Hark! the herald angels sing

Today our guest contributor is Chris Fenner, Digital Archivist at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has contributed scholarly articles to The Hymn: A Journal of Congregational Song, has produced new editions of the Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs of Isaac Watts and Our Own Hymn Book by Charles Spurgeon, and is managing editor of HymnologyArchive.com.

______________________________

The Wesleys had an enduring friendship and connection with George Whitefield (1714–1770), beginning with their Oxford Holy Club, followed by separate missionary journeys to America, and a call to open-air field preaching in England. During the earlier years of that association, the Wesleys published some of their most enduring poetry, especially in the first edition of Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739). In this collection, Charles Wesley had penned a Christmas hymn with a curious opening line:

Hark how all the welkin rings,
“Glory to the King of Kings,
Peace on Earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconcil’d!”

Joyful all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies,
Universal nature say,
“Christ the Lord is born today!”

Christ, by highest Heav’n ador’d,
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.

Veil’d in flesh, the Godhead see,
Hail th’incarnate Deity!
Pleas’d as man with men t’appear,
Jesus, our Immanuel here!

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.

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,
Ruin’d nature now restore,
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to thine.

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp thy image in its place,
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.

Let us thee, tho’ lost, regain,
Thee, the life, the inner man;
O! to all thyself impart,
Form’d in each believing heart.

Wesley’s original text thus spanned ten stanzas of four lines. A modern reader might see the words “welkin rings” and immediately gravitate to something from J.R.R. Tolkien, but “welkin” means “sky” or “heavens” — it was a common term in English poetry in that era. Wesley might have been alluding directly to a poem by William Somerville about fox hunting, called “The Chase” (1735):

The welkin rings, Men, Dogs, Hills, Rock, and Woods
In the full consort join.

Hymn scholar J.R. Watson explained: “To have altered Somerville’s lines would have been in keeping with Wesley’s habit of appropriating images from other poems and using them to proclaim the gospel. Here the cries of the huntsmen and hounds become the sounds of the multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest.’”

In the second edition of Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739), Wesley made one minor change to the first line of the fifth stanza, which became “Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace.”

As clever as Wesley’s allusion to welkin rings might have been, it failed to resonate with some worshipers, including his colleague George Whitefield. In 1753, the same year Whitefield began construction on the Tabernacle church, he compiled his own hymnal, A Collection of Hymns for Social Worship. It included 21 hymns from the Wesleys, including this Christmas hymn, but with a significant alteration:

Hark! the Herald Angels sing
Glory to the new-born King!

Whitefield made other alterations as well, including the second stanza, lines 3–4, “Nature rise and worship Him, who is born at Bethlehem,” the fifth stanza, “Light and life around he brings,” the seventh stanza, “Fix in us thy heav’nly home,” the omission of stanzas eight and ten, and a change in the last line of stanza nine, “Work it in us by thy love.”

Whitefield was not the only one who felt compelled to tweak Wesley’s text. Another close colleague of the Wesleys, Martin Madan, had an important hand in shaping the text. Madan had been called into a life of ministry via the preaching of John Wesley, and he was godfather to Charles Wesley’s son Samuel. In 1760, he published A Collection of Psalms and Hymns, including Wesley’s Christmas hymn. Madan borrowed Whitefield’s opening lines but kept the rest of Wesley’s original wording, except in the second stanza, where he introduced the lines “With th’ angelic host proclaim, Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

John Wesley chose not to include this hymn in the career-spanning Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (1780). A few years later, after being entreated to produce a smaller, more affordable collection, he published A Pocket Hymn Book, first in 1785, then greatly revised in 1787. For the revised edition, he added the Christmas hymn, but he decided to use Madan’s version, which by extension also included Whitefield’s opening lines. Therefore, the last official Wesleyan version of the hymn looked like this:

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to their new-born King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild;
God and sinners reconciled.”

Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Join the triumph of the skies,
With th’ angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem.”

Christ, by highest heaven 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 as man with men to appear,
Jesus our Immanuel here.

Hail, the heaven-born Prince of Peace,
Hail, the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wongs;

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.

Come, desire of nations, come,
Fix in us thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conquering seed;
Bruise in us the serpent’s head:

Adam’s likeness now efface,
Stamp thine image in its place;
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.

The first stanza of the hymn is essentially a retelling of the story of the angels and the shepherds in Luke 2. The second stanza introduces several ideas. Christ is worshiped by the hosts of heaven, which is seen especially in the book of Revelation. Christ is everlasting, or eternal, an idea expressed in Hebrews 13:8 (“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” ESV). The phrase “late in time” probably refers to the lengthy wait the Jews endured while anticipating their Messiah, and the long absence of any prophet in Israel. The virgin, of course, is Mary, the woman prophesied in Isaiah 7:14. The concept of God-made-flesh can be found in passages such as John 1:14 (“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”), not too proud to be seen in human form among sinful people, as in Philippians 2:5–7.

In the third stanza, the name “Prince of Peace” comes from Isaiah 9:6. Both the title “Sun of Righteousness” and the image “Risen with healing in his wings” come from Malachi 4:2. The emphatic repetition of “Born . . .” outlines three reasons for Christ’s presence: (1) to conquer death, (2) to bring resurrection of the dead, and (3) to offer rebirth, the first two of which are described at length in 1 Corinthians 15, the last best expressed in John 3.

Another title, “Desire of nations,” is from Haggai 2:7 (especially in the KJV). The notion that Christ dwells in us, not just with us, is reflected in passages like Galatians 2:20 (“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”). The last six lines point back to Eden in various ways. “Rise, the woman’s conquering seed,” etc., refers to the Eden prophecy of Genesis 3:15. The remaining lines about exchanging the image of Adam for the image of Christ, with Christ as the “second Adam,” reflect the ideas found in 1 Corinthians 15:45–49.

The hymn in this form, written by Charles Wesley, altered by George Whitefield and Martin Madan, and canonized by John Wesley, is therefore rich with Scripture. Its endurance as a beloved Christmas tradition is well deserved and likely to last for generations to come.

Note: This post originally appears in Chris Fenner’s coedited book Amazing Love! How Can It Be: Studies on Hymns by Charles Wesley (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2020).

Charles Wesley Christmas Hymns John Wesley

Was Jesus Born on Christmas Day? If not, Shall We Observe It?

What is Christmas?

One dictionary defines it as “the annual festival of the Christian church commemorating the birth of Jesus . . . on December 25.” This is the definition many people know today. Many think Jesus was born on December 25. As one Christmas song indicates, “Mary’s boy child Jesus Christ, was born on Christmas Day.”  

Actually the word “Christmas” is a combination of two words—Christ and mass. Thus, literally it means the mass of Christ. Christmas was originally a celebration of a particular mass in honor of the birth of Christ. The word mass comes from the Latin word missa. Several years ago at the conclusion of the church service of the Roman Catholics, the following Latin expression would be pronounced: ite missa ist which means “Go, as it is dismissed,” or “Go, it is the dismissal.” So, literally missa (or mass in English) means “dismissal.” Therefore, etymologically Christmas means “the dismissal of Christ.” Of course when the Roman Catholics think of Christmas, they do not mean Christ’s dismissal but Christ’s birth. But is December 25 really the birthday of Jesus? Examining the history of Christmas will help us answer this question.

Where did Christmas originate?

Some historians believe Christmas goes back to the time of Constantine the Great. When this pagan Emperor was converted to Christianity in 312, he began tolerating and spreading Christianity in the Roman Empire. The Roman Christians then started celebrating Christmas. This celebration eventually took the place of the holiday of Saturnalia—a pagan festival in honor of Saturn, the ancient Roman god of agriculture. This pagan feast, celebrated on December 17, included the exchanging of gifts. In the course of time, this practice became associated with Christmas. Other scholars also tell us that December 25 was regarded as the birth date of the ancient pagan god Mithras. In A.D. 349, however, Pope Julius picked December 25 to be the official day for Christmas, possibly in order to replace the pagan celebration of the Sun god Mithras.

Despite the difficulty of tracing the origin of Christmas, what remains plain is that Christmas has a pagan origin and that December 25 is not really the birthday of Jesus. The Bible does not inform us of the exact date of Christ’s birth. In fact, Luke’s account about the shepherds being “out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” does not advance the idea that Jesus was born in December or in the winter (Luke 2:8). For the shepherds to stay out in the fields during the night in the winter would be unusual.    

Now, if the origin of Christmas is pagan, and if December 25 is not really the date of Christ’s birth, is it okay to celebrate Christmas? After all, the Bible does not command us to celebrate Christ’s birth. Tony Capoccia has a helpful answer to this question:

Christmas is not Christ’s birthday, nor are we ever commanded to honor or celebrate His birth. Yet our culture has chosen this as an annual holiday, and it becomes much like any other national holiday for the Christian. We do not sin by putting up Christmas trees, lights, buying presents, etc. We know the true meaning, and use this national celebration to share some truth about who Christ really is, and why His birth is significant to the human race. We are in no way honoring any pagan god by using the day or the props set apart for that. If a Christian chooses not to celebrate Christmas then that is fine, but if they do, it is also fine.

I like what Tony Capoccia mentions at the end of this quote. Those who choose not to observe Christmas Day should learn to disagree respectfully with those who, for instance, hold special services in observance of Christmas Day. Conversely, those who observe this holiday should also learn to respect the conviction of those who do not celebrate Christmas.

Christmas is not holy but helpful, as it naturally creates an occasion for Christians to share the gospel with the unbelievers. In his article “Not Holy; But Helpful: Thoughts on the Church Calendar,” Daniel Hyde puts it this way, “Advent/Christmas and Easter especially provide an opportunity for the church to engage in evangelism. Since in the United States, these times of the year are cultural ‘holidays,’ we have a built-in opportunity to speak the truth of the Word into the hearts and minds of those who are already thinking about those days.”

Hyde also notes, “while removing all ‘holy’ days besides the Lord’s Day, the magisterial Reformers [not all of them, of course] retained what they called the ‘evangelical feast days.’ Instead of viewing these days as a part of the Christian’s accomplishment of his or her salvation, they viewed celebrating these days as a celebration of the salvation which Christ had already accomplished for them in his Incarnation (Christmas), death (Good Friday), resurrection (Easter), ascending to the Father (Ascension), and giving of his Spirit (Pentecost). They were seen as invaluable times to celebrate Christ and his Gospel.”   

What does the Bible teach about the birth of Christ?

The Bible is silent about the date of Christ’s birth but not about the birth of Christ. Matthew 1:18 proclaims, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.” Let me give you two basic truths about the birth of Jesus.

First, the birth of Jesus focuses on the person of Christ. The message of the angels to Mary, to Joseph, and even to the shepherds was all about Jesus (Matt. 1:20–21; Luke 1:28–33; 2:8–14). Sadly, some who celebrate Christmas do not focus on Christ but on Christmas decorations such as Christmas trees, Christmas lights, and other Christmas icons. Their eyes are fixed on the earthly gifts, rather than on the heavenly gift of eternal life. Some children are even more excited to hear about the fabricated Santa Clause than Jesus Christ. If you choose to observe Christmas, make sure that you center your celebration on Christ.

Second, the birth of Jesus focuses on the purpose of His coming into the world. Whenever the angels made an announcement about Christ’s birth, they always included the purpose for which Jesus was born. In Matthew 1:21 an angel of the Lord speaks to Joseph: “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus was born to save sinners. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim. 1:15). As you celebrate Christmas, think of why Jesus was born.

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.

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”    

Christmas

Santa Claus is Coming to Town?

There is a popular Christmas song whose message is unbiblical:

Santa Claus is coming to town
He’s making a list
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out Who’s naughty and nice
Santa Claus is coming to town
He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!

This song describes Santa Claus as a giver of gifts. However, Santa only brings gifts to people (to children in particular) who santa-claus-has-the-ultimate-leadership-qualitiesare nice and good. He does not present gifts to people who are naughty and bad. Thankfully, our Father in heaven is not like the fabricated Santa Claus, because according to Isaiah 9:6, God offers His Son, the greatest gift of all, to sinners, yes, to naughty and bad people like you and me:

For unto us a child is born,
unto us a son is given,

Who is the “us” here? Well, looking at the immediate context, this pronoun “us” refers to the people of Israel who at this time were living in the utter darkness of sin. They were very naughty and bad. Yet, the Prophet Isaiah proclaims, “For unto us [sinners] a child is born, unto us [people who are neither nice nor good] a son is given.” This is good news! Observe the following:

1. God’s gift is a person: “a child,” not a thing or an animal. This gift is so precious and unique, and worthy of all acceptation.

2. God’s gift is particular: “a son.” This is God’s only Son—the Lord Jesus Christ who died on the cross to save sinners from the power and penalty of sin.

3. God’s gift is presented: “given.” How?

First, graciously. We don’t deserve this gift. Because we are sinners, what we deserve is God’s sentence, not His Son (judgment not Jesus). In the gospel God gives us the exact opposite of what we deserve.

Second, freely. We don’t need to pay God for this gift. It is free! We don’t have to work for this gift either. What we need to do is receive His Son by faith.

Third, voluntarily. God took the initiative to give us His Son for our salvation. In fact, we asked for God’s condemnation and not for His child. As Joseph Hart (1712–1768) exclaims in his auto biographical hymn, “What an amazing change was here! I looked for hell—He brought me heaven.”

Indeed, God is graciously, freely, and voluntarily giving His only Son to us. And John the Beloved tells us that all who receive His Son and believe in His name will be given the right to become God’s children (John 1:12). Have you received God’s Son—the best gift of all? If not, you remain a child of the devil. Remember what Jesus says to those who do not receive Him as Lord and Savior, “You are of your father the devil” (John 8:44). Sadly, many people around the globe celebrate Christmas without Christ. Ironically, they celebrate Christmas as children of the devil. Are you one of them?

Christmas Santa Claus

Is Christmas the Birth of Christ?

Christmas is a holiday widely celebrated each December.

What is Christmas?

One dictionary defines it as “a holiday on December 25 celebrating the birth of Christ.” This is the definition many people know today. Many think Jesus was born on December 25. As one Christmas song indicates, “Mary’s boy child Jesus Christ, was born on Christmas Day.” 

Actually the word “Christmas” is a combination of two words—Christ and mass. Thus, literally it means the mass of Christ. Christmas was originally a celebration of a particular mass in honor of the birth of Christ. The word mass comes from the Latin word missa. Several years ago at the conclusion of the church service of the Roman Catholics, the following Latin expression would be pronounced: ite missa ist which means “Go, as it is dismissed,” or “Go, it is the dismissal.” So, literally, missa (or mass in English) means dismissal. Therefore, etymologically Christmas means the dismissal of Christ. Of course when the Roman Catholics think of Christmas, they do not mean Christ’s dismissal but Christ’s birth. But is December 25 really the birthday of Jesus? Examining the history of Christmas will help us answer this question.

Where did Christmas originate?

Some historians believe Christmas goes back to the time of Constantine the Great. When this pagan Emperor was converted to Christianity in 312, he began tolerating and spreading Christianity in the Roman Empire. The Roman Christians then started celebrating Christmas. This celebration eventually took the place of the holiday of Saturnalia—a pagan festival in honor of Saturn, the ancient Roman god of agriculture. This pagan feast, celebrated on December 17, included the exchanging of gifts. In the course of time, this practice became associated with Christmas. Other scholars also tell us that December 25 was regarded as the birth date of the ancient pagan god Mithras. In A.D. 349, however, Pope Julius picked December 25 to be the official day for Christmas, possibly in order to replace the pagan celebration of the Sun god Mithras.

Despite the difficulty of tracing the origin of Christmas, what remains plain is that Christmas has a pagan origin and that December 25 is not really the birthday of Jesus. The Bible does not inform us of the exact date of Christ’s birth. In fact, Luke’s account about the shepherds being “out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” does not advance the idea that Jesus was born in December or in the winter. For the shepherds to stay out in the fields during the night in the winter would be odd.

Now, if the origin of Christmas is pagan, and if December 25 is not really the date of Christ’s birth, is it okay to celebrate Christmas? After all, the Bible does not command us to celebrate Christ’s birth.

Tony Capoccia has a helpful answer to this question:

Christmas is not Christ’s birthday, nor are we ever commanded to honor or celebrate His birth. Yet our culture has chosen this as an annual holiday, and it becomes much like any other national holiday for the Christian. We do not sin by putting up Christmas trees, lights, buying presents, etc. We know the true meaning, and use this national celebration to share some truth about who Christ really is, and why His birth is significant to the human race. We are in no way honoring any pagan god by using the day or the props set apart for that. If a Christian chooses not to celebrate Christmas then that is fine, but if they do, it is also fine.

I like what Tony Capoccia mentions at the end of this quote. Those who choose not to observe Christmas Day should learn to disagree respectfully with those who, for instance, hold special services in observance of Christmas Day. Conversely, those who observe this holiday should also learn to respect the conviction of those who think that observing Christmas is wrong.

What does the Bible teach about the birth of Christ?

The Bible is silent about the date of Christ’s birth but not about the birth of Christ. Matthew 1:18 proclaims, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.” Let me give you two basic truths about the birth of Jesus.

First, the birth of Jesus focuses on the person of Christ. The message of the angels to Mary, to Joseph, and even to the shepherds was all about Jesus (Matt. 1:20–21; Luke 1:28–33; 2:8–14). Sadly, some who celebrate Christmas do not focus on Christ but on Christmas decorations such as Christmas trees, Christmas lights, and other Christmas icons. Their eyes are fixed on the earthly gifts, rather than on the heavenly gift of eternal life. Some children are even more excited to hear about the fabricated Santa Clause than Jesus Christ. If you choose to observe Christmas, make sure you center your celebration on Christ.

Second, the birth of Jesus focuses on the purpose of His coming into the world. Whenever the angels made an announcement about Christ’s birth, they always included the purpose for which Jesus was born. In Matthew 1:21 an angel of the Lord speaks to Joseph: “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus was born to save sinners. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim. 1:15). As you celebrate Christmas, think of why Jesus was born. 

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.

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Christmas

Children of God and Children of the Devil Celebrating Christmas

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6)

 

There is a popular Christmas song that we do not sing in our churches because we believe its message is unbiblical:

Santa Claus is coming to town
He’s making a list
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out Who’s naughty and nice
Santa Claus is coming to town
He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!

This song describes Santa Claus as a giver of gifts. However, Santa only brings gifts to people (to children in particular) who are nice and good. He does not present gifts to naughty and bad children. Thankfully, our God is not like the fabricated Santa Claus, because according to our text, God offers His Son—the greatest gift of all—to sinners such as you and I:

 For unto us a child is born,
unto us a son is given,

Who is the “us” here? Well, looking at the immediate context, this pronoun “us” refers to the people of Israel who at this time were living in utter darkness of sin. They were very naughty and bad. Yet, the Prophet Isaiah says, “For unto us [sinners] a child is born, unto us [sinners] a son is given.” This is good news!

Observe the following:

1. God’s gift is a person: “a child,” not a thing or an animal. This gift is so precious and unique, and worthy of all acceptation.

2. God’s gift is particular: “a son.” This is God’s only Son—the Lord Jesus Christ who died on the cross to save sinners from the power and penalty of sin.

3. God’s gift is presented: “given to us.” God is graciously giving His only Son to us sinners for our salvation. And John the Beloved tells us that all who receive His Son and believe in His name will be given the right to become God’s children (John 1:12).

Have you received God’s Son? If not, you remain a child of the devil. Remember what Jesus says of those who do not receive Him as Lord and Savior, “You are of your father the devil” (John 8:44). Sadly, many people around the globe celebrate Christmas without Christ. Ironically, they celebrate Christmas as children of the devil. Are you one of them?

Christmas Gospel Santa Claus