Christ Triumphant by Michael Saward
I wrote this hymn in 1964 for the Edgware Parish Church Young People’s Fellowship annual birthday celebration in May of that year. I was keen to produce a credal type of hymn in which Christians could ascribe glory to Christ by identifying a series of descriptive personal titles in a logical sequence. I was aware that down the centuries the church had experienced the pendulum swings from objective to subjective and back again, in which hymns were sometimes great doctrinal statements with little personal sense of commitment or, in contrast, highly emotive personal declarations in which “I” and “me” dominated the words and were heavily loaded as statements telling God how I was feeling. I wanted, with Charles Wesley, to offer great declarations of truth, to which my fellow Christians could join their affirmations of commitment in passionate song.
The hymn, then, begins with the reigning Christ. The imagery of Christ as the eternal ruler is drawn from Revelation (1.5, 1.8 and 11.15). The language of the kingdom of God has both a “now” and a “then” character in Scripture so we can say that “Christ reigns” but we can also pray “your kingdom come on earth as in heaven”. This dual characteristic is extremely important because it is essential that Christians learn to distinguish between Christ triumphant in both his crucifixion and resurrection and supremely in his ascension and the idea that we call “triumphalism” which ignores the reality of the continuing suffering of Christ and his people (Colossians 1.24). The temptation to triumphalism (what I call “Jesus, Jesus, über alles”) is currently very evident in many churches. Thus the hymn continues by describing Christ as Saviour (the one who frees us from the guilt of sin), Master (the one before whom we bow, as unprofitable servants) and King (the eternal ruler to whom we give our undying allegiance). He it is who (Hebrews 1.3) sustains us and the whole universe and so the glory and the crown, the reputation and the name are forever ascribed to him, as the language of Philippians (2.9-11) indicates.
The second verse points initially to John’s Prologue and especially to 1.14 where the eternal Word (the Logos) takes flesh and becomes Man. Thus (John 14.6) he reveals, in himself, the divine truth and identifies himself by the cryptic title “Son of Man” which can mean as little as “a human being” or as much as “Messiah”, the anointed, royal Christ. By using such an ambiguous title he can draw out a range of responses (Matthew 16.13-20) which culminates in their full awareness that he truly is (v.16) “Messiah, the Son of the living God”. In this way he conceals himself in all his majestic glory and power until those with him can no longer misunderstand who he is and proclaim him as indeed “My Lord and my God” (John 20.28). This process begins with a conception in the womb of an insignificant country girl, engaged to an artisan, both of whom come to recognise it as a uniquely divine act in which normal sexual intercourse has played no part (Matthew 1.20-25, Luke 1.28-38).
The idea of a Suffering Servant is rooted deeply in the so-called “Servant” songs of Isaiah. The sequence moves from the introduction of the Servant (Isaiah 42.1-4), the development of the Servant’s task which is to extend beyond Israel to the nations of the world (Isaiah 49.1-6), the Servant’s willingness to face persecution (Isaiah 50.4-9), and the supreme task of unjust suffering and vicarious guilt which ultimately leads to triumph and the healing and forgiveness of sinners (Isaiah 52.13-53.12). Jesus accepts this role (Matthew 16.13-24) and Peter, having initially rejected the idea with horror, writes his first letter as almost a commentary on the Servant theme (1 Peter 1.6-7, 2.18-25, 3.13-18, 4.12-19).
The cross is, importantly, not seen as a defeat but a victory (John 19.30, Colossians 2.14-15) which the resurrection proclaimed as being effective. It is a serious misunderstanding to suppose that the earliest Christians thought of the cross as defeat and the resurrection as victory. That was obviously their earliest reaction but they rapidly came to see that Christ had triumphed even at the moment of greatest darkness. Thus sinners (and that means human beings) can be justified (Galatians 2.15-30) and declared “righteous” by God by virtue of Christ’s death and not as a result of any merit of our own.
In the Letter to the Hebrews, Christ is declared to be the unique High Priest (Hebrews 3.1-10.14) and in the Revelation, he is announced as King (Revelation 19.16), seated as Priest-King on heaven’s throne (Acts 2.32-36, Hebrews 8.1). He is enthroned, not by us but by God (Acts 2.32-33, Philippians 2.9-11) and our response of faith is in the act of worship and adoration, declaring with joy and awe that he is the eternal Saviour, Master, and King whose praise God’s people ever sing.
So what, according to Scripture, are the consequences for us as Christians? One by one the meaning behind the titles is extended to the people of God. We are people of the Word, understanding and proclaiming the truth of Christ (2 Corinthians 4.1-5). We are the Suffering Servant community (1 Peter 5.8-11). We are a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2.9-10), our destiny is the shared throne (Revelation 3.21). We are the bearers of the amazing news of the resurrection and the hope of eternal life (1 Corinthians 15.51-58).
Is it surprising, then, that we sing of the Triumphant Christ with conviction and joy?
Some questions for discussion.
1. Why do many Christians shy away from credal declarations, preferring to tell God about how they are feeling rather than proclaiming what Christ has achieved?
2. Is the current assumption in some quarters that “worship” is chiefly a matter of singing repetitive songs, an attitude to be challenged? Is not the development of the great themes surrounding the Person of Jesus more specifically the heart of worship?
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