The Song of the Angels

December 21, 2014 / No. 3755

Dear radio friends,
In our last broadcast we considered the conception of Christ in connection with Matthew 1. But it is only Luke that deals with the details of Christ’s birth and what happened on that day. It is for that reason we turn to Luke today to consider the events of Christ’s birth and what they mean for us and our salvation. We do that by turning to the praise of the heavenly host of angels that appeared to shepherd on the hills of Bethlehem. We read in Luke 2:13-14, “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” It has been questioned as to whether these words the angels spoke here in these verses were actually a song. After all, they state that these angels said these words of praise. Yet, when we sing our Christmas carols at this time of year we always refer to the praise of these angels as singing. They sang the words we consider. Is that an embellishment of the account as many Christmas carols are apt to do? The answer is no, in this case it is not an embellishment.
We say that for a few reasons. First, these angels were praising God with the words they spoke. And although it is true that we can praise God in our words, without singing, the term for “praise” in our text speaks of “singing praise”—praises given by the medium of song. Secondly, there was a multitude of angels—a host of angels together. And they praised God together—not by means of reciting a sentence in a chant. They sang the words of our text together.
As such this song is one of praise to God. It does not sing the praise of men. It does not even sing the praise of Jesus as many of the hymns do today. These angels sang praise to God—the one whose purpose was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. They praised the God of the covenant who in His mercy and grace sent Jesus into this world to fulfill His sovereign will with respect to our salvation. It is God’s praise in this season that we sing with the angels.
I. God’s Glory
This entire event that took place on the hills of Bethlehem was a revelation of God’s glory. The glory of God is excluded from the Christmas celebration of most today. They see the baby of Bethlehem but they forget God altogether. We, however, must know and believe that the very purpose of God in the birth of His Son was to glorify Himself. That must be our starting point when considering the birth of Jesus Christ! The angels that suddenly appeared on the hills of Bethlehem joined in singing together for that reason: to praise God. We see that in verse 13: Glory to God in the highest, they sang! That says everything about what our attitude should be as we commemorate the conception and birth of our Savior. The story of Christ’s birth is told, not in order that we might become all fuzzy and cozy over a quaint Christmas story being told. It is told, rather, to praise God for making our salvation possible through the birth of His Son. Is that the praise that is found in your heart today, dear believer?
You know, the glory of God is a striking thing! God is all glorious. Whether we choose to give God praise for His glory or not does not detract in any way from His glory. That men refuse today to acknowledge God in the birth of Christ or even mock God by mocking Christ, that does not make God less glorious. The fact is, whether man chooses to give glory to God or not makes no difference to God! It does not make Him less glorious. And that is because of what God’s glory is. It is the effulgence or shining forth of all of His perfections—all of His virtues. It is the shining forth of God’s majesty and power, of His holiness and goodness, of His grace and mercy, of His truth and righteousness. God is all of His attributes. They make up who He is. God can never be known or viewed apart from these infinite virtues. And when we look upon God, these virtues shine forth so brightly that if we were to look upon God face to face we would be consumed! He dwells in a light of glory unto which no man can approach. Especially one who is a sinner. To behold that glory of God would not only blind the sinner but destroy him.
It was this glory that shone forth from the countenance of the angel that brought the message to these shepherds on the hills of Bethlehem. We read in verse 9, “And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.” These angels had come down from the very presence of God, and they now reflected in but a small way the glory of God. And it made these shepherds fear and quake before them. “Fear not!” the angel had to tell the shepherds. Do not be afraid!
It is of this same glory that the angels now sing as they appear in the presence of these lowly shepherds. “Glory to God in the highest!” God is in the highest of all places. He sits enthroned in the heavens above the earth and sky. There in His dread majesty He rules over heaven and earth! There He directs all the events of this world, including the very moment of Christ’s birth, and that in order to accomplish His goal, His purpose for all things! God is all glorious as He sits there. And the angels recognize this glory of God: Glory to God in the highest! That is what we sing today too! We sing it out loudly and powerfully from hearts that are overwhelmed with, consumed with, the glory and majesty of our God.
We sing of praise to God, we extol Him for His glory, because that glory God has revealed to you and me in the birth of His Son. God has revealed to us what so many others cannot see. God has blinded their eyes to it. But God in His good pleasure has chosen to reveal to you and me what He has hidden from the wise and prudent of this world. They are wise in their own conceits. They do not seek after God. They do not see in Jesus a Savior sent to do God’s will. They ascribe an altogether different meaning to Christmas, as we will find in a moment. But we see God’s glory revealed in the very birth and in the very face of our Lord Jesus Christ. How? In the most beautiful of ways.
A humble handmaiden of God—a virgin born into the fallen yet royal line of David was visited by that God in the highest. She conceived in her womb the holy thing that is the very Son of God made flesh. This virgin’s name was Mary, and she was, as we learned in our last broadcast, espoused to a man named Joseph. The two of them made their way from Nazareth, their hometown to Bethlehem, a little village just a few miles south of Jerusalem. Caesar Augustus had issued a decree that all the world should be taxed and that therefore everyone must register for it. Mary and Joseph were of the line of David,who was born in Bethlehem so many years before. God, who lives in the highest and directs all things according to His sovereign will, chose this moment in all of history to fulfill all the prophecies of old. God did all of this in order to glorify Himself in all the earth.
So it was, that Joseph and Mary came to Bethlehem and, finding it filled with people who were there for the same reason as they, found refuge in a cattle stall. There was no room for them in the inn, just as there is never any room in the heart of fallen man for the Christ child. While in that cattle stall—and we know the story well—Mary went into labor, and by the end of the day had given birth to an infant son. To keep the child warm, Joseph wrapped Him in swaddling clothes—long linen cloth—and then to relieve Mary of the stress, laid the baby in a manger to rest. In this way, the King of all the earth was born into extreme poverty. No nice white sheets and sterilized room. The earth did not sing and dance at His birth, humanity did not break out in hosanas and joyful chorus. The palace in Jerusalem was not decorated with bright ornaments and lights and red ribbon against green holly. We see Jesus, born into poverty, in order that we who are spiritually poor might become rich!
But there in that manger we see the revelation of God’s glory! The world did not see it then, nor do the wicked see it yet today. That is why the story is embellished with quaint little manger scenes. There are shepherds around a tiny manger with an image of Christ in it. There are three Magi (as if anyone knows if there were 3), there are peaceful looking sheep, and, oh yes, let us not forget a little drummer boy. But then, why bother with a manger scene? St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus, with Rudolph and the other reindeer—these really do a better job in revealing what Christmas is all about. The unbelieving world does not see God’s glory revealed in that manger. The lowly birth of our Savior does not make the season bright! But we see the glory of God revealed to us there! There is no doubt that we see and full well understand the shame that surrounded the birth of our Savior. Not only was He born in a cattle stall but, what is more, the glory that was Christ’s as the Son of God was veiled over in human flesh. Christ looked like any other baby boy as He lay there in that manger. Who could see in His face the very Son of God—divine? But we look upon that Christ child with the eyes of faith! And we see Him for who He really is! He is God with us—our Immanuel!
God has manifested Himself in our flesh. The Son of God came down from His glory on high and visited us poor sinners. And He did this in order that He might deliver us from our sin! We were lost people of God! We were lost and condemned in our sin. The only thing we deserved from God is condemnation and death. God’s curse lay upon us. But God in His great mercy and grace sent forth His Son in order to redeem you and me from sin and death. God in His great love for us sent His Son in order to satisfy His justice and make us righteous before Him.
But do you see what all of this is, people of God? All these are the attributes of God, which together make up His glory! All these virtues, all these perfections of God, are evident in the birth of Jesus! And it is for that reason that the birth of Christ is in fact the very revelation of God’s glory! In Him all the virtues of God are revealed to us! And for that reason we praise God today. Glory to God in the Highest! Now we can understand why the angels were singing the praises of God there in the hills of Bethlehem.
II. Man’s Peace
It is that knowledge of God’s glory that brings peace to the heart of every true believer. The song of the angels is that of glory to God, but there is also that last part of the song of the angels: “And on earth, peace, good will toward men.” Never, of course, may these two parts of this song be separated. The moment they are, error is at the doorstep. Never can true peace be separated from the glory of God revealed in Christ. As soon as these are separated, the kind of peace of which one thinks is a false peace. It is this false peace of unbelief that the world wishes to emphasize at this time of the year. How often this very verse is mentioned in the world’s false conception of peace! Glory be to God because He desires through Christ to bring peace to the earth! Peace on earth! And added with this is the idea that God has goodwill toward all men! This is the idea of the world, and this is what is preached by many today too: God in His goodwill toward all men wants us to establish peace on earth! And the only reason we do not is because we do not wish to listen to God and His plan for this world. Man stands in the way of the peace God desires for everybody in this world in His goodwill toward men! That is how the majority wish to interpret this song of the angels—especially around this time of the year.
People understand peace merely as an end to world strife, strife between nations, strife between races, strife between social classes, and so on. Peace is solving the problems of this world: the economic problems, the problems with sickness and disease, the problems of starving people. Peace is giving money to the downtrodden and the homeless—those who do not have it as good as we do. Then everyone will be happy, that goodwill of God will be shown by us toward all men, and the world will be at peace. Do not misunderstand what I am saying at this point! The child of God, may have pity and may help those who are not as well off as he is. We are not denying this. But true peace does not consist in earthly things. In fact, as God says through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, there is no peace to the wicked. Christ says: I came not to bring peace to this world, but a sword! There is not true peace found in sin! There cannot be. It is sin that has destroyed all true peace. When man fell into sin in Adam, there followed him unrest and turmoil, both in society and in his heart. As long as there is sin around, there will not be peace.
Peace can come only through that child born in Bethlehem—and not through the example of that child, but by the death of that child. What a thing to think about at this time of year! How morbid! To think of Christ’s suffering and death? Now? It is a time of joy! Do not spoil it by speaking of Christ’s death! Ah, we cannot help but see the suffering of Christ in His birth. He was born into this world suffering the humiliation that comes with the Perfect One, the all glorious One, being born into the flesh of sinners. Besides, the death of Christ is not a reason for mourning. It is the very joy of the season! Christ was born into this world as our Savior! He takes on Him our sin and carries it away! We see our Savior in Bethlehem! And with that salvation He brings peace! He gives to the sinner rest. The peace and rest that come from salvation from sin is the true joy of the season because it alone is true peace. Deliverance from sin and being restored to God’s favor brings peace to a weary heart that is burdened with sin. “On earth peace, good will toward men!”
Now, the King James Version does not give a very accurate translation of this song of the angels. When I say that, however, it does not mean that the wording is necessarily wrong in itself. God does in His great love and mercy bring peace to this earth in Christ—though the vast majority of mankind does not receive it. It is true that in Christ God’s good will is shown toward men, although not to every person in this world. So the translation is not erroneous when properly understood. But it still is not a good translation. It can and is so quickly understood as if God desires to give salvation to every person and not to those whom he has chosen to give that salvation. Because of this error a more careful translation of this song of the angels is needed. The English Standard Version translates it in this way: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.” We must properly understand that in this season of the year! God’s peace on earth is directed toward those people who are of God’s good pleasure. This is true because these are the only ones who indeed see in Christ salvation from sin. These are only those whom God leads to Christ to find in Him alone such joy.
Now we know what the angels sang of that night! Now we know the joy that they had and we know the message they sang. To God be the glory for what He has done. And to God’s elect people, chosen from eternity as the objects of God’s good pleasure—peace to them! Peace to you and me, fellow believers! That is what we hear in the song of the angels. We are God’s treasure, and He finds His pleasure in us! He loves us. He knows our sin and our misery. In the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ God reveals to us His virtue and grace! And we are saved! God has made a salvation that was humanly impossible possible through the birth of His Son into this world. We rejoice in God. We sing with the angels! Glory be to God! To Him be all the praise, honor, power, and dominion for ever and ever! May His name be glorified in all the earth! May His will and good pleasure be fulfilled! And “on earth, peace, toward men of his good pleasure!”
Peace be to you, saints of God! Not just an earthly joy and peace. But may you experience peace in your hearts—amidst all the trials and afflictions, amidst all the pains and sorrows, all the failures. But also amidst all the successes and victories, in all the works of your hands in this new year. Peace be unto you and joy from our holy God—who has revealed His glory to us in the face of our Lord Jesus Christ! May we remember that now and throughout the year.