Rev. Mahtani is pastor of Trinity Protestant Reformed Church in Houston, Texas.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
Christmas draws near. The church of Jesus Christ celebrates the birth of her beloved Savior, Jesus Christ, the Lord!
The season is usually filled with visits among families and friends, exchange of gifts, and words of cheer. Tables are laden with food and drink to make the festive season memorable. Often the poor are especially remembered, and even the non-Christian seems moved to generosity. It is a time when carols are heard, and the Christmas message is proclaimed to the world. Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the first carol of praise, recorded in Luke 2:14, revealed that there was great joy also in heaven. Although we are not exactly told that the message of the angels was in the form of a song, we do read that there was heard “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men!” Surely if the angels in heaven rejoiced at the wonderful event of the birth of Christ, it does us well to mark Christmas on our calendars as a day of joyful worship and praise.
It is to be feared that in the busy activity and the oftentimes worldly celebration of Christmas, the message of the gospel itself is forgotten or misrepresented. Why do we celebrate Christmas? Why did the angels in heaven rejoice? Do we know? Do our children know? Do our neighbors and friends know?
The Scriptures clearly point to other times when great joy was found in heaven. At the creation of this world the morning stars sang for joy. When one sinner repents, the angels in heaven rejoice. Surely not only at Christ’s birth, but especially also at His resurrection and ascension to heaven the angels must have sung for joy. And the day is coming when the heavenly host shall burst into a thunderous anthem when Jesus returns for His saints in the clouds of glory!
But what was the reason for this particular song: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men”? We can read of the joyful occasion inLuke 2, beginning at verse 8. The simple-minded and lowly shepherds were keeping watch of their flock by night, when suddenly the angel of the Lord came upon them and the glory of the Lord Himself shone round about them! They were sore afraid! Who wouldn’t be? “Has the Holy Lord come to punish us? Is it judgment day?” The shepherds trembled. But the angel of the Lord immediately assuages their terror: “Fear not!” The shepherds need not be afraid! The angel had not come to announce judgment. Rather, it was a day of peace and joy! “For behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people!” (Luke 2:10).
What good news did the angel of the Lord announce first to the shepherds in Bethlehem? Here it is: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger” (Luke 2:11, 12). That which was promised of old is now being fulfilled for you this day. The Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One is here! This day, the day for which you have long waited by faith with all the saints, is now come! Christ, your Lord, is here. He comes as Savior. He comes not to destroy you nor judge you in your sins. If He were, this message would be horror to you. But rejoice because Christ the Lord comes to save you. The same angel of the Lord had announced earlier to Joseph in a dream: “Thou shalt call his name Jesus (Jehovah is Saviour): for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).
Let us note two accompanying details in this announcement. They are closely related to each other. Both are important details with much significance. Understanding them will help us understand the meaning of the heavenly song of joy. The first is the announcement of the place of Christ’s birth, “. ..in the city of David.” The shepherds were abiding in that same country of Bethlehem. It is here that Christ must be born, according to divine prophecy. Without doubt the reference to the city of David points to the promise of God to His own people. “Unto you is born this day . . . Christ the Lord.” God is fulfilling His promise to His people. But there is more. O yes, Christ may be born in the lowly town of Bethlehem. But still, let us remember, it is the city of David! Christ must be born in the house of David the king! In the royal line He comes, for He comes as Christ, the Lord! It is the Ring of the Jews who is born. It will be as the King of the Jews that He will later die.
Now notice immediately in the next verse: “And this shall be a sign unto you; ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger!” The Lord comes to you, but He comes as a babe lying in a manger! The significance of this detail is clear. This shall be a sign unto you. It will signify to you immediately that Christ, “though He was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (II Cor. 8:9). The poverty of His lowly birth points to His sacrifice and death as Savior! The iniquity of His brethren who are poor, filthy sinners must be laid upon the suffering servant. On the one hand, it is Christ the Lord who is born in the city of David. But on the other hand, He is lying in a manger! Behold your Ring-Servant! What an amazing gospel! No wonder the angels burst out with praise!
We are told it was at this point in the announcement that suddenly a multitude of the heavenly host joined the angel of the Lord in that heavenly song of joy (Luke 2:13). Is there rejoicing in our hearts this Christmas season? Do we with our children desire to celebrate Christmas in a manner that is God-glorifying? Do we desire that our rejoicing and celebration be different from the sinful pleasures and worldly merry-making of the multitudes about us? Then let us note that the angelic song of joy was sung in response to this announcement of the gospel! Not until we begin to understand the gospel declared by the angel (and, yes, by the apostles and prophets) can we truly join to sing this heavenly song of joy ourselves. Yes, to take upon our lips the holy song of the angels we need first to hear and believe the holy gospel. Only then will we begin to sing as the angels did.
“Glory to God in the highest!” Or, as we read it literally, “Glory in the highest to God!” Do we hear this angelic song of joy? Do we in our own hearts sing this kind of song at Christmas, and always, at the contemplation of Christ’s incarnation? Notice, it is a carol of praise! First and foremost it is a song sung in adoration of the Almighty God! Glory, that is, praise, be to God. God is to be commended, blessed, adored in all His works! The angels on high sing, ascribing to Him the glory. They acknowledge God. They say that highest praise and glory must be ascribed to God alone! They sing not to man first of all. No, not at all. They sing to the One who is God, the sovereign Lord who has revealed Himself. But could it be that as they sing up to God they are also looking down on the earth? For is not the Almighty God now come down in His Son, born of a woman, lying in a manger? Bowing before Him they sing, “Glory to God!” And so must we who would properly celebrate Christmas. Our Savior cannot be our Savior except He be Christ, the Lord, the Son of the living God! This is the Rock upon which the church is built (Matt. 16:16-18).
We can learn from this heavenly song the proper celebration of Christmas. It will do us well to remember that the true joy of the angels at the birth of Christ centered upon the glory of God Himself! The angels incessantly praise and adore the thrice Holy One, but here the song is sung for us to hear. These ministering angels have something to teach us. We must be careful during Christmas not to focus our attention on anything less. The lesson is: “In all your singing, ye redeemed saints of God, sing: ‘Glory in the highest be to God alone!'”
This is a heavenly song. It is sung by the heavenly host. Can the redeemed saints find any reason to join in this song? Could it be that the heavenly hosts here included not only the angels but all the saints gone up to heaven who rejoiced greatly at the birth of the Savior? We are not told. But surely we can join to sing this song, for it is sung in reference to the mercy and salvation of God towards man.
“And on earth peace, good will toward men!” What is this peace of which the angels sing? And what is this “good pleasure of God towards men,” as we read in the original text? Surely the godly shepherds could tell. Was not this the fulfillment of the promise in Isaiah 9:6? “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, . . . and he shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace!” There He lay in Bethlehem! Prince! The Lord Himself! He is Christ, the Lord!
But He is especially Prince of Peace. In the deep way of suffering and death He would procure peace for His people. By the stripes which He would bear on the Cross, He would take away the wrath of God against the sins of His brethren. Reconciling His people to God He would give them true peace. Yes, He is the revelation of the God of Peace. He, being the express image of the Father, comes to reveal God’s peace to His people. There He lay – Peace on earth!
And how could the angels sing of peace on this dark night in Bethlehem? Because Christ is also the revelation of God’s good grace. It is the grace of God toward men about which the angels sing. How can sinners be at peace with God? Can they climb the ladder to heaven? Can they find grace in the sight of God by their works of righteousness? No, in the presence of God they can only stand in terror on account of their sins. Besides, if it be of works, it cannot be of grace. No, it is God’s good pleasure of which the angels sing. God is pleased to show favor to His people. On earth peace toward men of God’s good pleasure. Yes, the angels sing of God’s good pleasure towards His own! To them He sends good news, the gospel of peace!
When this song of glory and peace and grace is sung, it is sung with great joy! Does Christmas particularly re- mind us of Gods gracious salvation in Christ? Does it bring to mind again the peace of God in Christ Jesus which passeth all understanding? Does it evoke greater worship and adoration? It must above all be sung with blessed joy! Rejoice in the Lord, 0 ye saints! Ye people who confess Jehovah, be happy! In your singing, think upon this heavenly song! O, we may not have voices like the angels, but redeemed hearts know how to sing with joy! If angels in heaven rejoiced at the birth of Christ, ought not we for whom Christ came? The question we ask ourselves, our children, and our neighbors is this: “Does our Christmas joy reflect that heavenly song of joy?”
Let us respond like the happy hearers who were abiding in the field. O, how they rejoiced! For the angel of the Lord came not to the rich but to these lowly shepherds. The announcement was given not to the rich and mighty. The angels sang to God in the hearing of lowly shepherds. Is not this characteristic of the gospel itself? Did not Christ, the Lord Himself, come as a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes? Did He not teach us that He comes not for the mighty and great and righteous, but for the weak and for the despised and for sinners? Yes, this heavenly song of joy is to be sung only by God’s people who know their sins and find peace with God only in Christ. Such were the shepherds, the happy hearers. And surely this is the gospel of Christmas.
One may ask, as he hears of the angelic song of joy, “May I sing that song? Is it for me, the announcement that was made?” The answer is given in the passage before us. Christ came for His own. He came to the city of David as the promised Messiah of His people. Like the shepherds who first heard this song, the true people of God are those who continue to rejoice in God and in His gracious salvation.
Let all the saints of God who hear this heavenly song of joy join in the praises of our great God! And how? Let us note the response of the first joyful hearers. When the angels finish their song and depart from the shepherds, they speak to each other: “Let us go even to Bethlehem and see this thing” (Luke 2:15). In their joy they encourage each other to go witness the Lord’s promise. Surely when they find the babe lying in the manger they bow with great joy and thanksgiving! We read in verse 20 that, “with great rejoicing the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God.” But also, “they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child” (Luke 2:17). While we, like Mary, must surely ponder these things in our hearts (Luke 2:19), let us like the shepherds speak to each other, bow in joyful thanksgiving, and tell it abroad. Christmas is a time for mutual encouragement amongst the saints, for united worship and thanksgiving in His house, but also for zealous evangelism.
May the song of the angelic choir be heard in joyful strains this Christmas, so our friends and neighbors know why we mark this occasion on our calendars. As we go up to the house of God with our children to worship, may our praise and adoration be filled with great joy.
And yes, when we realize that our great joy cannot be perfectly expressed here on earth, let us take heart. We are waiting eagerly for the day when we shall join the angels to sing the high praises of God with the humble shepherds, and all the elect of God. Then shall be accomplished the purpose for which we were made, that is, joyfully to sing: “Glory in the highest be to God, and on earth peace to men of God’s good pleasure!”