Hold this picture in your mind. You are standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon, as the most epic sunset you have ever beheld floods the landscape with rich, golden light. You pull out your iPhone and snap a picture. You get home and gather your family, eager to bring them into the rare glory you captured. They huddle around the screen and you click on your photos app and up it pops. They are impressed enough, but something inside of you reels with frustration. Ugh! It’s just not the same, you protest. And it isn’t. Because no pixel can contain the actual glory of the Grand Canyon.
The Principle Behind the 2nd Commandment
This parable might help us understand the 2nd commandment better. This is the divine decree forbidding the use of created things in the service of worshipping the Creator God (Exodus 20:4-5). The prohibition comes in part because nothing created could ever come close to being a sufficient stand-in for the Creator. Doing so will inevitably diminish both the quality of our worship and the glory of our God. Or: Grand Canyon > pixels.
One need only look at our view of angels to prove the principle. Because certain artists took certain creative license, we are tempted now to think of angels as adorably chubby babies perpetually en route to harp class. Yet, the nearly universal human response to angels in the biblical text reveals just how absurd our modern caricature is. When angels entered stage right you don’t find much cooing. Rather, you find much awe and trembling. You see grown Roman soldiers collapsing in fear (Matthew 28:2-4), and a friend of Jesus Christ tempted towards worship (Revelation 2:8-9). It is a dreadful thing for fallen mortals to encounter the holy.
An Angelic Army Unleashed
In light of this, can you even begin to imagine the experience on that cool, seemingly ordinary Bethlehem night two millenia ago? The night when all the ancient messianic prophecies came to a culminating point and God Almighty unleashed a legion of angels to break the news on some blessed, unsuspecting shepherds. Luke records it for us in the second chapter of his gospel:
Now there were shepherds nearby living out in the field, keeping guard over their flock at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were absolutely terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid! Listen carefully, for I proclaim to you good news that brings great joy to all the people: Today your Savior is born in the city of David. He is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger. Suddenly a vast, heavenly army appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among people with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:8-14 NET, emphasis added)
Can you even begin to imagine? This week at dinner one of our daughters asked, “If you could take a picture of any moment in history, what would it be?” That’s a great question. And this would certainly make the top 3.
Yet, when the veil separating heaven and earth was lifted, the most astounding thing was not the heavenly host in robes of fire. It was not the literal sound of heaven’s song soaring through the stratosphere. The most astounding thing was not the song’s sound, but was what the lyrics revealed. Namely, that God’s peace is going to be poured out on a world that deserves His wrath. Yes, and amen!
A Troubling Stipulation
However, at the end of the song, there’s a stipulation that stops us in our tracks if we are paying attention. Who will receive peace? Who will receive this news of the Christ with great joy?
“… peace among people with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14b NET, emphasis added)
There it is. In order for this angelic proclamation to come as good news, you must please the holy, righteous God who dwells in unapproachable light (1 Timothy 6:16). And it brings us to the most important question any human could ever ask: how can I know that God is pleased with me?
Many presume upon the grace of God, thinking that because they have not committed some egregious sin (according to them) God is pleased with them. But, dear friend, this is not what the Biblical witness reveals. Indeed, even a cursory look at our default standing before God – according to God – is not pleasing to Him,
- “There is no one righteous, not even one…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:10, 23, NET)
- “If we say we do not bear the guilt of sin, we are deceiving ourselves[.]” (1 John 1:8a, NET)
- “Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart clean; I am pure from my sin’?” (Proverbs 20:9, NET)
- “[A]ll of us also [were] by nature children of wrath.” (Ephesians 2:3, NET)
Well, the verdict is clear. Who pleases God perfectly, all the time, unfailingly? No one. Not you. Not me. And there was nothing we could do about it.
“…when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” (Galatians 4:4-5, NKJV)
This is the glory of the incarnation. This is why the angelic choir could sing of God’s peace being for those who please Him and say it is “good news that brings great joy” to those who have sinned. How? Because “Today your Savior is born in the city of David.”
The One with Whom God is Well Pleased
Interestingly, nearly 30 years after this awesome evening He would find Himself at the Jordan river where He was baptized by the trembling hand of His cousin John. After He emerged from the waters His heavenly Father spoke. Do you remember what He said?
“This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17, NKJV, emphasis added)
I wonder if there was an old, retired shepherd standing on the banks within ear shot. I wonder if these words did not land on his memory like lightning. I wonder if something deep inside him finally clicked.
“That sounds familiar…well pleased…WELL PLEASED!”
Jesus Christ is the key that unlocks our peace with God. When we repent of our futile attempts to earn God’s pleasure and place our faith in Christ, we are united to Christ. And well pleased becomes the banner over us through Him.
So, as we hear the herald angels sing this year let us do so with a joyful sincerity. Let us feel the gravity of our sin that made us displeasing to God. Then, after earnest reflection let us, by faith, take our place amongst the heavenly choir, rejoicing with every fiber of our being that “Today [our] Savior is born in the city of David. He is Christ the Lord!”