On Earth Peace, Goodwill Toward Men
Most people, even if they are not frequent Bible readers or Church attendees, find the language of the Luke 2 account of Jesus' birth familiar. The King James words are as well-known as many Christmas carols: "Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people….Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."
We could take the statement “on earth peace, good will toward men” with a grain of salt if a songwriter or poet or a world leader uttered them. But those words are connected with the arrival of a Messiah. We may not be able to precisely define the word “Messiah”, but most people would expect a Messiah to give us something better than nice words to put on Christmas cards that are discarded after the season is over.
The phrase "on earth peace, good will toward men" is important because that's what we really need on earth. Who are the recipients of the peace promised here? We get slightly different answers depending on what Bible translation we read. The King James Version says simply "men", i.e. all people. The Douay-Rheims says "men of good will". The New American Standard says "men with whom he is pleased". The Message (which is a paraphrase, not a translation) says, "men and women on earth who please him."
These, and other translations, might cause us to think that the message of the angels is that God gives us peace if we are peaceful people, or if we please God. But that means that peace on earth depends on us. That makes God like Santa, who gives good gifts only to good boys and girls. We would expect a Messiah to do better than Santa.
I would say that the New International Versions translates this phrase most accurately. The NIV says “on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests”. Grace is defined as "unmerited favor", i. e. a free gift. That suggests that the word "grace" could be substituted for "favor" here. The Expositor's Bible Commentary supports that substitution: "[The statement “on earth peace, good will toward men” is] more in accordance with the doctrine of grace than is the idea that those of 'good will' are rewarded with peace."
Whatever God does for us is by grace (a free gift - see Eph 2:1-10). The "good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people" is that all people have been declared "good" by God's free gift because of what happened on Good Friday.
Therefore, unlike Santa, God does not see the world as good and bad, but as believers and non-believers. Some people believe in Jesus and accept his free gift, which is to say that God's favor (grace) rests on them. Others do not believe in Jesus and reject his gift, which is to say that God's favor (grace) does not rest on them. (For simplicity I am speaking of belief and non-belief as two extremes; the reality is that each of us is on a continuum somewhere between total belief and total non-belief.)
When a believer meets another person - whether that other person is a believer or a non-believer - the believer has God's help from the Holy Spirit to reinforce belief or introduce belief. Thus every believer can be a conduit of the peace from God in every human interaction. Belief in Jesus is the often-untapped power for peace on earth.
Another Christmas Message; Jesus or Someone Else?