Leading up to Christmas, I’ll be reposting a series of articles I’ve written that highlights the beautiful and theologically rich lyrics of Christmas carols. Each article contains a little history of the carol, along with a reflection on either a few of the lines or the theme represented in the song.
John Wesley Work Jr. was born in Nashville, TN in 1871, the son of a director of a church choir director. He attended Fisk University in Nashville, studying both Latin and history, and then later continued his education at Harvard.
He went on to teach Latin and Greek, but his first love remained music. He was also the director of the famed Fisk Jubilee singers, but perhaps his greatest contribution was the compilation of songs he had heard his entire life. He became the first African-American collector of folk songs and spirituals, which was no easy task given that this music was passed down orally and rarely written down. Nevertheless, Work published his works as New Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers (1901) and New Jubilee Songs and Folk Songs of the American Negro (1907). It was this second volume that contained “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” and we have been singing it ever since.
Perhaps one of the reasons why the song resonates so much is because of its simplicity. It’s a reminder to all who call themselves Christians that we are a “go and tell” people, not just a “stay and hear” people. Indeed, this is what Jesus told us to do:
The eleven disciples traveled to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped, but some doubted. Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:16-20).
Here is one of those passages that, if we ever wonder what God’s will is for our lives, we can come back to again and again, for here is the answer. What does God want me to do? He wants me to go and tell. To make disciples in that telling. And this is not negotiable.
The lasting command Jesus gave to the church is couched in His authority. Before He said to go, before He said to make disciples, Jesus wanted everyone to know the position from which He was speaking. This is not a life hack; it’s not some good advice; it’s not a request. This is a command, one rooted in the authority of Jesus.
Here we see the Son of God, the King of the Universe, the One through whom and in whom all things hang together. He has died and risen from the grave as the Conqueror of sin and death. And is taking His rightful place at the right hand of God the Father. From that position of authority, indeed all authority in heaven and on earth, He issues this command. Because of His authority, Jesus’ commission is not negotiable for any of us.
Neither is this command restrictive; it is, in fact, a very inclusive command. Jesus began His command with a non-restrictive description of His authority with the word “all.” With His “all” authority, we are to go to “all” nations. And when we go to “all” nations, we are to teach people to obey “everything.” There is nothing left out here; nothing pushed to the side. And here, too, we should be careful that we don’t either intentionally or unintentionally restrict that which is meant to be loosed.
We should be careful that we don’t restrict the “who” of the Great Commission. Like Jonah, there are certain groups of people that are uncomfortable for us to speak to. There are all kinds of reasons for that – maybe it’s our past experience, perhaps it’s our upbringing, or maybe it’s the state of current events. But if we are Christians, then the Great Commission calls us to confront our political, racial, and socio-economic biases. It’s an inclusive command for us to cross the lines we’ve drawn in our hearts. We are to go and tell everywhere.
The Great Commission is not negotiable; it’s not restrictive; it’s also just not that complicated. We are to go. We are to tell. And we are to bring others along the road of following Jesus. That’s it. And when you look at it like that, it’s really not that complicated.
As we sing this song during the season, may it not just be a song for us. May it instead be a reflection of our posture. That we are, as Christians, a “go and tell” people, both now and until the message is fully shared with the whole world.