“But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.’”
– Luke 2:10-14
Peace and Goodwill toward Men?…Really?
Before we really get into the text here, there’s an important technical point that we need to make. You may have noticed that the NASB translation of this verse does not end the way we expect. It isn’t the verse that we read on Christmas cards every year. What the King James Version translated ‘peace on earth, goodwill toward men’ is completely changed to ‘on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased.’ Why is there such a difference between these two verses? Are modern translations unconcerned with ‘goodwill’? Are they simply being careless? What has happened?
Greek is a funny language. A single letter added or removed can completely change the meaning of a text because of the way sentences and words are formed. In this particular case, an extra sigma, or Greek ‘s’ added to the word for goodwill changes it from a subject to description. So rather than saying ‘peace and goodwill to men’, it’s changed to mean ‘peace to men of [God’s] goodwill.’ Scholars have found manuscripts written both ways but the majority of the oldest copies have ‘peace to men of goodwill’ or, as the NASB has translated, ‘peace among men with whom [God] is pleased.’
And doesn’t this translation make more sense in the context of the Gospel story? Jesus’ birth did not herald peace or goodwill toward many, either in his day or in our own. Herod certainly wasn’t experiencing peace or goodwill as he searched desperately for the Christ child and, unable to find him, slaughtered every child two and under in Bethlehem and its surrounding districts. Throughout Jesus’ life, peace and goodwill followed some, but what about those who rejected him as their Messiah? What about the high priests who had him murdered? Or Judas? And today, do those who continue to reject him enjoy his peace or goodwill? Of course not! The peace of God does not rest on all of earth’s men. As the NASB reads, it rests on those who have the favor or acceptance of God – those who have their faith in him.
What is Peace?
With an understanding of who this peace is directed to, we can now try to understand what the peace was that the angel announced to the shepherds. Is peace merely the absence of war or conflict? The Greeks originally thought so and used the word with this very meaning. There were states of war and states of peace. Just as darkness is the absence of light, peace was the absence of war. What a sad understanding of peace!
A husband and wife can ignore one another – simply two ships passing in the night – and as a result, have no conflict. But is there peace in that home? Would their child find it peaceful to have parents who didn’t acknowledge or actively love one another? That is not the sort of peace that God has in mind for his people. Peace is much more than an absence.
The Israel of God in the Old Testament longed for peace, especially as they found themselves returning to a devastated Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. The 85th Psalm records one Israelite’s feelings on coming back to Jerusalem. Although the people of Israel aren’t in the midst of any major conflicts or wars, this poet looks forward to God soon speaking “peace to His people, to His godly ones” (Psalm 85:8). He parallels this peace with ‘salvation’ in the very next verse. In other words, Israel was looking for more than an end to conflict – he was looking for salvation, a complete restoration to what God had intended him to be.
According to several commentators, within Hebrew thought, salvation and peace were nearly synonymous. For the ancient Jewish people, peace included the lack of conflict that comes with victory over one’s enemies along with well-being and prosperity. For the Jews of Jesus’s day, peace was salvation.
At the time of Jesus’ birth, someone besides God was offering good news of peace to all of the people. The entire Western world was living in the middle of the great Pax Romana or ‘Roman Peace.’ The Caesars of ancient Rome had conquered much of the known world and ruled absolutely. This was the peace that everyone in Jesus’ day, Roman and Jew alike, would have thought of when they heard news of peace. But again, this peace wasn’t merely the lack of conflict that the Roman empire was experiencing. It extended to the legal security that accompanied that Roman rule. The Romans tamed the world: they built cities and monuments and, perhaps most importantly, roads that one could easily travel. Rome provided peace and security like nothing before it. This became their slogan, a favorite piece of propaganda that would keep its citizens from wanting to see revolution or engage in revolt: Peace and Safety. In fact, Paul addresses this particular piece of Roman propaganda in his first epistle to the Thessalonians, a city highly-favored by the Roman government. He wrote, “For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. While they are saying, ‘Peace and safety!’ then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:2-3). Paul knew that neither peace nor safety could be purchased at the end of a blade as the Romans had attempted to do. Peace, true peace, could only come through the birth of the world’s true king.
The Peace Child
As an angel declares, “peace among men with whom God is pleased,” to a group of young shepherds, a young woman has just birthed a baby boy named Jesus in nearby Bethlehem. But this is not a normal birth. This is a birth that began with a visit from an angel who told this young girl, Mary, “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David” (Luke 1:31-32). This child is the Son of the Most High – God himself, in human form.
Isaiah had predicted his birth seven-hundred years earlier when he prophesied, “a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). Immanuel, a word that when literally translated means ‘God with us.’ God himself has come as the only true king of all creation. He is the King of Kings – even the most powerful men on earth are his subjects. He is the Prince of Peace – all true peace finds its source in him and his reign. Caesar and the Romans, their peace were nothing but a cheap, pale imitation of the real thing. The Pax Romana was a child’s scribbling, the Christ-Peace is the Mona Lisa. Rome claimed to offer peace and security but there were still rebellions. In the end, the future was still uncertain – even hopeless. But the birth of King Jesus, along with the establishment of his kingdom, brought about the peace that all of creation had been waiting for. This peace doesn’t just call for a cease-fire. It isn’t just the lack of war or conflict. This peace is reconciliation. This peace ushers love into relationships that , before, were nothing but anger, hostility, and hatred.
This is the same good news of peace that Peter preached to the Roman centurion, Cornelius – a man who not only was familiar with the Pax Romana, he helped enforce it. Peter declared “peace through Jesus Christ for he is Lord of all” (Acts 10:36). Peter was delivering a message that ran directly contrary to the good news coming out of Rome. Caesar wasn’t lord after all. Jesus is. And the peace that Caesar brings is ultimately empty. He might provide a few legal protections but at the end of the day, his peace was worthless. King Jesus brought real peace – the spiritual prosperity and well-being that the Israelites had been waiting generations for. This peace was more than the absence of conflict, it was salvation.
Reconciliation with God
After Paul deals with the issue of justification in his epistle to the Romans, he tells his readers that because of this justification, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2). Paul wants the congregations in Rome to know that one of the very first results of salvation is being at peace with our creator. The relationship that is severed from the moment we enter this world because of sin – it’s made right because of Jesus. Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection means that we now have access to God, the Father. The one who previously separated himself from men – and when he did reveal himself, it was fleeting, like the one day every year the high priest might meet him in the holy of holies – has made himself available for all men. There had been no sustained relationship because of sin. But Jesus has brought peace between us and God. He has brought reconciliation between man and the Divine. And this reconciliation doesn’t end there, it opens the door to so much more.
You might think of it this way, someone can visit the United States as a tourist and yet have no meaningful relationship with it. However, if that tourist goes through the process of becoming a citizen, his relationship to the nation is utterly transformed. There are responsibilities that come along with being a US citizen but there are also many privileges: citizens can vote, they can enjoy legal protections, they can benefit from public works such as libraries and museums. The peace that Jesus brings is not merely a cease-fire between us and God. This peace is total reconciliation – an entry into the Kingdom of God as full-fledged citizens.
If we continue reading Romans 5, one of the things that we’ll see Paul do is enumerate the results of being at peace with God. Since Jesus brings us reconciliation with the Father, we now have access to the grace by which we can stand. God gives us sustaining grace that can keep us from sin and encourage us through the darkest of valleys. God grants us hope that we will share in his glory. We know that death is not the end for those who have been reconciled to God – they have hope of immortality and incorruptibility. Paul goes on to describe how citizens of the Kingdom can rejoice during trials because we know that earthly trials have no power over us. Instead of destroying us, they build perseverance. As we persevere, Paul says that we will begin to build character. It is the testing of our faith through trial after trial which refines us as Christians. It chips away the useless and vain. It builds up our moral muscles. People don’t wake up one morning and run a marathon, they spend weeks and months disciplining their bodies through training until it’s finally prepared to take the beating of a twenty-six mile run. Because of the peace that we have with God, we can press on through the trials of life, knowing that he is sustaining us in the now and waiting for us in the future. And as we look ahead, knowing that he is just out of sight, we have hope. We have hope that, because we’ve been brought into a right relationship with our Creator and because he has fulfilled every promise he’s ever made, he will fulfill his promises to us. He will not leave us to eighty or ninety years and the grave. But that isn’t all. This peace has also brought with it, the love of God, poured out in our hearts. I can know that God loves me because of Jesus. John expressed it this way, “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are” (1 John 3:1). This is the love that we now experience because of the peace that Jesus has ushered into the world: a love that turns enemies into sons and daughters. We have this love. But that’s not all. Paul concludes this passage by reminding the Roman Christians of the greatest gift of all. Not only do we have all that he has just listed, we have the Holy Spirit – God himself, inhabiting our bodies. God has come to dwell within us. This could never have happened prior to the peace that Jesus had brought. This peace of reconciliation and well-being and spiritual prosperity has given us God.
Peace is More
Too often, Christians have taken a far too limited view of peace. They see it only as comfort during times of trial or assurance of heaven. But the peace that the angel announced to those shepherds was so much more. It was good news that God himself has come into this world just like all of us. He has come to take his rightful place on the throne of creation. He has come to reconcile creation back to himself. And in that reconciliation he has brought much more than an absence of conflict or war. He has brought spiritual blessings that we will never reach the end of. All we can do is begin exploring – exploring his grace and his love, his faithfulness and power. And as we explore, we more and more realize that we will never reach the end. Paul said it well when he wrote to the Ephesian believers, “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:14-21).