These last few weeks I have been leaning into two Scriptures.
The first is Colossians 3:16 which says, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.”
The second is Ephesians 5:18b-19: “Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit.”
The Colossians passage came to me as I was preparing for the concluding message of our “All Due Respect” series. The theme of the ‘wrath of God,’ common to both Romans 1 and Colossians 3, took me to Colossians initially. While meditating on the text verse 16 never left my lips. Earlier this week my son, Jordan, was memorizing Colossians 3:12-17 for school. He had no idea I was meditating on Colossians 3. As soon as he got to verse 16 the hairs on my arms stood up as I saw something I hadn’t consciously seen before: we teach and admonish (exhort) one another through singing. The Ephesians passage then made a lot more sense! That particular passage was on my heart due to my preparation for a teaching on the person and work of the Holy Spirit for our “With God (2)” Foundations class. One consequence of being filled with the Spirit is that we speak to one another in song!
The horizontal dimension of worship was something that I hadn’t consciously recognized. It seems that early Christian ‘singing’ was for the purposes of both ‘encouragement in’ and ‘teaching about’ the message of Christ. Bartels suggests that such worship included free compositions, repeated liturgical fragments, but also new Christian songs [C. Brown, ed., The New International Dictionary, of New Testament Theology, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975–78), p671-2]. Drawing a distinction between the meaning of each of the three terms - psalms, hymns and songs - is not Bartels’ point. Ralph Martin observes that, “Whatever may be the different emphases suggested by the use of three separate terms it is the Spirit who stirs the worshipper and directs his thought and emotion in lyrical praise” [Ralph P. Martin, “Aspects of Worship in the New Testament Church,” Vox Evangelica 2 (1963): 6-32. p.11] . The unmistakable conclusion about the threefold exhortation to sing is that they ‘attest to a variety and richness of Christian singing and how central it was to their worship” [Garland, D. E. (1998). Colossians and Philemon (pp. 212–213)]. O’Brien puts it like this, “As the word of Christ indwells the members of the community and controls them so they teach and admonish one another in Spirit-inspired psalms, hymns and songs.” [O’Brien, P. T. (1998). Colossians, Philemon (Vol. 44, p. 210)].
The singing of the early church was inspired by the message of Christ. The church praised God and taught the congregation through sharing the message of Christ in song. Worship has a horizontal or communal component in addition to the vertical dimension.
In another work, Worship in the Early Church, Ralph Martin suggests that critical to what the Bible teaches about Christian singing are three truths:
- First, that God is alive, holy, gracious, and unique.
- Second, that He gives gracious gifts to believers.
- Finally, that He expects heartfelt corporate adoration from His people.
The latter truth can expand to include the idea of how Christian singing impacts on those around us. Snodgrass writes that, “Singing, then, has two audiences. Christians sing to each other, reminding each other about God’s character and work in Christ, but they also sing to the Lord as a way of offering praise to him” [Snodgrass, K. (1996). Ephesians (p. 291)].
In Revelation, we see another dimension of Christian singing. In Revelation 5:9 we read, “And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” In the book of Revelation, then, singing addresses both God and His Christ (see also 5:13; 7:10).
From this I think we can take three encouragements:
- Sing the Story. This week we celebrated the five-hundred-year anniversary of the Reformation. The legacy of the Reformation is not to be found in the intellectual and cultural transformation of Europe, the revolt from the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church, or even the counter Reformation. The legacy of the Reformation is found in the return to the message that in Christ alone God was reconciling the world to Himself. That message has been captured in the wealth of songs, written since then, that express that story. Biblical singing remembers the message of Christ and expresses it in psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. To be Biblical, the church today must ensure that there is a rich theology to the songs we sing. We must not sacrifice substance for style.
- Sing your Story. On Monday and Tuesday of this week our Pastors and Directors - complemented by all of our staff at some points - gathered in Camp Geneva for our annual staff retreat. On one occasion, we partook in a communal reading where chapters of Exodus were read in one sitting. Our role was simply to listen to the Scriptures and allow the Spirit, through the Scriptures, to read us as we listened. After the reading was over we shared how God had spoken to us through listening to the Word. One person commented on how profound it was that after crossing the Red Sea, Moses and Miriam put their experience to song. They essentially sang their story. This mom realized how important songs were for helping her children remember not just the story, but their story.
- Sing for His Glory. Salvation is of God alone, for the glory of God alone, through Christ alone. When we sing we do it for His glory - another key emphasis of the Reformation.
Last weekend the Water’s Edge Worship Team released their first album, Forever Overcome. What I love about this album is how it reflects these three observations. There is depth of content, as they’ve attempted to take ‘our story’ and express it for His glory!
The songs in this album unashamedly sing the story while teaching and admonishing us as we corporately glorify Christ. This album also shares our story. We believe, on the basis of the New Testament scriptures cited above, that contemporary music is no longer about style but substance. The warning for Christian singing, of course, is that whatever form music takes - psalm, hymn or spiritual song - we can not surrender doctrinal content and spiritual depth in pursuit of popular style. What I love about the album our team has released is the unmistakable tie to the message of Christ.
Along that vein, then, we also believe that contemporary music is a soundtrack of what God is saying to His church and our local church. Just as Moses and Miriam sang their song based upon their experience of God, in the same way God has inspired the Miriam’s and Moses’ in our midst to lead us in singing our song. When we sing ‘our song’ we teach our common story in Christ and admonish one another to fulfill our common purpose. At Central we sing of a God who’s given us a fresh glimpse of what it means to be a kingdom-minded, missionally motivated family. We sing of our desire to experience His rule and reign on earth as it is in heaven (Kingdom Breakthrough). We sing to a God who is worthy of all the glory because He is Lord of His church (All the Glory). We sing of a Christ who overcame the ultimate enemy, death itself and inspires us to proclaim this Hope and Life to the world (Forever Overcome). So it goes on.
It’s been thrilling to see our team grow in this experience. I encourage you to give the album a listen. It’s available for pre-order here on iTunes goo.gl/9gc7cT and here on Google Play: goo.gl/FRpKYF
Don’t forget to join us this weekend as we begin a brand-new series entitled, Thanks Again. We have a lot to be thankful for!