“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people he favors!”-Luke 2:14
Merry Christmas! We are all well-aquatinted with the angels’ song of praise from Luke 2:14. Most of us can even quote it in Latin (if you can sing the chorus of Angels We Have Heard on High). This worship proclamation has suffered a bit in translation throughout the years, so it’s worth revisiting as its message is just as important today as it was 2,000 years ago.
In English Bible translations for many years the angelic worship proclamation was thought to have three parts: Glory to God in heaven, peace on earth, and goodwill to mankind. Even William Tyndale took it this way: “Glory to God in heaven and peace on the earth: and unto men rejoicing” (with updated spelling, you’re welcome).
In contrast, most modern English translations rightly translate the proclamation in two parts: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people he favors. The two-part structure is important because the relationship between the two is what makes this a song of joy. Let’s unpack the two parts.
Glory to God in Heaven
First the angels sing of God’s heavenly glory—his greatness that is uniquely seen in his heavenly abode. Here “highest heaven” is likely in contrast to the “lowly earth” of part two. The angels are telling the shepherds that God’s heavenly greatness was on display in a special way that night in the incarnation.
Don’t run past that fact too quickly. We celebrate the Word becoming flesh because in an unparalleled way Jesus reveals the glory of God. As John explained,
“We observed his glory, the glory as the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”-John 1:14
God is glorified in the incarnation. As we take time to think about the fact that Jesus was born, let’s remember that the incarnation reveals the greatness of God. That he would take on flesh and dwell with us puts on display the glory of God. Why? We need to listen to the rest of the angel’s song.
Peace on Earth to People He Favors
The angels go on to sing of peace on earth. Peace being on earth contrasts nicely with God’s heavenly glory. The incarnation wasn’t only a display of God’s glory, it also brought about what we need most: peace. The honest truth about celebrating Christmas is that for many of us (and if we live long enough all of us) Christmas is hard. We remember loved ones lost. Perhaps our families are broken. Perhaps we can’t have the picture perfect celebration we see on others’ Instagram feeds. Perhaps conflict has left us mourning rather than celebrating. All of this hardness is a result of sin.
You see, the purpose of the incarnation is to bring peace to our troubled world. Jesus took on flesh to die and rise. Why? So we could be forgiven and have peace with God, and so ultimately we will experience peace on earth forever. There is no lasting peace outside of Christ.
The last part of the angels’ song is the aspect that’s been often misunderstood. Literally the text reads “and peace on earth to men of goodwill.” What exactly are “men of goodwill?” Believe it or not the Dead Sea Scrolls shed light on this phrase. It refers to “people on whom God’s favor rests.” Traditionally this was thought to be all people, but the point here is actually that God’s favor only rests on a subset of humanity. Namely, those who find refuge in the Savior born that night.
Thus the angels declare that the incarnation simultaneously brings glory to God in heaven and peace on earth. How? By God showering his undeserved grace on people through faith in Jesus. It’s all about grace. As we celebrate this year, let’s remember that Jesus’s birth is inseparably linked to God’s grace for sinners. We could never demand it, but God’s grace abounds regardless.
Why Do You Celebrate?
The angelic announcement to the shepherds was intended to help them interpret what they would be witnessing. Why celebrate this birth? Because this was no normal newborn. What about you? Why will you celebrate Jesus’s birth this year? Let the angels guide you: celebrate because the incarnation shows the glory of God bringing peace to earth by showing grace to sinners. The intersection of God’s glory and grace are what make Christmas merry.