College Heights Baptist Church • December 19, 2020
I’ll try to abbreviate this one for those who suffer from literary fatigue. Much of what can be said about most Christmas songs has already been covered to some extent in past blog posts so I’ll refer to those posts when appropriate. Today we turn our attention to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” to reflect on the theological gleanings from that beloved hymn.
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
Why Bethlehem? As most Christians know, Bethlehem was the place God had predicted that the Messiah would be born. The Old Testament records this prophecy in the book of Micah where it reads
“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” Micah 5:2 (ESV).
The bigger question here is truly a theological one. Does God simply foresee this information in the future and reveal it to Micah’s audience, or is God describing something that He is going to do? And is this true for all prophecy? The Bible teaches us that God is not only the creator of the heavens and earth (Gen 1:1) but that He also sustains them (Col 1:17) and works history out according to His plan (Rom 8:28, Eph 1:11).
So Jesus was not born in Bethlehem out of mere circumstance, and God was not simply looking into the future and describing what was going to happen to Micah. Rather, God was telling Micah what He was going to bring about. And why Bethlehem? Because it fits the grand narrative of God’s redemptive plan. Bethlehem already has a theological history that is important to the Biblical storyline. Bethlehem is where the story of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz takes place from whom we get King David. Bethlehem is King David’s hometown and from this town (which means house of bread) comes the royal designer and initiator of God’s temple, the place where God would dwell among the Israelites. Though God did not allow David to build the temple himself (his son Solomon did that) God did promise that He would build David’s house and that there would always be someone on the throne from his descendants. Jesus fulfills this Davidic promise, or covenant, and so His birth in Bethlehem reflect this theological history.
For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King
And Peace to men on earth
We’ve covered angels thoroughly in the last blog post. We’ve discussed the sinful nature and the mortality of men. We’ve talked about the phrase “Peace on earth and goodwill to men” as well. So here I will simply look at the phrase “morning stars.” It is from Job 38:7 that this reference to angels is derived. The angels are said to have rejoiced at the wonder and amazement of God’s creative power in the beginning of time. The same beings who were being sent as messengers to proclaim the good news of Christ’s birth, are the same ones who saw Him make everything so long ago. No wonder 1 Peter 1:12 describes this Gospel as something into which “angels long to look.”
How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven
No ear may hear His coming
But in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him still
The dear Christ enters in
This verse reminds us that the salvation of God did not come with flash and worldly glory but through humble and subtle avenues (“How silently,” and “no ear may hear His coming”). Jesus leaves heaven and enters into the world which He is devoted to saving, not as a powerful agent of heaven, but as a baby. He is from Nazareth, a place of no renown. He grows up in a carpenter’s family. He eats with sinners, washes His disciple’s feet, and is crucified between thieves. And yet He starts a movement that transforms the lives of those who embrace His teaching, and it is a movement that has withstood vicious attacks and endless barriers. It is a movement that has spread to almost every tribe, nation, and tongue…and is still on the move today! Christ still enters into the hearts of those who humbly and meekly admit their sin and confess their savior is Lord Jesus.
O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel
College Heights Baptist Church • December 19, 2020
A series by Pastor Greg Crawford
As I read through song lyrics this week, thinking about which song to cover next, I determined that “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” was too theologically similar to “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” Read through the lyrics and you will see that it is very much a song of anticipation from the Jewish perspective. But since I’ve recently written on that perspective, I kept moving along and found myself intrigued by the lyrics of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” However, it was not necessarily in a good way. The song definitely has some elements within it that can, and should, be focused upon theologically, yet it also makes statements that are, at best, biblical assumptions and, at worst, biblical errors. Still, the song has an artistic way of saying the toils and troubles of this world should always be framed within the context of “peace” and “goodwill” brought upon us by the Messiah’s arrival. Let’s take a look.
It came upon a midnight clear
That glorious song of old
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold
The song writer, Edmund Sears, begins by making the same assumption that almost every other Christmas carol makes, that the night of Jesus’ birth was a clear night. As I stated in the last blog post, this is an unsubstantiated claim. I’m not suggesting that it was not clear, but simply saying that the claim is an assumption. Most arrive at this idea because the wisemen followed the star but since a close examination of the wisemen’s involvement leads us to believe that they did not arrive until Jesus was 1 to 2 years old, there is no reason to suggest that the clear sky of that story correlates with Luke’s account of the angles and shepherds. However, it has been suggested that shepherds would not have been out in the fields with their flocks during the cold rainy season, and so the likelihood is that the birth narrative took place during the summer when it would have been dry. And yes, that means December 25th is probably one of the least likely days that Jesus was actually born. At the end of the day, we simply have to make an educated guess as to the date of His birth, the weather conditions of that particular hour, etc.
“That glorious song of old” is a stanza pointing to the next section where they say, “peace on earth good will to men.” That’s really the focal point of this entire hymn and will come full circle on the last verse so hold onto that. But let’s first look at the treatment of “angels” in this verse. The way this verse is written indicates that the angels were flying in the air with golden harps. There are two assumptions here that need to be evaluated.
First, do angels play the harp? And more importantly, does that mean they always have a harp in their hand. In the book of Revelation, there is a reference to harp playing that could be associated with the angels.
“And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” Revelation 5:8 (ESV).
But later on in Revelation 15:2 it is the saints who had conquered the beast who are playing the harp which leads me to believe that John is using the harp in Revelation as a symbolic statement of victory. So that would mean in Revelation 5:8, it is probably the 24 elders who are holding the harp, not angels. If that’s the case, there is no reason to believe that angels play the harp and there is certainly no reason to think they had them out on Christmas day…which is too bad because the harp is so cool.
Were these angels ever in the air? I know your Christmas card shows it that way. I know the movies depict as such. I know it’s been preached like that and our imagination really can’t see it any other way. But just remember that throughout the Bible, angels spend a lot of time on the ground. They encamp around Israel, they walk, talk, and eat with Abraham, they stand before others, etc. Angels should not be viewed as beings who are eternally suspended by their wings. In fact, they may not even have wings!
GASP! Now before you unfriend me, let me clarify. There are heavenly beings called Cherubim and Seraphim who do have wings and are almost always flying. The Cherubim were guardian creatures woven into the tapestry of the veil dividing the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place in the tabernacle, reminding the priests that they were not permitted to enter. This was theologically linked to the Garden of Eden which was also guarded by Cherubim (Gen 3:24), keeping sin-stained humanity from reentry. Seraphim only appear in Isaiah 6 but they are described as having 3 sets of wings. So these two heavenly beings are winged and fly, but that does not mean that all angels do. Often times, they are grounded, which could have been the case with the shepherds in Luke 2.
And probably the greatest shocker of all is that most of us have a skewed category for interpreting the word "angel." If we see a winged creature in the air… “It’s an angel.” If we see a glowing figure with a halo… “It’s an angel.” If we see a pale-faced lady with a harp… “It’s an angel.” But did you know that your pastors are angels? Ok, now you’re really shocked. And you should be if you think of the word "angel" in terms of heavenly beings without sin, because pastors are from that standard. I mean how can I be an angel when I can’t even play the harp? Right? But the word rendered “angel” in the English language is simply the word “messenger.” In both the Hebrew and the Greek, there are no words that single out heavenly messengers of God from those of earthly origin. Scholars have debated the word angel in the opening chapters of Revelation.
“To the angel of the church of Ephesus” (Rev 2:1), “To the angel of the church in Smyrna” (2:8), “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum” (2:12), and so on and so on. Each of the seven churches have an angel, but is this a heavenly being, or is he addressing the pastors of these churches? It could be either one, but that is the point being made here. You shouldn’t see the word “angel” in scripture and assume a certain form and figure. You should think in terms of function. All those who have been appointed the divine task of communicating God’s message are possible interpretations of the Greek and Hebrew words rendered angel. Usually context will inform the decision, but sometimes it is ambiguous.
In Luke 2 we know these are a part of the heavenly hosts, not human messengers. But we don’t know if they are Cherubim, Seraphim, or some other category of heavenly beings that are not defined for us in Scripture. Since we do not know, we cannot assume they are winged creatures any more then we can assume they are playing harps.
Peace on the earth, good will to men
From heaven's all gracious King
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing
Here, the song indicates that the angels were singing. In a sense this is true. While we think of music in terms of beats, rhymes, and melodies, the ancient world did not have the same way of thinking when it came to music or poetry. The Jewish world identified poetry by comparing and contrasting ideas usually within a literary device called a parallelism. The proverbs are full of these as they’ll provide one line, and then follow it up with another that either supports line 1, or is the opposite of line 1. Consider Proverbs 5:5 as an example:
Her feet go down to death; her steps follow the path to Sheol.
Line 1 is “Her feet go down to death” and line 2 is the same thing said in another way, “her steps follow the path to Sheol.” This is what the angels were doing in Luke 2 when they said “Glory to God in the highest” and then follow it up with “peace on earth good will to men.” God's highest glory is equated with peace on earth. It is as if the glory of God is seen in His Spirit of peace moving among His people throughout the earth. And since the Gospels link peace with the message of Jesus, the Great Commission is a prime example of how peace on earth is possible.
So it is music, it is poetry, but not according to our standard today. There may have not been a single chord. If it was contextual to what the shepherds would have been familiar with, it would have been chanted. Of course there’s always the possibility that it was so heavenly that it superseded any type of human comparison…which is what I’m hoping for when I arrive in heaven one day, but God doesn’t always work in the world by heaven’s standards but often meets us where we are and uses our own culture to communicate to us. If so, the hymn should say “The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels CHANT.” But that doesn’t rhyme now does it?
One last point on this verse and I promise the other verses will move along quicker. The phrase “peace on earth good will to men” is probably not the best translation of the Greek. The ESV words it like this, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!" Or in other words, "peace among those of goodwill." This reminds us that Jesus did not come into the world to bring peace to all people but only to those who believed in Him. Consider Jesus' statement here:
Matthew 10:34–36 (ESV)
34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.
Jesus came to instill peace within the community over whom He reigns. Jesus’ arrival made a tax collector named Matthew, and a zealot named Simon, love each other in a Gospel community. This was truly the work of God as zealots wouldn’t think twice about killing a Roman tax collector if given the opportunity. But somehow, men from various backgrounds and social settings were able to live together, minister together, and to share life in Christ. Christian, you will not be loved by this world and Jesus did not come to give you that kind of peace, but he did come to orchestrate a body, a community, a church within which you should find a love that is stronger than biological bloodlines and common last names. It is a love that is rooted in Him who truly is love…Christ our Lord.
Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled
And still their heavenly music floats
O'er all the weary world
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hovering wing
And ever o'er its Babel sounds
The blessed angels sing
Here is another verse of assumptions that we’ve already covered above. Angels may not have wings, they may not hover. The ones that do have wings aren’t necessarily peaceful either. Usually when they show up there are sounds that are associated with their presence that seem to originate from the force of their wings. Their presence alone causes men to fear and tremble, bowing down in sheer terror. They aren’t like the Precious Moments Dolls who depict their angels as Cupid. These winged creatures are warriors who are not unwilling to strike you down if found unworthy. Now that’s an image for your next Christmas card Hallmark.
This verse does bring up a theological point, that the message of Christmas, the Gospel, is extended throughout a world of “Babel” sounds. This is a reference that goes back to Genesis 11, where humanity was scattered over the earth because of their unwillingness to fill the earth as God commanded. They wanted to stay together, they wanted to build a stairway to heaven, they wanted a great name…but they had already forsaken that because of their sin. What their heart desired was Eden, a place where humanity dwelt in a Holy place with a Holy God and in Holy communion as a Holy family, but sin lost that for them. Now they are trying to regain it by human effort and God spreads them across the globe by “confusing” their language, which is where we get the word “Babel” and eventually that place “Babylon” (a place always opposed to God’s will in Scripture). Even today, the world stands in juxtaposition to the Holy God of Scripture, but the Gospel has not been quenched. The confusion of this age has not shaken the truth of salvation for those who believe. Whether it’s heavenly beings singing the songs of glory, or you, the faithful human servant, taking the Gospel to your neighbor, the peace of God is being spread from heart to heart, despite the confusing world in which we live, as humanity responds to Jesus’ saving grace.
All ye beneath life's crushing load
Whose forms are bending low
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow
Look now for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing
O rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing
And hear the angels sing
Finally, the writer takes us to modern times, where we are suffering in various ways because of the curse of sin over the world. We covered that curse in a previous blog so we won’t camp there, but remember as we sing these songs that our own plight and predicaments should surface. We should understand we are where we are because of what we’ve done. I’m not saying you have cancer because of a particular sin, or that you lost that loved one because of one corresponding thing that you or they did, but rather, because you and I are sinners, we deserve all of it. We can’t and shouldn’t ask “why me God” because we’ve all fallen short and deserve death and separation from God. What we should do is look at the world around and seek the Lord’s comfort in our pain, and when others suffer in ways that we have not, it should cause us to ask “Why not me Lord?” I have to ask that all the time. “Lord, why did my child get to live when others did not?” “Lord, why did I get blessed with gift of marriage whereas others are searching endlessly for love with no success?” “Lord, why do I have food on my table while others are starving?” These are the questions we need to remember as we sing at Christmas time. Not “Why me?” but “Why not me?” The truth is, as sinners we deserve it all. Every single heartache. All the disease. All the pain. All the death. But God is gracious. The song of grace that permeates the land and is reminder that the pain and struggle we do go through is temporary and signpost to lead us to God’s eternal glory. Let the angel’s (messenger’s) song, or chant, be an eternal reminder of the peace you will one day have and already possess.
College Heights Baptist Church • December 15, 2020
A Christmas Series by Pastor Greg Crawford
There are a lot of Christmas songs out there to choose from. Even if you weed out the modern music and grab a hymnal, you will still find dozens of beloved songs at your disposal. When I reflect on my favorite timeless classics from the Christmas genre, my favorite Christmas hymn probably has to be O holy night. While most of us who try to sing it completely butcher it due to the wide range of notes within the song, we love it due to the variety of minor chords and the catchy melody. We even love the lyrics, but how much thought have we really given to their theological significance. Let’s take a look to see what we’ve caught, and what has passed us by.
"O holy night, the stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth;
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn"
The first two lines don’t offer us anything substantial. We don’t know whether or not it was a clear night with stars or a cloudy night with a slight drizzle. The wisemen most likely did not arrive until Jesus was 1 to 2 years old and so the star they observed has little to do with the sky the night Jesus was born. Regardless, it was the night of our “Savior’s” birth. The fact that Jesus is our savior is rarely overlooked but the remainder of the verse explains some of the theology behind our need for the savior.
“Long lay the world in sin and error pining” is an amazing way to communicate the curse of sin that has come upon the whole world. Paul brings out in Romans 8 that the creation is moaning in labor pains, waiting to be delivered. The world experiences chaos on multiple levels as pestilence, natural disasters, and other threats wreak havoc on her security. More importantly, sin has plagued humanity for thousands of years, leaving them no real way to escape their corruption. At this point we need to adjust our focus from ancient Israel as we understand their connection to God and their ability to sacrifice in the Temple to atone for their sins temporarily, however, a giant world of nations lay outside her borders with no access to God, and therefore no way to experience purity and holiness. The Oriental people groups, ancient Germanic tribes, African nations, and countless other people around the globe lived daily lives with no hope. They had no forgiveness of sin. Yes, they had Israel as a light that was meant to draw people to God (Ex 19:6, Is 42:6) but Israel’s own shortcomings dampened their illuminating appeal. So they were helpless and hopeless. Falling prey to foreign gods made of wood and stone, worshipping the stars, and blindly following the Satanic powers manifested through their priests and diviners, they were so far from God. Don’t forget that this was how the world was before Jesus came into the world. So hopeless, so helpless.
“Til he appeared”… these words make the transition from hopeless and helpless to a world of purpose and unlimited potential. It was a world where the “soul” could truly recognize its eternal value. Being united to Christ has elevated souls to an everlasting significance, going from sinners in struggle to saints in security, from wretched rags of wrath to royal garments of righteousness. The “thrill” of hope should come over the “weary world” as their mourning…their labor pains… turn to rejoicing. I’ve witnessed three children come into this world and every one knows a woman’s labor pains can be intense. But each delivery I’ve witnessed has resulted in an instant transition from my wife’s pain to her overwhelming joy. The world made the same transition the night Christ was born. Their Savior, their salvation, was finally at hand.
Fall on your knees, Oh hear the angel voices!
O night divine! O night when Christ was born.
O night, O holy night, O night divine.
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is Love and His gospel is Peace;
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,
And in his name all oppression shall cease,
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful Chorus raise we;
Let all within us praise his Holy name!
This verse may have more reason for theological introspection than the first as it covers a span of theological ideas that may be missed in our cultural context. We know that Christ taught us to love and that God is love but what does the song writer mean by “His law is love?” Much of Jesus’ ministry was spent clarifying the Old Testament teaching. He didn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it and he fulfills it by living in a way that gets at the heart of the commandments. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus explains what it really means to hate, divorce, murder, etc. He wasn’t changing the law, but simply demonstrating that the nation had wavered from the original intent of the law. God’s heart in the commandments is LOVE. Jesus states that the greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength” and to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He explains that all the law hangs on these two commands. I will briefly say that love does not always look “nice” and “tolerant” like we’ve come to expect in this culture. Jesus flipping tables over was love. Jesus driving people out of the temple with whips was love. Jesus calling the Pharisees hypocrites, a den of thieves, vipers, etc., was love. Our love must be biblical.
“His Gospel is peace” is another theological statement worth considering. Gospel means “good news” and “peace” is a theological word that is deeper than we often think about. Peace is not just tranquility and rest from chores. Peace in the Jewish world was a term that echoed the rest of God in Genesis 1. It is the rest that indicates the world is in balance and nothing is off-kilter. It is the rest that allows humanity to accomplish God’s purposes with no temptation and trial to derail his efforts. The Sabbath was meant to be a foretaste of this eternal rest, but never a substitute for what God would bring about in the eschaton. The Gospel of Jesus is the good news of this coming rest.
“Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother” is a statement that comes with both biblical and political fervor. While we live outside the time period of slavery in this country, this song was written during the climax of the abolitionist movement and expresses the deep remorse for brothers and sisters who were deprived of their freedom and basic human rights. Jesus expressed that he had come to “proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18) God’s son expresses the heart of God in this quotation of Isaiah, since God himself had embedded within the Old Testament law a year of Jubilee that reset the clock on human relationships and land. Slaves were released, land possessions went back to their original owners, even if they switched hands, and people got a chance to start over again, even if their own actions got them in their current situation. As Jesus fulfilled all of the Old Testament, He is our year of Jubilee and all who know Him have rest and freedom that no human system can take away. Yet, this internal/spiritual reality in our lives should carry over into the way we treat others. It should cause us to fight for freedom and all human rights as we see in them the reflection of our heavenly father. We are paving the way to the day when “all oppression shall cease.”
Christ is the Lord, then ever! ever praise we!
His pow'r and glory, evermore proclaim!
His pow'r and glory, evermore proclaim!
College Heights Baptist Church • December 15, 2020
A Christmas Series by Pastor Greg Crawford
Joy to the word, the Lord is come, let Earth receive her king
These are the opening words of Isaac Watts’ famous Christmas carol, Joy to the World. Well, that’s a partly true statement. It is famous, it was written by Isaac Watts, but it really wasn’t a Christmas carol when Watts wrote it. In fact, if you look at the words, the song is less concerned with the nativity of Christ, his incarnation, and the Christmas story, as it is focused upon the second coming of Christ. This doesn’t mean that we can’t sing it at Christmas, it just means that many have failed to listen to the message within the song and have ignored the theology therein, most likely due to the fact that they’ve become desensitized to the language of the song as a result of singing it over and over and over again. It has been used in Christmas pageants, movies, and for holiday elevator music for so long, that no one even questions that it is a Christmas song.
The first verse alone should give away the fact that this is not about a baby in a manger. John tells us that the world did not “receive” Jesus at his first coming. “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” (John 1:9–11 ESV) However, Watts writes about a coming of Christ where the Earth will receive Him. “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9–11 ESV)
Let’s look at these verses together and examine the theology behind the language used
Joy to the World; the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King!
Let ev'ry heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing.
Much has already been spoken about this first verse, but the last two lines deserve attention. Watts understood that before Christ’s second coming, it was imperative that humanity orient their “hearts” in such a way that there was room for the Messiah. But not just a small place in the corner, not just the leftovers, but the heart must receive Christ as the “KING.”
Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields & floods, rocks, hills & plains
Repeat the sounding joy.
The second verse repeats some themes from the first verse while offering some new theological insights. The “Savior reigns” is just another way of saying that Jesus is king. That is a theological truth worth repeating, but even more worth acknowledging in how we live. One of the results of the Lord being king and reigning in our lives is the God given gift of song. In verse one Watts states, “let heaven and nature sing” and then in verse two states “let men their songs employ.” This was an important concept to Watts and he even called out believers from his era that refused to worship through song by stating “Let those refuse to sing who never knew our God” in his hymn “We’re marching to zion.”
This is a biblical concept. Consider these verses:
Ephesians 5:18–21 (ESV)
18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Colossians 3:16 (ESV)
16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
Don’t make excuses. Don’t say, “I can’t carry a tune in a bucket” or “it’s too hard to sing those songs” or whatever other reason you may choose for not lifting your voice up in song. Whether you are in Church, at your house, driving down the road…let your soul magnify the Lord through song. Remember, Watts is calling you out in his hymnology…remember, God is calling you out in His scripture.
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.
When Jesus came as a baby, it did not put to end all the sins and sorrows of our day. Yet, since Watts is writing about the eschaton, where there will be a new heaven and a new earth, where God and the Lamb will reign supreme, this is the theological truth being highlighted. Jesus inaugurated His Kingdom on earth through the incarnation, but there are greater manifestation of God’s reign to come. He is working to roll back the “curse” mentioned in this passage. We are all cursed men and women. We live in a broken world. And as Jesus walked the earth, His ministry reminded us that there was a coming Kingdom untouched by the curse. When Jesus healed the blind, He was demonstrating that there is a Kingdom coming without blindness. When Jesus raised the dead, He was testifying to the eternal life of the saints in His coming Kingdom. When Jesus’ Spirit came down in Acts 2 and caused everyone to understand one another, even though they were from varying regions and spoke different languages, He was reminding believers that languages were a result of sin (Genesis 11) and that He was indeed rolling back the curse as we approach His Kingdom. It is a Kingdom that does not grow thorns, but the fruit of the tree of life that is for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22)
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love.
The “nations” is the last thing I’ll bring out here. The Bible is a book about “nations.” It starts out describing how we all come from one family, and how our sin divided us. But it ends reminding us that every tribe nation and tongue will bow before the Messiah and that the Kings of the “nations” will bring God’s glory into the New Jerusalem one day (Rev 21:24). God’s righteousness and His wondrous love will somehow bind men and women together into one family, something that religion, politics, humanitarianism, force, or any other attempt has failed to accomplish. To God be the Glory, and may it be a reason for you to have “JOY” this season.
College Heights Baptist Church • December 15, 2020
A Christmas series by Pastor Greg Crawford
Over my three decades as a Christian and two of those decades in ministry, I’ve had the privilege of participating in and leading numerous Christmas worship services. The majority of those services began with the same song… O Come O Come Emmanuel. There is a good reason for that, as its content has a focus upon biblical material that chronologically precedes that of other Christmas hymns. While many songs hone in on the angels, shepherds, magi, and virgin birth, O Come O Come Emmanuel does not mention any of these things but, rather, concentrates on the Jewish hope of the Messiah. It is a song that looks forward to the nativity, while other songs look backward to the events of that glorious event. It is a song of potential hope, whereas, other Christmas hymns are inundated with realized hope. Both are important for us as believers. Since we live between the inauguration of Christ’s Kingdom and the consummation of that Kingdom, we know what it’s like to have already tasted salvation while still awaiting it in a fuller sense. Theologians call this the “already/not yet” aspect of eschatology. The Kingdom is “already” here, but simultaneously, has “not yet” arrived. From the perspective of O Come O Come Emmanuel, however, only one side of this dichotomy is present… the “not yet.”
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
This first verse has several things that may be overlooked by Christians today. First, Emmanuel is the name provided in Isaiah 7:14 to King Ahaz to demonstrate that God was not abandoning His people. Though enemies pressed all around, God was promising to deliver them from an enemy way too powerful for Judah by human standards. Hundreds of years after this, Matthew uses the word Emmanuel to provide the same hope to Israelites in the first century, that Jesus would provide the same type of hope that God had provided in times past. Knowing the context of Old Testament passages that are used in the New Testament will shed light on the passage. It elevates how “God with us” is a story of deliverance, not just a cute relational term.
“Ransom Israel” is an interesting thing for Christians to sing since most of us are Gentiles, not Jews. Yet, Christianity shares a history with Hebraic people and our scriptures record God’s working in history through the nation of Israel and so we do have a strong connection to the people of God from that past era. Not only that, but Paul tells us that Christians have been grafted into Israel, so in a sense, we are “spiritual” Jews. However, the song is not focused on this truth but simply singing from the perspective of a native Jew from the Old Testament era who has not yet tasted the salvation brought by God’s Messiah. The Old Testament scriptures were confident that one would come in the future and bring deliverance in various forms.
“Mourns in lonely exile” may seem even stranger to the modern person as a cursory look at scripture, and history, tells us that the Jewish people went into exile around 586 B.C., but then were released 70 years later. And unless this song is set as a hymn from Babylon during this time of exile, there is no reason to mourn displacement since they were back in Israel. What many fail to see though, is that many within the Israeli community did indeed view themselves as being in exile still. Yes, they had traveled back to Israel, yes, they had rebuilt the temple, yes, they had established a government, etc., but they had lost much of who they were. They were not independent, but answered to Suzerains who lorded over them, such as a Persia, Greece, the Seleucids, and Rome. The Jewish temple was nowhere near comparable to the temple of Solomon in size and grandeur. Ten of the twelve tribes had been scattered during the Assyrian invasion, while many of those people ended up marrying into Assyrian families and losing their pure identity as Jews (this is where Samaritans come from and is the reason Jews did not willingly interact with them). And finally, this weak broken subordinate nation carried out their worship to God through an inferior temple complex by the hands of priests who were not biblically assigned. The scriptures designated which Levitical family would serve as priests and as the high priest, yet, following the Maccabean revolt in 167B.C., the priesthood came into the hands of the Hasmoneans. Some Israelites saw this as a breaking point and left the temple system behind as a way to commune with God. Instead, they turned to study of the Torah to find communion with God, something familiar from the exile period, which resulted in the rise of the synagogue. By Jesus’ day, the synagogue was as influential as the temple. One prominent group who rejected temple worship was the Qumran community who were responsible for gathering and preserving the Dead Sea scrolls. They were separatists who lived in the wilderness and rejected society as a whole. John the Baptist was probably one of them. For them and others who rejected the priesthood of the day, they truly were in exile awaiting “ransom.”
Christians too, are awaiting ransom from exile. Paul calls us pilgrims or sojourners and Peter numbers Gentile Christians among the "elect exiles of the dispersion" as well as James who writes to Jews and Gentiles through his greeting "to the twelve tribes in the dispersion." Christians, like Jews, were considered "homeless" in the sense that their eternal rest awaits in the eschaton. We are exiles.
There are up to seven additional verses of this song, and I will not burden the reader with commentary this extensive for all seven, but I will bring out a few highlights of the remaining verses. Each verse begins with a name or title for the Messiah derived from the Old Testament.
Verse 2 - O come, Thou Wisdom from on high
Verse 3 - O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Verse 4 - O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Verse 5 - O come, Thou Key of David, come
Verse 6 - O come, O come, great Lord of might
Verse 7 - O come, Thou Root of Jesse’s tree
Verse 8 - O come, Desire of nations, bind
Volumes could be written on these names and titles, but quickly, each of these are connected to the promises of the coming Messiah. The word Messiah simply means the “anointed one” and is the Hebrew equivalent to the Greek “Christ.” The Messianic hopes of the Jews were rooted in the Davidic covenant. God had promised David in 2 Samuel 7 that He would establish David’s throne and that his descendants would always sit as king. For this very reason, Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy that establishes Jesus’ Davidic lineage. As an heir of David, he is the Rod of Jesse (David’s father), the root of Jesse, and the Key of David. The Key of David is mentioned in both Isaiah and the book of Revelation. Since David sat as King over God’s people, he had the key of authority to act on God’s behalf for the nation. He is even called the “son” of God in the Psalms. Jesus, being the prophesied descendant of David, arrives in the nativity event and assumes the position of King and has Davidic authority over all God’s people. He states, “All authority is given to me in heaven and in earth” (Mt 28:18) and He extends this authority to His body, the Church. He states, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
In conclusion, when we sing O Come O Come Emmanuel in our Christian worship services, we should be reminded that there was a time where hope was promised, but not realized. The Messiah was expected, but the national and spiritual challenges clouded the hope of Israel. Not unlike today, there are things around us that distract us from the real hope we have in the coming Messiah. We already have this hope “realized” since Jesus has come, has died, and has risen, but we still follow Him through faith, not sight, and await His coming Kingdom. So while singing this song we transfer ourselves into the shoes and perspective of Ancient Israelites awaiting the Davidic King to come, Christians can simultaneously contextualize that hope towards the Eschatological reality that awaits us when Christ returns for His people. Shallom.
College Heights Baptist Church • December 11, 2020
Introducing "Listen to the words" blog series by Pastor Greg Crawford!
Christmas season is characterized by numerous features; colors of red and green, nativity scenes, crowded stores, festive meals, light displays, and a host of other items that fuel humanity’s yule-tide nostalgia. However, behind every Christmas tradition is a part of the season that should not be overlooked as it brings energy and life wherever it is found…the music. No party, movie, or display is truly Christmas-complete without a soundtrack of Jingle Bells, Joy to the World, or Deck the Halls, yet, for the Christian, music goes beyond nostalgia (or at least it should) and becomes an effective tool for theological reflection and worship.
The problem is that traditions can become so mundane that believers carry out these customs with little to no cognitive awareness of what they’re doing since they have become second nature. We do this all the time in everyday life. When we first started driving, we thought about every turn, fixated on equal spacing between the lines (the exact middle), and got a tad bit nervous when approaching a pod of other vehicles on the freeway. Yet, after driving for years, most people turn onto a busy highway while eating a cheeseburger with one hand and texting with the other, riding for miles with one tire over the line and their blinker on, and speeding towards the pod of cars to make sure they get around them before the passing lane ends. Whether that describes your habits or not, you should at least be able to admit that your driving has become more relaxed and less mentally demanding then when you first got behind the wheel. In the same way, many Christians have sung Joy to the World so many times that they no longer process the lyrics in their mind but simply articulate sounds through rote memorization and mnemonic associations to melodies that have been established through repetition. Because of this, Christians have lost touch with the rich theology proclaimed in Christmas hymns and songs.
Over the next several days I would like to walk through some songs and point out these forgotten truths. Some of these songs will be old familiar hymns, while other blog posts will introduce music that lies off the beaten path. In either case, the intention is to help the Church reflect on the lyrics so that they may be edified by the music going on all around them. It has been said that the Church will recall more theology from what they sing, then what they hear preached. This should be true since singing is more active than listening to a sermon. However, if you never think about what you sing the activity in singing becomes more about hitting the right notes than a confessional of theological truths. My prayer is that together we will gravitate towards the latter (without abandoning proper pitch).