The Christmas hymn with no manger, angels or shepherds

The Christmas hymn with no manger, angels or shepherds
Image: Jason Betz/

One of Charles Wesley’s most endearing Christmas hymns is surely “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”, which was first published in Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord in 1745.

The two stanzas of the hymn—comprising eight lines each—are replete with scriptural allusions. They include the notion of God as the strength of Israel (Joel 3:16 and Psalm 68:34), the promised rest (Matthew 11:28), the desire of all nations (Haggai 2:7), the indwelling of God’s Spirit in the heart (Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26; Romans 5:5; 2 Corinthians 1:22), and the sufficiency of the work of Christ (Ephesians 2:8; 2 Corinthians 12:9).

The hymn abounds with the theology of Christmas. The Episcopalian hymnologist, Carl Daw, has perceptively described the hymn in this way:

“Despite the title of the collection in which this text was published, and despite the four appearances of ‘born’ here, this is not so much a hymn about Nativity as it is about Incarnation. The details of the birth are never mentioned: no manger, no shepherds, no angels. Yet there is an awareness here that the larger mystery being celebrated leads to the sending of the Holy Spirit and comes full circle in Christ’s reign in glory, when God’s people will find freedom from fear and sin, when hope will be fulfilled, and when human hearts will be aligned with God’s saving purposes.”1

The hymn begins with the words, “Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free.” These words speak of the expected Messiah whom the prophets of Israel had prophesied for centuries, and identifies him as Jesus, the son of Mary, who was born in Bethlehem on the first Christmas day.

The first stanza stresses the liberation that Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah, will bring (“born to set thy people free”). However, it immediately clarifies that the liberation the incarnate Son of God brings is a spiritual liberation (“from our fears and sins release us”).

While Jesus is indeed the Messiah that Israel had anticipated, the hymn very quickly makes clear that he is also the Saviour of the world. Thus, Jesus is not only “Israel’s strength and consolation”, he is also the “hope of all the earth”, the “dear desire of every nation”, and the “joy of every longing heart”.

The hymn continues this grand theme of salvation in Christ in the second stanza. The soteriological emphasis is captured in phrases such as “[b]orn thy people to deliver” and “born to reign in us forever”.

Charles Wesley’s hymn makes clear that what Christ has done to make the salvation of sinful human beings possible is complete. The work of the Son of God— his incarnation, ministry, passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and heavenly session—is “sufficient merit” for the salvation of the world. Nothing more needs to be done.

The hymn sings of the Kingdom of God that the incarnate Word has inaugurated at his first advent and will bring to full consummation upon his return, in words (“now thy gracious kingdom bring”) that are reminiscent of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples (“Thy kingdom come”).

The hymn is also careful to emphasise that God in Christ reigns in the hearts of men and women who have put their faith in him (“born to reign in us forever” and “[b]y thine own eternal spirit rule in all our hearts alone”).

This is consistent with the teaching of the Wesley brothers that true religion always has to do with the transformation of the inner man (2 Corinthians 5:17). True religion, in other words, is the religion of the heart.

The hymn triumphantly envisions the glorification of Christians—which theologians throughout the history of the Church have designated as the final stage of the order of salvation (ordo salutis)—due to the all-sufficient work of Jesus Christ (“by thine all sufficient merit, raise us to thy glorious throne”).

This truth is taken from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians where the apostle writes that the God who is rich in mercy has “made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:5-6).

As we celebrate Christmas this year in a world ravaged by war, injustice, and calamities, let us meditate on the profound truths about what God has done for us in Christ, packed in the two short stanzas of this remarkable Christmas hymn. Furthermore, as we look forward in eager anticipation to the return of the one who was “born a child and yet a King”, let us pray to our Saviour and Lord with the words of this hymn:

“Come, thou long expected Jesus”.

1 Carl P. Daw Jr., ‘Come, Thou long-expected Jesus’, in Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016), 82.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.