The Christmas story as recorded in Luke includes the following:
And 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, good will toward men. (Luke 2:13-14, KJV).
Our tendency at Christmas is to focus on the “niceness” of the event. And our Christmas celebration is “nice.” The verse above needs some adjusting to accurately reflect the Greek text underneath this English translation. We have traditionally “kept” the language of Luke 2:13-14 and other passages archaic, even though the result is misunderstanding or unnecessary clouding of the original meaning.
A more appropriate translation would be:
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among men of good will/favor/choice (or among whom God is pleased).”
A few observations:
There is a magnificent contrast here that is often missed in using the term “host.” Jesus is sent into a hostile environment in the most vulnerable manner. Two young helpless people are his guardians, he himself an infant. The book of Revelation paints the picture of this vulnerability in spiritual terms picturing a great red dragon poised and ready to pounce on the child as it is born (Revelation 12:4). Herod is soon about to search diligently and violently to kill the soon to be crowned King of the Jews.
Yet the passage before us assures us of the safety of the child. Not by chance, not by human effort or stealth, but by the presence of the heavenly army which assures us that the desire of God was to be accomplished in Christ. This passage is reminiscent of a strange passage in 2 Kings 6 with regard to Elisha and the Arameans, where Elisha prays that the eyes of his servant might be opened to see the “mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” Truly there were more of those who were with them than those who were with the enemy. I imagine the hills around Bethlehem were filled with these hidden heavenly armies the night of Jesus’ birth as well as every other day and night of his life.
What a wonderful picture of the security of believers in the arms of God and the surety of his plans and purposes. The shepherds experienced the view of what is truly real. Jesus had nothing to fear from the dragon, nor from Herod. He was surrounded by heavenly armies. The work and purpose of the incarnation was inevitable as it is the work of God and not man.
The presence of the army also speaks of the nature of the mission. Christ was on a military mission. There is no begging or pleading here, in spite of the picture of a baby. This baby is at the same time the general of that army. He comes to set the captives free, proclaim release, break the power of the evil one, conquer sin and destroy death, proclaim and establish an eternal kingdom. These are all proclaimed in the presence of these armies.
This military perspective also colors the two-fold statement of the armies:
Glory to God in the highest
On earth peace among men with whom He is pleased
The military serves the purposes of their superiors, and their victories are the victories of their superiors, so they give glory to God.
In war, there are casualties. That is why the statement of peace is not a universal statement. Peace comes to those upon whom God shows favor. Jesus came with a sword as well as a staff. He is the king and shepherd. Luke will soon share the words of Jesus railing against the Pharisees (11:37-54, esp. vs. 50-51). Jesus came as a general in battle; specifically against Satan and the Pharisees. They are called to repent or face judgment. It seems some are not offered peace at all, they are simply the opponents of Christ in this military campaign.
One word, armies, can change our whole perspective. This picture is a recurring one in the Old Testament:
1 Kings 22:19 Micaiah said, “Therefore, hear the word of the LORD. I saw the LORD sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing by Him on His right and on His left.
Psalm 68:17 The chariots of God are myriads, thousands upon thousands; The Lord is among them as at Sinai, in holiness.
Psalm 103:20 Bless the LORD, you His angels, Mighty in strength, who perform His word, Obeying the voice of His word! 21 Bless the LORD, all you His hosts, You who serve Him, doing His will.
Ezekiel 3:12 Then the Spirit lifted me up, and I heard a great rumbling sound behind me, “Blessed be the glory of the LORD in His place.”
Daniel 7:9 “I kept looking Until thrones were set up, And the Ancient of Days took His seat; His vesture was like white snow And the hair of His head like pure wool. His throne was ablaze with flames, Its wheels were a burning fire.Daniel 7:10 “A river of fire was flowing And coming out from before Him; Thousands upon thousands were attending Him, And myriads upon myriads were standing before Him; The court sat, And the books were opened.
Isaiah 6:2 Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory.”
Revelation 5:11 Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands,saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.”