Peace on earth
The angel said to the shepherds, “Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today in the city of David a Savior was born for you, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be the sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped tightly in cloth and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people he favors! (Luke 2:10-14)
I don’t know about you, but I could always use some good news.
The last couple of years have been rough. From divisive politics to a global pandemic, from riots in the streets to the cultural embrace of some of the most bizarre and godless delusions I can imagine, I grew so mentally exhausted that I quit the news early last year. I turned it off. While I inevitably hear bits and pieces of what’s going on around the world, I quit actively seeking the news. I quit watching. I quit listening. I quit reading.
The first half of 2020 was the worst because the one place you can go to find good news was shut down because of the pandemic. Whether it’s across town or across the street, chances are, you are not far from a church that, under normal circumstances, gathers frequently, and at the heart of those gatherings, is the only truly good news to be found in this world (Lk 2:10). I’m talking, of course, about the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Luke 2 contains one of the best-known stories in all of the Bible. Believers and unbelievers alike are reminded of it every year at Christmastime. According to Luke, Caesar Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, issued a decree that every person under Roman jurisdiction should be registered for the purpose of taxation (Lk 2:1). “So,” we’re told, “everyone went to be registered, each to his own town” (Lk 2:3).
Joseph and Mary were from the town of Nazareth, but they traveled roughly seventy miles south to Bethlehem because Joseph was of the house and family line of David (Lk 2:4). Evidently, Rome acquiesced to Jewish custom, which stressed the importance of one’s ancestral home, so Joseph and Mary needed to register in Bethlehem, the city of David, the city where David was born and later reigned as king, rather than Nazareth.
You likely know the rest of the story. During Joseph and Mary’s stay in Bethlehem, she gave birth to Jesus, her firstborn son, and she wrapped him tightly in cloth and laid him in a manger (Lk 2:7). What may not be as obvious is that God providentially arranged every detail from Augustus’s decree to the timing of Mary’s pregnancy so that she would give birth in Bethlehem, fulfilling a vital prophecy of the Old Testament regarding the Messiah. Micah prophesied, “Bethlehem Ephrathah, you are small among the clans of Judah; one will come from you to be ruler over Israel for me. His origin is from antiquity, from ancient times” (Mic 5:2).
Once Jesus is born, God delivers the news of his arrival to some of the least likely candidates to receive such important news—shepherds (Lk 2:8). Shepherds were near the bottom of the social hierarchy. Most people viewed them as dishonest and unsavory. They were generally uneducated. The religious leaders deemed them unholy Sabbath-breakers because tending sheep was a seven-day-a-week job. Shepherds weren’t even allowed to testify in court because society considered them unreliable.
Even so, God chose shepherds to be the first witnesses of the birth of Christ. Furthermore, they were the first people to see the glory of the Lord in centuries (Lk 2:9). The book of Ezekiel—namely, chapters nine, ten, and eleven—describes the glory of the God of Israel leaving the temple, never to return until this day when it shone around the shepherds (Eze 9:3).
By now, you can probably see how all of the circumstances around the birth of Christ were surprisingly unconventional. The King of kings and Lord of lords was born in a measly village, not the capital city of Jerusalem. He was laid in an animal’s food trough, not an expensive crib made of precious materials. The first witnesses of his birth were lowly shepherds, not the nation’s social, political, or religious elites. Why? Every detail of his incarnation reminds us that God emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity (Php 2:7). From the beginning, his entire existence on this earth was utterly humble.
Humble circumstances aside, what makes Jesus’s birth good news of great joy? (Lk 2:9). The angel along with a multitude of the heavenly host explain it this way: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people he favors!” (Lk 2:14). In a word, the good news is peace.
To be clear, this peace did not bring an end to war. It did not bring an end to violence, conflict, or trouble of almost any kind. Despite what the charlatans may tell us, Jesus did not promise to eliminate all of our struggles in life. To the contrary, he told his disciples, “You will have suffering in this world” (Jn 16:33). Yet, he also said, “In me you may have peace.”
We don’t need temporal peace in a fleeting world. Our momentary light affliction here is incomparable to the eternal weight of glory to come, which was made possible only by the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ (2Co 4:17). We praise God not because he guarantees temporal peace, but because his Son’s atoning work provides eternal peace—that is, peace between holy God and rebellious sinners. We who were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace. He did this so that he might reconcile us to God through the cross (Eph 2:13, 14, 16). And with that, he came and proclaimed the good news of peace (Eph 2:17).