We’ve noted that an angel appeared to shepherds and announced the good news of the birth of a Savior and King (Luke 2:8-12). It is clear that this is extremely significant news, and that fact is underscored by the response it evoked.
The immediate response was worship! A “multitude of the heavenly host” appeared and joined the angel in praising God (Luke 2:13-14). The word “host” here means a large number or an army, and that group consisted of additional angels (see Luke 2:15). They were praising God for the good news he had announced through his messenger.
What these angels said in praise of him is “glory to God in the highest.” “Glory” is a word that may be difficult for us to grasp. In a literal sense, it means “brightness, radiance, splendor.” We sometimes describe a sunset as glorious in this sense. God, too, is literally glorious. Notice that the glory of the Lord “shone” around the shepherds when the angel appeared. You’ll remember when Jesus was transfigured, his face “shone” like the sun and his disciples “saw his glory” (Matthew 17:2; Luke 9:32).
But the word glory is also sometimes used figurately to describe someone’s “fame, renown, or honor.” The idea of greatness is included in this. A person or thing may be glorious in both the literal and figurative sense of the word. A sunset is not only bright but also awesome. And so is God!
When the angels said “glory to God” they were acknowledging that God is great and worthy of honor. They were concurring with what is true—that God is magnificent. God is marvelous whether we say so or not, but when we do say so, we are concurring with the truth, and that is worship. To do this is to participate in the essence of worship—ascribing worth to God.
The next line of the angels’ praise was “and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased” or “and on earth peace, good will among men.” It’s difficult to know exactly how these words should be translated. Regardless, when you take all of vv. 11-14 together, it is clear that God sent us a Savior and King, that he is to be praised for doing so, and that those who embrace the King will find peace (cf. John 14:27; Acts 10:36; Romans 5:1).
You could say the angels’ praise was the original Christmas Carol! That would be an anachronism, of course, since several centuries passed before we began to describe “religious or popular folk songs and hymns that are associated with Christmas” as Christmas Carols. The first carols probably did not arise until the 14th century. But the idea of praising God for the birth of the Savior and King goes all the way back to these words in Luke 2.
You may know that “Noel” is a noun that means a refrain or Christmas carol. So it makes sense that “the first Noel” was something that “the Angels did say” to “certain poor shepherds,” as both that carol and Luke 2 describe. Today we closely associate praise with singing, and that is certainly a great way to praise God. But The First Noel describes the refrain as something the angels did “say,” and that matches the way Luke described the praise on that occasion (see “saying” in Luke 2:13). It is good to remember that we can praise God with spoken words as well as singing. You might underscore that point by saying the words of Luke 2:14 out loud right now as praise to God!
While we are discussing worship, it is worth a reminder that our Christmas carols are full of references to the specific things the angel mentioned in his good news, including not only the birth and Bethlehem but also joy, Savior, King, and Lord.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let earth receive her King…
Joy to the world, the Savior reigns…
He rules the world (Joy to the World)
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord. (O Come All Ye Faithful)
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth (O Holy Night)
Glory to the new born King…
Joyful all ye nations rise…
Christ is born in Bethlehem (Hark! The Herald Angels Sing)
Christ the Savior is born! (Silent Night)
The little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay (Away in a Manger)
Born is the King of Israel (The First Noel)
If we will slow down and think about what is being sung, these carols are both expressions of worship and also a great reminder of the content of the good news.
I read online that there are 9274 Christmas Carols. Not to be a critic, but there must be at least 9275, because I wrote one they don’t know about! And it’s based on this passage in Luke 2. If you are interested in hearing a recording of it or seeing the music, contact me and I’ll send you a link.
We can’t fully explore worship here and so this will be far from complete, but a few insights about worship from this passage are worth highlighting:
- Worship begins with the greatness and magnificence of God.
- God’s greatness is often revealed by his tangible actions.
- We begin to enter into worship when we recognize his greatness.
- We express worship to him with words that describe his greatness and ascribe greatness to him.
- It is good to worship God with an army (host) of others who have also recognized his greatness.
Worship is a fitting response to God’s greatness and mighty deeds, but it is not the full response. This passage shows us that a further effect is needed and also shows us what it is. To that we turn next week, on Christmas Day.
For more on how Empowering Subjects is equipping people to recognize, worship, and serve the King, see here.