Depending on what translation of the Bible you use and what interpretation you bring to the text, the Christmas story might portray God in one of two ways.
The relevant text is Luke 2:14, which is the message of the angelic host singing praise to God by saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” (NKJV).
Now, you might be waiting for the rest of the sentence. That is, if you grew up with the NIV Bible as I did. The same verse in the NIV reads, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”
At first glance, the NIV’s take on this might sound as if God’s favor isn’t intended for all of his children, that perhaps God feels differently toward his rebellious children than he does toward his obedient children. He only intends peace only upon those whom he favors. No doubt, religion has given many the impression that God loves his good kids, but his misbehaving ones he really can’t stand. And all of this would imply, then, that I have to do something to get God to be peaceful and favorable toward me, to get on his good side, to get him to love me…as if these are not innate attributes of his character and as if that is not his continual attitude toward his children.
The picture of a God who has favor only upon a few, however, does not fit with what we know to be true about God. God is love. And love extends forgiveness and peace to all, not just those who are willing to reciprocate. God has favor toward all of his children. For example, Jesus’ favor was extended even to those who were in outright rebellion against God, such as the woman caught in adultery or those who were crucifying him. Jesus did not wait for them to get their act together before he showed his heart of forgiveness, favor, and peace toward them.
And Jesus told us in Luke 6:35 that the Most High is “kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” God’s favor is extended to all, even the most vile. Even me.
With the character of God as revealed in Jesus as the foundational truth, how then do we make sense of the NIVs rendering of the Christmas message, “on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” It still sounds like God only gives peace to those whom he favors.
The only way to understand this is to realize that experiencing peace and experiencing God’s favor is different from God extending his peace and favor. While God extends his favor to all, only some will allow it to rest upon them, only some will accept it. Those crucifying Jesus are a good example. Christ extended his favor to them (“Father forgive them”), but they went on crucifying him. Thus his favor didn’t rest on them; they rejected it. They would not allow the experience of God’s peace on earth unless they accepted his favor, which is extended to all.
A decent parallel to this is found in Matthew 10:13 where Jesus instructs his disciples to find homes to stay in as they travel and teach about the kingdom of God. Jesus directs his disciples to select a house to stay at, and he tells them to, “let your peace rest on it,” or in other words, offer your peace to the home. Specifically in verse 12 he says, “give it your greeting.” If however you are not welcomed, then his instructions are, “let your peace return to you.” Simply leave. You can’t force peace upon people who don’t want anything to do with you. Similarly in the Christmas announcement, the angels make mention of those who have allowed God’s favor to “rest” on them–they will experience his peace.
So, the reason God’s favor does not rest on everybody is solely on the human side of the equation, not the divine. God extends forgiveness and favor to all, period, because that’s what he’s like. God doesn’t have to be won over to me. But I do have to be won over to God; I do have to accept his favor and let it rest on me.
How does that work? When I see God’s kindness, when I see the lengths to which he is willing to go in order to communicate to and save his sin sick children…I am then won over to God. As Paul put it, “the kindness of God leads us to repentance” (Romans 2:4). After being won over to God by seeing his goodness, then not only will his favor be extended to me, but I will receive it and accept it; his favor will actually rest on me. Then I will experience peace on this earth.
On this Christmas Day, know that the message of Christmas is “peace on earth” for all who are willing to accept it. Peace in your home. Peace of mind. Peace with yourself. Peace with God. God extends his favor, and all we have to do is say “thank you” and allow it to rest on us. There is nothing that can change the way God feels about you. Christmas proves that. May we all then experience the peace of the presence of a God of love in our lives.