This past December, the Chancel Choir of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, SC, and some wonderful orchestral musicians performed Part One of Handel’s Messiah, the “Christmas portion.” Palm Sunday, April 2, we performed Part Two, and then will conclude the work on Good Friday, April 7 at 7:00 p.m. with Part Three of Messiah, pairing it with Handel’s Organ Concerto in G Minor, Opus 4., No. 1, played by First Presbyterian Church organist, Thomas Russell.
People have often told me how much they love Handel’s Messiah. But after a little prodding, I have come to learn that what they really mean is that they love the famous “Hallelujah Chorus,” and rightfully so. But it did get me thinking — when people say they love Handel’s Messiah, they often actually don’t really know Handel’s Messiah. They love one particular aspect of the work, and sometimes it is the aforementioned famous movement, not really knowing the fifty or so other movements that make up the oratorio. Truth be told, this will be the first time that I have conducted parts two and three, so I too am continuing to learn Messiah. I have had many teachers say that you don’t really know a score of music until you have studied and conducted the piece many times. Even then, the depths of a masterpiece can seem like an unending search. There is always something new and wonderful to discover or something to correct that you may have missed the first time through.
We can approach the Christian life the same way that well-meaning people often approach Handel’s Messiah. We may say to others or to ourselves that we love Jesus, but we might not really know the LORD Jesus. Perhaps we have lived much of our lives loving those things associated with Jesus and his church, but when it comes to truly knowing him, if we are honest, we don’t actually know him all that well or that intimately.
We see all sorts of strong opinions about Jesus on social media, even in the form of sarcastic memes. It is quite often the case that those who are the most adamant about how Jesus would act, or what Jesus would say, have absolutely no idea of who Jesus is because they don’t actually know him. And the reason they (or we) don’t know him is clear— we simply don’t know the Jesus of the Bible as he has been revealed in the Old Testament and the New Testament Scriptures.
A wonderful, and even surprising, aspect of Handel’s Messiah is that the name Jesus is not mentioned until the very end of Part Three. We hear what we often call the “names of Jesus” ̶ Lord, Christ, Son of Man, Counselor, Shepherd, Savior, etc., throughout the work. But these are, first and foremost, Old Testament names. Most of the texts of Parts One and Two of Messiah are about the coming of Jesus, his suffering, and his victory over death and hell, citing Old Testament texts almost exclusively. It is, if I may put it this way, a type of Old Testament catechism set to music that tells the listener about Jesus and who he is. What could be more “relevant” to today’s world, and perhaps necessary to today’s evangelical Christian, than knowing the Jesus of the New and Old Testament? It is also a good reminder to all of us that Jesus has been clearly revealed to us from Genesis to Revelation. And the most pressing thing for us and for our work in ministry is to continue to get to know this Jesus better.