The other day I was in a store when Charles Wesley’s famous hymn came over the sound system.
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn king…
I lifted my head and listened. It’s one of my favourite hymns and always stirs me deeply. I sometimes sing it to myself… even in summer. As I listened I watched others preoccupied with their Christmas shopping, even while astonishing words such as these were being sung:
Mild he lay His glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
What words of wonder. Born that man no more may die? Born to raise the sons of earth? Born to give them second birth? I looked around me, and… why does this not arrest the other shoppers as it does me? Why are they not stopped in their tracks asking, “What is this, can I believe my ears? If this is true this is phenomenally Good News.”
The first who heard this Good News (that’s the meaning of the word gospel—good news, or good tidings) and later verified it to be true were shepherds watching over their flocks the night of Jesus’ birth. An angel of the Lord appeared to them in the dark of the night, first quieting their fear at the sudden appearance of the heavenly apparition, and then pronouncing:
Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord (Lk. 2:10,11).
Or, as the old Wycliffe translation has it:
I evangelize to you a great joy…
A great joy. There can be no greater. Jesus. A Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.
I realize that Wesley wrote this hymn with Jesus’ birth in mind—the incarnation. But it is actually Jesus’ death that accomplished this great salvation, and I am sure Wesley also had that in mind as he penned his words. Jesus was born… to die. To die on the behalf of those appointed to death. He died that man no more may die. He was raised from the dead in order to raise the sons of earth. He ascended to Heaven and sent His Spirit to give second birth to those who believe…
…To make us new creations over whom sin and death no longer reign, new creations who are partakers of His own eternal life.
It is utterly the most wonderful, astonishing Good News, and words fail to describe it, man having worn out all the superlative adjectives on lesser things. As one who was once dead in sin myself, I am overwhelmed with thankfulness.
And it troubles me, burdens me, in fact frightens me, that such joyful tidings have become no more than background music to busy shoppers.
But I understand why. It’s just words. Words they’ve heard so often, and, well, they just don’t seem to be true. And besides, they don’t really see the need for them to be true. For most, at least in our land, life is good, they are happy. So they continue in their unbelief because of the veil that lies heavily on the hearts of those who do not believe. There is a veil on their hearts that keeps them blind to the light of the Gospel, as the apostle Paul explained.
But if our gospel be hid (veiled) it is veiled in those who are perishing,
In whom the god of this world (this age) has blinded the minds of them that believe not, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them (2 Cor. 4:4).
Them that believe not? Remember there are two states of unbelief. There is ignorant unbelief, the unbelief of those who have not heard the Gospel (1 Tim. 1:13), and there is willful unbelief, those who have heard and rejected the Gospel (Heb. 3:12, Rom. 3:3, Rom. 11:20). I think Paul had in mind here those who resisted his Gospel and were in a state of willful unbelief. But as with ignorant unbelief, even willful (that is, disobedient) unbelief can also be reversed upon repentance (Rom. 11:19-32).
But how shall those who are blind in mind be made to see? But that is exactly why Paul now goes on to show that we who do believe, and have an unspeakably valuable treasure within us as in “an earthen vessel,” are to become part of the shining forth of that treasure. What is the treasure? It is light. The light of the Gospel. Paul is talking about the Gospel in this passage (2 Cor. Ch. 4). The Gospel, the light of the Gospel… do we grasp what he is saying? The Gospel is not just a message in word only; the Gospel is the very light and life of Jesus Himself. And that Gospel must shine forth.
How does it happen? It happens when in troubles, distresses, perplexities, persecutions, things aimed to put the Christian down, the very opposite happens. The light within begins to shine forth. Paul sums it all up with these words:
For we who live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh (2 Cor. 4:11).
Made manifest: it means to shine forth as light. That’s what happens when the forces of darkness attempt to quench the light in those who live—earthen vessels with a treasure within them.
Jesus was born to die, and His death—mystery of mysteries—became the way of salvation. You and I who are born again as a result of that great salvation, we too must die… for His sake. We who were once dead in trespasses and sins and are now alive with the life of Jesus our Saviour… we who are born from above… it is not just so we may go safely and happily to Heaven above, but that we may now die with the dying of the Lord Jesus. When that happens, the greatest of mysteries takes place. The life of Jesus within begins to shine forth as light. Minds once blind to the Gospel are now caused to see… and either turn to the light, or attempt to put it out.
And so, what of my crowd of busy Christmas shoppers? That is what they need, as do all the sons and daughters of earth. They need to see a demonstration of a Gospel with the kind of authority that has overcome sin and the whole domain of death that all those in Adam are born into. I wouldn’t attempt to judge who in that store were in ignorant unbelief and who in willful unbelief. Some who had heard the Gospel were no doubt in a state of willful unbelief. Most, I would say, were in a state of ignorant unbelief—yes, in spite of living in a society where Christian carols are piped over the store intercom, in spite of living in a land with churches on every corner, in spite of perhaps having heard many times what is called the gospel, a gospel that goes forth in word only. They have not yet seen the living Gospel shining forth.
They will only see Him as we ourselves, that is, we who live, are delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus might be manifested—shine forth as light—in our mortal flesh. That is the calling—and privilege—of those who live. It is to be delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the powerful eternal resurrection life of Jesus within us might shine forth in saving power. We who live must take up our cross and bear in our body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the Gospel of eternal life might be made manifest, that is, shine forth in us.
This is our calling, beloved Christian, for Jesus sake—that we become a shining forth of the Gospel to those beloved of Jesus the Saviour in the world round about us… a Gospel that will first open the eyes of their mind and utterly devastate them with the awareness of their need… and then save those who believe.
I am not much of a singer, but I just have to sing this old hymn by Charles Wesley, and I invite you to join me. I always like to punctuate the first line like this:
Hark! The herald! Angels sing!
(…Listen! Do you hear the herald—the angels crying out? Bringing the Good News?)
Here. I found the hymn with some good singers on Youtube. Let’s sing it together with them.