While you are celebrating Christ’s birth, contemplate the phrase, “peace on Earth; good will toward men.” Does it make you feel all warm and fuzzy? It shouldn’t. It should fill you with awe and not a little bit of healthy fear. Sound silly? The problem is that some translations obscure the warning in this phrase.
Even the New King James still has it translated this way:
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, goodwill toward men!”
Its plastered everywhere. Good will toward all men. By which it goes without saying (but of course has to be said) women, children, small pets and any aliens that might happen to be out there. Luke 2:14 is quoted as proof that Christianity is welcoming to all. God loves us all. He wants more than anything especially at this time of year, for their to be peace on earth and he extends goodwill to all men. So much so that he sent a whole angel chorus to announce it to all the world. Isn’t that nice? It is a nice sentiment but as many of you know it probably isn’t the sentiment the heavenly host intended. Even the NKJV adds a footnote
“NU-Text has peace on earth toward men of good will”
What does the NKJV mean by NU-Text, you ask dear reader? Glad you asked:
These variations from the traditional text generally represent the Alexandrian or Egyptian type of text [the oldest, but sometimes questioned text]. They are found in the Critical Text published in the Twenty-sixth edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament (N) and in the United Bible Society’s third edition (U), hence the acronym “NU-text.”
All that is say there is some variant manuscripts which are older (closer to the originals) but whose authenticity is less sure than later manuscripts. This is “inside baseball” to most of us but the point is that a lot good conservative scholars think the NKJV gets this wrong. There’s good evidence for this in the textural history. So don’t let your eyes glaze over. But on your big kids pants and wade into the text for a second. For brevity and accessibility, I’ll quote from Wikipedia which is more accurate than not on things like this due to the constant monitoring. On other things not so much. Take it with a grain of salt.
The disparity reflects a dispute about the Greek text of the New Testament involving a single letter. The Greek text accepted by most modern scholars today uses the words epi gēs eirēnē en anthrōpois eudokias (ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας), literally “on earth peace to men of good will,” with the last word being in the genitive case (apparently reflecting a Semitic idiom that reads strangely in Greek). Most ancient manuscripts of the Greek New Testament have this reading. The original version of the ancient Codex Sinaiticus (denoted ℵ* by scholars) has this reading, but it has been altered by erasure of the last letter to epi gēs eirēnē en anthrōpois eudokia (ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκία), literally “on earth (first subject: peace) to men (second subject: good will),” with two subjects in the nominative case. Expressed in correct English, this gives the familiar “Peace on earth, good will to men” of many ancient Christmas carols.
I’m willing to be schooled on this because I’ve been out of seminary for nigh 14 years and I’ve spent most of that time as a Christian philosopher. My Greek is very rusty. But here’s how I learned it at Southern Evangelical Seminary: it should read, “Peace on earth to men of goodwill”
Here’s the NASB, my own favored translation:
“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”
If that is a better translation then it certainly fits well with Luke’s narrative. After all, at his baptism, Jesus is told that his father is “well pleased” with him. The same root word in Greek.
But if that’s the case, what did the angels mean by “peace on earth to men of goodwill?” Well, we sometimes forget that the announcement of a a Messiah is not all mangers and swaddling clothes and barumpa bum bum to the Israelites. An angelic host proclaiming the messiah is born to shepherds would have been seen as a warning to the powers that be. To use N.T. Wright’s phrase, the kings and rulers of the world were “put on notice.” It is peace on earth to those who are of good will. What is goodwill? Good will toward the coming king, the Messiah. There is a warning in Christmas that we would do well to remember, for to the rest of the world it is a paradox. God wishes peace to all, but only on His terms. If you accept the messiah, then he brings peace. If you do not accept him . . . well, things are different.
But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.
“Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
How do we reconcile that statement with “peace on earth; good will toward men?” The warning interpretation makes more sense. It was certainly what John the Baptist thought in Luke 3:
Now while the people were in a state of expectation and all were wondering in their hearts about John, as to whether he was the Christ, 16 John answered and said to them all, “As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Is that metaphor clear enough for us? When John speaks of his cousin, he speaks with a warning. The Messiah is coming and woe be unto those not of good will. Jesus himself says he has come to be a divider as well as a uniter. The world has been put on notice. That baby sleeping in the manger “no crying he makes” is the King of all the World. That is joy to the world . . . for those who accept it. For the Herods and Caesars of the world it is a warning. For as the same “Joy to the World” was written initially as a hymn celebrating Christ’s triumphant return to rule the earth. The last verse says, “He rules the world with truth and grace/ and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness.” The warning in Christmas is that the Messiah does take away the sins of the world and he does bring peace but he does this in one of two ways–redemption or judgment. He takes away sin either through his righteousness bestowed to us or by his righteous judgment as ruler of all things. That is the message given by the angels. Have a wonderful Christmas.