Last week we looked at the yearning that Israel had for God to send the promised Deliverer – the only One who could rescue them from the disastrous consequences of their sin and rebellion against God. We saw that we have the same needs as they did, and that to Deliver His people, God Himself came as a man to be with them (Emmanuel means “God with Us”). If you are feeling cut off from God, enslaved to your sin, in terrible darkness and afraid of death, Jesus was sent to save people just like you, if you will trust Him to do it!
This week we want to turn our attention to a really popular and quite wonderful hymn that celebrates the arrival into the world of this Emmanuel – the birth of the Son of God, Jesus Christ:
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King;
peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
join the triumph of the skies;
with th’angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King.”
Christ, by highest heav’n adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold him come,
offspring of the Virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
hail th’incarnate Deity,
pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Hail, the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
ris’n with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
born that man no more may die,
born to raise the sons of earth,
born to give them second birth.
This was written by Charles Wesley – quite remarkably within 12 months of his conversion! We owe a debt of gratitude to God for such a wonderful distillation of gospel truth, and we should also be grateful for the editorial work of George Whitefield, who changed the first line of the hymn to the one we see above, rather easier to understand than what Wesley had originally written – “Hark how all the welkin rings”!
The first verse takes us out to the pastures surrounding Bethlehem, and to a group of shepherds on night-duty, watching over their sheep to keep them safe, when they suddenly receive a spectacular news bulletin that would quite literally change the entire course of events in the world:
Luke 2:8–14 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
How marvelously typical of our great God to end thousands of years of waiting and longing by announcing the coming of the Messiah, the Deliverer, the pivotal point in human history, to just a few shepherds out in a field near a small town in the middle of nowhere! That’s not how we tend to make our important news known, but God often doesn’t do things the way we would! The information that the angel brought was “good news of great joy for all the people” but it was made known in the first place to lowly shepherds. I think this shows us that God wants to deal even with the least and the lowest of us (in human terms) and that His Son, Jesus Christ, was not being sent only to deliver the rich, the high-born, the famous, the strong and the clever. Jesus came to those who know they have a big problem in their relationship with God and that only God can fix it, as we saw last week.
I have picked out in bold in the passage above the elements of Luke’s account that Wesley/Whitefield condense into the first half of this verse. The angels’ declaration. The One Who had been born was a king. And not just any king. He was THE king God had promised, who would be descended from David and would reign eternally on David’s throne. Indeed, the last line of this verse reminds us, Christ was born in Bethlehem. This was the town where king David was born, and where the birth of the great King in David’s line would also take place according to the prophecy given to Micah (Micah 5:2-5).
The angels call Him “Christ”, which means “Anointed”. The Hebrew equivalent of this is “Messiah”. It calls to mind all the Old Testament passages about “The Anointed”. Moreover, it calls to mind promises about The Prophet like Moses, The Priest in the line of Melchizedek and the King in the line of David, since those who occupied the roles of prophet, priest and king in Israel were anointed with oil as they began to serve, and Jesus holds all three of these offices. And He is called “The Lord” since He is God come to earth as a man. This is confirmed, too, as the angels ascribe glory to the One Who had just been born – something that they could really only do if Jesus was God Himself.
Wesley tells us, too, that this new-born king would bring peace on earth. Not absence of noise or of human warfare, but peace with God for those who would receive Him. The exile that began as Adam and Eve were thrown out of Eden would be ended. God and sinful man – enemies since that day, would be reconciled through the work of this King, and all of His mercy – sparing us the death and hell that are the just rewards for our sin.
No wonder, then, in the light of this good news, that in the second half of the verse we are all encouraged to join the angels in rejoicing and marveling at what God did in mercifully sending Jesus Christ, the promised Deliverer, that night!
The second verse of the hymn expands upon Who this Christ is Who came to earth in such humble circumstances.
- He is adored in highest heaven (meaning by all the powers and authorities in the heavenly places, including, above all, His Father).
- He is the everlasting Lord – again acknowledging that He is God, having no beginning and no end and possessing by right the title of “Lord” which is given to God.
- He came “late in time”, not at all meaning that His coming was delayed but rather that it had been promised from the earliest days and now “at just the right time” (as Paul says in Romans 5:6) He had come. Also, Scriptures are clear that the coming of Christ ushered in a new era in the outworking of God’s purposes. From this standpoint, Christ’s coming puts an end to what came before (see Hebrews 9:26, where Jesus is said to have come “at the end of the ages”) and opens up something new, often called “The Last Days”.
- He was born to a woman who was a virgin – something that was foretold for the Messiah in Isaiah 7:13-15.
- Although He was appearing in flesh (having fully taken a human nature) Christ is fully God too. He is the God-man, Christ Jesus.
- Wesley says He was “pleased” to dwell as a man with men. We mustn’t understand this to mean that being here with us was a source of delight to Him in and of itself. It is clear that His pure and spotless soul was tormented every moment as He witnessed and experienced the ruin that sin had brought to the creation that He had once regarded with such delight and had proclaimed to be “very good”. Rather, I think Wesley means that Christ came in subjection to the will of the Father on a mission that would restore the creation, rescue lost and hopeless wretches from sin and bring glory to God. He would also receive a very precious reward at the conclusion of this work. For all these reasons, He took delight in being here with us, but being here was no picnic to His soul.
The final verse again reviews with wonder Who it is that was just born in Bethlehem:
- The Prince of Peace, born from heaven. Isaiah 9 foretells that a child would be born Who would have several exalted titles (meaning He would be God). Among them would be “Prince of Peace”. Again, He brought about peace with God for those who trust in Him. Isaiah 9:6–7 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
- The sun of righteousness, risen with healing in His wings. This is a reference to Malachi 4, talking about the destruction of the wicked on the Last Day, but the deliverance of those on whom this sun will shine. As we saw last week, we are by our sinful nature born into the realms of darkness and death, but when the sun of righteousness shines upon us, we are brought into light and new life.
- Mild He lays His glory by. This reminds us of Philippians 2:5–7 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. Jesus was humble and meek (“mild”), emptying Himself in a stoop of incalculable condescension when He took a human nature!
- He was born to reverse the curse which we had brought upon ourselves through sin – death. He was born to raise us from the dead and give us spiritual birth – second birth into new and eternal life!
Let’s reflect on these things at this Advent season and marvel again at what God did on that first Christmas. We often hear the expression “You couldn’t make this up”. How true of the Christmas story! No human author could ever have invented such a story as a work of fiction, yet in the Bible we have a single, coherent account told by around 40 different and largely unconnected writers over a period of some 1500 years, with a consistency and accuracy and a majesty of expression. This would defy any human attempt to create! It is God’s work, telling us why we have the problems we do, but that He has (in Christ) done everything necessary to fix the situation if we will trust Him!