It's the third day of Christmas, I think, but my mind keeps going back to the words we heard Christmas Eve:
Luke 2.13f: Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors! NRSV
Very familiar words, we’ve probably heard or read them fifty times already this month, between Christmas cards and Christmas background music— although the ‘peace on earth and good will toward men’ of the carols is now known to be a poor translation of a faulty ms, ie wrong on two counts. So let's think a bit about the more accurate text, and let me point out a few things worth considering.
Speaking of translation, though, let me comment briefly on that word host in v 13. It means 'army'. We don’t use it that way any more, except in Bible translations, but that’s what it means here. The angel who appeared to the shepherds is suddenly surrounded by an army that has been fighting God’s enemies on the spiritual plane. This is worth noticing, because it will make a difference to how we understand their proclamation of peace.
Notice, too, that it is peace on earth that they proclaim. Not just in the spiritual realm, where the heavenly host has been at war, but on earth. This also must affect the way we understand their proclamation of peace. Because history tells us of those days, just as all the news reports tell us of our own, that peace is pretty rare. Their proclamation of peace on earth, if it means earthly peace, doesn’t seem to have been immediately effective. So is it just a fairy story, as so many people think the whole Christmas story is? Is it just a nice thought, but having nothing to do with the real world?
In order to answer that question, we must look at an equally challenging aspect of the peace the angels proclaim: that this peace is found among those whom he favors. Sounds like it’s peace for God’s favorites and too bad for the rest, but let’s look at this idea a bit more closely before we conclude that. The traditional translation of one of the words in this verse is ‘good will’, as in peace on earth to men of good will. But the word used means much more than that. It’s a noun formed from a verb which means ‘to delight in’, so the noun means ‘a delighting in’, ‘a having delight in’. The heavenly army don’t actually say it’s ‘God’s delight in’ whatever it is, and some translations have assumed that it is mankind’s ‘delight in’ that is being referred to. Which would mean you could only really translate it by the phrase ‘good will’, because if it’s ‘man’s delighting’ rather than ‘delighting in man’, which is grammatically possible, the delight is 'in' nothing specific at all, and can only be translated by a phrase like ‘having good will’, being a generally easy to please person, so it's 'peace for human beings who have a good outlook on life.' Heaven help us all if that’s what it means! But the word is the one that was used by the Rabbis when they translated the Old Testament into Greek, and everywhere they used it, they were translating something in the Old Testament about God's 'delighting in' this or that, and almost everywhere the word occurs in the New Testament the word ‘God’s’ is also stated or strongly implied. I’ll give you just one example, Matthew 11.26, where Jesus has been talking about repentance, and says I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. Same word as favor in the angel’s proclamation: God’s gracious will for mankind; peace on earth for those for whom God has gracious will. So the translation among those whom [God] favors is right; but does this really mean that God has His favorites, and they will have peace while the rest don’t?
You won’t be surprised to hear me say ‘No it doesn’t’, but I want you to know that there are good reasons why I think that. It’s not just because I’m a good public relations man and God is my client.
First, let’s think what these Jewish shepherds would have understood by it. The angel and the heavenly army appeared with a message for them, and must have used words that made sense to those shepherds first of all. Translators, theologians and preachers are all pretty low priority for the angels on Christmas eve. To Jewish shepherds, or any other Jew come to that, those whom [God] favors can only be the Jewish people, God’s chosen people. The whole of the Old Testament is about how God chose the Jews and promised that through them would come a blessing for the whole human race, and again and again in the Old Testament God talks about the Jews as the people in whom He delights. Let me give you just one out of dozens of examples, one that we almost heard this morning. God is speaking to His people through the prophet Isaiah, and we stopped at 62.3, You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. But the passage continues, 4 You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. 5 For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder, your creator, marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you. The Jews as the people in whom God delights, over whom He rejoices, is all through the Old Testament. The prophet Zechariah calls the Jewish nation the ‘apple of God’s eye’ (2.8). These shepherds could not have understood the angels’ words as meaning anything but their own people.
And if we then turn to the New Testament, it becomes clear that God’s plan to bless all the people of the earth through the Jews is fulfilled as the people of the earth turn to the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ, and that makes them the apple of God's eye too. Galatians 3.29, if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. Those who put their faith in Christ inherit the promises made to Israel, and God delights in them, in us, the way He delighted in the Jews, we too become the apple of God’s eye, those whom [God] favors and those for whom the angels proclaim peace on earth. You could say God is playing favorites, but anyone can be one of God’s favorites, and the more people become God’s favorites, the happier He gets. That’s why He wants us to tell others about Christ—He wants everyone to come to His Christmas party!
And just so we’re clear, God hasn’t switched favorites. It’s not that in the Old Testament Jews were God’s favorites but in the New Testament Christians become God’s favorites. The one place in the New Testament where that Greek word I was talking about refers to a human being’s ‘delighting in’ rather than God’s is at the beginning of Romans 10, where Paul says, speaking of the Jews, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. ‘Desire’ in that verse is translating that same Greek word, and it expresses Paul’s faith that God has not finished with the Jews, and that when they accept their own Messiah they too are restored to their original place in God’s plan, just as the rest of mankind is when they accept Christ. And he assures us that the end will not come until all the Jews come to know Christ as saviour, Romans 11.26, all Israel will be saved. All mankind can have the peace proclaimed by the angelic army. To trust Him is to become one of those whom He favors.
But what about that peace? The word the angels must have used in order to be understood by Jewish shepherds is shalom, which is not just peace, but God’s peace. You can read about it in the prophet Ezekiel, 34.25–28, I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild beasts from the land, so that they may dwell securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods. 26 And I will make them and the places round about my hill a blessing; and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. 27 And the trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase, and they shall be secure in their land; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke, and deliver them from the hand of those who enslaved them. 28 They shall no more be a prey to the nations, nor shall the beasts of the land devour them; they shall dwell securely, and none shall make them afraid. Security, a good night’s sleep, good weather, good harvest, no enemies, and nothing to be afraid of, ever. The kind of things Jesus was talking about in Luke 12, and about which He said Seek first his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well, and added 32 Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure [you guessed it] to give you the kingdom.
And when you look at all that is included in God’s peace, it becomes clear how weak the phrase ‘good will’ is as a translation. It doesn’t even begin to express the depth of feeling involved. God’s gracious will is the will that accompanies true love—the best of everything for the beloved, at any cost to the lover. It’s the love Paul had for the Jews that justifies his use of the word: Paul says he would even give up his own salvation for their sake, if such a thing were possible, Romans 9.3, I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race. An exact parallel to the depth of God’s love for the apple of His eye: God becoming man so He could become accursed and cut off from the source of life instead of those whom He favors. So that they, we, could have peace on earth.
In conclusion, there are two things that can confidently be said about that peace, simply because it is proclaimed by spiritual warriors, who have been fighting in spiritual wars. The first is that it must be spiritual peace they proclaim: the peace that they themselves were experiencing now that God Himself had struck the decisive blow against evil by becoming man. The second is that regardless of how little of earthly peace we experience or see around us, this is peace we can count on. The army in the field is always the final judge of the reality of peace. The negotiators at the peace conference can announce that a peace treaty has been signed, but only the guys on the battlefield can say for sure that the bullets have stopped flying. And that’s what the heavenly army is saying. It’s not earthly peace, but real peace. The kind of peace that you can go on enjoying even when there is no security, and you’ve been tossing and turning all night, and the weather is so messed up its almost 70 degrees on Christmas eve, and there are people in the world who would cheerfully blow you up if they could get close enough. That’s the peace the angels proclaim, the peace that God wants for all the nations of the earth, and which is available in Christ, now.
My peace I give to you, said Jesus, not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. This is the peace that Paul says passes understanding. That’s what God gives to those He favors. Accept no substitutes. I pray that peace is yours, through Christ, now, and that you who know Christ as saviour will proclaim His peace to the rest of the world, for Christ’s sake. Amen.