To whom is the Peace?

How many times in the history of the world has the multitude of the heavenly army appeared to people, speaking audibly and praising God? [1] The only time Scripture records this as happening was at the birth of Jesus Christ, a singularly momentous event. Certainly we should want to know exactly what the angels said on that September night,[2] and what they meant, especially because there is some confusion about it. This confusion is evident in the four versions below, which are divided into two groups.

Luke 2:14 (KJV)
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Luke 2:14 (NKJV) [3]
“Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”

Luke 2:14 (NASB) [4]
“Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”

Luke 2:14 (NIV)
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

Why the difference?

The answer to that question lies in the way this verse was copied from one Greek manuscript to the next at some early date in history. The copying of one manuscript to another is referred to as the “transmission of the text,” and sometimes mistakes were made in copying, just as can happen today when someone copies something. Thankfully, due to the extensive number of early manuscripts available today, computer technology that allows very accurate comparison of the texts, and the hard work of scholars, the modern Greek text of the New Testament is very, very accurate.

The problem in translating Luke 2:14 has to do with the very last word in the Greek text of the verse, which in some manuscripts is eudokias (a genitive) and in others eudokia (a nominative). Debates raged hot and heavy for centuries as to which reading was original, with scholars on both sides arguing for their point of view. The debate continued through the early 1900’s, subsided during the middle of that century, and today is considered settled by textual scholars. This is in part due to a better understanding of the development of the Greek text over time, in part due to the discovery and coordination of more texts, and even in part due to a discovery in the Dead Sea Scrolls (first discovered in 1947). Thus, the modern versions of the Bible, such as the English Standard Version, [5] New Revised Standard Version Bible, [6] Amplified Bible, [7] and more, all say something that parallels the NASB and NIV shown above. The reading eudokias, which is the genitive case, is clearly the original reading, and the variant, eudokia, was created when the “s” was dropped.

If modern textual scholars agree concerning the reading of the Greek text, why, then, does the New King James Version, which is very recent, read like the King James and not like the rest of the modern versions? The answer is that the NKJV was specifically designed to read like the KJV except for updating the English from that of 1611 to our modern use of words, such as changing “ye” to “you.” However, it is significant that in my NKJV study Bible, there is a text note on Luke 2:14 indicating that the reading in the NKJV differs from the modern Greek text.

Luke 2:14 is one verse that clearly demonstrates the need for research using up-to-date texts, versions, commentaries, and scholastic works. Older commentaries and research materials can often be very helpful, and there are many things in biblical research that have not changed in the last century, but many areas have changed, primarily due to the work of archaeologists and textual scholars. Thankfully, the modern work is often more readily available than the older material, so it is easy to study. It is a blessing and joy to know that we live in an age when so much is known about the Bible, the text of the Bible, and the culture of biblical times.

Understanding the Text

The issue of the correct reading of the Greek text being settled, it is now a matter of translating that text into English in the best way possible. The first phrase of the Greek text has only four words, and what they mean is not debated by scholars. Nevertheless, most modern versions say, “Glory to God in the highest,” which does not communicate well to the modern reader, and in fact can be confusing. Is it saying that there is glory given to God by those spiritual beings who dwell in the highest places, or is it saying that there is glory given to God who Himself dwells in the highest places?

Scholars agree that the idea of the verse is that it is the angels and spiritual beings who dwell in the highest places who give glory to God. The word “highest” is a common Greek word that means highest place or highest rank. In this verse it is an adjective, and thus in English it needs a noun to fully complete its sense. We would say, “Glory to God in the highest places,” using the italics like the KJV, NASB, and ASV, [8] to show that “places” is not in the Greek text but added for clarity.

I would translate the phrase as, “Glory to God in the highest heavens.” This is not to imply there is more than one heaven, but rather to use the word “heaven” in its biblical sense and help the reader get a better understanding of the biblical culture and use of words. The singular word “heaven” never occurs in the Hebrew text, which always reads “heavens.” Furthermore, the plural “heavens” occurs many times in the New Testament as well. We English readers do not get to see this, because the translators almost always say “heaven” no matter what the Hebrew or Greek says.

Both the Hebrew and Greek texts indicate that “the heavens” are a vast realm, with higher and lower parts, which is what we see in part when we look up. We know the moon is “lower” than the sun, and the sun is “lower” than the stars, but even so we consider all of what is above us “heaven.” People in Bible times said, “the heavens.” Thus, the “highest places” or “highest heavens” refers to the highest places in the heavenly realm. This alludes to the fact that there is a hierarchy among spirits, with some being more powerful or prominent than others, something we see in other places in the Bible as well. This verse is saying that all through the heavens, even to the highest parts, there is glory given to God at the birth of the Messiah.

To make English versions read more clearly that the glory comes to God from the spirits who dwell in heaven, let us move the prepositional phrase, “in the highest places” to after “glory” and before “God.” This makes the verse read, “Glory in the highest places to God.” Young’s Literal Translation [9] moves the prepositional phrase in that manner. Once we understand that it is the angels and spirits even in the highest places of heaven who gave glory to God at the birth of the Savior, we are able to see the contrast between heaven and earth with great clarity: “in” (the Greek reads “in”) heaven there is glory, and “upon” (the Greek reads “on” or “upon”) the earth, peace.

Why would the angels be glorifying God at the birth of a human savior? Because angels are godly and loving, and desire the salvation of mankind and the end of human suffering just as we do, but there is also another reason. Because of the fall of Lucifer and Adam, the whole universe is suffering pain and is in the bondage of decay (Rom. 8:21 and 22). The Savior, Jesus Christ, is not only the Savior of mankind, he is the Savior of the universe itself. Therefore, it is no wonder that at his birth the heavenly army appeared to the shepherds, saying, “Glory in the highest heavens to God.”

Along with the glory that the angels of heaven give to God, there is to be peace on earth. But to whom? The Greek phrase is only three words, and is literally translated, “among men of goodwill.” The truth being communicated is there is peace from God to people with whom He has goodwill. Modern versions try to express this idea, with, in my opinion, varying degrees of success, but the point is that God’s peace is not to everyone; it is for those who have turned their hearts to Him. This fits perfectly with the Old Testament prophecies and predictions of the coming Messiah, who was foretold to be a warrior for God, delivering His people while destroying His enemies.

The very first prophecy of the Redeemer, in Genesis 3:15, foretells him being in conflict with the Devil, and by extension, the ungodly. That prophecy was confirmed in Moses’ time when Balaam foretold that the Messiah would “…crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of all the sons of Sheth” (Num. 24:17b). David continued the picture of the Messiah as executing judgment on those who did not turn to God:

Psalm 2:12
Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

In the biblical culture, to kiss someone showed love, respect, honor, or homage. God and His Messiah deserve and demand love and respect, and those who refuse God will be destroyed, while those who take refuge in the Son will be blessed, just as the verse says. The message about the Messiah as an executor of God’s judgment continued through the prophetic books, and the prophet, Malachi, wrote:

Malachi 3:1b-3a and 5a
(1b) …the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty.
(2) But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.
(3a) He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver…
(5a) “So I will come near to you for judgment….

John the Baptist continued to portray the Messiah as one who would bless the people of God but execute judgment upon the ungodly. One way he expressed that was to compare the people of earth to a harvest. The evil people would be burned up like chaff, while the godly would be gathered into the barn (Matt. 3:12). Thus, the Messiah would bring peace, but he would bring it only to the people with whom God was pleased.

Something else about the peace that people of God will enjoy is that it is clearly linked in prophecy to the destruction of those who oppose God. It is undeniable that the lives of everyone on earth would be more peaceful if there were no wicked people here. The people of God will enjoy peace in the future in part because Jesus Christ will destroy the wicked and unrepentant.

Another aspect of the “peace” that would come to the people of God was that it would exist forever between God and His people due to Jesus’ offering himself as the “…Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29b). Despite our best efforts to obey and please God, our sin nature and seemingly overpowering desires cause us to sin against God on a regular basis. The Old Testament portrays the separation between God and men very clearly, and in those days people approached God with blood sacrifices to cover and atone for their sin. Leviticus reveals an important aspect of these offerings to God, an aspect that is usually not clearly presented in our English versions.

Leviticus 1:9
He [the sinner with the offering] is to wash the inner parts and the legs with water, and the priest is to burn all of it on the altar. It is a burnt offering, an offering made by fire, an aroma pleasing to the LORD.

The NIV says that the burnt offering made an aroma “pleasing” to God, but the Hebrew word means more than that. The NASB is much closer when it says a “soothing” aroma. The Hebrew word, nichowach, means “soothing, quieting, tranquilizing,” and then by extension, “pleasing.” The offering did please God, but it did so by soothing and quieting Him. The picture being painted for us in Leviticus is that God is agitated, even angered, by our sin, but He is soothed, quieted, and pleased by the sin offering. Via the offering, which quiets and pleases God, the offerer has peace with Him.

Scripture never says that the ungodly or unsaved have peace with God. The peace we have with Him is due to the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ, which soothes and quiets God and keeps us from His wrath. That is why Romans 5:1 says, “…we [Christians] have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” and not, “Everyone now has peace with God.” The Church Epistles thus echo what the Old Testament and Gospels proclaim: that the peace of God is for those who have turned their hearts to Him.

Once the Messiah was born, the promises of God were well on their way to being fulfilled. Heaven and earth, in bondage and pain, could be rescued, and mankind, seemingly ever displeasing to God, could once and for all be at peace with Him. Because Jesus walked out the path God set before him, all the way to the Cross, where with his dying breaths he said, “It is finished,” God’s plan of peace on earth will one day be fulfilled. Thus it was appropriate that on the day of Christ’s birth more than 2,000 years ago, the angelic army of heaven descended to the earth and proclaimed to mankind,

“Glory in the highest heavens to God, and on earth peace among men with whom he is well pleased”


[1] I say “heavenly army” while most translators say, “heavenly host.” The Greek is stratia, and it was a common word for an army or band of soldiers. Robertson (Word Pictures in the New Testament) writes: “A military term for a band of soldiers common in the ancient Greek.”
[2] We believe that Jesus was born in September, not December. Cp. Ernest L. Martin, The Star that Astonished the World (ASK Publications, 1991), Victor P. Wierwille, Jesus Christ Our Promised Seed (American Christian Press, New Knoxville, OH, 1982).
[3] Scripture quotations marked (NKJV) are taken from the New King James Version®. © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[4] Scripture quotations marked (NASB) are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
[5] The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™ © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved.
[6] New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[7] Amplified Bible, © 1954, 1958, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1987 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
[8] The American Standard Version, 1901.
[9] Young’s Literal Translation, by Robert Young, 1898.

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1 comment

  1. Thank you for this clear and thorough explanation. Great work.

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