We continue our Christmas meditation, based on Charles Wesley’s hymn Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.
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 man to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new born King!”
We now turn our attention from the angelic proclamation at the Incarnation, to the humility of the Incarnation. If there is one passage of Scripture I would say more than any other lies behind this verse, it would have to be Philippians 2:5-11:
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Christ, By Highest Heaven Adored
Wesley follows the Apostle Paul’s example by first establishing Christ’s original exalted state. He is God by nature, the Unique Son of the Father (John 1:18), and beloved of God (Mark 1:11). Wesley makes allusion to Isaiah 9:6 when he refers to Christ as “the everlasting Lord.” The phrase in the passage is “Everlasting Father,” which should not be taken to confuse the Persons of the Trinity. The Son is not the Father; indeed, in the beginning, the Word simultaneously “was with God” and “was God” (John 1:1). Rather, the best way to understand this phrase is with regard to His role as both the leader and head of His people, just as an earthly father is the head of his household, and in terms of His loving care for His people in providing for their salvation. Unlike one’s earthly father, however, Christ is eternal, and His loving care for His people extends into eternity.
Late in Time Behold Him Come
I don’t know that I can say with complete certainty what Wesley had in mind with this phrase. I think he is referring to the fact that the Jewish people were in a state of watchfulness and eager anticipation for the Messiah, especially since they had been oppressed and dominated for over 500 years. “How long, O Lord?” was a cry that often went up as the Old Covenant people of God looked forward to their physical redemption. It is also possible, and poetically satisfying, to see this phrase in contrast to the preceding line: the Everlasting Lord comes late in time. In other words, despite Christ being eternal and dwelling in eternity, he condescends to enter into time, to take on the flesh of humanity, to be born flesh-and-blood, and while being totally human, that flesh only obscuring His true deity, never diminishing it. I like this reading of the phrase because it ties neatly back in to Philippians 2:5-11. If you have wondered at the humiliation Christ suffered on the cross, consider where that humiliation began. It was not with the scourging and the crown of thorns, nor with the desertion of His disciples, nor the Garden of Gethsemane, and not even with the washing of His disciples’ feet. It was at Bethlehem, where He who was very God “became nothing,” taking on the flesh of humanity with all the physical limitations and pains that comes with it. It was walking this earth as a humble servant, in obedience to the will of the Father, knowing that He could call upon angels to exalt Him and to silence His enemies, but instead being obedient to the horrendous death He knew He must undergo for the sake of His people.
Pleased As Man with Man to Dwell
Again, the humiliation Christ suffered He did willingly. His love for fallen humanity was such that He was willing to become a man, to dwell as a man among men, to live a perfect, sinless life; teaching, healing, comforting, and calling His people to Himself. And then, finally, to demonstrate the love of God by giving His own life for the salvation of His people, being both the High Priest offering the perfect sacrifice of propitiation, and also being that very sacrifice Himself.
The Incarnation and the cross are very closely associated. Though He was only a child in a manger in Bethlehem, He knew the divine plan. Philippians 2:5-11 clearly indicates that Christ knew prior to being born exactly what He was doing. The Gospel accounts show that He was fully aware that His mission did not end with healing the sick, gathering His disciples, and planting a church. Jesus Christ was not crucified because He was misunderstood, or wrongly perceived as a threat, though these might have been true in the minds of His accusers. As Peter said in his prayer recorded in Acts 4:27-28, the Jewish and Roman rulers were merely doing what God had preordained should happen. They were instruments in the hands of God to bring about the salvation of His people.
As we consider Christ in the manger this Christmas, let us not forget who He is. The living God took human form. Jesus Christ is not just fully divine, He is fully human, and willingly accepted all that humanity brings with it. As a result, He completely understands our weaknesses, our trials, and our sufferings (Hebrews 4:15). He knows what it is like to be us, and while He lived a sinless life, He can still relate to us. And this was something He did not have to do. God, according to His perfect justice, could have left us to die in our sin. He was not obliged to save us; in fact, He was obliged to condemn us all for our sin. However, He satisfied the demands of His perfect justice and displayed His incomprehensible love for His people, by sending His Son from the realms of glory to the dust of the Middle East.
Stayed tuned for the final installment! 🙂