The Gospel of Christmas

Joel Green, in his commentary on Luke 2, translates the text of the annunciation to the shepherds as follows:

10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (p. 129).

Those who are used to the KJV’s translation featured in many Christmans hymns, of “peace on earth, and goodwill towards men”, will perhaps be thrown off by the translation given above. However, despite how some high-Calvinists might be inclined to use such a translation, Green rightly stresses the correct significance of the text:

Two theological affirmations resident in the angelic chorus deserve comment. First, “on earth peace” meshes with the hope for shalom, peace with justice, universal healing, found in the Scriptures. Moreover, it is explicitly related to the dominion of God and the coming of salvation as “good news” in a text like Isa 52:7. And this is reminiscent of the collage of images gathered in angelic and prophetic voices that together describe the coming of Jesus (e.g., 1:33, 69–75; 2:10–11). The Isaianic hope of universal healing lies behind the interpretation of Jesus’ significance here. This means, secondly, that the expression “those whom he favors” cannot be limited to its application to Israel only. Rather, shalom for Israel is tied up with shalom for the cosmos. Hence, although “whom he favors” is an affirmation of gracious election on God’s part, that graciousness extends to humanity. It should not be read in an exclusive sense—that is, not peace only to a select group whom he favors—but in an inclusive way: In the birth of this child, God’s mercy has fallen on the world. [Green, J. B. (1997). The Gospel of Luke. The New International Commentary on the New Testament (137). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.]

Much more could be said here, especially about how Luke’s relation to Isaiah’s Messianic vision at this point. However, it does seem to me that this text provides some grounds for affirming a “social” dimension to the gospel, as what the angels announce here is, after all, “good news”. Of course, there is no sense anywhere in scripture of pitting this dimension of the gospel against the salvation of people from the judgment of God and bondage to Satan for all eternity, and it would be dishonest to Luke to suggest he would think otherwise. Nevertheless, the very real “social” aspects of the Gospel can, I do not think, be either wholly spiritualized or wholly delayed to the eschaton, as Jesus’ ministry enacts them both in the “now” of salvation history: this is, it must be admitted, exactly what he says in Luke 4:18-21:

“‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.'”

This year, I pray all the readers of City of God would accept and savour the Gospel of Christmas: “to you is born this day… a Saviour, Christ, the Lord!”