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What Can New Testament Songs Teach Us Today?

The Bible contains more than 400 references to singing, and over 50 commands to sing. It teaches us to sing to God, and to each other (Ephesians 5:19). We’re to sing “of all his wondrous works” (1 Chronicles 16:9), and of “his salvation from day to day” (1 Chronicles 16:23). In this way, we are praising God directly while also “teaching and admonishing each other” (Col. 3:16).

Of course the Bible isn’t simply prescriptive when it comes to singing, but descriptive as well. God’s Word gives us hundreds of examples of songs, from many different writers in both testaments. These songs answered questions like:

Q. Should our songs be long or short? Simple or complex?

A. All of the above.

Q. Should we sing as the plural “We” or the singular “I”?

A. Yes and yes.

Q. Should we sing to God (vertical) or about God (horizontal)?

A. It’s not “either/or.” It’s “both/and.”

Some Bible songs are more expansive than the longest hymns of Watts and Wesley (see Psalm 139). Others are the equivalent of a contemporary praise chorus, like Psalm 117:

Praise the Lord, all nations!

Extol him, all peoples!

For great is his steadfast love toward us,

and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.

Praise the Lord!

Worship pastors are free to choose from a wide range of songs that differentiate themselves in form, style, complexity and subject matter, as do the songs of Scripture. Yet the Canon of Bible songs show us that the overall makeup of our church hymnals or “song lists” should be distinctly Christian. They should testify about the God of creation, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the cross and the empty tomb, the God of Pentecost. In short, the songs in our worship services should paint a picture of the one true, triune God.

We’re all aware that the Bible’s hymnal – the Book if Psalms — contains 150 of these God songs. But many theologians (like Reformed scholars Dr. Reggie Kidd and Christian D. von Dehsen) believe the New Testament includes several fragments of hymns, and that Paul freely quotes song lyrics in his epistles to illustrate or emphasize points. Here is a summary of criteria used for identifying these song fragments.

We know that Paul quoted Greek poets and playwrights, so we might expect the apostle who spoke so plainly to believers about the need to sing “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” would find it particularly useful to quote from hymns of the early Church.

Let’s examine these lyric poems, recorded in Paul’s New Testament letters, followed by a listing of songs recorded by John in the Book of Revelation. As we go, let’s ask ourselves what these passages can teach us about the kinds of songs we should lead in our Sunday services:

Ephesians 5:14b

               “Awake, O sleeper,

                and arise from the dead,

                and Christ will shine on you.”

This lyric shows that our worship to God should include admonitions to each other. God is pleased when we spur each other toward godliness. This lyric also shows that our songs need not simply consist of doctrinal statements set to music, but can be poetic. Ephesians 5:14 is rich in the metaphors of sleep, death, and Christ as the “sun” who shines on us.

Colossians 1:15-20 

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For byhim all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”

This passage is often called “The Christ Hymn.” It is distinctly Trinitarian, describing Jesus as “the image of the invisible God.” Verses 15-17 praise Christ’s supremacy in all creation, while vv. 18-20 focus on His supremacy in His Church. Just as we would never mistake this passage for being a description of any false god or vague higher power, the song lists of our modern services should be clearly Christian.

1 Timothy 3:16

He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicatedby the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.

This hymn presents a series of creedal statements about God the Son. As we saw in the previous passage, the One worshiped here can be no other than the Lord.

2 Timothy 2:11-13

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he also will deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful—

The tight parallel structure of this stanza presents a series of “If we ____, then ___” lines. In just two lines, it takes us from death to resurrection to the reign of Christ. Then it presents a word of warning, and ends with a declaration that Christ is ever faithful.

Songs In The Book of Revelation

Worship songs play an important role in the book of Revelation. The following are passages from Revelation that are written in song structure. They provide a window into the worship celebrations of heaven, now and in the age to come.

Notice how cross-centered most of these anthems are. Even the songs we’ll sing in the consummation of all things will praise Christ as “the Lamb” who was slain for our sin.

Revelation 4:11

“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being.”

Revelation 5:9-10

And they sang a new song, saying,

“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”

Revelation 5:12b

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”

Revelation 5:13b

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

Revelation 15:3-4

And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying,

“Great and amazing are your deeds,
O Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways,
O King of the nations!
Who will not fear, O Lord,
and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come
and worship you,
for your righteous acts have been revealed.”

Revelation 19:6-8

Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out,

“Hallelujah!
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
with fine linen, bright and pure”—

for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.

 

Full Circle

And with that final Revelation song we see that — just as poetry in the Bible began with a lyrical celebration of the first man’s love for his wife:

“This at last is bone of my bones

and flesh of my flesh;

she shall be called Woman,

because she was taken out of Man.” (Genesis 2:23)

 – the final song in the Bible is all about Jesus Christ and His bride. Until the end of the age, may our worship services celebrate this union and anticipate its consummation.

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