The second week of Advent emphasizes shepherds and peace. A convergence of these themes occurs in Luke’s account of the angelic army that appeared to the shepherds just outside Bethlehem. Once the first angel delivered the news of Christ’s birth, 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, English Standard Version) 1
It may be that the reader is familiar with the King James Version which says, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men (Luke 2:14). Initially it may not seem there is any significant difference between the two translations. Nonetheless the divergence is profound. Before we look at the variance in meaning we need to touch on the underlying Greek that gives rise to the difference.
The Authorized King James Version is based upon a Greek text known as the Textus Receptus (Latin for “received text”) collated by Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus early in the sixteenth century. The text was edited and corrected over the course of time but most of the manuscripts used in the effort were of a late date and from a narrow family of holographs. The name “Textus Receptus” was not applied to the (corrected) Erasmian text until the middle of the seventeenth century.
In primary opposition to the Textus Receptus are two very different methods of editing the Greek. The critical or eclectic approach attempts to build a Greek testament based upon the oldest available manuscripts. Moreover, t he eclectic apparatus rests upon the view that the more difficult rendering is always correct – an approach championed in the eighteenth century by Johann Albrecht Bengel. In other words, it is more likely a scribe would drop the final sigma in a word than add one.
The Majority Text position is based upon the belief that the best Greek edition is one in agreement with the majority of known manuscripts regardless of age or location.2 It is important to note that within these two schools there are differences in methodology.
The reason some translations say God’s peace is directed at his chosen while others indicate God’s peace is directed toward mankind in general is because in many later manuscripts the Luke 2:14 text literally says, Glory in the highest to God and upon earth, peace with men, goodwill . The alternate reading is, Glory in the highest to God and upon earth, peace with men of goodwill. The difference is based on the presence or absence of the concluding sigma in the word, eudokia. Without the sigma, eudokia is in the nominative case and means good will or pleasure . With the sigma – eudokias – the word is in the genative case and means of good will or of pleasure . Thus, the preferred reading of eudokias requires we understand the text to say God’s peace is only for those he is pleased with. This is the witness of the Bible as a whole.
To be at peace with God is to be in covenant relationship with him. Apart from Christ, mankind is at enmity with God. This was true even before Jesus was born. Those who were in relationship with God during the old covenant administration enjoyed their status based upon faith in the coming Messiah (Hebrews 11:1-40). Indeed, the Lord himself said, Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad (John 8:56).
Therefore, the angels were not proclaiming a general peace but a realization of the long awaited kingdom of the Messiah. The anticipated reconciliation of God and Man in the Eternal Son was at hand and the faith of the patriarchs was justified. The angels brought a message to the faithful; the faithful were – and still are – supposed to spread the word.
1. The New International Version presents Luke 2:13-14 as, Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
2. Normally I favor the Majority Text; in this case I agree with the critical text.