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A familiar Christmas refrain is taken from the King James Version of Luke 2:14: “On earth peace, good will toward men.” And that must be the correct version, because that’s the one Linus recites every year on the Charlie Brown Christmas special. And those are the words in the carol “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” — “Peace on the earth, good will to men.”
But is that what the angels really said that night outside Bethlehem? If it was — if the angels were making some sort of prediction in connection with the birth of Jesus — obviously it has not come to pass. The earth is not at peace. This year the fighting is in Bosnia and Rwanda, next year it will be somewhere else, but it will be somewhere. They say that in the last three thousand years only three hundred have been without war, and over eight thousand treaties have been broken. A line out of one of our Christmas carols reads, “Beneath the angel strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong.”
Jesus Himself said, “You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not frightened, for those things must take place” (Matthew 24:6). So if we have been thinking that there was to be no more conflict or combat after the birth of Jesus, we have been hearing the angels wrong.
There is an interesting reason why the translation of Luke 2:14 in the King James Version seems to carry this erroneous message. The King James Version was translated into English from a Greek text known as the Textus Receptus, or the “Received Text.” The Textus Receptus was based on the first printed Greek New Testament issued by Erasmus in 1516. Erasmus, however, referred to only seven Greek manuscripts, and they were late texts. More recent English translations are from a Greek text that is based on hundreds of manuscripts that are earlier than the ones Erasmus used. In the vast majority of cases the variations in these manuscripts are minor and make little difference. In the case of Luke 2:14 the variation is only one letter (en anthropois eudokia of the Textus Receptus compared to en anthropois eudokias in the best manuscripts). In the Textus Receptus “good will” may be taken as a parallel to peace — “peace, good will to men.” But in the better manuscripts “good will” is an adjective that qualifies “men,” or “people” — “peace among men of good will,” or “peace to men on whom his favor rests” (NIV), or “peace among men with whom He is pleased” (NASB).
What then, is this Christmas peace — the peace of which the angels spoke? It is the peace that may be experienced by the people of God’s good will. And that is the peace that I want to talk about this morning. This kind of peace begins with peace with God, which is evident from the words of the angels — they announced “peace among men with whom He is pleased.” A man in the hospital was close to death. A minister came to see him and asked, “Have you made your peace with God?” His answer was, “I didn’t know we had ever quarreled.”
That is exactly the problem of many people in our country today. T.A.Harris’ “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” message has been so thoroughly ingrained in our societal psyche that no one suggests a person is not “okay” with God. People think that if they believe such an idea it would mean that they were not well-adjusted. This belief in inherent and universal “okayness” is one explanation for all the good cheer during the Christmas season. Even people without God can be cheerful because our culture has convinced them that miracles happen on 34th Street without God, and that “it’s a wonderful life,” even without any explicit reference to Jesus Christ.
According to this way of thinking God is sort of a great, great grandfather who lives in a faraway nursing home called “Heaven.” “It’s true that we don’t see Him very much, but on the other hand, who would be silly enough to suggest that we are at odds with the old codger? We like him just fine. And besides, if He saw us during this season surely He would be pleased with all this sappy, amorphous benevolence we throw around.”
That is the kind of conception that is necessary if someone wants to believe that he or she has never had a quarrel with God. But that kind of wishful thinking ignores both the immanence and holiness of God. God is not “out there” somewhere; He is here now. And because of His holiness He is offended by our sin. Men and women, boys and girls are not naturally, or automatically, at peace with God. To the contrary, the Bible teaches that those without Christ are at war with God, and the only way that they may know peace with Him is through the sacrifice of the One who was born that night in Bethlehem. Romans 5:10 puts it this way: “While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son.” Listen to the way it is stated in Ephesians 2 (Paul is writing to Christians about their lives before Christ): “You were … separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace” (Ephesians 2:12-14).
That’s what the angels were talking about that night. Christmas peace begins with peace with God, and that peace is the result of becoming a disciple of Jesus. Jesus Himself said to His disciples: “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, do I give to you” (John 14:27).
This peace with God results in peace within ourselves. If the burgeoning industry of things therapeutic is any indication, there are a lot of people who are not at peace with themselves these days. Have you looked at the psychology and self-help sections in the bookstores lately? If you look at those books you will see that most of them are written to give peace to people who are in some kind of turmoil — in turmoil over past failures, over unfulfilled expectations, over declining relationships, over financial problems over everything from career boredom to sexuality, to flabby thighs. The philosopher Albert Camus has called our era “an age of overt anxiety.”
A doctor examined his patient and concluded that nothing physical was wrong with him. He said, “You probably have some business or social problem that you should talk over with a good counselor. I dealt with a case very similar to yours only a few weeks ago. This patient of mine had a $5,000 debt that he could not pay. Because of his financial problem he had worried himself into a state of nervous exhaustion.”
“And did you cure him?” asked the patient.
“Yes,” said the doctor. “I told him just to stop worrying, that life is too short to make himself sick over a silly little scrap of paper. Now he’s back to normal; he stopped worrying.”
“I know,” said the patient, “I’m the one he owes the $5,000 to, and that’s what I’m worried about.”
It seems that everybody’s worried about something. Christian, do you, like me, need to be reminded that Jesus came to bring us peace? The Bible says that when we allow His Spirit to fill us one of the results of that spiritual experience is peace; the fruit of the Spirit is peace (Galatians 5:22).
Maybe you are not at peace because all you seem to be able to think about are your problems, and that keeps you in a constant state or unrest and anxiety. You need an eye adjustment of about forty-five degrees. Instead of staring horizontally at your problem and only glancing at God, you need to raise your plane of vision about forty-five degrees to gaze at God and only glance at your problem. The Bible says of our God, “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee” (Isaiah 26:3).
“But I don’t understand how close fellowship with God can erase worry and replace it with peace.” Thank God, this peace that He offers is beyond our puny efforts to understand. The Bible says, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7) — the Jesus who was born that night in Bethlehem. That’s what the angels were talking about. Christmas peace begins with peace with God, and then as a result we are flooded with the peace of God. So, as Edmund Sears wrote,
“All ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing:
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!”
Can you hear them? “Peace among men with whom He is pleased.” Doesn’t that kind of restful peace sound pretty good? It’s the peace of God that is the result of peace with God.
Another kind of peace that results from the birth of Jesus in someone’s heart is peace between people. Certainly the words of the angels refer to peace between those with whom God is pleased, for they said, “On earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” But is it not true that sometimes even among those who know God there is conflict instead of peace?
A tragic and ironic example of this kind of conflict occurred in the last century. Roman Catholics had placed a silver star over the birthplace of Jesus in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and it hung there for many years. Eastern Orthodox Christians wanted to replace the star with one of their own, but the idea was rejected by the Catholics. The Eastern Orthodox church was backed by Russia, and the Catholics were backed by France. At the time Turkey had jurisdiction over Palestine, and in this conflict Turkey sided with the French. As a result Russia declared war on Turkey. Great Britain, France and Italy rallied to the side of Turkey, and for three years (1853-1856) the Crimean War raged. Two years after the war the silver star was permanently removed from the site. The immediate cause of a war was the maintenance of the place where it was declared that there would be peace.
If there are people in this worship center with whom God is pleased, and there are, then this also is a place where God has declared that there is to be peace. Are you at peace with your brothers and sisters in Christ? Romans 12:18 states, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” Jesus said that peace between His disciples was so important that if you are offering a gift during worship and remember that you have something against your brother you ought to leave your gift and immediately go and reconcile with your brother.
Newman Hall was a minister in Great Britain in the last century and a friend of Charles Spurgeon. Hall wrote a book entitled Come to Jesus. The book was reviewed by a writer for the London paper, and the review was vicious. The reviewer was unjustly critical of the book and ruthless in his criticism of the author. Newman Hall wrote a personal response to the review, and in his response he stridently condemned the reviewer. The ink of his pen was just as venomous as had been the reviewer’s; he spared no invective or insult. Before he mailed the letter, however, he decided to show it to Charles Spurgeon.
Spurgeon read it and agreed with its contents. “You’re absolutely right,” he said, “This man deserves every disparaging remark you have written to him.” When Hall asked him if he would add anything, Spurgeon said, “Yes, you have not signed it yet. Why don’t you add your signature and under your name write, “Author of Come to Jesus”? Both men were silent for a moment, and it dawned on Hall that the words “Come to Jesus” just wouldn’t fit his letter, so he tore it up and threw it away.
Some time ago I wanted to write a letter like that. Someone had unjustly and publicly attacked the character of a friend of mine in print. The things that were written were not true. Mentally I wrote my letter in response. I knew just what I was going to say, and the person to whom I was writing deserved every word. I talked about my plan to Sharon, and she suggested that I just sit on that one for a few days. I did, and when I had cooled off enough I realized that though my words were true and his were not, the effect of my words was the same as his — they drove a wedge between two brothers. Creating further division would not help my friend, and I didn’t want to be guilty of it, so I never wrote the letter.
Sometimes courageous and candid words can be stupid and unnecessary words. When we are offended sometimes it takes greater courage just to say nothing and let it go. Has someone hurt you? Was it even someone who should have known better? Let it go. Peace between you and the other person and the peace within yourself is more valuable than the pound of flesh that you want to exact. And it’s more valuable than the satisfaction of knowing that you counterattacked. In fact, we are to “Seek peace and pursue it” (Psalms 34:14).
The flesh wants to seek revenge, to even the score. God says to seek peace. The Son of God came to bring peace between people with whom God is pleased. One day He told His disciples, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). You can pull that off — if you are at peace with God and if you have peace within yourself.