Subject: Christmas Carol #3 and the Gospel of Jesus Christ: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”
Romans 1:16-17 “The gospel of Christ is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes… for the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.”
Before Martin Luther understood Romans 1:16-17, he spent his entire life doing good works to try and gain God’s approval. That’s why he said he hated Paul for writing that being right with God has nothing to do with good works: “I hated Paul with all my heart when I read that the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel. When I learned that the righteousness of God is His mercy, and that He makes us righteous through it, a remedy was offered to me… For it is faith alone, not good works, that makes the true Christian …it is faith in Christ that makes a man good…” (‘A Treatise on Christian Liberty, November 1520).
I get why people who trust in their good works hate the gospel – especially in American culture today, where we often judge each other based on our achievements. But once Luther embraced Jesus Christ as his Savior, a revival erupted across Europe. But was Luther’s conversion the most significant event in the Protestant Reformation that sparked the spread of the gospel? Luther’s stand for the gospel and against the State Church ignited the flames of revival. But what caused so many others to put their faith in Christ? And what does this have to do with this week’s Christmas carol, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”?
Over 300 years after the Reformation, the great German composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote a tune to celebrate the anniversary of the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in 1454. You see, because of the printing press Luther and other famous reformers like William Tyndale were able to give people something they never had – a Bible. By 1526, Tyndale’s prediction came true: “I will cause a boy that drives a plow to know more of the Scriptures than the pope.’ His New Testament translation was circulating throughout Europe! Without the printing press, the gospel would not have spread so quickly.
Back to our Christmas carol. In 1855, Dr. William Cummings took Mendelssohn’s tune and united it with Charles Wesley’s original 1739 Christmas hymn to give us today’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing!” So, without Gutenberg’s press, we would not have Mendellssohn’s tribute to Gutenberg… and we would not have the tune to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing!”… which means both Jimmy Stewart and the Peanuts gang’s movies (“It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas”) would have no closing song!
But this Christmas Carol that took 116 years to perfect contains deep theology. To capture the full meaning behind God’s achievement through His Son’s birth in Bethlehem, we must dig into all five of its stanzas.
In the first half of Stanza 1, the heavens announce the Birth of Jesus Christ: “Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King; Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!” In the second half, we are all invited to join the angels and shout in triumph: “Joyful, all ye nations rise, Join the triumph of the skies; With th’angelic host proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
In Stanza 2, we are introduced to the Incarnation through the ‘Hypostatic Union’: “Christ, by highest Heav’n adored; Christ the everlasting Lord; Late in time, behold Him come, Offspring of a virgin’s womb. Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail th’incarnate Deity, Pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.” The term “hypostatic union” means the union of Jesus Christ as fully God and fully man in one individual existence, or “hypostasis”. God the Father achieved this union in the Incarnation – the Virgin Birth.
In Stanza 3, we learn why the Incarnation – to offer us eternal life: “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.”
In Stanza 4 comes God’s 1st call to us – allow Christ to dwell in us: “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, Ruined nature now restore; Now in mystic union join Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.”
Finally, Stanza 5 is God’s 2nd call – allow the indwelling Christ to mold us: “Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface, Stamp Thine image in its place: Second Adam from above, Reinstate us in Thy love. Let us Thee, though lost, regain, Thee, the Life, the inner man: Oh, to all Thyself impart, Formed in each believing heart.”
Think about what it took to bring us this carol and its message of the gospel’s transforming power. Jesus Christ wants to do more than save you from your sins. He wants to give you a new life. Will you ask Him?