When i think of Christmas, one of the first things that comes to mind is the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Nothing warms the heart more in this (typically cold) season than hearing Linus recite the Christmas story from Luke 2 (except maybe for George Bailey’s realization at the climax of It’s a Wonderful Life).
The verse i would like to focus on today is that found in the angels’ statement in Luke 2:14. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people He favors!” Within this one verse, there is one word that i would like to draw our attention to today. As we gather with our families over the next few days, what does it really mean for there to be “peace on earth”?
I say this because if we look and listen closely to what Linus says in Luke 2:14, it varies from what the majority of our Bibles say in Luke 2:14. This is not meant to be a dis against Charles Schultz or the Peanuts characters, but rather a post for our education and edification. Linus quotes from the King James Version which says, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (emphasis added). The version quoted above—the Holman Christian Standard Version—says, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people He favors” (emphasis added). Why the difference? Why does the Holman make the peace for a specific people, while the King James makes the peace pretty much universal?
If we look at multiple translations, we will quickly see that most render it the way that the Holman renders it:
- Luke 2:14 (NET)
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among people with whom he is pleased!”
- Luke 2:14 (CSB)
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people he favors!”
- Luke 2:14 (NASB)
“Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”
- Luke 2:14 (NRSV)
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
- Luke 2:14 (ESV)
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.”
- Luke 2:14 (MSG)
“Glory to God in the heavenly heights, Peace to all men and women on earth who please him.”
This means very simply that the majority of scholars believe that this is the most accurate and faithful translation of the text. But why?
I’m glad you asked. It ultimately boils down to whether or not the Greek letter “ς” belongs at the end of the Greek word for “good will”/“pleased.” If the “ς” is left off, then the word for “good will”/“pleased” becomes the subject of the phrase “to men”; but if the “ς” is included, then the word for “good will”/“pleased” further defines the word “peace.”
A literal rendering of the verse is either, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will to men” (so KJV), or “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to people of good will” (so HCSB). The question ultimately becomes, “Did God send good will with peace, or is good will a prerequisite for the peace that He sent?”
And it is here at which we must turn to an explanation of the word translated “peace” to better understand the angels’ announcement. “The basic feature of the Greek concept of [peace] is that the word does not primarily denote a relationship between several people, or an attitude, but a state, i.e., ‘time of peace’ or ‘state of peace,’ originally conceived of purely as an interlude in the everlasting state of war.” What better example of the “everlasting state of war” than that described in Romans 5:10, “For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God…” In the Old Testament, peace is
an element in eschatological expectation. . . . The fact of this widespread and many-sided expectation must be mentioned even though the [usual Hebrew word for “peace”] is not always found in the relevant passages. When we have prophecy of a restoration of the conditions in Paradise, or promise of international peace under divine direction (Is. 2:2 ff.), or expectation of a humble king in the last age who will bring in a time of peace (Zech. 9:9 f.), even though the [usual Hebrew word for “peace”] is not used in these central eschatological passages, or is used only alongside many others, as in Zech. 9:10, this should not blind us to the fact that we have here a prophetic proclamation of [peace] of the widest possible import. . . . In the names of the Messianic Child in Isaiah 9:6 the final [Prince of Peace] is no more significant than those which precede. The name tells us that as the One who bears God’s commission [Prince] the Messiah is the Guarantor and Guardian of peace in the coming Messianic kingdom.
So any right theology of the end-times should include a certain understanding of peace that the Messiah brings. “In the [New Testament] the meaning of [peace] . . . has the sense of well-being or salvation.” The article continues by saying that the angels’ message in Luke 2:14 “is not to be taken as a wish, especially in its second part. The reference is not so much to peace among men or with God, but to the salvation which has come to earth.”
From this we understand that peace is a consequence of salvation. It is the result of no longer being at war with God. It is a fruit of the Spirit that only truly exists within believers. When the angels announce, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to men with whom He is pleased,” this should instantly cause us to pause: “God is granting salvation to those who make Him happy? Isn’t that impossible? Shouldn’t we stick with the King James version where it goes to everyone?”
First, it is worth looking at Ephesians 1:5. “He predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ for Himself, according to His favor and will” (emphasis added). The word translated “favor” here is the same word translated “pleased” in Luke 2:14. The reason anyone can be pleasing to God is because of God’s good will. This is why the angels’ announce Jesus’ birth the way they do. It is not that peace and good will are coming to all mankind, but rather that peace is coming to people of God’s good will. In addition, the article quoted above contains this footnote: “It is now generally recognized that the true reading is [the one that ends in a Greek ‘ς’].”
Bruce Metzger, a textual critic writes, “The meaning seems to be, not that divine peace can be bestowed only where human good will is already present, but that at the birth of the Saviour God’s peace rests on those whom he has chosen in accord with his good pleasure.” He goes on to explain,
Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls it was sometimes argued that “men of [God’s] good pleasure” is an unusual, if not impossible, expression in Hebrew. Now, however, that equivalent expressions have turned up in Hebrew in several Qumran Hymns . . . it can be regarded as a genuinely Semitic construction in a section of Luke (chaps. 1 and 2) characterized by Semitizing constructions.
The idea of God’s choosing of people to bestow salvation (peace) upon is not a product of the Protestant Reformation or John Calvin. Rather, it is God’s description of salvation from the earliest of times: “And the LORD said to her: ‘Two nations are in your womb; two people will ⌊come⌋ from you and be separated. One people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger’” (Genesis 25:23).
Another commentator explains of the more popular rendering of Luke 2:14, “The angels are saying that God will bring peace ‘for men on whom his favour rests’ (NEB). There is an emphasis on God, not man. It is those whom God chooses, rather than those who choose God, of whom the angels speak.” Of peace, Morris writes, “Peace, of course, means peace between God and people, the healing of the estrangement caused by human evil.”
The only One who can initiate and accomplish the peace that is necessary in our lives is God. This is why the angels say, “Glory to God.” We must praise God for the salvation He has brought. This is why we celebrate Christmas. In our Christmas celebration we must praise God for His work in creating peace where before there was only enmity. If He had left it to us, we’d all still be headed straight to hell. Glory to God!
Christmas is not primarily about how people should get along with each other because of Jesus coming to earth. Even though this is what the mainstream media wants to push down our throats, the wars that have plagued our world for the past 2,000 years should dispel this myth as far as the east is from the west. Calvin writes, “[The angels] certainly do not speak of an outward peace cultivated by men with each other; but they say, that the earth is at peace, when men have been reconciled to God, and enjoy an inward tranquility in their own minds.” God’s sending of Jesus with the purpose of reconciling His people to Himself is the reason for the season; God reconciling people with each other is not the reason for the season, though that is a natural consequence of God’s salvation. We must keep God and His work at the center of our Christmas celebrations.
One more thing i have to point out before concluding. As our passage states: at the birth of Jesus, peace came to earth—peace in the specific sense of reconciliation (salvation) between God and mankind. As Isaiah 9:6 describes Jesus, He is the Prince of Peace. If, as the article i repeatedly quoted on the word “peace” states, the word has “an element in eschatological expectation,” and if the angels told the truth about peace on earth at Jesus’ birth, then it would follow that we are in the last days now, and that Jesus is reigning in the hearts of those He has reconciled to Himself. This is good news, and more reason to give glory to God this Christmas season!
However, perhaps you don’t know Christ. Perhaps your life exhibits no peace. Perhaps you are scared of death. Perhaps you refuse to bow the knee to Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Perhaps you have seen the Charlie Brown Christmas classic and assumed that peace is to all men regardless of their beliefs. Perhaps you doubt the very words of Scripture. Jesus will return as your Judge if you do not place your faith in Him. Earlier i quoted Romans 5:10 to describe the everlasting war between God and humanity, “For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God.” However, that is not the whole verse. It continues, by explaining how we were reconciled: “through the death of His Son, ⌊then how⌋ much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by His life!” Jesus came to earth 2,000 years ago, and at that point, the coming peace was a sure thing. When Christ died on the cross 33 years later and took your sin-debt upon Himself, that was when peace was procured between God and humanity. He rose again three days later to defeat death forever! I plead with you to believe this truth!
In conclusion, i pray that, like Linus in the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, you would remember the main point for the Christmas season, and give God all of the glory for sending His Son to earth to save you of your sin.
Grace and Peace
 Gerhard Kittel and G W. Bromiley, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 10 volumes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964-1976), II:400-401. Henceforward, this work will be cited as “Kittel, TDNT, vol:page.”
 Kittel, TDNT, II:405-406.
 Kittel, TDNT, II:411.
 Kittel, TDNT, II:413.
 Kittel, TDNT, II:413.
 Ibid., 111.
 Ibid., 102-103.
 Kittel, TDNT, II:405.