Christmas Hymnology

Christmas bells and music

Well the Christmas season is upon us! You now have less than 20 days to complete your shopping and planning and cooking.

In the midst of all your busyness, hopefully you find yourself at church a time or two singing some good ole Christmas hymns. At the least, you may catch yourself singing along with them on the radio.

That being the case, I reached back into my archives and pulled out something I wrote back in December of 2011. It is about the theology we can find in the Christmas hymns. I call it “Christmas Hymnology.”

Christmas Hymnology

The Christmas season is without a doubt one of my favorite times of the year. As most children, I was never able to sleep well on Christmas eve, my mind tossing and turning with anticipation for the day that was ahead. Now that I’m a bit older, I have learned to appreciate giving more than receiving, and what a blessing that is!

Besides the spirit of giving that everyone seems to have around Christmas time, I have always been a fan of Christmas hymns. I always look forward to the month of December so we can start singing the songs that recall the birth of our Savior. To be honest, Bible College has made me a more critical person; not skeptical, just critical. In light of this, I have taken the time to carefully read some of my favorite Christmas hymns in search of the biblical truth I hope they present.

“O Little Town of Bethlehem”

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” is a great place to start, for it was in this small town just outside Jerusalem where the life of Christ began. I believe that the first verse does a good job of depicting the Christmas scene. There were neither wreaths hanging nor homes lit, “Yet in the dark streets shineth the everlasting Light.” What a great way to depict our Savior, an everlasting light who makes darkness flee. This line brings to mind 1 Peter 2:9, which says, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness and into His marvelous light.” Describing His light as “everlasting” also reminds me of a passage in Revelation which tells us of the New Jerusalem. Revelation 22:5 reads, “Night will no longer exist, and people will not need lamplight or sunlight, because the Lord God will give them light.” It is incredible to realize how the light of Christ has been shining since the very beginning, and even better to know that its glow will never be darkened. It is because of this fact that we can still sing, “O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Immanuel!”

“Away in a Manger”

Just for fun, I think you might be interested to know that the wooden manger we usually picture in our minds and in our nativity scenes is probably nothing like the one baby Jesus laid in. Archaeological findings tell us that feeding troughs were not wooden, rather they were made of cement. This means that the Lord Jesus wasn’t placed in a warm, cozy manger, but a cold, hard trough. This is not to say the hymn is faulty, it is simply some food for thought.

What this hymn does is portray for us very accurately the welcoming of the Lord Jesus. The King of Kings was not welcomed by friends, family, and other royalty, but by shepherds and their smelly sheep. He didn’t enter this world in a palace suited for a king, but in a stable used to house cattle. Talk about humility! Consider what Paul wrote about Christ in Philippians 2:6-7, “Who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men.” This lowliness began at His birth and continued all the way until the point of His death. What an amazing life! And just think…it all began “Away in a Manger.”

“O Come, All Ye Faithful”

It often occurs to me during the Christmas season that some of these hymns should be sung year round. Why can we only sing “O come, let us adore Him” in the weeks leading up to our celebration of His birth? Should we not adore Him all the year long? There is no better praise to give Him than to sing, “Glory to God, all glory in the highest!” That is, after all, the meaning of another popular Christmas hymn, which goes something like “Glo…….ria, in excelsis Deo!”

This hymn also offers us some of the best Christology there is. The last line of the third verse says, “Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing!” This is almost a direct quote from John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We observed His glory, the glory as the One and Only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” What a great truth this hymn teaches about the nature of Jesus. As the Son of God, He was fully divine. But as the son of Mary, He was also fully human. Jesus Christ was the God-man, sent by His Father to reconcile sinful mankind to Himself (Col. 1:19-20). This is why we should forever sing, “O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!”

“Joy to the World! The Lord is Come”

“Joy to the world! The Lord is come; Let earth receive her King.” To see Jesus as a king is to see Him as a political figure. For the Romans, under whose rule Christ was born, life was about politics, and Caesar was lord. So for first century Christians, to say, “Jesus is Lord,” was to deny that Caesar was lord. Sounds pretty political to me!

Unlike Caesar and his highest ranking senators, who ruled unfairly to say the least, Christ “rules the world with truth and grace.” It is interesting to note that Caesar no longer rules, but Christ still does. No longer is anyone singing their praises to Caesar, yet for Christ “heaven and nature” still sing, we continue to “repeat the sounding joy,” and we constantly know the “wonders of His love.” How amazing is it that the joy of Christmas still resounds year after year? Jesus was not an earthly king who was born to serve His time, He was and still is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. This song was taken from Psalm 98, which reads in verse 4, “Shout to the Lord, all the earth; be jubilant, shout for joy, and sing.” May the joy of Christmas be something we always sing about!

Conclusion

After reading this insight into some Christmas hymns, I hope you will forever sing them in a new way. Not with different music or a different voice, but with a new perspective in mind. These Christmas hymns and others do not only portray the birth of Christ, they also teach biblical truth that is useful for every man, woman, boy, and girl. “O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel!”

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Eschatological Confusion Part 1: Introduction and Overview

Eschatology

In the Greek language, the word eschatos means “last.” Hence the theological field known as “eschatology” refers to the study of last things, or the study of the end of time. Now there are many theological issues that create debate, but there is no bigger debate than when it comes to eschatology.

As a Christian, a pastor, and a recent Bible college and seminary graduate, I am obviously interested in eschatology and am always trying to develop my own scriptural understanding of how things will play out at the end of time. Common questions I often ask myself include the following:

-When will the rapture take place? Before, during, or after the tribulation?

-How long will the tribulation last? Will it be a literal seven years, or will it be longer? Could we possibly already be in the tribulation?

-What about the millennium (1,000 years)? Will it be a literal 1,000 years? Have those years began yet, or are they still in the future?

-What exactly does the book of Revelation convey to us about these end-time events?

Growing up in a Southern Baptist church (the son of a pastor), I knew all the “Sunday School” answers. The general Southern Baptist belief is that the tribulation will last 7 years, and then after that, Jesus will return. But, before the tribulation begins, Jesus will rapture all believers so they will not have to endure it. Pretty simple, right? What could be so confusing about that? Why is there even any debate? Let me share with you some of my journey concerning eschatology…

One of the elective courses I signed up for at Criswell College as a part of my Master’s degree was called “Theology Intensive: Eschatology.” The four textbooks for the course were the following: “Three Views on the Rapture” (Blaising, Hultberg, and Moo; Zondervan 2010), “The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views” (Boettner, Hoekema, Hoyt, and Ladd; IVP 1977), “Four Views on Hell” (Crockett, Hayes, Pinnock, and Walvoord; Zondervan 1996), and “Four Views on the Book of Revelation” (Gentry, Hamstra, Pate, and Thomas; Zondervan 1998). You see, there isn’t just one view on any of these eschatological topics. Brilliant scholars, individuals who have devoted their lives to studying the Scriptures, cannot agree when it comes to these things. So why should we, pastors and church members, believe that we have it all figured out?

Now I am aware that most, if not all of you who are reading this probably believe the way I described above, the way most traditional Southern Baptists believe, the way I once believed. Before we precede any further, let me say this: I am not saying that I am right and you and wrong. What I am saying is this: When it comes to eschatology, we need to approach the Scriptures with an open mind. This is not so that we can make the Bible say whatever we want it to say (as postmodernists do), but so that we can understand the truth it is trying to convey. We have a bad habit of imposing our thoughts on the text instead of letting the text inform our thoughts. We need to break this habit!

In Part 1 of this blog series called “Eschatological Confusion” I want to lay out for you four major issues, the issues discussed in each of the four textbooks named above. Then, in the following weeks, we will delve further into each of the issues.

The Rapture
Interestingly enough, the word “rapture” is never used in the New Testament. Nevertheless, the word has been used for many years to describe the event Paul discusses in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, “Then we who are still alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air…”

The major issue when it come to the rapture is not if it will occur, but rather when it will occur. Will believers be raptured before the tribulation, halfway through the tribulation, or not until after the tribulation?

The Millennium
The “Millennium” is the name given to the 1,000 year span of time mentioned in Revelation 20:4-6. John the Revelator twice mentions that some will reign with the Messiah “for 1,000 years.”

The major issue concerning the millennium is two-fold: (1) Will this be a literal 1,000 year period, and (2) If so, when will it begin?

Hell
What’s so confusing about hell? Isn’t it a fiery place where people will be separated from God for eternity? That’s what the Bible seems to say, but of course, not everyone can agree on that.

There are many debated issues when it comes to hell, including:

-A literal vs. a figurative place

-An eternal vs. a temporary place (annihilation)

-A place of separation/punishment vs. a place of the dead (purgatory)

The Book of Revelation
Jesus, Paul, and others all discussed eschatological issues in their teachings and letters, but when it comes to this topic, Revelation gets the most attention. Because of the nature and subject of the book, there should be no surprise that interpretations vary.

-Have all of the events prophesied in Revelation already been fulfilled? Have some been fulfilled? Have none been fulfilled?

-What do all of the symbols and numbers mean? Do they stand for specific figures in history?

-Will all of the events eventually come to pass? If so, when will this be?

Conclusion
As you can tell, the issues are many, and the answers aren’t simple. Please join me on this journey into eschatology and see what we can learn. As always, my prayer is that we will be challenged and changed by it all!