The familiar story of the Bethlehem shepherds and the amazing, nocturnal, heavenly, angelic chorus that appears to them and announces the Messiah’s birth stands centrally in the Christmas story. The initial proclamation by the angel of the Lord provided details of time, place and person – the Saviour, Messiah, and Lord. It seems as if the heavenly forces cannot restrain themselves as ‘suddenly’ they become visible, blending their voices in praise to God for His astounding action.
Whether we have recorded in Luke’s Gospel all that this heavenly force expressed on that occasion is a matter of speculation. What Luke does record for us is a couplet (2:14). The first part calls all creation, but especially those in "the highest", presumably the heavenly realm, to recognize God’s wonderful deed and ascribe to Him glory, declaring His majesty. We glimpse heaven in the midst of true worship.
Up to this point there is little dispute about the meaning of the angels’ message. As we consider the second part of the couplet, the parallelism with the first one becomes evident:
in the highest…
among people ….
However, the understanding of the last word, variously translated as "favour" (TNIV), "goodwill" (KJV), "pleased" (NASB), and its relation to the phrase "among people" has generated considerable debate. At least two issues can be identified. First, what is the function of this final word in the couplet? Is it to be considered parallel to the word peace (eudokia), so that we have two similar phrases in the second line – "peace on earth" and "good will among people"? This is how the King James’ translators understood it, because in their texts this noun is in the nominative or subject case, just like the noun peace (eirene). There is, however, another reading that sees the relationship differently. In this text the noun eudokia is in the genitive case, which means that it defines in some way the people. They are "people of approval or favour". This reading has the advantage of preserving the parallelism with the first line so that "to God" is paralleled with "on people of approval or favour".
A second issue concerns the meaning of eudokia. If we take the reading in the King James Version ("and on earth peace, good will toward men"), then peace and good will are defining one another and express what God plans to provide for people through the birth of His Messiah. They will experience all the wholeness (shalom/peace) that God’s blessing promises and live in the context of His good will or pleasure. The other reading puts the emphasis somewhat differently. In this instance God’s peace is granted to "people who possess God’s approval". In other words the wholeness God gives to people through His Messiah only applies to those who have God’s approval.
In most contemporary English translations the rendering that dominates is "and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests" (NIV). In other words God’s peace only applies to those who have His approval. Several reasons lead people to conclude that this is what Luke intended. First, the older manuscripts tend to read the genitive form (eudokia). Second, this reading sustains the parallelism with the first line in the couplet, coordinating the reference to God with the reference to "men (people) on whom his favour rests". Such parallelism is a significant part of Jewish poetry. And thirdly, the phrase "people of approval or favour" is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, defining the pious person who possesses God’s approval and lives in obedience to His ways. As Bock indicates it is "almost a technical phrase in first-century Judaism for God’s elect, those on whom God has poured out his favour."
God anticipates human beings will experience peace (i.e. wholeness) because His Son comes and gives His life at the cross. God also affirms that He bestows His peace only upon those who first receive His approval, those in whom He takes delight. Luke states clearly in his two volume work (Luke-Acts) that peace comes to those who put their confidence in Jesus as Messiah, Saviour and Lord. As they receive God’s Holy Spirit, He takes delight in them. They become people approved by God, part of His family and household.
This is the wonderful announcement this angelic army broadcasts across the skies outside Bethlehem to astounded shepherds. It still rings with truth. Have we responded by acknowledging that this Jesus, born in Bethlehem is our Saviour and Lord? Without this surrender on our part, we will know no peace, no God-designed wholeness, and stand outside the circle of God’s approval. As we proclaim the message of Christmas let us boldly celebrate God’s peace-offering, but also dare to tell people God’s requirements for participating in His peace. This is the whole Gospel.
Application: as you reflect upon God’s word today,
- in what ways are you enjoying God’s peace and wholeness today? How do you define God’s peace?
- we acknowledge as God’s people that we struggle to experience His wholeness in all aspects of our lives. Where are the experienced gaps in your wholeness as you recognize them? What would the Holy Spirit lead you to do today to move towards a more complete wholeness in Christ?
- do you consider yourself a person who possesses God’s approval? What does this approval mean for you today? How does it shape the way you live and make decisions, your relationships and activities?
- 1. Darrell Bock, Luke 1:1-9:50 Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1994):220.