After giving the shepherds the good news of the gospel in Luke, chapter 2, the angel punctuated his proclamation with praise. But he did not do this alone, as the Scripture states, “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). This is the third Christmas carol in the Gospel of Luke. Like the others, it was spoken rather than sung, yet it was written in a poetic form that has often been set to music. And like the other lyrics, it is commonly known by its first words in Latin: Gloria in Excelsis Deo—“Glory to God in the highest.”
The Difference Between This Christmas Carol and Others
What makes this song different from the others is that it was sung by a chorus of angels. It was not a hymn that rose up from the earth, but an anthem that came down from Heaven. For this reason, the Gloria gives a fuller revelation of the true divine glory of Jesus Christ. God the Son had always enjoyed the adoration of angels. From eternity past, those sinless creatures had worshiped Him with perpetual praise. But now God was sending His Son into the world, where He would be despised and rejected unto death for the salvation of a lost and fallen race. This was the most glorious demonstration that God had ever made of His grace. Therefore, it was only right for Him to receive the highest praise. In the words of J. C. Ryle (Expository Thoughts on the Gospel of Luke), “Now is come the highest degree of glory to God, by the appearing of His Son Jesus Christ in the world. He by His life and death on the cross will glorify God’s attributes,—justice, holiness, mercy, and wisdom—as they never were glorified before.”
Imagine what joy it must have been to sing in that angelic choir. The skies opened up, and the countless choruses streamed from the courts of Heaven—an army of angels revealed in all its glory. They were singing in a new venue, praising God on Earth as they had always done in Heaven. Imagine what joy they had in going out in the middle of the night and scaring people half to death with the glory of God. They were also singing in a new key, praising God for His grace to sinners. Imagine what joy they had in worshiping the newborn Christ and saying, “Glory to God.” God was highly glorified in sending His Son to be our Savior. The Christmas angels saw this glory and revealed it to the shepherds so that we could see it too.
The Benediction of the Angels
Then the angels pronounced a benediction. The coming of Christ was not just for God’s glory, but also for the good of humanity. So after giving glory to God in the highest, they proclaimed peace on earth. What a contrast this was to the kind of peace that the Romans had to offer. This story began with a decree from Caesar Augustus, which reminds us that this was the age of the Pax Romana, when the Romans often praised their emperor for bringing “peace on earth”. But this peace came at a dreadful cost. Nations were subjugated and plundered, peoples enslaved, the poor oppressed. There were peace and prosperity for some, fear and poverty for others. According to Arnaldo Momigliano, Caesar “gave peace as long as it was consistent with the interests of the Empire and the myth of his own glory.”
Even those who had outward peace in Roman times did not have rest for their souls. The famous Stoic philosopher Epictetus—a contemporary of Luke—observed that “while the emperor may give peace from war on land and sea, he is unable to give peace from passion, grief, and envy. He cannot give peace of heart, for which man yearns more than even for outward peace.” Nor could the emperor offer peace with God, which is the most necessary peace of all.
The Peace of God for the Whole Person
But now a new King was born, and with His birth, the angels pronounced peace on earth—peace like the Hebrew shalom: total peace for the whole person. This meant peace with God, first of all. Until we have peace with God, we cannot have any true peace at all. Our sins cry out against us and we are afraid to die because, deep down, we know that we deserve judgment. But Jesus came to give us peace with God by paying the penalty that our sins deserve. The Bible says that in Christ, God was “making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20).
Once we have peace with God, we can have peace with one another by the power of His Holy Spirit. We no longer have to push to get our own way, but we can wait for God to work. “It is the work of Christ to bring peace into all human relations,” wrote Norval Geldenhuys in his commentary on the Gospel of Luke, “Into man’s relation to God, to himself (his own feelings, desires, and the like), to his life’s circumstances (calamities and trials), and to his fellow-men. According as Christ is honored and is given admission to human lives, to that extent the peace on earth, which He came to bring, becomes a glorious actuality. In so far as people live outside Him, the earth remains in a state of disorder and strife without real peace.”
The Glory of God and Biblical Election
This peace is not for everyone, but only for the people whom God is pleased to bless. The Gloria is often taken as a promise of universal salvation: “Peace on earth, goodwill to men.” But as surprising as it may seem, this song teaches the doctrine of election. Its wording is essential: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14). According to Darrell Bock, who has written the definitive commentary on Luke, the phrase “with whom he is pleased” (Luke 1:1–9:50), is “almost a technical phrase in first-century Judaism for God’s elect, those on whom God has poured out his favor.” The peace of God comes according to His sovereign pleasure. The shepherds are the perfect example. They did not choose God; God chose them. They had to respond in faith, of course, but it was by the sovereign grace of God that they heard the good news.
As one missionary studied this verse, he struggled to translate it into a native tongue. The term “peace” was incredibly difficult because there was no equivalent in the local language. But with the help of his assistant, he finally came up with a translation that captured the heart of this verse when he wrote in a 2001 newsletter from Wycliffe Bible Translators, “God in heaven is just so good! So the people who live in this world, if God’s heart is happy with them, then their fear is all-gone now!”
“Their fear is all-gone now.” This is one of the happy results of the Savior’s birth. When we come to God through faith in Jesus Christ, we have real peace. We do not always gain the full benefit of that peace because sometimes we forget to trust God for it. But as we trust in Him, He gives us peace. We do not need to be anxious about the future. We do not need to be afraid of what people will think. We do not need to try to solve our problems on our own. We do not need to worry about how God will provide for us. We do not need to despair if we lose what we love. All we need to do is trust in God and He will give us peace.