Do You Know What You’re Singing?

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been writing here about some of my favorite, though somewhat obscure, Christmas Carols. I’ve made no bones about it, I love Christmas music. Not the materialistic, plastic-pop music that’s all about Santa and reindeer and snow (though I must confess that “I want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” does hold a dear place in my heart), but the good old Christmas carols and hymns that convey the message of Christ’s birth. I love that these songs are being played on radio stations around the clock right now, because, in the midst of all the other clutter, the truth is being spoken. Whether the listener knows it, the gospel is being preached, and God’s word will not come back empty (Isa. 55:11).

This is why I love the old carol, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” written by Charles Wesley in 1739. Though not a Calvinist per se, much of Charles Wesley’s hymns convey the reformed view of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and Wesley himself noted that he “was within a ‘hair’s breadth’ of Calvinism” (click here for the full interview).  

We sing “Hark! The Herald…” so often that I don’t know if we really stop to consider what we’re singing. The world’s casual familiarity with this song has people singing along, subversively teaching profound Biblical truth without the singer ever really knowing it. This hymn conveys the doctrines of incarnation, atonement, union with Christ, and sanctification.

I’ve included here the original lyrics of Wesley’s hymn. Today we usually only sing three verses, but I think that’s a shame considering what verses 4 and 5 contain. I’ve made some notations along the way for clarification. Enjoy!

Vs 1

Hark how all the Welkin rings
(Welkin – an Old English name for Heaven or sky)
Glory to the King of Kings,
Peace on Earth, and Mercy mild,
God and Sinners reconciled.
(Here we note the need of Christ’s coming – for the reconciliation of sinful man with a Holy God.)
Joyful all ye Nations rise,
(The Gospel isn’t for one ethnicity, but for all peoples who would come to Christ by faith.)
Join the triumph of the skies,
Universal nature say
(Romans 8 talks about all creation eagerly awaiting the revealing of the sons of God)
Christ the Lord is born today!

Vs. 2
Christ by highest Heav’n adored,
Christ the everlasting Lord,

(Essential to our understanding of the person and work of Christ Jesus for our salvation is the teaching that the Son of God is of one substance and equal with the Father, who, in the fullness of time, took upon him man’s nature, in order to serve as our Prophet, Priest, and King. This second verse teaches great incarnation theology.)
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of the virgin womb
Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see,
Hail the Incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to appear
Jesus, our Immanuel here!

Vs. 3
Hail the Heav’nly 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 verse, especially the last half, brings to mind the substitutionary work of Christ in the atonement. He was born that Man no more may die. How? By dying in the place of sinful man. He was born to raise the sons of earth. How? By rising again from the dead on the third day. He was born to give man second birth. How? Not by reentering our mother’s womb, but by being born again of the Spirit, sent from Christ at Pentecost to all who believe.)

Vs. 4 
Come, Desire of Nations, come,
Fix in Us thy humble Home,
Rise, the Woman’s Conqu’ring Seed,
Bruise in Us the Serpent’s Head.
Now display thy saving Pow’r,
Ruin’d Nature now restore,
Now in Mystic Union join
Thine to Ours, and Ours to Thine.

(Here, our union with Christ through faith is exemplified. United to Christ, the power of sin and death is crushed, and we are more and more made like unto Christ.)

Vs. 5
Adam’s Likeness, LORD, efface,
Stamp thy Image in its Place,
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy Love.
Let us Thee, tho’ lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the Inner Man:
O! to All Thyself impart,
Form’d in each Believing Heart.

(Following the theme of union with Christ is the natural result of that union: our sanctification. No longer does the old Adam have dominion over us, but we live through the second Adam, who gives us life. What I love most about this verse is the desire for Christ. “Let us Thee, tho’ lost regain, Thee, the Life, the Inner Man.” To translate that for modern vernacular: “God let us, though lost, regain You.”)

My prayer is that the next time you sing this, you’ll contemplate the deep truths being conveyed here, and the message of the Gospel will ring clear this Christmas!

Here’s a Video from King’s College singing the Carol:


What does Christmas Mean?

The author AW Tozer once wrote a powerful article about the meaning of Christmas. Though it was written several decades ago, the words have more impact for today than ever before. Christmas is not about the celebrations, the materialism, the gifts, or even the family time. It is about a Savior! As we approach Christmas Day, may our hearts and minds be fixed upon the truth of God’s Word.

Throughout the Western world we tend to approach Christmas emotionally instead of factually. It is the romance of Christmas that gives it its extraordinary appeal to that relatively small number of persons of the earths population who regularly celebrate it.

So completely are we carried away by the excitement of this midwinter festival that we are apt to forget that its romantic appeal is the least significant thing about it. The theology of Christmas too easily gets lost under the gay wrappings, yet apart from its theological meaning it really has none at all. A half dozen doctrinally sound carols serve to keep alive the great deep truth of the Incarnation, but aside from these, popular Christmas music is void of any real lasting truth. The English mouse that was not even stirring, the German Tannenbaum so fair and lovely and the American red-nosed reindeer that has nothing to recommend it have pretty well taken over in Christmas poetry and song. These along with merry old St. Nicholas have about displaced Christian theology.

We must not forget that the Church is the custodian of a truth so grave and urgent that its importance can not be overemphasized, and so vast and incomprehensible that even an apostle did not try to explain it; rather it burst forth from him as an astonished exclamation:

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory. – 1 Timothy 3:16 ESV

This is what the Church is trying to say to mankind but her voice these days is thin and weak and scarcely heard amid the commercialized clangor of Silent Night.

It does seem strange that so many persons become excited about Christmas and so few stop to inquire into its meaning; but I suppose this odd phenomenon is quite in harmony with our unfortunate human habit of magnifying trivialities and ignoring matters of greatest import. The same man who will check his tires and consult his road map with utmost care before starting on a journey may travel for a lifetime on the way that knows no return and never once pause to ask whether or not he is headed in the right direction.

The Christmas message, when stripped of its pagan overtones, is relatively simple: God is come to earth in the form of man. Around this one dogma the whole question of meaning revolves. God did come or He did not; He is come or He is not, and the vast accumulation of sentimental notions and romantic practices that go to make up our modern Christmas cannot give evidence on one side or the other.

Christ’s coming to Bethlehem’s manger was in harmony with the primary fact of His secret presence in the world in preincarnate times as the Light that lighteth every man. The sum of the New Testament teaching about this is that Christ’s claims are self-validating and will be rejected only by those who love evil. Whenever Christ is preached in the power of the Spirit, a judgment seat is erected and each hearer stands to be judged by his response to the message. His moral responsibility is not to a lesson in religious history but to the divine Person who now confronts him.

Christmas either means more than is popularly supposed or it means nothing.

We had better decide.