“Glory in the highest heavens to God. This first phrase of Luke 2:14 has only four words in the Greek text, and what they mean is not debated by scholars. Nevertheless, most modern versions say, “Glory to God in the highest,” which does not communicate well to the modern reader, and in fact can be confusing.
Scholars agree that the idea of the verse is that it is the angels and spiritual beings who dwell in the highest places who give glory to God.
The word “highest” is a common Greek word, hupsistos (#5310 ὕψιστος), and it is an adjective describing the highest place, or the highest rank. As an adjective, it needs a noun to fully complete its sense. We would say, “Glory to God in the highest places,” using the italics like the KJV, NASB, and ASV, to show that “places” is not in the Greek text but added for clarity. “Glory to God in the highest heavens” is a good translation. The “highest heaven” in this phrase is contrasted with the earth, a lower place, in the next phrase. Thus there is glory “in heaven,” and peace “on earth.” The birth of the savior was a cause for the spiritual beings of the highest heavens to glorify God, because the savior is not only the redeemer of mankind, but of the very universe itself, which is under bondage and decaying (Rom. 8:20-23). This same phrase, “in the highest heaven,” is also used in Luke 19:38.
The phrase “highest heaven” does not imply there is more than one heaven, with one heaven being higher than another, but rather the phrase uses the word “heaven” in its biblical sense: “heaven” is always plural in Hebrew and often plural in Greek. English readers do not get to see that because the translators almost always say “heaven” even when the Hebrew and Greek reads “heavens.”
Both the Hebrew and Greek texts indicate that “the heavens” are a vast realm, with higher and lower parts, which is what we see in part when we look up. We know the moon is “lower” than the sun, and the sun is “lower” than the stars, but even so we consider all of what is above us “heaven.” People in Bible times said, “the heavens.” Thus, the “highest places” or “highest heavens” refers to the highest places in the heavenly realm and by extension to the exalted spiritual beings who dwell in the highest part of heaven. This alludes to the fact that there is a hierarchy among spirits, with some being more powerful or prominent than others, something we see in other places in the Bible as well. This verse is saying that all through the heavens, even to the highest parts, there is glory given to God at the birth of the Messiah.
“on earth peace among people with whom he is well pleased.” This phrase in Luke 2:14 differs in different translations of the Bible. For example, if we compare the King James with the New American Standard Bible, the KJV reads, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men,” but the NASB reads, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” There is a big difference between the meanings of these two versions. Is God’s peace to some people, or all people? The difference in translation is due to the way this verse was copied from one Greek manuscript to the next at some early date in history. The copying of one manuscript to another is referred to as the “transmission of the text,” and sometimes mistakes were made in copying, just as can happen today when someone copies something. Thankfully, due to the extensive number of early manuscripts available today, computer technology that allows very accurate comparison of the texts, and the hard work of scholars, the modern Greek text of the New Testament is quite accurate.
The problem in translating Luke 2:14 has to do with the very last word in the Greek text of the verse, which in some manuscripts is eudokias (a genitive) and in others eudokia (a nominative). Debates raged hot and heavy for centuries as to which reading was original, with scholars on both sides arguing for their point of view. The debate continued through the early 1900’s, subsided during the middle of that century, and today is considered settled by textual scholars. This is in part due to a better understanding of the development of the Greek text over time, and in part due to the discovery and coordination of more Greek manuscripts, including a discovery in the Dead Sea Scrolls (first discovered in 1947). Thus, the modern versions of the Bible, such as the Amplified Bible, ESV, NIV, NRSV, and more, all say something that parallels the NASB shown above. The reading eudokias, which is the genitive case, is clearly the original reading, and the variant, eudokia, was created when the “s” was dropped.
The issue of the correct reading of the Greek text being settled, we still must translate the text into English in the best way possible. Along with the glory that the angels of heaven give to God, there is to be peace on earth. But to whom? The Greek phrase is only three words, and is literally translated, “among men of goodwill.” The truth being communicated is that there is peace from God to people with whom He has goodwill. Modern versions try to express this idea, but often with varying degrees of success. Nevertheless, the point is that God’s peace is not to everyone; it is for those people who have turned their hearts to Him. This fits perfectly with the Old Testament prophecies and predictions of the coming Messiah, who was foretold to be a warrior for God, delivering His people while destroying His enemies. Furthermore, Jesus said, “Don’t assume that I came to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34).
The peace that God’s people will enjoy is clearly linked in prophecy to the destruction of those who oppose God. It is undeniable that the lives of godly people would be more peaceful if there were no wicked people on earth. The people of God will enjoy peace in the future in part because Jesus Christ will destroy the wicked and unrepentant. Scripture never says that the ungodly or unsaved have peace with God. Romans 5:1 says, “…we [Christians] have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” It does not say, “Everyone” has peace with God. The Church Epistles thus echo what the Old Testament and Gospels proclaim: that the peace of God is for those who have believed in God.
Although it has been many centuries since Christ came and there is still not peace on earth, God’s plan of peace on earth will one day be fulfilled. Some day in the future Jesus Christ will come to earth and fight the Battle of Armageddon and conquer the earth, and the prophecies will be fulfilled: his kingdom will fill the earth (Dan. 2:35), and “of his government and of his peace there will be no end” (Isa. 9:7). Thus it was appropriate that on the day of Christ’s birth some 2,000 years ago, the angelic army of heaven descended to the earth and proclaimed to mankind, “Glory in the highest heavens to God, and on earth peace among people with whom he is well pleased” (Revised English Version).