One of the more troubling mis-translations in the history of English Bible translation (at least in terms of its popular acceptance and impact) is the King James rendering of Luke 2:14 as “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” Despite the fact that nearly every modern translation has corrected this unfortunate translation, properly narrowing the scope of Christ’s ministry of peace “to people on whom his favor rests,” the universally conciliatory rendering found in the KJV is etched on the minds of millions in the English-speaking world and annoying especially for its ubiquitous presence in Christmas carols. Christmas, it is supposed, is about fostering tranquility and harmony everywhere.This idea is not, of course, unique to the English-speaking world. It is apparent that the utopian vision of universal peace was already circulating during Christ’s earthly ministry—so much so that Jesus felt compelled on multiple occasions to denounce the idea:
Matthew 10:34–37: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth,” he said. “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
Luke 12:49–53: “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!… Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.“
What sober reminders as many of us prepare to make annual pilgrimages to visit the very fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, and in-laws of which Christ is speaking!
Yes, one of Christ’s purposes in the incarnation was to prepare a way to ultimate peace (Luke 1:79), but this pathway is one to which many are blind (Luke 19:41). For these, it appears, a secondary purpose of Christ’s incarnation emerges: “I entered the world,” he said elsewhere, “to render judgment—to give sight to the blind and to show those who think they see that they are blind” (John 9:39, cf. the entire chapter that follows).
So what is the believer to do with this dour bit of information? Quite simply, we are to cultivate the tension, or as Greg Bahnsen puts it, to “press the antithesis.” Christmas is not the time, as many suppose, for suppressing all religious distinction and pursuing peace at all costs. It is actually a time that is particularly suited to gently but steadfastly affirming the necessity of embracing the Christian worldview with fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, siblings, and all who oppose Christ. It is a time for earnestly reminding unbelievers, even as we share gifts, that they are enjoying God’s gifts all the while ignoring the Giver. It is a time for compassionately informing unbelievers, in Isaiah’s words, that “there is no peace for the wicked.”
Of course, we must surely be mindful of the biblical injunctions to do these things “with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience” (1 Pet 3:15–16), making every attempt to “make the the teaching about God our Savior attractive” by exhibiting integrity, sobriety, pure words, humility, industry, good works, love, etc. (so Titus 2:6–10, 1 Pet 3:1; Matt 5:16; John 17:20–23; etc.). It will never do for us to announce the Gospel and neglect these vital accoutrements of the Gospel.
But at the end of the day it is possible that our pursuit of “peace” at Christmas may very well be a passive assault against the very purpose for which Christ came. In our sincere attempts to strengthen the bond of father with son and mother with daughter, we may well be doing precisely the opposite of what Christ intends. May God grant to all of us the wisdom and grace both to identify and to create opportunities for the Gospel during this season of grace.