Subject: Christmas Carols and the Gospel of Jesus Christ: “Joy to the World”
Psalm 98:4 “Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!”
Isaac Watts was a rebel. He was one of those annoying people that most teenagers today would really like, but many adults in his church considered a heretic (that’s someone who holds an opinion at odds with what is generally accepted). What caused such a stir in his church? It was the early 1700’s, and Watts wasn’t shy about letting people know he thought church music was boring and lifeless. The lyrics mostly quoted the Psalms, and the melody put people to sleep. CS Lewis once said “All great discoveries are made, and all errors corrected, by those who ignore the climate of opinion.” Isaac Watts was proof Lewis was right.
Because of his love for Jesus Christ, Watts wanted worship music to be full of joy and emotion. But he saw Sunday morning church music as mindless reciting of verses with no outward evidence that anyone in the congregation had any passion in worshipping Christ. He told someone that “To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.”
His father challenged him – instead of complaining, do something about it. American inventor Charles Kettering once said, “All human development, no matter what form it takes, must be outside the rules; otherwise we would never have anything new.” Watts went way outside the rules! Instead of parroting the Bible, he expressed deep emotional conviction about his personal faith in Christ, which is how we should read the Psalms in the first place! He wrote over 750 hymns. By far his most famous is ‘Joy to the World.’
Watts’s inspiration to write ‘Joy to the World’ came when he was meditating on Psalm 98:4 “Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!” This verse summed up his life’s goal: to sing with joy and passion while praising Jesus Christ. But being a nonconformist, his most famous song wouldn’t gain world-wide popularity until nearly 100 years later… as a Christmas carol!
But Watts never intended for ‘Joy to the World’ to be about Christmas. Tyler Scarlett, teaching pastor at Forest Baptist Church and Professor at Liberty University, explains: “The opening line of Joy to the World is sometimes sung incorrectly as, ‘Joy to the world! The Lord has come.’ That is not what Watts wrote. He wrote, “The Lord is come.” Watts was not describing a past event (the birth of Jesus) but rather looking forward to a future event (the return of Jesus). The main point of Psalm 98 (which Watts himself clearly understood) was not about the first coming of Jesus, but, rather, about His Second Coming! And that’s precisely what the song is about. It speaks of Jesus’ final coming to earth when “the Savior reigns” and when “He rules the world with truth and grace.” Watts longed for that glorious final day when the “nations (will) prove the glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love.”
Western church tradition celebrates the season known as ‘Advent’, which begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas (known as ‘Advent Sunday’) and goes up until Christmas. This year, the four Advent Sundays are November 27th and December 4th, 11th and 18th. It is a time to focus on the threefold revelation of Jesus Christ: 1) His Incarnation in a manger in Bethlehem, 2) His dwelling in our hearts by His Spirit, and 3) His Second Coming at the last day. Watt’s intent was to celebrate in song Christ’s Second Coming.
But by making ‘Joy to the World’ a Christmas celebration of His First Coming, the world has brought together the full ‘Advent’ meaning of Psalm 98! As Psalm 98:2-3 says: “The Lord has made known His salvation – His righteousness He has revealed in the sight of the nations… All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.” This is the birth of Jesus Christ, as the gospel of Luke tells us: “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great JOY which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!” And then, in Psalm 98:9, the Second Coming of Christ is the focus: “He is coming to judge the earth. With righteousness He shall judge the world, and the peoples with uprightness.”
When we hear ‘Joy to the World’ this season, we can appreciate its full message. It isn’t about a baby born in a manger. It is about the God-Man who fulfilled His Mission. Jesus Christ is not only our Savior from our sins. He is also our Victorious Warrior who won our salvation when He died on the Cross. And He is our future Judge when He returns. If you are a Christian, ‘Joy to the World’ is a message of joy in who He is. If you have never asked Jesus Christ to be your Savior, there isn’t a better time to do so than this Christmas.