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“Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”
Christmas in our culture has become quite controversial. Nativities sometimes change the words of Christmas carols so as not to offend people. Advertising in the media does not portray the Nativity of the Bible. How do you present the Christmas story to someone who doesn’t believe in it? Is a fresh approach needed? No, not really. We need to simply tell it as it is, in the way Scripture portrays it.
Luke sets the scene, in verses 1-7, telling us about the birth of Christ. Given that this was the birth of the long-awaited Messiah, we might expect, humanly speaking, that there would be a huge fanfare for this – royal announcements, town criers going out in every street. But God chooses to tell a bunch of shepherds first. Shepherds weren’t exactly respected in Israel at this time. Shepherding was something families would consider the younger sons to do after the older sons had respectable occupations. But God, I think, is making a very important point here – The Messiah is for everyone.
Jesus came for anyone who would accept Him as their Lord and Saviour. When Samuel arrives to anoint one of Jesse’s sons, God rejects the eldest sons. The youngest, keeping the sheep, was chosen. In human culture people become marginalised for different reasons. Shepherds were expected to protect the sheep, spending nights out in the open. Certainly, this group went from humdrum boredom to terror – the glory of the Lord shone around them. The brightness of the glory of God reveals sinfulness. This is why the angel says, “Do not be afraid.” The angel has good news, for all people. This Messiah, the Saviour of the world, can be found in an animals’ feeding trough. The angel was joined by more angels. “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 among those with whom he is pleased!”(Luke 2:13-14). The Scripture says they specifically said. The Greek word for this means ‘to lay forth, to relate in words.’ Having said that they simply spoke this declaration, I’m sure that so many angelic voices sounding forth the glory of God would have sounded melodic and lyrical to human ears.
I think this verse really splits in two, based upon two locations. First of all, the angels declare ‘Glory to God’ but they make the point that God is ‘in the highest.’ The initial focus is in heaven. Christmas is something that would not have happened without God. We need to remember that Christmas is a celebration of what God has done for us. For many people, Christmas is simply food. Perhaps to others it’s family or may be simply the capacity to have a party. But the Bible makes clear that we are celebrating a person – Jesus.
The angels are declaring glory to God for what has just been given. We read of the gift in verse 11, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.”
There are three titles for Jesus in one verse: Saviour, Christ and Lord. Jesus’ name is the Greek version of Joshua. It means ‘Saviour.’ The Jews were very much a religious people and knew a Saviour was prophesied to them throughout all the scriptures that they had. But they were not so clear what they needed to be saved from. In this time, many thought they needed to be saved from the Romans because there was an occupation of their land. But they were simply the latest in the line of foreign occupiers. If Jesus had come to save the Jews from the current occupiers, the Romans, this would have been a temporary solution. Sooner or later, another oppressor would turn up and they would need another saviour.
But this gift of God was also Christ, another Greek word for a Hebrew term, in this case, ‘Messiah.’ This tells us that this saviour has come to do God’s will because He is the anointed One. He is the one set aside for the purpose of salvation. In Old Testament times those set aside for God’s work – kings, priests and prophets – would very often be anointed with oil to publicly demonstrate that they had been set aside to fulfil God’s will for the people.
There is also another term Jesus is referred to, as Lord, declaring His divinity. This Savour was also from God as much as He was God Himself. As human beings, we cannot save ourselves from our own sins, so God had to come to be the ultimate Saviour, to be the One who will save everyone from their sins. Not from the Romans, nor from any other invading empire. God was coming to deal with something much more dangerous. Interestingly, it is Joseph who is told, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21). God spells it out to Joseph.
Ever since Adam and Eve, sin has been Man’s greatest enemy. It broke our relationship with God and ultimately let death into creation. Very often, people blame God. But sin creates a debt which needs to be paid for by someone. Even in our culture, people can have their debts cleared, but someone, somewhere must bear the cost for that to happen.
In the case of sin, it is God who bears the cost of our sins. But don’t miss how this will happen, ‘For there is born to you.’ God will live a human life. He won’t just appear fully formed as Adam was. He will actually be born, staying for nine months in Mary’s womb. Jesus would experience every aspect of what it means to be a human being – fully man, yet fully God. Divinity veiled in flesh. Jesus would be the ultimate definition of meekness; strength under control. He was and is God but chose to accept the limitations of a human body. When He was hanging on the cross of Calvary He could have called on legions of angels to save Him, but He didn’t. He stayed on that cross until He died because that was how He was going to save His people from their sins. He was the only One who could save us.
Jesus is also important because He links the two location we are talking about. Jesus was born. He did not come into existence at the Incarnation. When Jesus talks about coming into the word, it is only once He refers to being born, “Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37). To have come into the world, Jesus must have been somewhere else beforehand. Jesus has always existed. He chose to be born so He could work out the salvation plan for man.
From a spiritual perspective, His birth and death were planned. Jesus acted because He chose to do so because He loved us.
The second location is on earth, “And on earth peace.” Israel, at this time when Jesus came, had a kind of peace. Nowadays, we refer to it as the ‘Pax Romana,’ which was imposed by the Roman legions. It was a peace in the sense of an absence of open conflict. But the fact is, strife remained. There were people who were rebelling against Rome. It continues today to be a land of conflict. The peace spoken of here is God’s peace, the promise of One who has been born, who will bring peace to the world from God. The angels are described as a multitude of the heavenly host. God sends His army to announce peace. This is not imposed upon humanity but a promise of what is to come. It fulfils Isaiah 9:6,
“For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Men, for the most part, will initially reject this peace. Even in Christ’s infancy, Satan would try to eradicate God’s peace, through his agent, Herod. God’s peace is different. Goodwill towards men! Note, not ‘amongst men.’ Goodwill should be a permanent state of our character, not just at Christmas.
“Goodwill towards men.” Goodwill to is have favour upon someone. It speaks of an on-going relationship, a truly warm feeling upon someone. This is goodwill from God towards men. Because the Saviour has come the relationship can be restored.
At Christmas time we are celebrating the fact that God looks upon us sinful people with favour because of what Jesus has done for us. This peace of God is directed to us who are believers, just like the shepherds, who came away glorify and praising God. Others heard them and thereby became aware of the news. The scriptures tell us the shepherds simply marvelled at what they heard. Later, in the gospels we hear of other people who marvelled at what Jesus said and did. In so doing, they were drawn to Him, they wanted more of what He offered. But many of these people didn’t act on what they heard. God was interested in the shepherds so much so, they become the first human heralds of the birth of the Messiah.
God remains interested today, kin those on whom His favour rests. This is something we should be celebrating. Christmas is a day for us to remember God became man, fully man, and lived a human life full of human experiences, good and bad. Jesus did all of this without sin so He could offer Himself as a sacrifice to pay the debt of our sins on that cross at Calvary.
Celebrate and remember what and whom you are celebrating. “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14).