Joy to the world – but some in the world go to hell?

I wonder how Christians can sing “Joy to the World” at Christmas-time and also believe that some people in the world end up in hell. The whole idea behind Christmas is that Jesus was born to rescue us from hell, in the same way he rescued Israel from the hell of slavery in Egypt. He came to begin a Second Exodus, this time for all humanity.

The words in ‘Joy to the World’ plainly show that. In the first verse, “the Lord has come, let earth receive her King,” describes what Jesus came for. He came to rule this planet as its Lord and King, which means that “hell” – however we describe it – doesn’t rule this earth anymore, nor does the devil, not do pagan powers or terrorists, nor does any power inside or outside our universe. That’s why we Christians can announce “joy” to the world with such confidence, because every power and force in existence now submits to Jesus’ rule, and his rule carries the same power today that wrenched Israel out of the grip of a vicious Pharaoh bent on genocide in the past.

We sing Joy to the World, because with Jesus as Lord and King there is nothing in our world that can stop him rescuing every human being and all creation – just as nothing could stop him rescuing all Israel from Egypt. And obviously whoever wrote Joy to the World understood it that way too, because in verse 2 he writes “the Saviour reigns.” Our Rescuer not only ripped us out of hell, he also “reigns.” He’s also in complete control of what happens to us from now on. And that’s the point in verse 3, that Jesus “rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness, and the wonders of his love.”

In other words, what happens to the nations since Jesus took charge will PROVE just how righteous and how loving he is, just as the First Exodus from Egypt proved to the nations of that time that “I am the Lord,” Exodus 12:12. The First Exodus proved there was no god as powerful, or as caring, or as faithful, as the God of Israel, because against all odds he got them all out of their hell.

On Christmas Day, therefore, we get our reminder every year that Jesus will repeat what he did in the First Exodus for Israel in a Second Exodus for the whole world, and for the same reason too, to prove he has the power to get us out of hell, no matter how dark things may appear.

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A Christmas carol about Israel? Why Israel?

The Christmas carol, O come, O come, Emmanuel even sounds like an Israeli lament, just in the music itself, but the words of the carol are all about Israel too. It’s a cry for Emmanuel to “ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here.” There’s no mention of Jesus’ birth, no talk of a Saviour being born as a human baby, no nativity scene with the shepherds and wise men, no angels singing, no God and sinners being reconciled, and not a peep about joy to the whole world.

The focus of the carol is entirely on Israel: “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel.” The focus isn’t on Jesus coming as Saviour for the whole world, it’s a cry, in the words of the carol, for “the Rod of Jesse” to “free thine own from Satan’s tyranny.” Not free the whole world through the Saviour Jesus, but free Israel through the “Rod of Jesse,” Jesse being King David’s father, and the ancestral lineage that would lead to the birth of Jesus.

But why would the Rod of Jesse freeing Israel appear in a Christmas carol? Because it harks back to the prophecy in Isaiah 11:1 that one day a shoot, or stem, from Jesse would spring up from the dead stump of Israel, and grow into a tree again, bearing fruit. It was an amazing prophecy because Israel was down to a mere “remnant” after the Assyrians invaded and dragged them off as captives into exile (Isaiah 10:20). And that’s where they remained, in the words of the carol, as “captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here.”

Whoever wrote the carol, however, knew Isaiah 11:11, that through this offspring of Jesse “the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to claim the remnant that is left of his people from Assyria.” It’s a marvellous promise that Israel will be rescued from their exile in a second Exodus, and the carol picks up on that as the reason for Emmanuel coming. Emmanuel, the rod of Jesse, comes first and foremost to free his OWN people, Israel. He’s coming “to thee, O Israel,” to save them, in the words of the carol, “from depths of hell” and to give them “victory o’er the grave.”

It is this rescue of Israel yet again, a “second time” from slavery, that demonstrates to the rest of us the utter faithfulness of God. He never gave up on his beloved Israel, no matter how much Israel rejected him. And that’s why the carol focuses so much on Israel, because the primary focus of Christmas is God proving his faithfulness to his promises to Israel.

Would a Christian dress up as Santa Claus?

On the one hand, Santa Claus has replaced Jesus Christ as the focus of Christmas, but on the other hand, Santa Claus is a type of Jesus Christ. Mention the word “Santa” to a child and his response will likely be positive. Santa is kind, generous, welcoming, fun, and he gives gifts to all children, regardless of their colour, race or religion. What better glimpse of Jesus Christ could children get than that?

On the other hand, Santa also gives children some wrong impressions that don’t fit Jesus Christ at all. Like the words in the song: “Oh, you better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why, Santa Claus is coming to town….He’s making a list and checking it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…He knows if you’ve been bad or good…etc.” Santa now becomes the typical picture of God as the spy in the sky checking us out to see if we’re behaving, rewarding only those who meet his standards and to hell with the rest. Unfortunately, the child will have that picture reinforced later in his life too, in the negative ideas most religions have about God and how he looks at us.

On the other hand, Santa has been very effective in bringing a smile to sick kids and raising money for good causes. He’s a key figure in the spirit of giving, generosity and cheeriness that spreads through the land at Christmas-time, which fits in beautifully with what Jesus was born for, to begin the new creation promised in the Old Testament and to bring heaven and earth together on this planet, so what Jesus came for is really happening – whether people are aware of it, or not. The Spirit truly has been poured out on all flesh, just as Scripture says, because look at all the good being done at Christmas-time.

Santa is not Jesus Christ, though, and never can be, nor can our culture create through Santa what only Jesus Christ can create, no matter how hard it tries. But Santa is what our Western culture has come up with, and he could be a lot worse, like the weird gods of eastern religions.

So, can we take what our culture has created and, like Christians in all ages, turn it around and use it to shine a light on Jesus? All it would take, for instance, is dressing up in a Santa suit, and suddenly a child sees you not as a distant adult, but as someone who’s as close as you can get nowadays to what Jesus is like.

“But Christmas is so pagan…”

Some Christians believe we should get rid of everything in the church that originated with pagans, like Christmas. They are mystified too, as to why Christians ever chose a pagan celebration in the first place for the birth date of Christ, because now we’re stuck with a mess that’s rapidly reverting back to being pagan, with Christ being replaced by an idol, Santa Claus, the gospel being replaced with Disney fantasy, and hope for all creation in Jesus Christ being replaced by hope in better sales figures from Black Friday and Christmas shopping.

Our own recent history, therefore, has demonstrated rather embarrassingly that you can take Christmas out of paganism but you can’t take paganism out of Christmas. The pagan roots of the tree haven’t changed, so it’s not surprising the pagan tree is growing back again. So, wouldn’t it be safer and wiser for Christians to dump Christmas all together from the Christian calendar and create an entirely new celebration with Christ at its centre and no secular bits attached to it at all?

But that would mean the pagans won, wouldn’t it? If Christians bow out of Christmas and the pagans take it back again to fill it with all the usual pagan self-indulgence and counterfeits for spirituality, Christians would lose the one great seasonal reminder of Christ and the gospel that even the pagan world can’t resist.

Christmas is a massive Christian triumph over paganism, because it simply won’t die. Every year like clockwork the carols are played in stores and malls that talk of Christ being born as King of the heavens and earth, and he now rules, bringing in his new creation and new humanity through his church. Christmas is openly proclaiming that creation no longer belongs to pagans or demons, it belongs to Jesus Christ, and he came to reclaim this planet for God, a wonderful proof of that being Christmas Day, which reclaimed a date used for worshipping the sun god to celebrating God and his plan instead – and the pagans haven’t been able to stop it. It doesn’t matter how much they reject the idea of the world needing a Saviour, or a new world beginning that shows how ridiculous the pagan world is by comparison, Christmas is still the highlight of the calendar and the Christian beat goes on.

So why would Christians give up territory they’ve held successfully for sixteen hundred years, especially when it so clearly demonstrates that Jesus reigns supreme by the simple fact of history that paganism has never managed to stop Christmas or take Christ out of it? It’s just another wonderful proof that our God reigns.

We do not grieve like the rest of men

In 1 Thessalonians 4:13, Paul writes, “Brothers, we do not want you to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.” He doesn’t say stop grieving, but when something does cause us grief we’re not overwhelmed by hopelessness.

But that’s awfully tough to do, because I feel an utter sense of hopelessness listening to how we’re supposed to deal with terrorists. The war mongers want us to beat them into submission, because violence is the only language terrorists understand, but the peacemakers want us to back off, because we’re only getting the terrorists mad at us, and why should our men and women die for a war that’s not ours? Either way it feeds right into the terrorist agenda of recruiting more members, because our war mongering justifies their cry of defending themselves against vicious bullies, while our peace making justifies their cry of how weak we are, because we talk a good fight but we won’t put boots on the ground for fear of more body bags.

I haven’t heard a leader or a debate yet that knows what to do. I’ve never seen such a hopeless state of affairs, where so-called experts have totally opposing solutions, and leaders jut their jaws out at the cameras claiming they’re not intimidated, but meanwhile lock down cities out of fear of another attack. I can almost hear the howling cackles of terrorists watching us fighting each other, and how easy it is to bring us to a standstill.

The question then becomes: How on earth do we deal with our own feeling of hopelessness, so we’re not drawn into taking sides, or yelling for revenge, or condemning our leaders, or resorting to violence in return?

Paul’s answer in the very next verse, verse 14, is: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again,” and that, chapter 5:5, marks us as “sons of the light and sons of the day,” who “do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then,” verse 6, “let us not be like others,” because verse 8, “we belong to the day,” so “let us be self-c0ntrolled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.”

These are OUR instruments of war and our way of grieving in a frightening situation. We buckle on our “Jesus is Lord” helmet and strap on our protective over-the-heart breastplate of trust that Jesus is in charge, believing there’s nothing in this world that happens to us that Jesus can’t and won’t solve. So instead of grieving like the rest of men, we are freed up to offer love and care.

What must we learn from horrible things that happen to us?

God allowed horrible things to happen to Job. He lost his children and his livelihood to invaders and disasters, and he was covered in sores from head to toe. And it all came from God too. It was initiated by Satan but allowed by God.

So why would God allow such a horrible thing to happen? It was to face Job with the biggest problem we humans have got. Which is? We think we can save ourselves. We think it’s within our ability to control our destiny, and it’s even within our power to beat death. That was Satan’s sales pitch with Adam and Eve, that they wouldn’t die. They could beat death. They could save themselves.

And God allowed disaster to sink this point home to Job – and to anyone else wondering why a loving God allows so many awful things to happen – because in Job 40:14 God says to Job, “I myself will admit to you that your own right hand can save you.” God was quite willing to admit that Job had the power to save himself if Job could prove it. And God’s allowed us to prove it too. He’s given us the freedom to go it alone without him, to prove that nothing is beyond our power and control.

And give us our due, we’ve survived centuries of turmoil, pandemics and disasters – but the troubles never stop coming. Just as we recover from one disaster we get hit with another. But “no matter,” we reply, “we’ll make it through,” we can save ourselves.

It was the same with Job. Terrible tragedy strikes but Job makes it through. He gets hit again, reducing him to a pitiful state, but it’s only in chapter 40 that he’s softened up enough to listen to WHY God is allowing these horrible things to happen. And that’s when God tells him. It’s to show who holds the power to save. Does Job, for instance, “have an arm like God’s” (40:9) that could “crush the wicked where they stand,” and “bury them all in the dust together”?

In other words, does Job have the power to save the world? No, he doesn’t – and nor do we. Never in all our history have we been able to crush and bury all the evil that threatens to destroy our world either. Kill one lunatic off and another takes his place. And one day some idiot could go nuclear and destroy us all.

So at what point did Job accept that it’s GOD who holds the power to save? When he realized he didn’t have the power to save himself.