There’s a line in the carol, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” that caught my attention this year that I don’t think I’ve noticed before. The line immediately prior, “Born that man no more may die,” has long been meaningful to me as one touched by the pain of death. Its truth has given me perspective in the midst of great sadness in the Christmas season by reminding me that what began in a manger will culminate on a cross where Jesus will “destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14). Yet here we are, living in this world where there is still so much death. We keep thinking that if God were good he would sweep into this world and our lives and protect us from all this loss and pain, that he would put an end to disasters and disease and death.
And one day he will.
That’s the solid hope found in the next line of the song, which says, “Born to raise the sons of earth.” The good news about this baby is not that he will keep those who love him from suffering physical death. And the good news is not just that when we die, we will go to be with him—-as good as that is. This Christmas carol is pointing us to the solid foundation and substance of our hope—-the resurrection of all who are in Christ to an endless life with him.
The apostle Paul wrote, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). This passage draws a distinction between those who grieve with no hope and those who grieve with hope; and we want to be people who grieve with hope. So what is the nature or substance of the hope held out to us in this passage?
For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thess. 4:14-18)
Notice that Paul didn’t command us to comfort one another with the truth that deceased Christians are in heaven, though we know that to be “away from the body” is to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:6-8). Rather, the apostle tells us to comfort one another with the promise of a day of resurrection to come. The substance of our hope is not merely a spirit-with-no-body existence in the presence of God. The substance of our hope is our spirits being reunited with our resurrected bodies fit for eternal enjoyment in the new heavens and new earth.
Our great hope is not just going to heaven when we die, though that is so wondrously good. But God has much grander plans. Our great hope is that Christ will come again, not as a helpless baby in a manger, but as a magnificent king on a throne—-a king who will be close enough, and gentle enough, to wipe every tear from our eyes. He will personally put an end to everything that has brought his people pain. He will “raise the sons of earth” by transforming “our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21) to live with him forever on a gloriously renewed earth.
The wonder of it made the herald angels want to sing. And as the wonder of it begins to sink in, it makes us want to sing, too.