In words immortalised in the Authorised Version, the angels who appeared to the shepherds at the time of the birth of Jesus praised God, and said:
Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace,
Good will toward men.
It’s a lovely thought, and captures so much of what we all long for. What’s not to like about ‘peace on earth’ and ‘good will toward men’? It’s ‘the true meaning of Christmas’, isn’t it? If only we could do ‘peace’ and ‘good will’ all year round, the world would be a much better place.
But, attractive as the sentiment is, it is not quite what the angels said.
Let me explain.
The Authorised Version of the text, quoted above, is based on some later manuscripts, and thus reflects a change of meaning from the original.
The oldest and best manuscripts have ‘…among people of [God’s] good pleasure’ (a difference of one letter (eudokia/eudokias). The true sense, then, is ‘men on whom God’s favour rests’ or similar (so NIV, RSV, NRSV, REB).
The NIV translation is typical:
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Blomberg (NAC on Matthew) explains: ‘The inferior text of Luke 2:14 in the KJV has led generations of people celebrating Christmas to promote the false notion that Christ brings “peace on earth, good will to men.” Instead, Jesus promises peace on earth to men of good will, namely, to “those on whom his favor rests.” To those who welcome him, he offers eirēnē (“peace”—from the Hebrew concept of shālôm). Such peace brings the wholeness of restored relationships with God (Rom 5:1) and interpersonal reconciliation within the community of believers (Eph 4:3).’
So, ‘the favor/goodwill referred to in the verse does not belong to men but to God’ (Stein). God’s ‘good pleasure’ is mentioned also in Mt 11:26; Lk 10:21; Eph 1:4, 5, 9.
Morris agrees: ‘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. Peace, of course, means peace between God and people, the healing of the estrangement caused by human evil.’ (Morris)
So, ‘the angels are not glorying in man and his merits but in God and his grace. True and lasting peace is the portion of those, and only of those, whom God has graciously chosen.’ (Hendriksen).
‘The angelic song does not proclaim a mystical union of heaven and earth. Rather, it celebrates two sovereign works of God: one in heaven, and one on earth. Rather than being mystically amalgamated, God’s activity is praised in both: glory in heaven, and peace on earth; glory to God, and peace to humanity.’ (Edwards)