Note: This article was originally published on ABWE’s blog.
One of the myriad reasons I cherish the Christmas season is that it is one of the few times when the songs on the lips of the people of God truly match the missional optimism Scriptures associates with the kingdom of Christ.
In our day of spiritual, cultural, and eschatological pessimism, we can often find ourselves confronted by the Scriptural descriptions of the saving reign of Jesus:
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.” (Isaiah 9:6-7)
Although many disagree over the precise ordering of the events leading to Christ’s return, the Bible is abundantly clear on this point: Jesus wins. Jesus has already received all authority in heaven and on earth, which forms the basis of the church’s mission (Matthew 28:18-20). This is the inevitable direction of history—and history has been going this way as the gospel has steadily spread, amidst great resistance, across the globe. I myself, a Gentile sitting in the United States next to my Christmas tree erected to celebrate the birth of Israel’s Messiah, am evidence of this real victory accomplished by Jesus two millennia ago.
The songs we sing at Christmastime challenge us to think globally and missionally about the kingdom of God. If you are still skeptical, consider just seven examples of Christmas carols that portray Christ’s first coming in terms of victory, salvation, and rule—not only over individual souls or congregations but whole nations across the globe.1
1. “JOY TO THE WORLD” BY ISAAC WATTS
Joy to the world, the Lord is come,
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heaven and nature sing.
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow,
Far as the curse is found.
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove,
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love.
Note the sections in bold. In his first coming to die and rise for sinners, Jesus unleashes the blessing of the gospel and his reign over human hearts and minds to infiltrate every nook and cranny of human existence—as far as the curse of Genesis 3 itself is found, which is everywhere.
And his focus isn’t just on the “world” in abstracts, but nations. Peoples. Tribes. Tongues. All of these he makes proclaim the glories and wonders of his steadfast love by effectually calling them into his kingdom—not only offering redemption but accomplishing and applying it. He will possess the nations; he is committed to it with all the infinite zeal of the Triune God (see Psalm 2:7, Isaiah 9:7).
2. “I HEARD THE BELLS ON CHRISTMAS DAY” BY HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep,
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With Peace On Earth, Good Will To Man.
The common refrain of “peace on earth, good will to men” reminds us of the angels’ song to the shepherds in Luke 2:14 announcing the birth of Messiah. But it is easy for us to forget the redemptive-historical context of this heavenly announcement. Israel’s Messiah was finally arriving in the world, but he was coming not only for the lost sheep of Israel; he was coming to gather together wandering sheep across the whole earth.
This is why Micah prophesied, “He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth” (5:4). God himself, in the person of Jesus, had come to shepherd his people (Ezekiel 34:15). Hence, it would be too small a thing for Jesus to merely gather the people of Israel; his mission was global (Isaiah 49:6). And because of the work of Messiah, we are approaching the day on which the Great Commission will be fulfilled and “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9).
3. “O HOLY NIGHT” BY ADOLPHE ADAM
A thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn,
Fall on your knees, O hear the angel’s voices,
O night divine, O night when Christ was born.
Just as dawn breaks the night, so the first coming of Christ breaks the dark spell cast over a sinful world. And just as daybreak is but a foretaste of the coming light to be experienced fully at midday, the arrival of Jesus into the world to accomplish his redemptive work is only the beginning of a steadily increasing kingdom of light. “But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings” (Malachi 4:2).
When Jesus returns and has defeated his enemies, then we shall bask in the high noon of his global glory. But until then, the sun—or Son—is continuing to rise over all the nations, lands, and people groups of the planet.
4. “WE THREE KINGS OF ORIENT ARE” BY JOHN HENRY HOPKINS JR.
Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain,
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign,
Frankincense to offer have I,
Incense owns a deity nigh,
Pray’r and praising, all men raising,
Worship Him, God Most High.
Glorious now behold Him arise,
King and God and Sacrifice,
Earth to heav’n replies.
To this day, the majority of ethnic Jews reject the messianic kingship of Jesus—and far too many Christians share their critique. We recognize Jesus as Savior and substitute, but many evangelicals are unsure of the exact extent to which Jesus is presently King and Lord. But “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15).
When Jesus ascended to heaven, he sat down to rule at the Father’s right hand (Psalm 110:1). It is in light of his present authority over all nations and men that we plead with them all to repent and find forgiveness in his cross. These lyrics also attest to the deity, sacrifice, and sheer worth of Christ in a manner that cannot help but attract nations.
5. “GOD REST YE MERRY GENTLEMEN” (WRITER UNKNOWN)
God rest ye merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our Savior
Was born on Christmas day,
To save us all from Satan’s power,
When we were gone astray
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy.
Bound up in the Advent celebration is a recognition of the fact that Jesus came as the serpent crusher (Genesis 3:15) to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). How?
Satan is a prosecutorial attorney in the courtroom of God, accusing the people of God on the basis of their sin (Job 1, Revelation 12:10). Jesus, our intercessor and legal advocate in the divine courtroom, bears our penalty, pays our ransom, and pleads our case so that we can stand justified before a holy God, clothed in a righteousness not our own (Zechariah 3:1-5, 2 Corinthians 5:21).
But Satan’s activity as a legal accuser, ruler, and tyrant over this earth is not limited to individual souls stained by sin. He is the “god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4), the “prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2), and the “deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9), holding the whole human race in subjection through their fear of death (Hebrews 2:15). When Jesus disarmed Satan on the cross, he was not merely liberating a few captive souls but an entire world from its legal bonds. Because God has nailed the charges of his people from all nations to the cross, disarming and shaming the demonic accusers (Colossians 2:14-15), Jesus has the blood-bought right to his people from all those nations.What if we really believed what these songs say about the global power of the gospel?
The mission of the church is to announce to God’s chosen people across the world that the shackles have been broken and the prison doors are unlocked, and anyone formerly under Satan’s global dominion can step out of captivity led by Christ’s guiding, nail-pierced hand.
6. “HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SING” BY CHARLES WELSEY
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 angelic host proclaim,
Christ is born in Bethlehem.
This hymn, written by Charles Wesley and appropriated by George Whitefield, is a clear testimony to the kingship of Christ. The nations rejoice not simply because a king is born, but because their King has come. King Herod knew this, which is why he did everything he could do to stamp out the one whose cosmic reign would someday depose him and all other human tyrants. And today, the persecuting governments and dictators of the world follow in Herod’s footsteps because they know that the gospel is inherently political. If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar isn’t. The task of the church today is to proclaim to the unreached nations that their long-awaited desire, their merciful King, has already come for them.
7. “IT CAME UPON A MIDNIGHT CLEAR” BY RICHARD STORRS WILLIS
For lo, the days are hast’ning on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years
Comes round the age of gold,
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendor fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.
Though Christians may entertain reasonable disagreements about eschatology, what cannot be denied is that we now live in an era of unprecedented spiritual blessing poured out on the globe through Christ, his church, and his gospel, compared to the relatively little light possessed by the people of God under the old covenant. Now is the time of unmatched gospel privilege. The Apostle Paul saw the missionary task as fulfilling the prophetic prediction: “Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand” (Romans 15:21). And though there is much of the Great Commission left to accomplish, we must also rejoice in knowing that every Gentile believer alive today owes his or her salvation to the missionary labors that have spread worldwide in this “gold” age of evangelism.
What if we really believed what these songs say about the global power of the gospel? How would that belief shape the way we engage our mission?
As Advent is rapidly reaching its culmination in our celebration of the incarnation of Christ, we can’t afford to pack these carols away with the rest of our quaint decorations. Let us relish the truths within these triumphant, Christ-centered hymns throughout the entire year.
1. I am indebted to Isaac Arthur for his selection of these particular carols and lyrics.