The word ‘angel’ simply means messenger – though the reaction of those who saw them suggests they were an unusual – even terrifying – variety of messenger! Even in the Bible, a visit from an army of angels was a rare experience (as were virgin births!). The point is that this is a completely unique announcement of a completely unique birth.
Even if the angels were real, isn’t ‘peace on earth’ a naïve message?
Jesus makes it clear later in His ministry that there will always be conflicts in the age we live in – tragically, this is obviously true. But a real and present peace will now be possible – ‘shalom’ between people and their Maker – through this baby king.
How come reconciliation is required between ‘God and sinners’ in the first place?
The Bible describes the relationship between us and God as more characterised by conflict than peace. We all naturally reject God’s good rule and leadership of His world, and prefer to put the crown on our own heads. Not only does this lead us into lives that fall short of God’s good purposes for us – we face the inevitability of death and God’s just punishment for ruining His world. That all sounds pretty grim! The reason for the angels’ elation is that the Prince of Peace Himself has just broken into time and space to change everything...
Can the birth of one baby really change the world?
The carol highlights some of the qualities that make this baby king the special one. God living amongst us, as one of us – and yet a life of such perfect righteousness and goodness that enabled Him to break the cycle of brokenness. Jesus is repeatedly called ‘Christ’ in the carol – the word means Messiah, God’s rescuer King. His humble and surprising beginnings in a stable would set the tone for His entire ministry. A Roman cross would eventually be the unexpected arena where this Christ would reign and rescue in glory – paying for the sins of the world, and confronting death and punishment in our place.
Isn’t that the point of Easter, rather than Christmas?
The Bible very much sees the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus as one piece – notice that by the end of the carol we’re singing of the risen Jesus and the new life He brings to others. This is ultimately why the tone of the carol is so joyful – relationship with God can be healed in the present through the newborn King; and in the future, those who trust Him will be raised to new life in a world where even death won’t be able to shatter the peace.
More than Christmas sentimentalism?
Christians have carried on believing and singing and heralding the angels’ message for 2,000 years. All of the claims in the carol have their roots in first century historical sources preserved for us in the New Testament. Have a look at them if you haven’t for a while – Matthew and Luke's gospels in particular begin with the nativity scene and connect the events at the Bethlehem manger to God's broader purposes through His Christ. If His birth really is the gateway to new birth and hope for the world, wouldn’t it be worth a look? You might even find yourself joining in the song:
‘Glory to the newborn King!’