That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. 9 Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12 And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” [Luke 2:8-14]
It’s Christmas time. The time of year when most Christians think about peace on earth, but few really stop and think about how profoundly different heavenly peace on earth really is from the worldly reality of peace we have been fed from our leaders. To my mind the verses above and indeed the entire account of Jesus birth in Luke chapter 2, leaves little doubt that we has humans have gotten the entire concept of peace on earth profoundly wrong.
First off note who is proclaiming the peace, it is the armies of heaven. The only time an army ever proclaims peace is after the battle has been fought and won. The battle that is eluded to here is the battle between the forces of good and evil that is waged in the spiritual realm and at the birth of Jesus the armies of heaving appear to proclaim that battle over and peace on earth.
Secondly if we back up a few verses we are given a bit of historical context to the birth of Jesus. We learn that it occurred during the reign of Caesar Augustus, the first Roman Emperor who ruled a united and peaceful Rome. This was the beginning of the period known as the Pax Romana, or Peace of Rome. But we also learn through historical writings and the biblical account itself that this “peace” was extremely oppressive and did not extend to all people groups. It was peace achieved at the point of the sword and maintained but the ever present threat of violence against those that didn’t tow the line.
At the time of Jesus the Jewish people were expecting the arrival of a Messiah who was a conquering hero to drive Rome out of their lands and usher in a sort of Pax Israeli. This is not the kind of thing you would expect from a people group who felt that there was any kind of peace on earth regardless of what their political overlords may have been trying to tell them. And of course we know that when the Jewish people finally did rise up about 70 years later, it ended in disaster with the destruction of their temple. For all intents and purposes the destruction of the temple ended the Jewish religion itself. The entire sacrificial system commanded in the Old Testament centers around the temple.
So when the army of angels appeared and proclaimed peace on earth, what were they saying?
I think that they were saying something incredibly scandalous. They were saying that the only battle that mattered was in the spiritual realm and they had won. The Jewish people need not worry about taking up arms against Rome to obtain peace on earth and they didn’t need to put their faith in any earthly religious symbols. The battle was over and any attempt to continue the fighting was a denial of that fact. True peace comes from a spiritual place, earthly battles and physical places are nothing more than constructs of the human mind that the arrival of Jesus signaled the end of.
Jesus would go on to preach love and the end of religious and political institutions that served to create unnecessary boundaries among people. He would command his followers to “put away their swords for he who lives by the sword dies by the sword” and turn to more constructive and life affirming pursuits.
We live in a time and place that is very close to the Pax Romana of Jesus day. Some observers have coined the phrase Pax Americana to describe the fact that we live in a time of world peace achieved in part as a result of the military and economic dominance of the United States of America. How scandalous would it be for the angels to appear to us today and once again tell us that peace on earth has been achieved through the birth of a child, rather than through the military might of a nation? That’s exactly how it happened before and we would do well to remember it today.
Peace on earth was ushered in by child who was born in poverty and grew up to preach love and the end of religious and political institutions, including armies.