Shepherds why this jubilee/Why your joyous strains prolong?/What the gladsome tidings be/that inspire your heavenly song?
We all know why the shepherds rejoiced. Unto them was born that day in the city of David a savior, who was Christ the Lord! (technically they were sore afraid and it was the angels who were rejoicing, but the shepherds eventually got into the swing of things.)
Did you know there are MORE gladsome messages from Christ to us via angelic messengers?! Yep. In the seven letters Christ pens to the churches in Revelation 2-3, angels get to deliver more good news. To the conquerors, Christ promises the following: to eat from the tree of life in the paradise of God, to receive the crown of life, to not be hurt by the second death, to receive some of the hidden manna and get a white stone with a new name written on the stone, to have authority over the nations, to get the morning star, to be clothed in white garments and walk with the Lord, to be made a pillar in the temple of God, to have God’s name, the name of the new Jerusalem, and Jesus’s name written on us, and to sit with Jesus on His throne.
Faithful saints participate in the new heaven and the new earth with such abundance, starting with the very paradise our hearts have longed for since eternity began. Gladsome tidings, indeed! But, it’s from Revelation, so let’s admit that it is kind of, um, weird (a white stone with a new secret name on it?) and terrifying: Sitting with Jesus on His throne seems okay, like maybe all those mushy Christian pop songs are on the right track, until you keep reading and get to the description of the throne room and who-all is there and what they look like and how loud it is, and suddenly you feel just like one of those shepherds in front of whom the skies opened up and the trumpets started blaring.
One thing that makes the promises shine brighter than the reprimands woven in with them is this verse: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of God? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?….No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Rom. 8:31-35, 37, italics mine)
I was so encouraged when I started reading Revelation recently and came to the letters to the seven churches, because I’d just come off a long study of 1 and 2 Timothy, which was wicked stressful. No joke. Corinth gets a bad rep for being out of control with their supernatural gifts (in the midst of boasting about sexual sin, oops) but honestly, it’s Ephesus that should make us sweat. In his letters to Timothy, Paul instructs him how to lead the church in Ephesus—the church that Paul built with Priscilla and Aquila for three years, the church to whom he wrote the glorious letter of Ephesians, the church who, when he had to leave on a missionary journey, wept on his neck at the docks in a very dramatic goodbye scene. Young Timothy has to pastor this church through the following scary situations: false teachings, false teachers (some in leadership, btw!!), people devoted to myths and endless genealogies, vain discussions, certain people wanting to teach the law without understanding it, people swerving from the faith or shipwrecking it completely (did you hear about Hymenaeus and Alexander?!), women usurping authority, people devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons, insincere liars, legalists, idle widows, elders persisting in sin, conceited teachers, teachers who have an unhealthy craving for controversy, people who quarrel about words, people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, ungodly doctrine, shame about the gospel, irreverent babble, ungodly talk spreading like gangrene, Gnostics, and—I’ll stop here even though I could go on for another whole page—the worst one, the one that gave me the check-under-the-bed-before-you-turn-out-the-light feeling: people who have the appearance of godliness but who deny its power. That’s Ephesus.
With that fresh anxiety in the back of my mind, I was elated to read the letter to their church in the book of Revelation. After studying all the trials Timothy had to deal with, it was so heartening to find out how it went! The church toiled, they had patient endurance, they did not bear those who were evil, they tested those who called themselves apostles but weren’t, and ejected the false teachers! They stood up for Jesus’s name! They endured patiently and didn’t grow weary! And they hated the works of the Nicolatians, which God also hates, so, looks like they got on the right track with doctrine, too. Okay, so they did abandon the love they had at first. No denying that’s really, really concerning, and in the letter they are urged to repent of that lest their lampstand be removed. But I count it very good news indeed to know that a church so fraught with loathsome practices within their own beloved ranks were able to shed wickedness and cling to truth. I choose to believe that Ephesus did return to their first love, and received the promise of the tree of life. Or, they will when Christ returns, or whatnot. (again, not really sure about the timeline…) The point is, God is the Rewarder of those who earnestly seek Him. He does not make promises in vain.
These promises in the book of Revelation are intimately related to the good news of Christmas, because everything hinges on the same point of reference: Immanuel, God with us. He who assures our salvation is the very One who empowers our sanctification. Many are mourning churches who are denying the power of God, who love sexual immorality instead of renouncing it (looking at you, Thyatira), who have no idea what the gospel of Jesus Christ really is. I’ve got more than one friend shaken loose from their church moorings entirely, wary of committing to a local body out of fear and bitterness. Ephesus fought for truth and forgot love, while other churches were commended for love but ignored the truth. We must remember that none of our testimonies start ‘I was fantastic, and then I met Jesus and it got even better’ but instead begin, ‘I was dead, and he breathed life into me. Hallelujah, He is risen.’ Whether we see ourselves and our churches in the seven letters or not, the call to repent is universal, and the love that drives the promises is neverending. When God proclaims His own name to Moses in Exodus 34, He says, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty.” All that love needed a savior to clear the guilty, which is why the angels went so wild in front of the shepherds—a Savior was born. This is why we can go so wild even in the midst of working out our salvation with fear and trembling—that same Savior has overcome, and we overcome, too, if we are in Him. And what do we get by being more than conquerors? Everything. We deserve nothing, and we get everything.
The story of Christmas doesn’t end with the Wise Men, it ends with Christ returning on high to gather up his flock, to rule and to reign on earth as it is in heaven. Though it may seem that we’re like Ephesus and Corinth, getting it wrong and getting it right at the same time, we need not be afraid or bewildered or despairing. Our entire lives on earth are a kind of Advent in which we occupy ourselves loving each other—the bride of Christ—and hoping for what we do not see, waiting for it patiently, knowing that the battle is won, the Lamb has overcome, and He who calls us is faithful. The angels sang, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” The living creatures in the throne room sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” Our songs of repentance and praise shall ring out with glory, too, because we do not sing from our own strength or power or might, but by Christ alone. He is our now and future King, our very best Gift. Nothing can surpass such glad tidings of great joy.