"Christmas Joy" is a meditation by Herman Hoeksema that was originally published in the December 15, 1929 issue of The Standard Bearer. It has since been republished in The Mystery of Bethlehem, a collection of Christmas meditations that will bring the reader closer to the mystery and the wonder of the events at Bethlehem. As is the case with all the meditations found in The Mystery of Bethlehem, "Christmas Joy" presents profound insight into the familiar story of Christ's birth.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.—Luke 2:10
Tidings of great joy, indeed, I bring!
Was it Gabriel, the angel that standeth before God, who so suddenly burst forth in the darkness of the night from heaven’s star-studded canopy, and appeared upon the peaceful scene of the shepherds keeping watch over their flock?
We know not.
But the shepherds, we know, instead of expecting a message of gladness and salvation, instead of rejoicing at the appearance of one of the heavenly spirits that are sent for the service of the elect, were filled with dismay. A great fear filled their hearts. They were sore afraid. The sudden appearance of the heavenly messenger wrought within them a dreadful apprehension of some great evil impending….
They feared with a great fear. Generally it was believed by the people that when one saw an angel it meant death for him, a belief that may be regarded as scarcely more than a popular superstition. But here was more than the mere fear of death. It was the fear which sinful mortals experience when they are brought face to face with the glory of the Most High.
Thus the text explains it.
When the angel of the Lord appeared and stood with them in dazzling splendor of heavenly light, the glory of the Lord shone round about the shepherds. The halo of glory the heavenly messenger brought with him from on high, the brilliant light that with him pierced the darkness of the night in the fields of Ephratah, was a reflection of the inexpressible glory that radiates from the very face of the Lord. For this angel, whether it was Gabriel as is not improbable, seeing it was he who carried the tidings of the expected birth of the Christ and his forerunner to Zacharias and Mary, or whether it was another of the heavenly spirits, came from the very presence of the Lord. From heaven he hailed, where the angels always see the face of our Father which is in heaven. And dwelling in God’s heavenly presence, the heavenly glory of the Lord was reflected in their appearance. Even as the face of Moses, the Mediator of the old dispensation shone with a similar reflection of the glory of the Lord when he came down from the Mount of God, so this angel suddenly radiated into the darkness of the night an effulgence of divine glory. Where he stood there beamed forth the glory of the Lord! It was a reflection of that glory which, beaming forth from God’s presence, is the radiation of the pure beauty of all his virtues, of his holiness and righteousness, of his perfect goodness, and justice. Somehow the heavenly light that shone in the darkness when the angel appeared to the shepherds was vibrant with the very presence of the Lord of glory….
Do we wonder that the shepherds were sore afraid?
What else was this fear but the awful dread sinful men must experience when suddenly they are brought face to face with the Holy One, whose eyes are too pure to behold sin? Is it not this fear that caused our first father, having become wantonly disobedient, to make the vain attempt to hide from before the face of him whose presence he perceived in the garden? Did not the people tremble at the sight of the faint reflection of this same glory of the Lord as it shone from the face of Moses, so that the man of God must needs cover his face before the eyes of the fear-stricken people? Did not the king among the prophets, when it was granted him to see the holiness of the Lord as it fills his heavenly temple, cry out in sore amazement: “Woe unto me, for I am undone”?
The glory of the Lord always judges us!
It lays us bare in his sight and that in such wise, that we become deeply conscious of our nakedness. It exposes us. It reveals to us in awful contrasts what we must be and are not; what we are and must not be. It causes us to feel that we are an open book before him. It opens up before our own experience the deep and dark recesses of our heart, where there are hidden a thousand sins and corruptions that loudly cry out for our condemnation!
It causes a sudden, keen, profound consciousness of sin, convinces us of our condemnation, gives us an apprehension of final judgment….
Such was the fear of the shepherds in the presence of the glory of the Lord that beamed forth from the angel into the darkness of the night and into the darkness of their sinful hearts….
And it is to remove that fear that the angel speaks: Fear not!
It is to replace that fear of the sinner, in the presence of the Lord, that he brings them tidings of joy!
Great joy, instead of great fear!
In God’s presence!
Good tidings of great joy!
Joy for the fear that must strike sinful men in the presence of the Holy One!
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ, the Lord!
Such was the brief but tremendously significant gospel, the good tidings that must remove the fear and instill joy instead into the hearts of the shepherds, into the hearts of all the people who realize the misery of their sin before the Lord. A mere account of what had happened in that night, of what God had done for the salvation of his people, brief yet complete, lasting but a moment, yet carrying with it eternal joy! Such was the first Christmas gospel to the shepherds abiding in the fields of Bethlehem and keeping watch over their flock at night….
And what a night it was!
All the world seems astir to realize the promise of Jehovah that the Savior is to be born in Bethlehem, the city of David, though they realize not at all that such is God’s purpose. The mighty emperor of the Roman empire had issued an order that the whole world should be taxed. To this dominion of the world ruler also belonged Herod’s kingdom. And although Roman law would allow every one to register in the city of his birth, the families of the Jews certainly would turn to the cities of their ancestry. And thus it is, that Joseph and Mary leave Nazareth and commence the difficult journey, difficult especially for Mary, to Bethlehem, the city of David. There they arrive too late to find lodging in the inn. And the little city being overcrowded, they seek shelter in a stable, one of the caves, perhaps, on the outskirts of the city. And then the Lord fulfills the promise of all promises and the Son of God, sent into the likeness of sinful flesh, is born of a woman, born under the law. Strange and most significant are the circumstances of his birth. The Lord of glory born in a stable, because there is no place for them in the inn—a world that is not at all prepared to allow him a place in their midst. The Son of God Almighty lying in a manger, a picture of poverty and rejection—representing a people that are dead in misery because of sin. The eternal God himself wrapped in swaddling clothes!
And angels coming down from heaven, announcing to meditating shepherds, no doubt, looking for the hope of Israel, that unto them is born that day a Savior, which is Christ, the Lord!
O, but such is the joy of Christmas, indeed!
The world may change the joy of the day, the heavenly joy, that unto us is born a Savior who is able to remove the fear of sin and death and fill our hearts with the gladness of God’s covenant-friendship, into a rejoicing in the things of the earth. Let them hide the great gift of God to his people under veritable piles of earthly presents. Or, again, let unbelief never so sweetly speak of the darling little baby Jesus, who was destined to develop into the best man that ever lived on the face of the earth, who would teach us how to be and to do good and fill the world with unselfishness and love. Its joy cannot remove the fear in the presence of the angel that is radiating with the glory of the Lord, because it does not cleanse the heart from sin and deliver the soul from death and liberate the conscience from the oppressing sense of guilt and condemnation. Its joy is not the joy of the gospel….
No, but the staccato notes of the angels in the field of Bethlehem express the everlasting gospel!
Unto you is born a Savior!
There is the gospel of Christmas joy!
What is a Savior? It is one who is able to deliver us from the greatest evil; one who is not only fully able, but also surely shall deliver his people from all their misery. And what is that greatest evil? It is that which causes our hearts to tremble with miserable fear of condemnation and damnation in the presence of the glory of the Lord. It is our guilt and our sin, our corruption and our death, our hatred and enmity against the Most High, our darkness and foolishness, our being in the power of the devil and in the slavery of unrighteousness. A Savior is one who, while delivering us from that greatest of all evils, will make us partakers of the highest good. And what is that highest good? It is all that lies at the root of that great joy of which the angel speaks, of that joy which we may experience in the presence of the Lord. It is to be cleansed from sin and clothed with righteousness, to be delivered from the power of the devil and to be subjects of him who purchased us with the precious price of his blood. It is righteousness and holiness, love, life, light, and eternal glory. It is to taste that the Lord is gracious and to dwell in the fellowship of his covenant communion, to know him as we are known, to love him because he loved us, to see him face to face and behold his beauty. It is to be heirs of the heavenly kingdom….
Such is the joy of Christmas!
Unto you is born a Savior!
Christ, the Lord!
He who is ordained from eternity by God the Father; who does not come on the authority of men, neither in the strength of mere man, but who is anointed and sent by the Father. The Lord himself! Son of God, very God himself, Immanuel, who is fully able to bear on his mighty shoulders the burden of our sin and guilt and bear it away; who can fight the battle for us to the end and conquer all the powers of darkness; who is able to give us life and give it to us more abundantly. . . .
The Lord, whom all must obey and whom none can resist!
Our mighty Redeemer!
He is born! Good tidings of great joy!
Joy to all the people!
Joy also for you? For me?
Does the brief gospel-announcement of the angel in the fields of Ephratah kindle within our hearts the response of grateful joy, because we know that unto us was born that night a Savior, Christ the Lord?
O, surely, he was born for all the people!
In distinction from the shepherds only, who were privileged to receive a personal and direct message from heaven about his coming into the world, he is a Savior for all Israel. But, it is for the Israel of God. And not all are Israel that are of Israel. There are children of the promise. There are also children of the flesh. And this Savior, who is born in the city of David, which is Christ the Lord, will also be set to a falling, as well as to a rising again of many in Israel.
He is a Savior to all the people.
But he is also a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense!
And many will be dashed to pieces when they stumble over him, and because of his birth rush into deeper destruction!
A Savior to all the people is he.
But it is the elect people of God, the Israel of God of the old dispensation and God’s chosen ones from all the nations and tongues and tribes of the earth in the new dispensation unto whom in that night of nights a Savior is born, which is Christ the Lord. Them God loved. Them he predestinated to glory. Them he will save from their sins. Them he gave to Christ, his Son. For them he sent him into the world. In their behalf and in their stead he came under the law, though he is Lord of all. Their sins he presently bears on the accursed tree and drowns them forever in his precious blood. Them he delivers from the power of sin and death….
A Savior unto all the people!
For you and for me?
O, yes, we may know!
And in that knowledge the joy of Christmas may be ours!
For whom he did foreknow, them he also did predestinate; and whom he did predestinate them he also called, called by the efficacious calling of his gracious Spirit….
Called according to his purpose!
And when he calls, the glory of the Lord appears to our hearts and shines round about us. And in this halo of brilliant glory we fear as we consider ourselves, miserable, corrupt, defiled with sin as we are by nature. When he calls, we behold our guilt in the light of God’s righteousness, our corruption in the light of his holiness, our lie in the light of his truth, our darkness in the glory of his light, our death in contrast to his life. And by his calling we learn to cry out: woe unto me, for I am undone! Unclean! God be merciful to me, a sinner!
Called by the power of his irresistible grace!
And when he thus calls, he does not leave us in our death and misery, in our fear and condemnation.
For out of the halo of light, reflecting the glory of the Lord in our hearts, prostrating us because of our darkness and corruption, also sounds the Christmas gospel, the glad evangel of redemption and deliverance.
Unto you, lowly and contrite, that have become conscious by the power of his grace of the darkness of your nature and the horror of your sin and the misery of being bound in chains of death; unto you, who are filled with holy fear in the presence of the Lord and his glory; unto you, that are heavy laden and weary because of burdens of sin….
Unto you a Savior is born, which is Christ, the Lord!
Let not even the glory of the Lord fill your hearts with horror and fear of condemnation in judgment!
For I bring you glad tidings of great joy!
Go, then, to Bethlehem, the city of David, and see this wonder of God, that was first announced to a sin-stricken world by angel’s mouth. And seeing let us believe. And believing let us worship….
And give praise to the God of our salvation!