Blog Note: The current series, The Meaning of Christmas, will focus on understanding the various terms and concepts related to Christmas. Some of the terms will come from songs, others from the Bible, and depending upon the time, perhaps some from culture. The first post in this series focused on songs which are listed as we sang them.
In the song, The First Noel, the text says, “the angel did say.” Other songs say they sang. Most will say it does not really make a difference. Those people are probably right, but I will talk more about this idea later in the message.
What is important is that the message of Jesus’ birth was told. That is the theme of today. Events happen every day of which no one ever hears. Jesus was not the only birth on the day he was born, but it is the only one we know happened. However, if the angels had not told the shepherds, and the shepherds had not told Mary, and Mary had not told someone, who told Luke, who wrote it down, well…would we know?
As for the song, The First Noel, we are immediately met with a word that is foreign to most of us – noel, or as in our hymnal, nowell. The word n-o-e-l is truly foreign – it is a French word that refers to the Christmas season. The word may have derived from a Latin word which means birth Christmas carol. Interestingly, it is suggested if the word noel is lower case it means a carol, but if it is in upper case, it means Christmas. In our hymnal, the word is in upper case and thus, it is presumed to mean, “the first Christmas.” However, as I just mentioned, the spelling is n-o-w-e-l-l. This spelling is the English spelling of the word, but it has the same meaning. Thus, the spelling you see will depend upon where a particular songbook or hymnal was published and, perhaps, when it was published.
As for the song itself, let me remind you of something I said last week. I like this song, but the songs we sing are not on par with the Bible. The Bible is truth, but that does not mean that songs based upon the Bible are completely truth. For instance, Luke is the only account of the night of Jesus’ birth and it does not give an account of the weather. While it is true that the time of year was winter (although likely not December 25th), and the area of Bethlehem is on a hill and therefore cooler than in the valleys, at least during the day, we are not told in Scripture that the night was cold. I walked through Bethlehem one evening in early January looking for a Pepsi and did so without a jacket. So, was it a cold winter’s night? Or was Jesus wrapped in swaddling cloths because babies need warmth? We do not know, but again, we cannot get our theology from a song, even though most people’s understanding of Christmas comes from the songs they hear on the radio rather than the Word of God.
Like the song, Angels from the Realms of Glory, which we sang last week, this song tells a story. It is a story that began with the angels telling the shepherds. Then the story moves to the wise men, and finally to us. But the key is that a new development in the story happened (God came to earth as a baby). But the story had to be told for people to know. We can and should sing praises, but we have a story to tell as well.
SONG: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
I care about words. I am not perfect in how I use them, but I pay attention to the words people use, the words I read, and the words I say. I began the last segment with the idea of the difference between the angels singing and saying. Most people do not care. Maybe I shouldn’t, but I do pay attention because I believe every word in the Bible is inspired. In The First Noel, the angel did say. In this song, the angels did sing. We have a difference in the number of angels and in whether, or not, what was communicated was sung or said. As I mentioned earlier, what is important is that the message was, and is, communicated – however it may be done.
One angel began by talking to the shepherds and then a multitude joined in and together, they were “saying,” according to Luke 2.14. That is, the angels did not sing, “Glory to God in the highest…” they said it. Now, might their voices sound musical? Possibly, but the Bible is never clear that angels sing.* What they do say is important. And it is that message we must consider further.
*The Bible clearly speaks of humans singing (e.g. Ephesians 5.19), but is less clear if angels do. Job 38.7 may indicate singing, but the Hebrew word can be interpreted as loud shouting. Revelation 5.9, 11, and 12 may hint at singing, but again we cannot be concrete. And Luke 2.13 clearly speaks of saying. Now, angels do likely have beautiful voices (cf. 1 Corinthians 13.1), but we cannot say with certainty that angels truly sing.
First, notice the quotes around what the angels proclaim. These words do not match the text of the Bible, but they do match its meaning. In fact, the meaning matches better than most people may realize. In Luke 2.14, the text ends with the idea that God extends His peace to “those with whom he is pleased” (ESV). For instance, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear says, “peace on earth, good will toward men” alluding to this passage. But that is not what the text says. (It should be noted in the text of that song, the principle is communicated that God offers peace to man.)
To be faithful to the text, we must consider with whom is God pleased? Hebrews 11.6 gives us a clear answer – those who have faith. In fact, the verse says that it is impossible to please God without faith. Thus, Luke 2.14 cannot mean that God is pleased with mankind like so many would have us believe. The verse specifically says that peace comes to those who have faith – and ONLY those who have faith.
This idea is foreign to most people at Christmas. The truth is that God did make a way…but we have to choose the way He made, not the path we want to take. Only when we choose God’s way are we truly at peace with God. Undoubtedly, God made peace possible. It was God who originated the plan. It was God who executed the plan. But it is up to us to believe that the plan worked. Without that trust, we cannot have peace…in part, because we are telling God that His plan was not right, or that it was not enough. In other words, we are calling God a liar.
In verse 2 of the song, we find that Christ is adored by heaven. Can you imagine the night of His birth? Can you imagine the angels waiting to see what would happen? Can you imagine them eagerly awaiting God’s command to go to share the message with the shepherds? I can almost see the picture of every angel saying, “Pick me! Pick me! Pick me!” What a scene that must have been! And why? Because Christ was adored in heaven…because Christ is Lord of heaven.
Galatians 4.4 tells us that Jesus was sent at the proper time, but He came in such an unexpected way. First, God came to earth. Second, He came as a baby. And third, He came from a virgin. Glory, indeed, to the newborn King.
Verse 3 of this song is fascinating. First, notice that Jesus is being hailed. He is hailed as the Prince of Peace and the Sun of righteousness. The term Prince of Peace was prophesied by Isaiah some 700 years earlier (Isaiah 9.6). The term Sun of righteousness may surprise you because the word Sun is spelled s-u-n, not s-o-n. Furthermore, the end of the next line says that Jesus is “ris’n with healing in His wings.” I frequently try to help people understand that people do not turn to angels when we die. Angels are created beings. Humans are created beings. It is said that those who follow Christ will one day judge the angels (1 Corinthians 6.3)? We do not become angels. Period. Exclamation point!
So, Jesus did not become an angel, so what is this about having wings? And that about the s-u-n of righteousness. These words come directly from a prophecy about Jesus’ second coming in Malachi 4.2. Take a moment to read Malachi 4.1-3.
The sun of righteousness can mean the sun of vindication. Just as the sun gives light, the verse in the song says that Jesus gives light and life, but in Malachi 4, the light which is brought will be a scorching blaze burning up everything that is unrighteous. The healing in His wings is not because Jesus is an angel; rather, the term is a metaphor for all that are covered by Him. Notice it is healing for those under His wings – or outstretched hands, as He was on the cross. Like a bird covers over her young by stretching out her wings, so, too, does Jesus heal, and then protect, all those who comes under His outstretched arms.
The final part of this verse is amazing.
- 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.
Jesus laid aside His glory for the sake of you and me. This is captured so well by Paul in Philippians 2.5-11. Jesus humbled Himself and, thus, was exalted by God, and will be exalted forevermore.
Jesus was born so we would not have to die. This phrase does not mean that we will not physically die, but that we do not have to be spiritually separated from God for all of eternity. That is the peace of God which the angels proclaimed. (See Galatians 2.20).
Jesus was born to raise us as children of God. First, we can become children of God (John 1.12). And then, as God’s children so dearly loved (1 John 3.1), we can be united with Him for eternity (1 Corinthians 15.20-23).
Jesus was born once so we could be born again. Again, we have the opportunity to become children of God if we receive what Jesus offers (John 1.12). Being born into the world is not enough. For, what Jesus said to Nicodemus, He says to us as well, “You must be born again” (John 3.7).
What amazes me is the Jesus chose to come knowing that He would die. The plan of redemption was prepared before the foundation of the world was set in place (Ephesians 1.4). But Jesus came anyway.
And, in His birth, He was prepared for death. In Luke 2, the angel gave a tell-tale sign to the shepherds so they would know which baby was the right one. The angel said, “you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
We see this scene as cute as it is often portrayed by children in little pageants. But the scene was horrifying for Joseph and Mary. First, their newborn was born in a manger. This clue tells the shepherds they can avoid going to private residences or buildings to find this child. That is probably good because the shepherds would have stunk and likely would have been unwelcome.
But even more horrifying for Joseph and Mary was that they wrapped their newborn baby in these swaddling cloths. Now, the word swaddle simply means to wrap. But these cloths were almost certainly used to wrap the dead. These cloths were often kept in the caves so when someone in the town died, people would come to the caves, get the cloths, wrap the people and then bury them in the cave or perhaps a nearby cemetery. Therefore, Jesus was wrapped in the same kind of cloth on the first day of His life and the last die of His life. The imagery here cannot be overlooked. The song might say that Jesus was born that man might not have to die. But we must understand that Jesus was born specifically to die. (1)
But Jesus did not stay dead. He had to be born. He had to die. But He is alive today. And that is why we must do now what the angels did then…we must tell the story of Jesus.
The beauty of the story of Jesus is that it is still to be told today. In fact, we are invited to tell it in the songs we sing. For instance, in the first verse of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, we are invited to sing with the angels in proclaiming that, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!” But that is not the end of our proclamation. Those words fit the chronology of the moment, but now, we know the rest of the story. Therefore, we not only get to proclaim the birth, we also get to proclaim why Jesus came (to die for us), and that the grave could not hold Him! But the question is, are we willing to proclaim?
The JOURNEY letter for today is: J – JESUS.
It was Jesus who asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s answer that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” was true then, and it is true today as well. Thus, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, we must remember that we are celebrating the birth of the King. On that first Noel, the angels appeared and mesmerized the shepherds. Unlike those shepherds, we may have heard the story many times, but the shepherds surely reminded each other of that glorious night many, many times – and never grew tired of hearing it, or thinking about it. Thus, let us make sure that we never get tired of hearing the message of Jesus. Let us continue to be mesmerized at the idea of God coming to live among us, to die for us, and to now live in everyone who chooses to follow Him.
PRINCIPLE: The story of Jesus has been told, and it must continue to be told today.
QUESTION: Would you want someone to tell you the message of Jesus if you had not heard it?
OPPORTUNITY: God has placed someone in your life who needs to hear the true meaning of Christmas. Take time to share the message of Jesus with them.
NEXT STEP(S): LOVE. If we truly believe the message of Jesus, we have peace with God. If we have peace, we need to love others enough to share that message so they can have peace with Him as well.
1) See Arnold Fruchtenbaum’s The Life of Messiah from a Jewish Perspective. Paragraph 11 in reference.