Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
– Luke 2:14 KJV
When I was a child, I assumed the angels in Luke 2:14 referred to peace between nations. The quote was often used on TV shows in the context of war around Christmas. So it made sense to me that God may not like His children on earth killing each other in war. This is nice. The only problem is that is precisely what this verse is not saying. If you think, as I did, this verse refers to peace between nations, you’re wrong.
This verse should be understood in the context of what the angels are saying: “Glory to God in the highest.” The primary focus is not on what man does but on God’s glory because of what He is doing by sending His Son.
God is offering us peace. This is not referring to world peace among men. It refers to mankind having peace with God. Why is He offering us peace? Because mankind is at war against God.
I often hear (from Christians nonetheless) a bad analogy of salvation like this: We are all sinners, Jesus Christ has died on the cross for our sins, and that by believing in Him we have eternal life. It is like we fell off a boat in the ocean, we are drowning in our sins and God throws us a lifesaver, and all we need to do is believe in Him, to grab onto the lifesaver and he’ll save us. It’s a cute analogy. It’s also exactly like what salvation is not.
A more accurate analogy is we are assaulting God’s Kingdom. We are defying a righteous and Holy King. He has every right and responsibility to destroy us. But while we are in utter defiance and in the midst of storming the castle, instead of destroying us, God gives His Son to take the punishment of our sin; and offers terms of peace. The terms are not that we need to do good things or make up for the bad that we’ve done; it is to do nothing but repent and believe in Jesus Christ, who has done the work for us. Most will reject that offer and continue believing in a false religion in defiance of God. But Christmas is a promise of peace to those who believe. A gift of mercy and grace that mankind does not deserve.
“Good will towards men” would be better translated “to men of good will.”
Peace is not granted to all men, but specifically to men whom God favors, or possibly to men who favor God. This is a promise of peace with God to those who believe, but it is also a reminder of not having peace, condemnation to Hell to those who will not.
The NASB/NIV/ESV/CSB/LSB all do a better job at translating this into English than the KJV. Here’s the rendering from the NASB/LSB:
Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.
– Luke 2:14 NASB
So, while we are enemies of God, He offers peace, and His terms of peace are to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, that through His death on the cross, He has taken the punishment for our sin on our behalf.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
– Isaiah 53:4-6 ESV