Not all Christmas carols are of the same type. Some are ancient, like the old French "Noel," so old its origin is lost in antiquity. The word "Noel" carries the idea of a cry of joy as on a birthday. One of our best loved is the German carol, "Silent Night," more sentimental than factual because the demanding crowds made Bethlehem anything but silent the night Jesus was born. But the lovely message of that carol lingers with us.
Charles Wesley's "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" is also very popular. Unfortunately the poem as Wesley wrote it has suffered some changes. What a depth of truth the second stanza reveals when we read it in its original form:
"Christ, by highest heav'n adored,
Christ the everlasting Lord;
Late in time behold Him come,
Offspring of a Virgin's womb.
Veil'd in flesh the GODHEAD see!
Hail, th' Incarnate Deity!
Pleased as Man with man to dwell,
JESUS. our Emmanuel!"
Note the words "Godhead" and "Incarnate Deity." Some criticize Wesley, declaring his theology at times overshadows his poetry. But too often changes rob the writer of his message. Liberal theologians balk at the concept of Omnipotence being sheathed in that Babe's aim. Paul, however, had no reservations. He declared that in Christ "dwelleth the fulness of the Godhead bodily."
Impossible as that is of comprehension, it is nevertheless a fundamental of the Christian message. Paul set forth Christian theology in tense terms but we owe much to the aged apostle John for his deep, quiet revelations of Jesus. 'We can picture this old saint on Patmos receiving the Revelation of Jesus Christ. He knew Jesus in the flesh, but now he sees Him on the throne.
Seventeen centuries of tradition assigned both Revelation and the fourth Gospel to John the apostle. But a century ago certain critical scholars declared he could not possibly be the author of the Gospel that bears his name, for that indicates a later writing, at least the middle or perhaps the latter half of the second century. Such claims are out of date today. Recent discoveries have forced even the critics to abandon the theory of the late date. In fact, modern scholars go so far as to say his Gospel could have been written as early as A.D. 90.
In many ways John's Gospel is quite different from the Synoptists, which leads us to query, When was this Gospel written and why? When reading a book it is always wise to turn to the preface to find the objective of the writer. John wrote no preface. In fact, he never once uses his own name. At the conclusion of his story he states his objective as he says: "These are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name" (John 20:31).
Chapter 20 actually closes his narrative. Chapter 21 is, as it were, an added postscript to explain how a certain "saying" got started among the brotherhood. Some were saying that he, John, would not die. And at that time he was probably well over ninety years of age. He clarifies the situation by adding this chapter, at the end of which he insists it was he, himself— "that disciple whom Jesus loved"—who wrote this fourth Gospel.
There are minor differences in language structure in Revelation when compared with the Gospel, but that need not greatly surprise us, for John was writing in a foreign language and doubtless recording rapidly the great prophetic scenes that passed before him. Moreover, he was alone when he wrote the Revelation, being a prisoner on Patmos. If he wrote the Gospel after his return to Ephesus, as we feel is most reasonable, he could have had others associated with him. That would give real point to the statement "We know that his testimony is true" (John 21:24). If others were associated with him when he wrote the Gospel, that could easily account for any differences in language construction. How that aged apostle must have thrilled when in vision he saw the everlasting gospel sweeping on "to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people." Our cover gives an artist's impression of the old prophet's inspiration when he saw the Lord and realized that every language of earth will be represented in the final gathering of those awaiting the Saviour's return. In this issue 'evidence is given of how God's last message is going to different language groups in North America. Note particularly the centerspread, where the last words of John in the Revelation became the united prayer of 22 languages at the recently held convention in Battle Creek, Michigan.
On Patmos, John saw the glory of the Lord, he heard songs of praise ascending from every people and language of earth. Then came his release and his return to Ephesus after his confinement on that penal isle. No telegraph or radio message announced his coming. The first the Christian believers knew was that he had arrived. What news! How they would press around him to hear his message. He was the same saintly preacher but he was different. He had been in the throne room of Deity. With new power their loved leader could proclaim the message now. And it was needed, for heresy was already rearing its ugly head among those young churches, some claiming that Christ was not the eternal God but was a specially created Being who came to reveal the Father. Matthew, Mark, and Luke had written the story of His life, death, and resurrection. But John now saw a new need. He must pen the story, not from the human side as did the earlier writers; he must set forth His Deity. All future generations must know it was the Incarnate God who was "veiled in flesh." Men must read the record of our Lord's "miracles" or "signs" that they "might believe and believing might have life through his name." So lifting his pen he writes: "In the beginning was the Word." The original Greek omits the definite article and simply reads: "In beginning."
The Greek text of Stephen, A.D. 1550, reads: "In beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and God was the Word." Here are the words (Kai Theos emn ho Logos). What a contrast this is from a certain translation being pedaled from door to door by zealous literature salesmen today where a clear distortion of the text is made to read, "And the Word was a God." No, not a God but "the Word was God," or stronger still, "God was the Word."
The greatest of all miracles is that this Eternal Word "was made" or became flesh, that He might be tabernacled among men. While millions in joyous mood are singing the story in hundreds of languages, should not we as ministers of the Word take occasion to set forth the deeper issues of this mighty truth?
Everything concerning man is dated. At some particular moment some special experience took place. But before anything took place at all God was—the unchanging God, "from everlasting to everlasting." And "in the fulness of the time" He became flesh that He might reveal God to man and reconcile man to God.
Viewing redemption against the background of the Mosaic teaching makes it more meaningful to us. Provision for redemption was part of the Levitical law:
And if a sojourner or stranger wax rich by thee, and thy brother that dwelleth by him wax poor, and sell himself unto the stranger or sojourner by thee, or to the stock of the stranger's family: after that he is sold he may be redeemed again; one of his brethren may redeem him: either his uncle, or his uncle's son, may redeem him, or any that is nigh of kin unto him of his family may redeem him; or if he be able, he may redeem himself (Lev. 25:47-49).
One would naturally prefer bondage to death, and under certain circumstances it was possible for a man to sell himself. He then became a "bondsman." He could be redeemed, however, not by mere money nor influence, for not even a king could free a bondsman unless he were kinsman to the slave. Redemption was possible only by a relative of the slave.
In Romans 7:14, Paul states that man is sold under sin. He therefore is a slave. To be redeemed someone must be found who was a member of the slave's family. It seemed as if heaven had reached an impasse. How could God redeem man unless He Himself belonged to man's family? But wonder of wonders, a way was found, and God Himself became that "way." This is the mystery of redeeming grace. The Eternal Word partook of our human nature, became bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh, a servant of servants (Phil. 2:10). He pitched His tent beside the tents of men that He might bring us at last to our Father's house.
In John's Epistles, in the Revelation, and in his wonderful fourth Gospel he sets forth this tremendous truth. He illustrates and amplifies it by recording many things not mentioned by the other evangelists, such as the interview with Nicodemus. This "ruler in Israel" came with flattering words saying, "We know thou art a teacher sent from God." What Nicodemus needed to recognize was that He was God—God manifest in the flesh. John 3:16 was not preached to the multitude; it was expressed to one man alone and at night. Among the "many other things" not recorded by the other writers was also the experience with the woman of Samaria to whom He revealed Himself as the Messiah. Think also of the Saviour's revelation to the blind man. And how much the Christian church would have missed if John had not recorded the moving story of the Master's last conversation in the upper room when He unfolded the coming of the Comforter, that other Advocate, who abides in the hearts of all believers.
What an opportunity comes to us as evangelists, pastors, and teachers at this season of the year to lead our people into a richer, fuller experience in the faith of Jesus. We do not know the date of our Saviour's birth, nor is that important. What really matters is that He came, and in human flesh revealed to us the Father.
Let us during this festive time thank God anew for His unspeakable Gift. Nothing is so rewarding or brings greater joy than that of making more real to men and women, boys and girls, the matchless mystery of the Incarnate God.