And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. Luke 2:13-14 KJV.
I’m sorry, but this has always sounded—how shall I put it—a bit lame to me. Not what I’d call a “full Gospel” message exactly. I expected better from a bunch of angels who, presumably, had had most of eternity to prepare for the biggest newsflash in the history of the world. As it is—or rather, as it has come down to us—this tantarrar announcement by the angels comes over as something of a damp squib.
As the KJV has it, it consists of three pronouncements:
Glory to God in the highest
Peace on earth
Good will towards men
OK … but, hey, all good Jews gave glory to God in the highest—even shepherds—so that sort-of went without saying. And peace on earth? Well, the Roman world was experiencing the Pax Romana at that time—the world-wide absence of war—but it was a peace maintained by subjugation and occupation as every Jew well knew. So was this the peace to which the angels were referring? If so (the shepherds might well have thought) don’t expect us to join in the cheering. Or was it instead the Jewish shalom—that state of everything being exactly as it should be in every area of life? Well if that’s what was coming, then, yes, it would be something to cheer about; but when would it come, and where, and how? Finally, good will towards men. What was that supposed to mean? Wanting all the best for everyone? OK, yes, why not? Except for the Romans, of course. no one wants the best for them. Or are the angels talking about our attitude at all? Maybe they’re talking about their attitude towards us? Don’t worry, we’re not going to zap you. Know what? This is doing my head in. If I’d wanted cryptic clues I’d be doing the crossword in the Bethlehem Times.
But the fact is, it wasn’t a puzzle to the shepherds at all. nor is it to us, if (unlike the KJV translators) we use a reliable Greek manuscript and translate it correctly. When we do that, the three statements are reduced to two, and the second one reads: “and on earth peace to those on whom his (God’s) favour rests.” The Greek could be translated “towards men of goodwill” but the Dead Sea Scrolls have now shown pretty decisively what many scholars had long suspected anyway: that that Greek was itself an attempt to translate the Hebrew phrase anse rason which actually means “those upon whom God’s will and favour rests.”
So—far from being a promise of peace to those who merit it by being the good guys, the angelic declaration is one of God’s free and unmerited gift of peace to the world of human beings on whom he has set his love. And not, let me add, just a section of them. We must not read the text as “peace towards those select few on whom his favour rests” but “peace towards all humankind, that is to say, those on whom his favour rests.” “God so loved the world …” remember.
And what is this gift of peace? A lovely sense of tranquility such as that which steals over us when we lie on our backs and close our eyes in a sunlit meadow by a quiet stream? No, the promised peace is the Shalom-Maker himself—the bringer of healing and wholeness, joy and harmony and utter well-being—wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger. For the peace the angels announced to the shepherds and still announce to us is not a state of mind at all but the presence of a person—then in a cave, now in our hearts. “Christ in you, the hope of glory,” as Paul put it (Colossians 1.27.)
Not a lame message at all. Not a damp squib; but the fullest of Gospels.