What Does "Glory to God in the Highest" Mean in the Bible?
- Meg Bucher Writer and Author
- 2019 23 Dec
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” Luke 2:14
This beloved Christmas carol and treasured passage of Scripture permeates the season, from its appearance in our favorite TV specials to the repetition and plethora of different versions we listen to on our commute, in the office, and at home. The popular Christmas carol, “Glory to God in the Highest,” appears throughout the season, and its origin dwells in every believer, always. The greatest story of all time, the birth of God’s Son, is announced and treasured in this sacred song of worship.
What Is the Meaning of "Glory to God in the Highest" in the Bible?
“Glory to God in the highest” is located in the Gospel of Luke. From Paul’s writings, we know that Luke was a physician and a gentile. The method in which he wrote his gospel account reflects the observant and detailed recording of the events he witnessed.
Through Luke’s account of the night of Christ’s birth, we hear a heavenly choir of angels singing “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” The army of angels sang to shepherds on the night watch. The audience God chose is significant, and a detail Luke undoubtedly held close to his Gentile heart. Night-watch shepherds were the most undesirable class of people, and the perfectly represented what Jesus came to accomplish. Here, a heavenly choir of angels, singing to lowly, underserving shepherds.
The NIV Study Bible notes the ruler Augustus trying to convince the people he had established peace through propaganda. Though he had conquered immediate neighbors that harbored a threat, there were still enemies to fear. However, no political ploy or human strength could usher in peace but God, Himself. And He does so through Jesus. A few verses back (Luke 2:11), Luke records the prose that prefaced the angels’ song: “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Messiah, the Lord.” The Moody Bible Commentary explains the triple title given to Jesus, “Savior-Christ-Lord,” “highlight His mission, His royalty, and His authority.”
We know from Scripture each one of us has been created with a purpose, but only through Jesus can our lives bring “glory to God in the highest.” Jesus, Himself, came to glorify His Father in heaven by walking out God’s purpose for His earthly life. Jesus, fully God, sought to glorify His Father. “Other works of God are for his glory,” wrote Matthew Henry, “but the redemption of the world is for his glory in the highest.”
The word, “glory” in the original Greek language Luke wrote it in defines an “opinion, judgment, or view,” and exudes a reverent and majestic perspective that motivates praise and worship. It represents “a most glorious condition, most exalted state,” and of the “splendor and brightness” that defines glory, is “the kingly majesty of the Messiah.” The Greek word Luke used for “God” in this verse represents the Godhead, trinity: God the Father, Christ the son, and the Holy Spirit. Theos, is “spoken of the only and true God.” It is the root of the word, “theology.” “Good theology books are very important,” wrote Mike Leake, a Guest Contributor for Desiring God, “but …cannot replace what it means to know God. If your library doesn’t lead you to a deeper affection for Jesus, then it’s as useless as a collection of shells.”
“The Glory of God,” defines John Piper, “is his greatness, his beauty, and his worth on display.” Isaiah quoted angels saying, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory.” (Isaiah 6:3) The Hebrew word for glory also meaning honor and abundance. Jesus was the greatest expression of the love of God for us, the glory of God. “Those with whom he is pleased,” as Luke records at the end of the verse, refers to our union with His Son. And this is what God says about His Son, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matt 3:17). Luke, in his detailed account, sought out not to just to confirm factual accounts and proof of Jesus’ existence, but to bring us closer to the man He was, and the Savior He is.
When Did Glory to God in the Highest Become a Song?
“Glory to God” originated as a song, sung by an army of angels the night Christ was born. It still resounds, especially during the Christmas season. Dating back to the 4th century, the Latin version translated into the words we sing today surfaced around the year 690. Johann Sebastian Bach composed the famous cantata, “Glory to God in the Highest,” in 1743-1745. A cantata is a choral composition, as a lyric drama set to music but not to be acted. The tune was taken from a previous piece, and debuted on Christmas Day to celebrate the Peace of Dresden, celebrating relief from the Second Silesian War.
“The Gloria,” as the song is often referred to, is sung throughout the year as well as at Christmastime. Multiple versions of the song, by various artists, play throughout the Christmas season. Additionally, the passage from Luke, Chapter 2 is referenced in many carols in remembrance and celebration of Christ’s birth on earth. The refrain of the popular Christmas song, “Angels We Have Heard on High,” has ancient history. “People began to chant the phrase in worship services beginning in about 130 AD,” Whitney Hopler recorded, “In medieval times, French shepherds called this phrase out to each other when they were watching their flocks of sheep outside.” “Hark the Harold Angels Sing,” written by Charles Wesley in 1739, also breathes anthems of the army angles singing of Christ’s birth to the shepherds in Bethlehem.
Also inspired by the angel announcement of the Messiah’s birth was the Gloria in Excelsis, or doxology, “Gloria in Excelsis Deo.” It is used in the Catholic Mass, and in many traditional and non-traditional Sunday church services. A doxology is defined as an expression of praise to God.
What Makes “Glory to God in the Highest” one of the Most Popular Christmas Carols?
1. The Beautiful Scenery
The scene of this song was set better than any Hollywood stage could be constructed. It has not only carried it throughout the centuries but inspired others to write other songs about it this song! Just imagine, a heavenly choir of angels breaking through the dark stillness of night to sing glory to God and announce Jesus’ birth on earth! The powerful imagery of that day in time has been carried on pristinely throughout the centuries. Not a note of it wasted, all having meaning, as our intentional God forever broke through the darkness through Jesus, Our Savior. In a society driven by imagery, we have maintained this scene through the power of the The Word.
2. It Reminds Us of Our Purpose
The shepherds were poor and uneducated, the lowest class of society, and yet God interrupted them with a choir of angels. He chose them to be the first to hear the good news of Jesus’ birth! In urgency, they set off to find the baby in the manger. “We need a good dose of that ‘shepherd spirit’ today,” wrote Dr. Ray Pritchard, “We need their openness and eagerness and their gladness to share the good news Christ has come to the world.” “Glory to God in the Highest” is a carol that reminds us of our purpose, The Great Commission Jesus charged us with, to “Go!” just as the shepherds did that first Christmas night, and tell the good news of the Messiah!
3. The Angel Army
People have long been fascinated with angels. Dawn Wilson describes them as “God’s ‘messengers’, His special creations- called ‘flames of fire’ and sometimes described as fiery stars in the heavens.” Their message to the shepherds preserved for all time in God’s Word, and sung through the hymns and carols it has inspired. “Angels are invisible unless God chooses to make them visible,” Dawn Wilson writes, “The angelic host is too numerous to count; and while they are not all-powerful like God, angels to excel in strength.” A “host” refers to an army of angels, as captured by powerful vocal and musical renditions of the carol.
4. Light in the Darkness
Christmas is a season of hope, of pause, and thanksgiving and generosity. Decorative lights appropriately reflect the One True Light. Jesus is the light of the world. Recorded in John 8:12, Jesus says, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” His very birth brought forth light in the darkness, as the angels worshipped the glory of God. Apart from Jesus, we live in darkness. We are created to be drawn to Him, the Light in the darkness. In all of us, is the innate desire to be close to Him, because we are created to bring glory to God, and thus do so through our Savior, Jesus.
5. The Promise of Praise.
Scripture tells of the good that comes from praising God. Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” Gratefulness and worship right our hearts in a world bent on dragging us daily through the mud of despair and tragedy. God created us, and commands us, to worship Him, and Him alone. He instructs us to be grateful, not to worry, and to put our trust in Him alone.
“Glory to God in the Highest” can be sung as a banner over our circumstances, and a celebration of the unimaginably good character of our God. The birth of Christ is one of the most important events in human history. The promise of peace, satisfaction, and eternal safety are things we long for on this earth. And so, this hymn of praise continues to remind and reassure us . . . He has come! The Messiah, the Savior of the World, has come. He is setting things right and will return. And while we wait with anticipation, we continue to sing of that holy night, when Christ was born.
A Prayer to Glorify God in the Highest
Our Father, God,
This is the day You have made. We will rejoice and be glad in it! In Your Word, we always find the Truth. In Luke 2:14, we treasure the sweetness Luke so carefully penned and preserved. The way You have passed the scene of the first Christmas night down through generations and through centuries is incredible, miraculous, and amazing. Jesus, as the Father’s perfect expression of love, You came to earth to be with us …and still remain with every believer. Let us remember the angels glorious chorus and sing praise regardless of our circumstances and feelings. Help us, by the power of Your Holy Spirit, remember You, embrace You, hear You, and follow You, always. We confess our lack of trust in You, Father, and fickle faith. Glory to You, Oh, God, in the highest! And bring us peace, Father. Your peace, which surpasses all understanding, this Christmas Season, and always. Let the scene of an army of angels, breaking through the dark night sky to shock the shepherds into movement and mention of the Messiah, reign in our hearts and stay atop our minds.
In Jesus’ Name, we pray,
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/ifc2
Meg writes about everyday life within the love of Christ as an author, freelance writer, and blogger at Sunny&80. Her first book, “Friends with Everyone,” is available on amazon.com. She earned a Marketing/PR degree from Ashland University but stepped out of the business world to stay at home and raise her two daughters. Besides writing, she leads a Bible Study for Women and serves as a Youth Ministry leader in her community. She lives in Northern Ohio with her husband, Jim, and two daughters.