“Peace on Earth, good will to men.” It’s a phrase that’s been uttered by thousands of seven-year old Gabriels throughout the history of Christmas pageants. Several Christmas songs include this phrase in their lyrics. And people argue on the basis of this phrase that Christmas is supposed to be about promoting world peace and showing good will to other people. This is the way that the King James Bible translates what the angels say to the shepherds in Luke 2:14. But if you look at Luke 2:14 in almost every current version of the Bible, it says something very different: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” So does this mean that Jesus’ birth is only supposed to mean peace for some of humanity, but not for all?
The reason this phrase is different in most Bibles now than it was in the King James is because of a slight difference in the original Greek Bible manuscripts. In the Textus Receptus, which was the manuscript used for the King James, the Greek is ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκία, literally “on earth, peace; among people, good will,” a clean, parallel set of prepositional phrases that make for good poetry. However, in older Greek manuscripts discovered more recently, the sentence ends with εὐδοκίας which changes it into a genitive noun and gives it an extremely awkward grammatical form so that the whole clause becomes “on Earth peace among people [who are recipients] of [somebody else’s] good will [which must be God’s].” I prefer the King James in this case because it makes so much more sense grammatically. Of course, this is probably why it’s not the right translation since a renegade monk scribe would be more likely to change εὐδοκίας to εὐδοκία to make the sentence flow more smoothly.
The other reason I prefer “peace on earth, good will to all people” over “peace to people God favors” is because I think it’s more in tune with what the Christmas message is about. Christmas is supposed to be a time when we show good will to all people, not a time when Christians remind everybody else that we’re God’s favorites and they’d better not say “Happy holidays” if they want our business.
It makes me want to tear my clothes and pour ashes on my head to see how Christians have reduced how we represent our faith to some kind of crude, boorish hockey fan loyalty in which we throw beer at the refs and boo the visiting team. If our calling as Christians is really to share the gospel with the world, why are so many Christians unbothered by making Jesus look bad with completely un-Christlike behavior?
The latest example of this is the campaign by the Florida Family Association to force TLC to cancel their show “All-American Muslim.” Their complaint is that the show depicts Muslims as normal people instead of terrorists. They claim that over a million emails have been sent to advertisers on this show demanding that they pull their ads. Lowe’s and several other companies have caved to them. I can’t express how sad and sick this makes me feel. What is different between Americans today taking offense at the existence of “all-American” Muslims and Germans in the 1930’s taking offense at the existence of Jews who weren’t part of a “global banking conspiracy”
I do believe that Jesus Christ is the only real source of peace. I don’t think we can form intimate, vulnerable, non-violent communities with other people unless they are grounded in the manger and cross and empty tomb of Jesus Christ. We need the poor carpenter’s son from Galilee as our Lord in order to treat each other like brothers and sisters instead of rivals and enemies. I’m sorry I don’t have the space in this particular piece to unpack all the reasons I believe this. But the fact that I do believe it doesn’t mean that I believe in picking fights with people of other religions which drag the name of my Savior in the mud as a result. When people engage in behavior like the Florida Family Association, it destroys the spirit of Christmas much more than any “Happy Holiday” card ever could.
1 Peter 3:15-16 says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” Picking fights with other religions so that you can claim that you’re “persecuted” when you get rebuked in response is completely contrary to the way the Bible tells to be witnesses for the gospel. Gentleness and respect, good will to all people, so that anyone who slanders Jesus would feel bad because of how they are treated by you.
So if you’re a Christian and you want other people to have a merry Christmas and not just a happy holiday, then why not try treating every other person with gentleness and respect? Even if the angels in Luke 2:14 used horrendous Greek grammar, we can choose to embody peace and good will for all. Because that’s how you do Christmas.