The classic Christmas hymn Joy to the World has a stanza that is not often sung in our modern versions.
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.
Packed in this stanza is all the makings of a rich fraternal theological discussion. While not necessarily introducing new themes, the third stanza extends previously stated themes, from the first and second stanza, into potentially dangerous theological territory. As review, the first stanza proclaims Jesus as both Lord and King. It is completed with the refrain, “And heav’n and nature sing.” This language of ‘nature singing’ does not seem overly complicated and likely hearkens to Christ’s words in Luke 19:40, “He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”” There is a sense in which all of creation finds its perfection in the presence of its creator. This same idea is picked up in the second stanza with the line, “While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plans repeat the sounding joy.” Again, we are introduced to the idea that nature itself is part of the worshipful cry of proclaiming Jesus as Lord. There is a sense that this is metaphorical language that is common in the Old Testament worship passages. Psalm 114:5-6 says, “What ails you, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back? O mountains, that you skip like rams? O hills, like lambs?” Similarly, Psalm 148:3-4 says, “Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!”
The third stanza however seems to take a more precise theological turn by stating, “No more let… thorns infest the ground. He comes to make His blessing flow far as the curse is found.” The reference to “thorns infesting the ground” is a direct reference to the Genesis 3 passage in which God curses the ground as a result of Adam’s disobedience, “cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you” (Gen. 3:17b-18). On a surface reading, ‘far as the curse is found” may be in line with the metaphorical worship language of nature utilized in the first and second stanza. But one wonders if a more nuanced reading is required. Does Christ’s promise to overcome corruption and decay apply only to the human heart in an inward spiritual sense, or does it extend beyond this internal renewal and into the physical world as well? Ought Christians expect the thorns and thistles of the ground to no more infest the ground? Here we engage in a classic debate around what has classically been referred to as Two Kingdom Theology. Is Christ’s reign spiritual and internal only? Or does it extend in a physical way to the world around us? And if it does extend physically, in what ways and to what degree?
First, in a direct sense, I see no indication from Scripture that we ought to expect nature itself to altogether cease behaving according to the curse found in Genesis 3. This means that until Christ returns and renews all things, man will continue to toil in a difficult fashion with the thorns of the ground. Quite literally, farming is difficult sweaty work. But so is banking and selling goods. As Christians we do live in the tension of the already/not yet of Romans 8:18-25. Christ is King right now. His Kingdom has been established. Yet there is a degree of experience of God’s Kingdom and physical intimacy with Christ that will never be experienced this side of glory. No matter how much we Christianize the world, we will still be Pilgrims until we are with Christ in glory (1 Peter 2:11).
Therefore, on the one hand, an overly wooden reading of the third stanza is prohibited. Thorns remain despite the resurrection of Christ and will only be done away with at the return of Christ. And yet, in another sense, the curse is already becoming undone by and through regenerate man, who aided by the Holy Spirit joyfully accomplishes his work, in an increasing degree as it was originally intended when work was given to Adam in the garden. In direct fulfillment of prophecy, the stone cut from no human hand has struck the Earth (Christ’s Kingdom) and is progressively growing to fill the whole Earth (Daniel 2:35). The thorns still prick, and nature still groans, but the regenerate heart sees his work as fulfilling Adam’s dominion mandate to subdue the Earth and bring beauty wherever he goes. This is not only an internal sense of peace in the midst of our toil, but much more a physical expansion of the Kingdom of God as wrought by His ambassadors. Where Christians go they adopt orphans, they care for widows, they teach right morality, they introduce Christ-honoring laws, they build Churches, and make disciples. In doing so, we do not aim to achieve full glory here and now, but we do aim to ‘make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.’ And to that I say, “Joy to the world!”