The passage in Luke 2:8-14 is one of the most often quoted Christmas passages, particularly verse 14. “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men” is plastered on countless Christmas cards, sung is some of our most popular carols, and is the topic of many holiday specials and sermons every year.
And yet, many observant people, Christian and non-Christian alike, point out that rather than “peace on earth, goodwill toward men”, we see wars, riots, violent protests, terrorist attacks, and much stress, strife in personal relationships as well. What’s up with that, if the Bible is true and God can be trusted?
The conflict is a false one; it arises from two errors. The first is the unfortunate omission in the King James translation of the closing clause of Luke 2:14. The KJV reads, “Glory to God in the Highest, And on earth peace, Good will toward men.” This is not because of any intentional mistranslation. It is because the earliest manuscript available at the time did not have the closing clause.
All of the modern translators have access to much earlier manuscripts, and so include the full text. The NASB reads, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is Pleased.”, and with minor variations in the English wording, so do the rest of the modern translations such as the NIV, ESV, RSV, and others.
So the angels were not proclaiming immediate universal peace on earth (that will come after Christ’s return), but peace for those whom God favors. The question then arises, “Who does God favor, and do they have this peace of which the angels speak?”.
Which brings us to the Gospel. God’s favor is upon those who are followers of Christ. This is why He came; to rescue His own from the penalty of their sin – And that answers the second part of the problem: Christians are persecuted, and often even fight among themselves all over the world. So where is the peace?
The answer lies in the context of not only the passage, but Scripture as a whole. The entire Bible, from Genesis through the Revelation, is the story of man’s rebellion and consequent separation from Him and punishment and God’s plan to redeem those who acknowledge and turn from their rebellion. Yep – repentance and a willingness to trust and obey Him. In a very real sense, Christmas is all about Easter.
Viewed in this context, it is clear that the proclamation of the angels was primarily one of peace with God, which is not only infinitely more important than peace with man, but is the ONLY way any of us can have true peace with our fellow man.
So, it is my fervent prayer that we all bring God’s peace to the earth, and we show His good will toward man in such a way that the most of those who do not enjoy His favor will do so.