Christmas is a time for miracles, and perhaps one of the greatest Christmas miracles is that each year millions of people enthusiastically sing a theology lesson set to music that commemorates a scientific invention!
John Wesley was the tireless evangelist who preached the Gospel to over 250,000 people and founded the Methodist Church. Much of Wesley’s ministry was to working-class people who felt alienated by the established Church of the day. His brother, Charles Wesley, was a gifted songwriter who realised that even illiterate peasants could grasp spiritual truths if they were set to music.
‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing,’ perhaps more than any song ever written, manages to cram the key doctrines of Christianity into three short verses.
God and sinners reconciled – Reconciliation is one of the key concepts of Soteriology – or the study of Salvation. We were, because of our sin, separated from God. But Jesus, being both fully God and fully man, bridged that gap and, by His death, reconciled us to God.
Join the triumph of the skies – It was common practice for Roman emperors and generals, after winning a military campaign, to stage a ‘Triumph’ where they marched through the streets of Rome with the captured enemy dignitaries wrapped in chains. Ephesians 4:8 says that at the Ascension Jesus “led captivity captive.” The idea of Wesley’s “triumph of the skies” is that death, hell and Satan himself are paraded in defeat because the baby of Bethlehem is now the conqueror over sin and death.
Christ the everlasting Lord – In Christology, this is called the Pre-Existence of Christ. God the Son existed for all eternity before the foundation of the universe.
Late in time behold Him come – Galatians 4:4-5 declares, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Jesus was born in the fullness of time, that point in history when God had, in His perfect plan, prepared the world for His coming.
Offspring of a virgin’s womb – The virgin birth of Jesus – the only human being in history who was born of a woman, but not of a human man.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the Incarnate Deity – The reference here is to Colossians 2:9 “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form”.
Jesus our Emmanuel – And yet this fullness of the Triune Godhead is now dwelling with us in an intimate way. As John Calvin put it, “The Son of God became the Son of Man, so that the sons of men might become the sons of God.”
Light and life to all He brings – Jesus enlightens us, opens our eyes and gives us life.
Risen with healing in His wings – Now we have some Eschatology, or study of the Last Things. This is a quote from Malachi 4:2. Jesus is coming back again in His Second Coming to judge evil and restore righteousness.
Mild He lays His glory by – This is strong doctrine indeed. The idea here is something called kenosis (Greek for ’emptying’) – that God the Son, although all-powerful and co-equal with God the Father, voluntarily took on the weakness and limitations of a human body in order to save us. This truth is best expressed in Phil 2:6-11
“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to His own advantage; rather, He made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Charles Wesley, in another of his great hymns, referred to this act of kenosis as “emptied Himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race.”
Born that man no more may die – The eternal Living God was born as a mortal man so that mortal men could enjoy eternal life.
Born to raise the sons of earth – More Eschatology here. This is the great truth that, because Jesus was raised from death as the firstfuit of the resurrection of the dead, so our fragile human bodies will also one day be raised from the dead.
Born to give us second birth – All of this comes to us when we receive Jesus by faith and are born again. Being born again by faith is the very centre of the Wesley brothers’ theology.
This is no fluffy feel-good song. It’s strong doctrine! In the Nineteenth Century Charles Wesley’s words were set to Mendelssohn’s familiar tune that we all sing it to today.
There is a strange symmetry in the choice of this music. It comes from Mendelssohn’s Gutenberg cantata (written, believe it or not, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the invention of the printing press with movable type)! Gutenberg’s printing press made the Reformation possible as Bibles and Gospel tracts were copied by the hundreds of thousands and distributed across Europe. Charles Wesley’s songs had a similar impact as they facilitated the spread of Gospel truth even among the illiterate to whom a printing press meant little.
Charles Wesley’s great Carol has become an essential part of the festive season for most of us. Each year millions of people, who would imagine that nothing in the world could be as boring or as irrelevant as a theology lesson, sing these timeless theological truths at the tops of their voices. That’s the beauty of Christmas!