Theology 101

‘Joy to the World’ Is Really an Easter Hymn

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One of my favorite hymns is “Joy to the World.” We usually sing it around Christmas, but for years I have thought of it as an Easter hymn.

The first verse calls for us to have joy because the Lord has come, and calls for heaven and nature to sing. Nature is singing in anticipation of the redemption spoken of in Romans 8:19–21, when the effects of the Fall are removed.

The Significance of Thorns throughout Scripture

In the beginning God made everything without blemish. He made humanity and put them in the garden, but Adam sinned. The result of this was human death and a sinful nature that has been passed down to all humanity.

Another result of human sin, though, was that the ground itself was cursed on behalf of humankind (Genesis 3:17-19). Creation was disordered in order to remind humans there is something wrong in the world and that a savior is needed. Storms, weeds, viruses and other harmful elements in nature remind us of our weakness and our need for redemption.

When God cursed the ground, he told Adam it would bring forth thorns (Genesis 3:18). Thorns were a sign of the curse. In fact, throughout Scripture, thorns are represented negatively.

  • If Israel did not fulfill God’s command in taking the Promised Land, the remaining people would be thorns in their sides (Numbers 33:55).
  • Samuel writes that “worthless men are all like thorns that are thrown away” (2 Sam. 23:6). Lazy people are like a hedge of thorns that block progress (Prov. 15:19).
  • Thorns are repeatedly described as a sign of judgment (e.g., Is. 7:23–25).
  • Jesus uses thorns as an example of something that chokes out the gospel (Matt. 13:22).

The third verse of “Joy to the World” is a triumphant depiction of the New Earth: “No more let sins and sorrows grow, Nor thorns infest the ground.”

This is because when final redemption comes, the signs of the Fall will be swept away. This is depicted by Isaiah as the Holy One of Israel burning away thorns and briars on the day of judgment against the Assyrian king (Isaiah 10:17), and again in a clearly future judgment by the author of Hebrews where unproductive hearers of the Word will be burnt up like “thorns and thistles” (Hebrews 6:8).

The Significance of Christ’s Crown of Thorns

Thorns appear again in the biblical narrative at a key point. Despite the different details that are presented in the gospel accounts, three of the four Gospels tell us that Christ was given a crown of thorns before he was crucified (Matthew 27:29; Mark 15:17; John 19:2–5).

Only Luke leaves the crown of thorns out of the story, and this is largely because his account of the crucifixion is much shorter than the other three Gospels.

There is significance in the material chosen for Christ’s crown.

  • The crown of thorns is not merely a sign of mocking of Christ as he was beaten, judged, and crucified. The thorns are a symbol of the future hope when “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
  • This hope is made possible by Christ’s substitutionary atonement for human sin. When Christ was cursed on our behalf he took the judgment of God in our place. Christ’s crown presents a sign of the work that was taking place on the cross.
  • Just as thorns infested the ground as a result of Adam’s sin, so Christ’s crown of thorns indicates Christ’s work to lift the physical signs of the curse.
  • Christ’s work in redeeming all creation gives meaning to our lives now beyond just the “spiritual” things that we do. All of creation will be redeemed and restored.

As we live and work, we should continue to push back against the signs of the curse seeking to demonstrate, in part, what the future redeemed creation will look like when, as the song writer expressed it,

He rules the world with truth and grace/And makes the nations prove/The glories of His righteousness/And wonders of his love.

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  • Well written, Andrew.

    It is highly likely that Isaac Watts intended “Joy to the World” as a hymn of Christ’s second coming. Watts’s originally published it as a Christian paraphrase of Psalm 98 in his volume The Psalms of David Imitated. You can see the original text here: Psalm 98 says that all nature should rejoice before the Lord, “for he cometh to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity.” Watts used for this hymn the heading “The Messiah’s coming and kingdom,” exulting in His rule and reign over the earth. Christ indeed rules even now, though his resurrection is hardly referred to as “coming.” More likely, Watts refers to when Christ will return in body to assume the throne.

  • PeterKushkowski

    The clothesline graphic loosed a flood of memories from my childhood, born
    (1935) in the midst of The Great Depression to Russian-Ukrainian,
    evangelical-Christian, immigrant parents who reflected the “glories of His
    righteousness,” and “wonders of His love.” By any economic measure my three
    siblings and I grew up ‘poor’, but rich in spirit. Among my keep-sakes of mother
    is the brown paper bag with wooden clothespins.

  • Bob Hagopian

    Thank you, Andrew, for a very thoughtful reflection! It resonates with me, as I have entitled my Easter Sunday sermon “Joy to the World!” I, too, have thought of that Christmas Hymn as well suited for Easter. This past Christmas, I told my congregation that Easter had begun! They all looked at me as if I had lost my mind (not that the Lord gave me a particularly good one!) When I expounded on my statement, the congregation agreed with me (for the most part). Without Christmas, there would not be Easter. I’m planning on singing some of “Joy to the World” as part of my Easter sermon! Thank you, also, for your service to our nation in the United States Navy as a Submariner! May God bless your ministry, your family and your life with His wisdom, strength and peace! — Rev. Bob Hagopian, Rowley, MA

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