcile the two. In Xenophon’s History, a diplomat describes his role as a peace maker: “For whenever there is war she [the state] chooses us as generals, and whenever she becomes desirous of tranquility she sends us out as peacemakers.” (Xen., Hell. 6.3.4).
For some Jewish listeners, this may have been a reversal of expectations. The kingdom of God will be a kingdom of peace, but that peace will be the result of a violent uprising against Rome. The roots of the revolt against Rome in A.D. 66 were already present in Galilee in A.D. 30, so some may wanted to used Jesus’s words as warrant to revolt; but to take up arms against Rome would not be “peace making.”
The ones who make peace will be called the “sons of God.” France calls attention to the Davidic covenant (2 Sam 7:14, cf., Psalm 2). The kings in the line of David were called “sons of God” and the title was eventually expanded to include all of God’s faithful covenant people (France, Matthew, 205). At this point in reading the beatitudes closely, this eschatological flourish is not at all surprising.
How ought the church live out a calling to be peacemakers? Is this beatitude commanding pacifism (as in the Anabaptist tradition) or peacemaking in interpersonal relationships (as in the Reformed tradition)? I think it is too much to read “beating swords into ploughshares” from this beatitude, and reducing the saying to “only pacifism” misses the broad theological category of shalom. So how does the disciple of Jesus create the state of peace?