Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Bells of Christmas: Peace on Earth?

On Christmas Day 1863, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned Christmas Bells, one of the most famous poems in American literature.

The poem was written during the height of the American Civil War, a war that caused a horrific loss of human life and untold suffering; a war in which brother fought against brother, father against son. It was also a war in which Longfellow’s 17 year-old son had enlisted to fight earlier that year, against his father’s wishes, and was seriously wounded that November.

It was in the midst of this carnage and personal grief that Longfellow wrote the following:

And in despair I bowed my head;
‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said;
‘For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!’
Longfellow was quoting from Luke 2:14, most likely from the King James Version (KJV), which translates the verse to say “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

The verse is the announcement of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds in the fields on that first Christmas. Like many before and after, Longfellow understood Luke 2:14 to imply that Jesus’ advent meant peace was destined to spread over the face of the earth as men and women turned to each other in goodwill. The war, it seemed to Longfellow, was making a mockery of Luke 2:14.

To be sure, peace on earth is part of the Christian hope, for there will be a day when the peace of God reigns over the entire earth, a point Longfellow makes in the next stanza. And we are likewise commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves and to be peacemakers. To that end, Longfellow was right on point.

But Luke 2:14 is communicating something altogether different. Unfortunately, many people have missed the real meaning behind the verse. Consequently, some have missed the fundamental point of the Christmas story.

Part of the reason for this is because the existing Greek manuscripts of Luke’s Gospel have a slight variation of Luke 2:14. In this case one letter is either missing or added at the end of a word, depending on the manuscript. This one letter significantly alters the meaning of the verse.

Since the time of the KJV, however, scholars have discovered better manuscripts that many scholars believe render the KJV translation of Luke 2:14 inaccurate. Much newer translations such as the English Standard Version (ESV) and the North American Standard Bible, use the better manuscripts, and thus better encapsulate the original meaning.

The ESV translates it this way: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

Christmas, then, is about peace with God to those with whom he has goodwill. It's about our relationship with God, rather than our relationships with other people. It's about Jesus paving the way for men and women to make peace with God individually (Romans 5:1). The notion of world-wide peace and goodwill among all men, while a praiseworthy pursuit, masks this important point.

This understanding aligns well with Jesus’ assertions that evil and wars will continue to exist on the earth until he returns (Matt. 24:6) and with the Old Testament, which foresaw the Messiah as a warrior-king who would deliver his people and destroy his enemies, which Jesus will accomplish upon his second coming. 

Then, and only then, will men live in harmony with one another, and with nature as well (Isaiah 11:6).

Rather than mocking Luke 2:14, wars and evil point to our need for Luke 2:14. They remind us that we are desperately in need of making peace with God. They remind us that without the gift of Christmas, all of humanity would be in dire straits.

During this season of gift-giving, take time to consider the true meaning behind Christmas. This season is all about God’s gracious gift to mankind, a gift that came wrapped in swaddling clothes tucked in a manger.

This is no ordinary gift, as it can only be received via faith in Jesus Christ and his atoning death and resurrection. It’s a gift that you cannot afford to leave unopened.

Can you hear the bells of Christmas?

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