As of the late 20th century, “Joy to the World” was the most-published Christmas hymn in North America, but it certainly didn’t start out that way. In fact, when Isaac Watts first wrote the lyrics in 1719 he didn’t even intend for it to be a song. Rather, he wrote a series of poems based on the psalms. But when he paraphrased the psalms, he chose to read into them the centrality of Jesus. “Joy to the World” was based on Psalm 98.
When Watts looked at Psalm 98, He saw a picture of Jesus as the rightful ruler of the whole world, and that’s the theme we see in “Joy to the World.” It has become a musical celebration of the kingship of Jesus. Notably, when you get to the second verse, you find this lyric: “Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns.”
This is present tense. The Savior reigns. Not “the Savior will reign someday.” And in this, we find a bit of pause, don’t we? Because we look around at the issues of the world, the examples of human suffering, the natural disasters, and yes, the depths of our own sin, we might well conclude that the Savior does not reign.
The Savior reigns? Over this? Over us? Over so many who deny His existence, and over so many circumstances that seem wildly out of control? Our senses would tell us that the throne of the universe is unoccupied.
And yet the Bible tells us something different. The Bible tells us that Jesus not will be, but is, the Lord and King. Jesus was crucified, buried, and then resurrected and ascended to the right hand of God where He remains. The Scriptural testimony is sure of this – that Jesus is Lord. The Lordship of Jesus is an objective reality, and yet one that we take by faith. This is our confession as Christians, and such is the very nature of faith, in that we believe that which we cannot see. We confess that which is contrary to what is observable by our senses.
There is a difference between the reality of the kingship of Jesus and the recognition of His authority by creatures like us. We believe that the kingdom has come. That the war has been won. That Jesus is on the throne. And yet we know that the kingdom is still coming. That the war is won, but the battles continue. And that there are many in the world who refuse to recognize His kingship. Such is our experience as Christians – we live in the already but the not yet. We live in the reality that Jesus is already the king, and yet is not yet fully recognized as such.
This is why advent, for the Christian, is about waiting. In a sense, we are waiting to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but in a greater sense, we are waiting for Jesus to return. We believe that the war for the future and the glory of God was won at the cross. And yet we are waiting. We are waiting for that victory to be fully realized in the new heaven and the new earth.
In the meantime, then, we make our confession again this Christmas by faith. We make it as a means of reminding ourselves, and each other, that Jesus is indeed King, right here, right now. So we boldly sing: “Joy to the earth. The Savior reigns!”