The Very First Christmas Carol

Angels

Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains;
And the mountains, in reply,
Echoing their joyous strains:

Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

One of the most wonderful parts of the Christmas season is the carols that we begin to hear on a daily basis beginning right after Thanksgiving. Carols are heard through the PA systems at shopping malls, they are played on the radio stations we tune into in our cars, they are played on church organs and sung by choirs and worship teams, and they are played on our sound systems and MP3 players at home. There are many beautiful carols celebrating the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Among them are such beautiful songs like Angels We Have Heard on High, O Holy Night, Silent Night, and O Little Town of Bethlehem. And there are songs that speak of the angels, the shepherds, and the wise men who played a part in the story of the first Christmas.

The words and melodies of these songs are so familiar to all of us that we may often find ourselves singing along with them or humming them as we go about our daily tasks. Most of these beloved carols have been around for a long time. But the very first Christmas carol was sung over 2,000 years ago. The melody of this carol is unknown to us, but we have read or heard its words many times, especially during the Christmas season. It’s a carol that was sung by an angel choir that appeared to a group of shepherds who were tending their flocks in the hills around Bethlehem:

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2:13-14, NKJV)

This first Christmas carol must have been sung with a joy unknown to man. The angels who sang this song were very likely present at the creation of the world and the creation of man, at which time they shouted for joy (Job 38:7). They no doubt had witnessed the fall of man and felt great sorrow as the peace between God and man was shattered. But, now they were tasked with announcing the good news of salvation. God had sent His Son into the world to provide that salvation. The peace between God and His creation was about to be restored. And so, as they delivered this message to the shepherds that night, the joy in their hearts must have been an unspeakable joy.

The words that the angels sang, God’s message for man, spoke to the salvation that Jesus Christ was bringing to the world. In his sermon titled, The First Christmas Carol, delivered on December 20, 1857, the great preacher Charles H. Spurgeon said:

“And what they said of this salvation was this: they said, first, that it gave glory to God; secondly, that it gave peace to man; and, thirdly, that it was a token of God’s good will towards the human race.”

The first words sung by the angel choir were, “Glory to God in the highest.” These are words that they likely had sung many times before as they worshiped God in heaven. But, as they sang them that day, the words probably took on new meaning. The glory of God, which existed for eternity in heaven, had now come to earth in the form of the baby Jesus. God’s glory was present to man in human form. And Jesus was God’s promise of salvation for man, a salvation that ultimately brings glory to God. Because that salvation would remove the veil of sin that separated man from the presence of God, that salvation also brought peace to man. And, as Spurgeon so aptly pointed out, that promise of salvation was “a token of God’s good will towards the human race.”

As we sing and listen to our favorite Christmas carols this Christmas season, let us remember that first Christmas carol, and let our hearts be filled with the same unspeakable joy that filled the hearts of the angel choir who sang it.

Scripture quotations marked NKJV are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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