Many Christians would be surprised, and perhaps even disappointed, to learn that the song often cited as our favorite Christmas carol is not actually a Christmas carol at all. The famed hymn writer Isaac Watts published “Joy to the World” in 1719. Millions of Christians sing this great hymn at Christmas, celebrating the great news of the incarnation and declaring “let earth receive her king.”
“Let every heart, prepare him room, and heaven and angels sing.” At Christmas we celebrate the incarnation of Christ, the coming of Jesus in Bethlehem. But “Joy to the World,” though sung rightly and triumphantly at Christmas, is really about the Second Coming of Christ.
Watts led in the development of hymns in the English tradition, drawing many of his hymn texts directly from the Psalms. “Joy to the World” is based upon Psalm 98, which declares creation’s joy when the Lord comes to rule and to judge. When we sing “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come,” it applies when we talk about Bethlehem and when we rejoice in the gift of the infant Christ. But the song also reminds us that Christmas isn’t over; the promises of Christmas are not yet fulfilled. Earth will fully receive her King when Christ comes again, to reign and to rule.
Think with me about verse three of the hymn, in which we read,
“No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found.”
The reversal of the curse is promised in the coming of the Messiah and the fulfillment of his atoning work. Implicit in this third verse is the promise of the new creation. We live in light of that promise, even as we look back to Bethlehem and as we celebrate Christmas.
But look carefully at the reference to the curse. Christ’s victory over sin is declared to extend “far as the curse is found.” What curse? How far does it extend? Where is it found?
We find the curse in Genesis, chapter 3. After Eve has eaten of the forbidden tree, and then Adam also ate, and after they found themselves facing God in the reality of their sin, God first cursed the serpent:
The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
Then, God cursed the woman:
To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”
Then came to curse to Adam, and through Adam to all humanity:
And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
By Adam, our federal head, the curse of sin came upon all humanity. We are dust, who must return to the dust, for the wages of sin is death. All creation is under the effects of the curse. “Cursed is the ground because of you,” Adam is told.
The curse is God’s righteous judgment of sin, and the effect of the curse is death. The curse has fallen upon all human beings, first because of Adam’s sin and then because of our own. In Adam, we all sinned. In Adam, we all died.
Where is the curse found? Everywhere we look, we see the curse and its malignant effects. How far does it extend? To every atom and molecule of creation — from coast to coast, shore to shore, sky to sky, and to every square inch of the planet. That’s how far the curse is found.
Most importantly, every single human being is found under this curse. “For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
So, how can we sing about joy to the world?
Look with me to Galatians 3:10-14:
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”-- so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.
Here is the gospel of Christ, the good news. But first, the bad news. All who rely on works of the law are under a curse. All humanity is born under this curse, and under the law. The congregation that originally received Paul’s letter would have understood immediately where Paul grounded his argument, in Deuteronomy 27 and 28. At the end of the series of curses God delivered from Mount Nebo, we find the most comprehensive of all: “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” [Paul in Galatians 3:10, citing Deuteronomy 27:26]
We are born under the curse, we are cursed by the curse, and the law offers no escape. We cannot work our way from under the curse.
So where is the good news? Where is joy to the world? Look at verses 13 and 14.
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. What we sinners could not and cannot do for ourselves, Christ has done for us. He removes the curse and the power of the law to condemn us.
How? He redeemed us from the curse by becoming a curse for us. The sinless Son of God became incarnate as the Word became flesh and dwelled among us. That sinless Son of God became sin for us, in order that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). He became a curse for us, by hanging on a tree, in fulfillment of Scripture.
Christ died on the cross, in our place, bearing our shame and guilt, paying the full penalty for our sin, dying as our Substitute, in our place, by his shed blood. He redeemed us from the curse by becoming a curse for us. He died our death, in our place, bearing our sins, redeeming us from the curse. And on the third day the Father raised him from the dead. The cursed and crucified Savior rose victorious from the grave.
Paul concludes that all this took place so that in Christ the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, and so that we, as Christians, might receive the promised Holy Spirit through faith.
Today we celebrate commencement, the graduation of ministers of Jesus Christ who now enter into a new season of service to the church and to the gospel. The main contours of the ceremony would be recognizable to almost anyone. Here you see graduates, diplomas, faculty, academic regalia, dignity, proud loved ones. But this is a distinctively Christian service. This is an academic ceremony, but it is a Christian service of worship.
These graduates are one of the most remarkable sights you will ever see. Who gets to observe such a moment as this, looking at newly minted ministers of Christ and knowing that they are soon to be deployed to the church and to the ends of the earth? No school is worthy of them, and not one of them is worthy of their calling. Everything you observe is by grace, and to the glory of God.
Graduates, you are wearing the gowns of academic and ministry preparation. You will soon hold diplomas as evidence of your seriousness of preparation and devotion to the ministry. You are surrounded by a host of friends and family and faculty. Their own hopes and dreams of ministry go with you and in you. This faculty has taught you with conviction and affection, and now you go to bear the gospel of Christ and to preach the Word.
Why? Because the world is full of sinners who live every day under the curse, and the penalty of the curse is death. You go to preach the gospel and to declare salvation to all who believe in Christ and repent of their sin. You go to feed Christ’s flock and to shepherd the church for whom Christ died.
How far does the gospel reach, and to what lengths must it be taken? Far as the curse is found. Go and preach. Go and tell. Teach the good news that Christ has redeemed us from the curse by becoming a curse for us.
Joy to the world! The Lord is come.
No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found.
And so, prayerfully and proudly, we send you out — ministers of Christ, heralds of the gospel, far as the curse is found.
This is the text of the commencement address preached by President R. Albert Mohler, Jr. at the December 8, 2017 commencement ceremony at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.