During this time of year—Christmas season—religious services and songs commonly speak about peace on earth:
Hark! The herald angels sing/Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!
Unfortunately, however, traditionalism and sentimentalism obscure our reading of the biblical text from which this hymn is adapted. For hundreds of years, English speaking people have read in Luke 2:14: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (KJV).
But when you read Luke 2:14 carefully in a better translation (like the NASB, NIV, or ESV), you will notice that peace on earth is for a particular people. Peace on earth is for those “with whom God is pleased” (NASB).
The reality is that if Christmas was designed to produce peace on earth in this present age, the incarnation was a massive failure. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was right when he despaired:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
World-wide peace for every human being without exception was not promised at Christ’s first advent.
What is promised with Christ’s incarnation is peace on earth “to those on whom his favor rests” (NIV). In fact, this language: “to those on whom his favor rests” is, as one Bible scholar notes, “almost a technical phrase in first-century Judaism for God’s elect, those on whom God has poured out his favor.” Peace on earth extends to God’s people.
This then begs the question: what kind of peace is Luke talking about?
While Luke capitalizes on the theme of peace throughout his Gospel (1:79; 10:5-6; 19:38, 42), Paul clearly explains the peace that Christmas promises: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).
The peace that the incarnation brings is peace with God. Christmas happened to reconcile the hostility between God and his chosen people. The incarnation is the earthly start of the cease-fire between God and his favored ones. And this peace on earth culminates in Christ laying down his life to reconcile God’s “favored ones” to himself (Romans 5:10).
Christmas promises peace “among those with whom God is pleased” (ESV).
For more on Luke 2:14, attend (or live-stream) the message from Grace Community Bible Church tomorrow!