The Christmas Carol
(Hark, the Herald Angels Sing!)
© C. O. Bishop 12/17/14
275 years ago, this month (in 1739), a new Hymn appeared in English publishing houses: Charles Wesley, by that time 32 years of age, had produced yet another hymn honoring the God of the Bible, and carefully teaching the doctrines of Christ. During his 81 years he wrote and published in excess of 6,000 hymns…some sources say 7,000.
In nearly the middle of his life, at 31 years of age, on May 21st, 1738, he experienced what evangelical Christians call “conversion”. His elder brother, John Wesley, had the same experience a few days later. It is also interesting to note that Charles was the one who originally began a methodical Bible study at the college they both attended, and John joined it (and ultimately took it over) about two years later. They went on to minister together, though they did not agree on all things…for example, John left the Anglican Church; Charles stayed with it all his life. But when John preached, Charles wrote Hymns to teach the same doctrines. I have no idea what John Wesley’s Christmas sermon was, a year and a half after his conversion, but I do have the following hymn, written by Charles Wesley, 18 months after his conversion: The Hymn we call “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”
Except for the fact that there is no Biblical record of the angels “singing” at the birth of Christ, this hymn is one of the most doctrinally pure songs in existence, and is rich with meaning. Ironically, though the title and first line as we know it are now permanently a part of that song, those are not the words that Charles Wesley wrote—he had written, “Hark how all the Welkins Ring!” (“welkin” being an old English word for heaven) So even that line could originally have been called more or less accurate, as at least the angelic host said from the sky “Glory to God in the Highest!” And: who knows? Maybe they sang, too. We know they sang at the creation. God says so in the book of Job.
At any rate: if I may be so bold as to try some “reverse engineering,” let me attempt to reconstruct what John Wesley may have taught, which prompted such a Hymn from brother Charles.
He began with the Christmas story itself, and worked outward from there, demonstrating how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies and promises of God throughout History. Though the song is written in such an order as to rhyme and be memorable, I would think that John may have begun at the beginning…so that is where I will begin.
In the Beginning:
Christ, by highest heaven adored, Christ, the everlasting lord
Psalm 90:2 states “From Everlasting to Everlasting, thou art God.” Psalm 41:13 agrees, saying “Blessed is the LORD God of Israel, from everlasting (eternity past) and to everlasting.“ Micah 5:2 gives us a hint as to whom it might refer: “But thou, Bethlehem Ephrata, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall He come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel, whose goings forth have been from old, from everlasting.” Isaiah 9:6 says, “Unto us a Son is given…and His name shall be called (among other precious names) The Everlasting Father!” And in Hebrews 1:6, God the Father, referring to God the Son, commanded his angelic hosts, saying, “Let all the angels of God worship Him!” and again, in Hebrews 1:10, Still referring to the Son, “…Thou Lord, in the beginning, hast laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the works of thine hands!”
He is the Creator, the eternal God, and the Judge of all the earth. Yes! He is the everlasting Lord…in fact, the Jehovah of the Old Testament, who appeared to Israel and to the world, is the Jesus of the New Testament. I do not pretend to understand this truth, but the scripture is absolutely clear about it, and all I can do is preach it faithfully. He was (and is) worshipped by the angels in heaven…and there will come a day when every knee shall bow—even of those who are his enemies.
Rise, the Woman’s conquering Seed, Bruise in us the Serpent’s head.
You remember how, in the Garden of Eden, when Adam sinned, God’s curse fell on the serpent, the woman, and all the earth for the Man’s sake. We fell with Adam—all of us were born in his image. But the promise of God (Jesus, as we now know; Genesis 3:15) was that the “Seed of the Woman” would eventually “bruise” (or, in our language, “crush”) the Serpent’s head—He was to undo the fatal work that Satan had accomplished in causing the spiritual death of the entire human race. This was the only promise of hope in the judgment that came because of sin. Adam believed that promise, and God clothed him in the skin of a slain animal—the first blood sacrifice—a substitute for the sinner, looking forward to the Cross. The promise was made then and there. The promise was believed then and there. Atonement was made—the sins of Adam and Eve were covered by the blood of God’s chosen sacrifice. Jesus is the only person in History who can be accurately called the “Seed of Woman”…everyone else has a human father. Jesus did not. He alone has the capacity to undo the evil work of Satan in each of us. Incidentally, as we have stressed before, the old sacrifices could only cover sin. The blood of Jesus removes it—takes it away.
Looking Forward, in Faith
Come, Desire of nations come,
Not all people have looked forward in faith to the coming of Christ. Job knew what was coming, though he had no Bible to read: he said “I know that my Redeemer lives!” He understood that he had been bought out of the marketplace of Sin, and had been set free. Among the people of Israel, not everyone was looking for the Savior, either, but some were: Simeon recognized the baby Jesus as soon as he saw him: he took Jesus in his arms and blessed God, saying that this child was to be a Light to the Gentiles and the Glory of Israel. The Roman Centurion, Cornelius, was living in Caesarea and was a believing Gentile; he was longing for the God of Israel. The Apostle Peter was sent to Him with the Gospel of Christ. Cornelius eagerly received the Promise of God, and was gloriously born again. Jesus has been the hope of those few that believe, in every nation throughout all ages.
The believers who were in Israel (and any believer who joined himself or herself to Israel) placed their hope in the Passover Lamb. And that Lamb was a pre-figuring of Jesus. Boaz blessed Ruth, saying “A full reward be given thee of the LORD God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to trust.” Boaz knew what it took to be saved.
The Fulfillment of Promise
Late in time behold Him come, Off-spring of the Virgin’s womb
From our perspective it was a long time coming…but God says it was “at the right time”—in due time. He says it was “in the fullness of time”—when the time was ripe. He wasn’t early—and he wasn’t late.
And, while a lot of people balk at the virgin birth, if you study your Bible you’ll find that, if He was to be the savior, the virgin birth was absolutely necessary. It was not just extra proof, or anything like that. If He had a human father, he was not the Seed of Woman. And if Joseph was his father, then he was banned from being king of the Jews, because Joseph was a distant descendant of a cursed king. Only God could bring about the virgin birth, and it had to be done.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see: Hail, the incarnate deity
Colossians 2:9 states that “in him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead, bodily.” John 1:1 says,“ in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” John 1:14 says, “and the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of Grace and Truth.” We are expected to see the eternal God, walking in human flesh, and recognize that seeming impossibility as the eternal Hope of the Human race. We are not expected to understand it—just to accept it by faith.
Pleased as Man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel.
One of the prophecies called His name Emmanuel—“God with us” (Matthew 1:23, quoting Isaiah 7:14). And that is exactly who he was, but he came and lived as a man: not a “super-man” or a demigod; just a man. He was specifically assigned to live in humility and poverty, and to suffer all the normal vicissitudes of life at that time. How do I know he was poor? The sacrifice his parents brought—the two doves—were a substitute for the Lamb that was ordinarily brought, and was specifically called out as the correct sacrifice for a son born into a family that was “very poor”. Another interesting idea, to me, is that he did not have a Lamb that redeemed him, personally. He celebrated the Passover, but, in my mind, it is somehow fitting that since He was the Lamb of God, no four-legged lamb should be his substitute. Perhaps a minor point, and possibly even mistaken, but it caught my attention. He lived a holy life—entirely without sin, though in all other respects, completely normal to the time and place. He lived as a man.
Receiving the Promise
Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace,
That line is a command, actually: We are called upon to receive this emissary of God; Hail him! Greet him as a king! Greet him as God! Believe His Word. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But to as many as received him, to them he gave power (authority) to become (Greek, “gennesthe”—to be born) sons (children—teknon) of God.
Isaiah 9:7 states that he shall be called the “Prince of Peace”. He is the author of our Peace with God—truly the Prince of Peace. We can either receive him as he is presented by God, or we can “re-invent” him (as many do) and only serve our imagination. The Biblical Jesus is the God of the Universe—not just an exalted man or a powerful spirit being. If he is not God, he is not the Savior, because Isaiah 43:11 states that apart from the LORD (Jehovah) there is no Savior! Jesus stated the other half of that equation: John 14:6 “I am the Way, the truth and the Life: no man cometh unto the Father but by Me!”
Hail, the Sun of Righteousness, Risen with healing in His Wings!
Malachi 4:2 says, “…but unto you who fear my name shall the Sun of Righteousness arise with Healing in His wings!” Light and life to all He brings, John 1:4 says “In Him was life, and the Life was the Light of Men.” These are direct quotes from the Word of God! This is not someone’s imagination running wild.
Mild, He lays His Glory by,
Philippians 2:5-8 says that He laid aside his position as deity, his prerogatives as God, and lived life as a man; even as a poor man, and a servant—not a royal hero, or a shining warrior-priest, or any of the things we might find attractive. And, in that same passage we are told to lay aside privilege and position, and emulate His humility, offering ourselves as servants.
Born that man no more may die. Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth.
Jesus said that he had come to give his life a ransom for many. He told Pilate, “…for this cause am I come into the world, to bear witness to the truth.” He bore final witness to the truth of Man’s sin and God’s Judgment and Grace at the Cross, just hours later, dying to pay the price of the sins of the lost Human Race. He told Nicodemus “ye must be born again”, and that whoever believed in him would not perish. He told the Jews to whom he gave the bread and fish, “He that heareth my Word, and believeth on Him who sent me, has everlasting Life, and shall not come into condemnation, but has crossed over from death into life.” In Ephesians 2:6 we find that those believers have already been “raised up”, and seated in Heaven with Christ.
Come, Desire of nations come, Fix in us Thy humble home;
Those who believe in the Jesus Christ of the Biblical record receive him as their savior…and He, in the person of the Holy Spirit, comes and takes up residence in the body of each believer. We invite him to do so, by faith. We affirm our trust in Him, taking him at his Word…and He takes us at our Word and claims us as his own.
Adam’s likeness now efface: Stamp Thine image in its place;
Each of us has been born in the likeness of Adam; rebellious, doubting, self-centered…and lost. Each of us who has believed the good news of Jesus has been born again. Our old sin nature—the Adamic nature—has been defeated, dethroned, and deposed…and will eventually be deceased …and gone.
Second Adam, from above, Reinstate us in thy love.
Jesus is called the “second man”, “the last Adam”, in 1st Corinthians 15:45, 47. Adam was the head of the natural race, and, as the head, when he fell into sin, he took the entire race with him. In the sense that he was the head of the race, he was a prefiguring of Christ: Jesus is the head of the new man, the Body of Christ… and as its head, when he walked in righteousness, died in obedience, and was bodily resurrected; he took with him all those whose faith is placed in Him. We have been redeemed by His blood, accepted in Him as the beloved of God, and completely enveloped in the Love of Christ.
Joyful, all ye nations, rise. Join the triumph of the skies.
Now we are free to serve Him. How? A host of opportunities present themselves but the one task we are all assigned is representing Him and His love to the World around us. We are called to be his ambassadors. All the nations in history who rejoiced in the savior also rejoiced in missions, at least for a time. And that is how we join in the triumph of the skies—we proclaim his birth, and, more specifically, His death, burial, and resurrection to the dying world. We offer the hope and Joy of Christmas every day of the year.
With th’ Angelic Hosts proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
That is our job, friends; and it is intended to be our passion and our Joy! Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of Him that sent me and to finish His work.” Do you remember that context?
John 4:34 Jesus was waiting outside Sychar, a city of Samaria, and could see the people flocking to see him, on the testimony of the woman at the well. The disciples knew he had not eaten for a long time, and were trying to persuade him to stop working and eat. He said, “This is my food!” In the context, he was talking about evangelism: the joy of bringing other people to saving faith.
Peace on earth, and mercy mild: God and sinners reconciled!”
Heavenly peace and the reconciliation of God and Man were promised by angelic messengers, speaking from the sky on that night in Bethlehem. We know from our Bibles that the full promised peace will only come when Sin is finally gone. There will be great peace during the Millennial kingdom, but it will not be permanent. After the New Heaven and New Earth are introduced, there will be eternal peace and harmony between God and Man.
As I mentioned earlier, I can’t say for sure whether the angelic host actually sang that night. But I know that they sang at the creation, and this event, the birth of the Savior, was greater than the creation. So perhaps they did sing. Either way, we are called to respond to the message:
Hark! (Listen!) The Herald Angels Sing: Glory to the Newborn King.
Glorify him in your life, by word and deed; by thought and attitude. Serve with Joy, not grudgingly, as if it were a chore. We have the very temporary privilege of serving with him, to spread the joy of Christ in the World in which we live.
This is our one opportunity to serve: Let’s do it!