Though wisdom is gloriously illustrated in the incarnation, love and mercy are not less conspicuous. Indeed, we must consider love as the first mover in this stupendous plan of salvation. Wisdom and power are exerted to open a way in which divine mercy may have a vent. Mercy cannot be exercised at the expense of justice. It is necessary, therefore, that the plan contain a provision for the complete satisfaction of justice. That which would have been pronounced impossible by any creature, however exalted, has been accomplished by the wisdom of God. “Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Rom. 11:33).
Because of this season when the birth of Jesus is remembered in a variety of ways, a sermon by a Presbyterian of the past about the incarnation of the Son of God is posted. The sermon is from Luke 2:13, 14 as found on pages 76-90 of Alexander’s book, Practical Sermons to be Read in Families and Social Meetings, 1850. It has been edited for archaisms, punctuation, a few lengthy paragraphs have been divided to ease reading, and in some cases the sentences have been slightly recomposed for clarity. All of the editing actions mentioned were done to smooth the flow of the antebellum text for modern readers without disturbing Dr. Alexander’s intention and style. In one case a sentence has an asterisk * added at its end to refer readers to a historical note at the end of the sermon.
A few things to note in the sermon include Dr. Alexander’s thorough use of Scripture not only in specific quotations of the Bible, but also in his use of phrases that echo Bible passages. Some of his main points are the importance of the ministry of angels; the necessity of the incarnation for accomplishing the atonement to satisfy both God’s justice and mercy; the ministry of the Holy Spirit; and the reverence and amazement with which he viewed the coming of the Messiah. He has used the analogy of Scripture—the interpretive principle that the Bible explains itself—not only for his exegetical work, but also for his expositional presentation, that is, he communicates and applies what he learned from his study and preparation. Scripture must always interpret Scripture.
Dr. Alexander (1772-1851) was the founding professor of what is currently Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. He was appointed by the Presbyterian Church to open the seminary in 1812 after having served in pastoral ministry for several years. He was known for his preaching ministry and was well loved by his congregants; the citizens of the United States whether Christians or not; the villagers of Princeton; and by his divinity students. The first building constructed on the seminary campus was dedicated Alexander Hall. Two sons of Archibald and his wife Janetta Waddel Alexander (1782-1852), are J. A. Alexander and J. W. Alexander, who both have biographies on this site.
It is hoped that in the midst of reindeer, lights, gifts, and hopes for booming holiday sales, the reality of the incarnation of the Son of God for the necessary sacrifice to redeem his people from their sins might be illumined through the wisdom and words of Rev. Archibald Alexander, D.D. I think it is a particularly fine sermon and despite its age, the simplicity and clarity of its message is relevant to twenty-first-century readers and the limited editing by me simply provides a more modern reading.
This sermon was originally posted in 2015.
by Archibald Alexander, D.D.
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,
good will to men. Luke 2:13, 14.
There are two memorable occasions, in time past, on which the angels are represented as joining in chorus to praise God in relation to our world. The first was when the cornerstone of the fabric of the universe was laid and its foundations were fastened. Then “the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:7). The other was at the birth of the Savior, which is referred to in our text. And we are informed by the sure word of prophecy, that at the overthrow of the spiritual Babylon, and at the marriage of the Lamb, there will be another grand chorus when a voice coming out of the throne shall say, “Praise our God, all ye his servants, and all ye that fear him, both small and great” (Rev. 19:5). “And I heard,” says John, “as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, ‘Alleluia, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honor to him, for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready’” (Rev. 19:6).
It is exceedingly gratifying to be introduced to some acquaintance with the celestial inhabitants, and to find that they are possessed of feelings very much like our own, except that they are exempt from all sin and imperfection. It cannot but be very interesting to know that the angels have a kind and tender feeling towards the children of God, that they are employed as guardians to watch over them, and as helpers to deliver them from evils which would otherwise overwhelm them. It is wisely ordered that in their common ministry to the heirs of salvation, the angels act without being seen and render the most important services to the people of God, without their knowledge. For the visible presence of these holy beings would so over-awe us that we should, through fear, be unfitted for the common duties of life. For a long period, the visits of angels had scarcely been known in the Church, but when the Son of God was about to be manifested, the angel of the Lord appeared, first, to Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, when he was wide awake ministering in the temple, and afterwards to Mary, and to Joseph, her espoused husband. But on the memorable night of the birth of Christ, it pleased God to send his angel, probably Gabriel, to announce the joyful event to a company of shepherds who were remaining in the fields near Bethlehem with their flocks, by night. “Suddenly, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid” (Luke 2:9). It is not in human nature to look on the face of an angel and not be afraid. Conscious guilt abashes us in the presence of beings so holy and so far superior to us. But these benevolent messengers of God when they appear, do commonly, in the kindest and gentlest manner, allay the fears of those to whom they are sent. In this case, the angel said to the frightened shepherds,
Fear not, for behold I bring unto you glad tidings of great joy which shall be unto all people. For unto you is born, this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you, ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. (Luke 2:10).
Though but one angel appeared at first to the shepherds, yet he was not alone. This was not an event to be made known by a solitary messenger; it was an event which commanded the attention and interested the feelings of all the inhabitants of heaven. They were filled with gladness at the prospect of such a mighty Deliverer appearing among men. Now, “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth, and good will to men” (Luke 2:13-14).
The first thing in this divine anthem which demands our attention is the disposition manifested by these celestial beings, the angels. The sentiments of their song are precisely such as we should expect from holy angels, and though the words sung by them in concert were few, yet they contain a complete expression of a disposition perfectly holy. They first ascribe all glory to God. This, undoubtedly, is the very essence of a heavenly attitude. Whatever tends to the glory of God will be delightful to the feelings of holy angels. To achieve this end, they are ready for every service which may be required of them, whether it be of an exalted nature or a humble ministry to sinful men, they are equally prompt in their obedience because the love of God is the predominant and absorbing passion of their minds. But where there exists supreme love to God, there will be found benevolence to his creatures. The angels rejoice in the birth of the Savior because this will restore peace to the earth. The existence of war among the offspring of the same parents, and partakers of the same nature, is itself an awful evidence that ours is a fallen race. The number of men destroyed in war cannot be calculated, and much of the time and wealth of nations is expended in preparing for and carrying on this most inhuman employment.* But the angels considered the birth of the Savior as connected with permanent and ultimate peace. Let the kingdom of Christ be once fully established in the world and wars will cease everywhere, for whence come wars and conflicts, come they not of men’s lusts? The Spirit of the Gospel is peace—the tendency of the Gospel is to lead men to convert their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. The heathen had in their pantheon of gods those who delighted in war, but our King is the Prince of Peace, and the holy angels rejoice in the prospect of peace on earth. And they cherish a hearty good will to men because the Gospel breathes such a temper that they rejoiced at its introduction, and now daily rejoice at the conversion of every soul rescued from the guilt and defilement of sin and from the dominion of Satan. “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God, over one sinner that repenteth” (Luke 15:10).
We see here what the temper of heaven is, and what we pray for, when we say, “thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). The spirit manifested by this great multitude of angels, and which pervades and actuates the whole innumerable company of angels, is the very spirit which should be predominant among men. They should all rejoice in the glory of God and should breathe peace and good will to men. What a blessed change will it be, when all men, or the most of men, shall be actuated by this spirit! Perhaps we cannot spend our time better than by contemplating the connection between the birth of the Savior, the glory of God, and the happiness of men.
God is glorified by every thing which makes his glorious attributes more fully known. Because he is absolutely and infinitely perfect, nothing can be added to his essential perfection, but by means of his creatures his attributes may be exhibited, and as far as this is done, God is said to be glorified. And reason and Scripture unite in teaching that this is the object at which God aims in all his works and dispensations. There can be no higher or nobler object. And rational creatures should make this the supreme object of pursuit also, and should glorify God in every way possible with all their powers. How do the heavens declare the glory of God? Evidently they declare his glory by showing forth his power, wisdom, and goodness.