No, Christ's Birth Was Not to Get As Many People As Possible Into Heaven

As we read the Christmas story from Luke 2, we see the announcement of Christ’s birth first being made to shepherds. After an angel announced Christ’s birth to the shepherds, a multitude of heavenly host appeared with the angel praising God (Luke 2:13). They praised God by proclaiming what the birth of the Messiah meant for people. I want to consider the angels’ short praise and the proclaimed meaning of Christ’s birth according to Luke’s Gospel.

Luke 2:14

Glory to God in the highest,

And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.

God’s glory in the incarnation (v. 14a)

This angelic praise serves as a purpose statement for God the Son’s incarnation as Jesus Christ. The angelic hosts are praising God the Father for what will be accomplished through Christ’s birth. It is so crazy how we seem to make it through every Christmas season without considering why Jesus was born and what precisely His birth accomplishes. I have a feeling that the purpose statement God attached to Christ’s birth through this angelic praise is going to shock or surprise some of us because we grow up hearing that Christ was simply born to die so that all people might have some chance at eternal life. While I appreciate the sentiment, it seems nonsensical that God would need to become a man and die if His goal was simply to give people a chance to live forever. He could have created humanity without the ability to sin if that were His goal. Luke attaches a very specific purpose statement to Christ’s birth. The first part of this praise is,

Glory to God in the highest…

The angels’ praise does not begin with humanity. They do not celebrate the opening of Heaven’s door. They do not extol the Father for Christ’s incarnation because people will now have the opportunity to be saved. Contrarily, the angels proclaim the Father’s glory in response to the son’s incarnation. This realization is going to shake some brains because we have reduced the Christmas message to, “Look at what Christ did for us!” The angels, who are speaking Heaven’s message in praise, speak the true Christmas message—look at what the most high God is doing for His own glory!

How does the incarnation and God’s Christmas message through these angels serve God’s glory, not ours? 

Isaiah 42:5-9

Thus says God the Lord, Who created the heavens and stretched them out, Who spread out the earth and its offspring, Who gives breath to the people on it And spirit to those who walk in it, “I am the Lord, I have called You in righteousness, I will also hold You by the hand and watch over You, And I will appoint You as a covenant to the people, As a light to the nations, To open blind eyes, To bring out prisoners from the dungeon And those who dwell in darkness from the prison. I am the Lord, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, Nor My praise to graven images. Behold, the former things have come to pass, Now I declare new things; Before they spring forth I proclaim them to you.”

God’s dealing with Israel began with His calling and His covenant. He selected Israel to be a light to the nations. Israel was to explicitly proclaim the glory of God to the nations. Isaiah wrote his prophecy 700 years before Christ’s incarnation. Israel’s purpose is fulfilled in Christ’s incarnation. Christ is the light dawning on the nations and revealing the glory of God the Father. If we hear or have bought into such a gospel that claims Christ came primarily to get people into Heaven, to set an example for us, or to help us overcome addiction, problems, or circumstances, we have believed in a false version of Jesus Christ. The Old Testament prophesied that the Messiah would be about the glory of the Father. The Gospels record that Jesus’s primary concern is the glory of the Father. Other New Testament writers recognize that Christ’s work accomplished the Father’s glory, including Paul in his letter to the saints:

Ephesians 2:8-9

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.

God’s glory is the motivating factor of salvation, not granting people a mere chance to live forever. Everlasting live is secondary to eternal life. The salvation of God’s people is done in such a way that people are unable to boast about overcoming anything, about keeping the Law, about being good enough, about praying a prayer, or anything else. God does not share His glory. The primary purpose of Christ’s incarnation is presented throughout the Bible as God’s glory alone and never the exaltation of people. So, God grants everlasting life through Christ for His glory and not specifically to be sure people can go to paradise. We have largely missed this fact that the Bible presents throughout.

God’s favor in the incarnation (v. 14b)

In the second line of the angels’ praise, we see how God’s glory is achieved among people through the incarnation. Before we get at what Christ’s incarnation achieves among people, we need to recognize a translation difference. Virtually every decent translation of the Bible reflects the translation of the NASB:

And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.

There is one exception. The King James and New King James translate the verse:

And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!

The majority translation indicates that, in the incarnation, God is declaring peace to people whom He wills or pleases. The King James translation indicates that God is, in the incarnation, providing peace to the whole earth and extending His good will to every man. These differing translations mean much for the way we think about Christ’s work in His incarnation. Christ either came to bring peace and accept all people or to declare peace to the people God has already chosen according to His own pleasure and will. Both cannot be true. There can be no cross-contamination. These two opposing translations are irreconcilable. One must be correct and one must be incorrect. Luckily, it is not too difficult to discover which is correct. We simply read the Greek (the autographical language).

Δοξα εν υψιστοις θεω

Glory to most high God

και επι γης ειρηνη εν ανθρχποις ευδοκιας (one variant exists, saying “εν ανθρωποις ευδοκια,” but does not effect the translation into English)

and on Earth peace to men (here to mean people generally) of favor (good will or good pleasure).

So, the majority translation is correct and there is no way to arrive at the King James translation without adding words. Even the Vulgate reflects the Greek accurately. I’m not really sure why the King James translators translated this praise the way they did. It is not what the Bible says.

The incarnation accomplishes peace on earth to men of good favor. What does this mean?From the immediate context, we can see clearly that what is accomplished among people is accomplished for God’s glory, not people’s. This means that the will or pleasure being referred to is not that of people. It is why the translators of majority texts have translated it in this way, “And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” The translation reflects the pointing of the Greek text. The mistranslation we see in the King James represents a very selfish, human-entered way of thinking about the Gospel and reflects the exact opposite of the Bible’s actual explanation. We don’t want to rely only on the immediate context, here. We must observe the rest of Scripture and interpret Scripture using Scripture so that we can get the full force of angels’ praise.

In Luke 19:8-10, Jesus explains why He came to Earth. So, we not only receive an explanation from the herald angels but, also, from Christ Himself:

Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.”

And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

Jesus explained to Zaccheus why He visited Zaccheus’s house. It was not because Zaccheus was seeking after Christ. It was not because Zaccheus was worthy. It was not to help Zaccheus become a better person. In response to Jesus’s visit, Zaccheus starts talking about all the stuff he will do to make up for his wrongs. He is talking about what he might do for Christ and for the kingdom. Jesus does not condone Zaccheus’s efforts. Instead, Jesus replied by telling him a different story. Jesus was saving Zaccheus because Zaccheus was a son of Abraham and for no other reason. Christ came to seek and save that which was lost. Zaccheus could not contribute to his salvation at all. Jesus declared peace to Zaccheus on the basis of God’s will and pleasure. This is for God’s glory such that Zaccheus cannot boast. That’s unconditional grace, unconditional election.

Not only this, but Isaiah prophesied that Christ would save people in this way:

But the Lord was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper in His hand. As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities.

Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, And He will divide the booty with the strong; Because He poured out Himself to death, And was numbered with the transgressors; Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, And interceded for the transgressors (Isaiah 53:10-12).

Christ came to seek and save the lost, the many (not all) whose sin He would bear. Not only did Isaiah prophesy this 700 years before the incarnation and not only does Christ reveal this to Zaccheus, but Paul writes about it in his Ephesian letter:

He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved (Ephesians 1:5-6).

The incarnation accomplishes peace on earth to those whom God wills, favors, or is pleased with. This is done according to the kind intention of God’s will, not ours. It is done for the purpose of God’s glory, not ours. This is the single story that the whole Bible tells.

Reflections

It breaks my heart that so many people have reduced the Gospel of Jesus Christ to, “God is trying to get as many people into heaven as possible,” or “God wants to make your life better,” or “Come to Christ if you want things to work out for you.” That is a selfish Christmas message and is contrary to the message of God’s Bible. It is a false, human-centered Gospel. God saves everyone He means to save through the incarnation because He has declared peace to all of those He wills. He seeks and saves His lost children. That is what the incarnation accomplishes and God does not fail. This is all done for God’s glory alone, so that people cannot boast about their goodness, what they have overcome, or about how they chose Christ. This is the purpose of Christmas, of the incarnation. If Christ is calling you to follow Him, repent and believe. Follow Him without reserve. Plug into a healthy local church that preaches the true Gospel and does not misrepresent God’s word like so many do.

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