Hymns in the New Testament – 1 Timothy 3:16

Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great:
He was revealed in flesh,
vindicated in spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles,
believed in throughout the world,
taken up in glory.

This short, hymnic verse comes from the Pastoral Epistles. “Since antiquity, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus have been understood as a unit, because their vocabulary, writing style, and concerns are so similar.”[1] These letters were likely written in the late first century, not by Paul, but by authors who respected Paul as an authoritative figure in church doctrine.

The third chapter of 1 Timothy also includes instructions on the qualification of church leaders. Specifically, bishops and deacons are mentioned as needing to be strong in faith and devoted to their families. “The emphasis on virtues rather than duties for leaders no doubt proved valuable to generations of church leaders who followed in different contexts and circumstances.”[2]

The Pastoral Epistles were written to church communities under duress. Persecution was spreading as the Roman Empire cracked down on the spreading religion. This was “an inevitable consequence of adopting a faith that is at odds with the ways of the world.”[3] Another threat to the growing Christian movement was false teaching and harmful doctrine. The Pastoral Epistles ring the notes of holding to the one true faith.

Perhaps that is the origin of this short, hymnic verse. It has an almost creedal tone as it defines the movements of Christ’s incarnation:

  • God was revealed in human flesh as Jesus (John 1:1)
  • Jesus was justified by the Spirit (another way of translating that phrase); the Holy Spirit was present in Jesus’ ministry, most notably alighting on Jesus at his baptism (Mark 1:10, Matthew 3:16, Luke 3:22, John 1:33)
  • Jesus was seen by angels; perhaps a reference to the temptation (Mark 1:13), or the resurrection (Mark 16:5, Matthew 28:2), or his ascension into heaven (Acts 1:9-11)
  • The good news of Jesus was shared not only with the people of Israel, but with the whole world (Acts 2:1-47)
  • The message continued to spread ever wider, and was taken up in glory; this could refer to Jesus’ ascension, or Jesus’ glorification at the crucifixion (John 12:32-33), or could be relating to the suffering of the Christian community amidst persecution (following Jesus in the same manner of death)

If this verse is a hymn or creed fragment, perhaps it was used in the catechetical instruction of new believers.[4] The term mystagogy is used to describe the final period of training that catechumens receive in their preparation for baptism. Indeed, the mystery of our faith is still being unveiled even as we sing and pray today.

Join the Discussion – If you’d like to collaborate further and share your ideas, join the “Hymns in the New Testament” Facebook group.

[1] Walter F. Taylor, Jr. Paul: Apostle to the Nations: An Introduction (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 297.

[2] Deborah Krause. “1 Timothy,” in Margaret Aymer, Cynthia Kittredge, David A. Sanchez, eds., Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 596.

[3] Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 412.

[4] Naomi Koltun-Fromm, “1 Timothy,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 386.

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Hymns in the New Testament – Colossians 1:15-20

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

This hymn to Christ paints a vivid portrait of the divine nature of Jesus. The first half of the hymn (vs. 15-17) recounts Christ’s role in creation. Jesus is with God the Father before creation began. Although he is the firstborn of all creation, Jesus is more than a mere creature. Jesus’ activity in the creation of the world is in equal part with the Father’s activity. All other creatures come into existence through Jesus. Jesus is the divine substance holding all creation in union, keeping the cosmos from tipping out of balance toward destruction.

The second half of the hymn (vs. 18-20) describes Christ’s role in redemption. Jesus is the head of the church. He is not only the firstborn of all creation, but in the resurrection Jesus becomes the firstborn of the dead. The fullness of who God is dwells in Jesus. The last phrase echoes the words of 2 Corinthians 5:19, “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them….”

The origins of this hymn are unclear. One commentator suggests that the hymn original was broken up into different strophes, perhaps something like this:

Strophe I
who is the image of the invisible God
the firstborn of all creation,
for in him were created all things
in heaven and on earth
things visible and invisible
[whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers]—addition (i)

Transitional Strophe II
all things were created through him and for him
and he himself is before all things
and all things hold together in him
and he himself is the head of the body [the church]—addition (ii)

Strophe III
who is the beginning
the firstborn from the dead
[so that he himself might have preeminence in all things]—addition (iii)
for in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell
and through him to reconcile all things for him,
making peace through him
[through the blood of his cross]—addition (iv) after “making peace”
whether things on earth or things in heaven[1]

This possible configuration of the hymn makes the case that there were additions made to the original material. These additions elaborated ideas that the author of the letter wanted to emphasize and gave it the Christological identity that it has.

Several possible sources for the hymn have been suggested. One suggestion is that it is a composition produced from the Gnostic community, in light of the fact that if the additional statements are removed there is no reference to any Christian content. Another suggestion is that it is a reference to Jewish interpretation of Genesis 1:1. A third suggestion is that is comes from the Wisdom tradition in Hellenistic Judaism, using the personification of Wisdom found in Proverbs 8 as the model for Jesus’ role in creation.[2]

Join the Discussion – If you’d like to collaborate further and share your ideas, join the “Hymns in the New Testament” Facebook group.

For further study check out:

[1] Lincoln, Andrew T. “Colossians.” In Leander E. Keck (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 11. Nashville: Abingdon, 2000.

[2] Lincoln, Andrew T. “Colossians.” In Leander E. Keck (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 11. Nashville: Abingdon, 2000.

Hymns in the New Testament – Philippians 2:5-11

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

This passage, known as the “Christ Hymn,” is one of the most well-known parts of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It casts a vision of the fullness of Jesus’ identity. We hear the juxtaposition of Jesus’ humanity and deity. This hymn calls us to imagine the heights of his glory and the depths that he stooped down to in the incarnation.

An introduction to the book and structure of the letter to the Philippians:

It is significant that these are not just words, but lyrics. Paul was quoting an artistic representation of the person and work of the crucified and risen Christ. The use of hymns was not uncommon in early Christian worship, or in the surround culture.

“That the early Christians sang hymns is no surprise, for in addition to sharing a common meal and offering sacrifices, libations, and prayers to a deity, singing a hymn to honor and worship that particular god was common practice for ancient Mediterranean religious groups. To sing a hymn to a god or to a supremely powerful king or ruler was considered an act of worship, a way of bestowing respect and benefactions upon one whose powerful acts were worthy of divine honors.”[1]

It is possible the text of the Christ Hymn was used in another way in worship, perhaps as a creedal statement or responsorial reading. The origin of the lyrics is also unknown. Paul could have written it. It could have been previously composed by another author and already widely disseminated amongst the early Christian communities.[2] Or perhaps it was not well known and Paul was attempting to promote the hymn and advocate for its adoption in the church’s assemblies.

The text for the hymn makes several major theological points. First, it testifies to the preexistence of Christ (vs. 6 “he was in the form of God”). This idea is affirmed in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ…of one Being with the Father.” Jesus, the eternal Word of the Father, “was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God” (John 1:1-2). This theological concept has Jewish roots in the preexistent figure of divine Wisdom found in Proverbs 1:20-33, 8-9, Wisdom 7:22-10:21, and Sirach 24.[3]

Second, the hymn points to a contrast between the first and second Adam’s choices. The first Adam was created in the image of God but desired to be higher through eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In turn he was brought lower, forced to work the soil for survival, and banished from the garden (Genesis 2:15-3:24). The second Adam (Jesus, Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:45-49) was created in the form of God yet willingly went lower into a human form that was subjected to suffering and death. In turn he became exalted to the highest place through his humility.[4]

Third, Christ’s humility to the point of death reframes another Jewish source, the suffering servant found in the prophet Isaiah (53:12). The bending of knees and the confession of tongues at the exaltation of Jesus is also a quotation from Isaiah (45:22-23). This hymn would have been a word exhortation to the community at Philippi. “If the one in the ‘form of God’ could humbly abdicate the dignity of his original status so as to suffer in order to show love for humankind, can the Philippians refrain from following his conduct?”[5]


“Let the Same Mind Be In You” is a musical setting of this passage that I wrote/recorded:

 


Join the Discussion – If you’d like to collaborate further and share your ideas, join the “Hymns in the New Testament” Facebook group.

For further study check out:

[1] Joshua W. Jipp, “Hymns in the New Testament”, n.p. [cited 13 May 2018]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/passages/related-articles/hymns-in-the-new-testament

[2] Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 350.

[3] Michael Cook, “Christ Hymn,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 357.

[4] Cook, “Christ Hymn,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 357.

[5] Cook, “Christ Hymn,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 357.

The Gospel According to Kesha (Part 1)

Prologue

Anyone that knows me will find my willingness to blog about mainstream popular music curious. If auto-tune is being used to the point of it sounding like an effect then I am typically not a fan. My musical tastes have not changed much since the 90s. So let me begin with the story of how I came to discover Kesha’s latest album.

Shortly after “Rainbow” was released, Kate heard about it and played the song “Praying” while we were driving in the car one day. I listened to it with my musically analytical brain and found it interesting (“Huh, this pop song is about prayer and she jumps up an octave. Interesting.”) Fast forward a few months and I learn that Ben Folds is a producer on the album. Now I’m intrigued. Ben Folds is one of my favorite artists and I’ve seen him with the Houston Symphony the last two times he came to town. So, I listen to the whole album to hear for myself what is going on.

The album has grown on me. This is the first of three posts about the spiritual themes I picked up on in three consecutive tracks from Rainbow: Hymn, Praying, and Learn to Let Go.

Even the stars and the moon don’t shine quite like we do
Dreamers searchin’ for the truth
Go on, read about us in the news
Pretty reckless, pretty wild
Talking s*** and we’ll just smile
Don’t you see these f***in’ crowns?
If you know what I mean, you on the team

This is a hymn for the hymnless, kids with no religion

Yeah, we keep on sinning, yeah, we keep on singing
Flying down the highway, backseat of the Hyundai
Pull it to the front, let it run, we don’t valet
Sorry if you’re starstruck, blame it on the stardust
I know that I’m perfect, even though I’m f***ed up
Hymn for the hymnless, don’t need no forgiveness
‘Cause if there’s a heaven, don’t care if we get in
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, live, live
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, for how we live

After all we’ve been through, no, we won’t stand and salute
So we just ride, we just cruise, livin’ like there’s nothing left to lose
If we die before we wake, who we are is no mistake
This is just the way we’re made
You know what I mean, you on the team

This is a hymn for the hymnless, kids with no religion
Yeah, we keep on sinning, yeah, we keep on singing
Flying down the highway, backseat of the Hyundai
Pull it to the front, let it run, we don’t valet
Sorry if you’re starstruck, blame it on the stardust
I know that I’m perfect, even though I’m f***ed up
Hymn for the hymnless, don’t need no forgiveness
‘Cause if there’s a heaven, don’t care if we get in
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, live, live
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, for how we live

This is a hymn for the hymnless, kids with no religion

Yeah, we keep on sinning, yeah, we keep on singing
Flying down the highway, yeah, we do it our way
High as outer space, we don’t hear what the rest say
Sorry if you’re starstruck, blame it on the stardust
I know that I’m perfect, even though I’m f***ed up
Hymn for the hymnless, don’t need no forgiveness
‘Cause if there’s a heaven, don’t care if we get in
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, live, live
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, for how we live

Songwriters: Cara Salimando / Eric Frederic / Jonny Price / Kesha Sebert / Pebe Sebert

Hymn lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

(Photo by AugeeKim, Wikimedia Commons)

Lyrical Analysis

News flash: Millenials don’t trust the church. There are lots of reasons: Millenials don’t feel heard or appreciated, their culture receives the blame for the world’s problems, and they exhibit a general disdain for institutions. Their perception is that church is more filled with empty words that action (HT: RecklesslyAlive.com). From the perspective of this generation we get these words: “a hymn for the hymnless.”

But why a hymn? A hymn is specifically a song of praise or adoration typically directed toward a deity. Why is this a hymn? What makes it for the hymnless? Saying the song is for the hymnless implies that it is for the disenfranchised and the outcast. In the gospels, Jesus was typically the champion of the hymnless. Jesus came to defend those who were marginalized and on the edges of society. He restored hope to the widows, cleansed lepers, and ate with sinners. Jesus was the hymn for the hymnless.

Kesha explains, “So when I sing the words to this song, I do so as a reminder to myself as much as anyone that we can’t let the haters and the negativity win. We are all ‘dreamers searching for the truth,’ and we know the unexplainable universal goodness in people — their innate love and light and compassion for one another — will bring us together to do great things.”

There is also a thread of simul justus et peccator in these lyrics. “I know that I’m perfect, even though I’m f***ed up.” Our mistakes and flaws don’t define us. We are saintly sinners and sinful saints.

“Yeah, we keep on sinning. Don’t need no forgiveness. ‘Cause if there’s a heaven, don’t care if we get in.” This lyric reveals how disenfranchised popular culture has become with the Christian church (especially the evangelical wing). Whatever carrot the church is dangling in front of the culture is meaningless – even “heaven” (the meaning of salvation in evangelical Christianity being wrapped up in avoiding eternal damnation). Even if the true idea about heaven and salvation is more to do with connection, wholeness, and healing from God, the church has lost the ability to convey that message due to the prevailing cultural perception.

My theory is that in the context of North American Christianity the church has lost the substantive content of its spirituality and the medium has become the message to the surrounding culture. In the popular culture, a hymn is no longer a song of praise used to unite an assembly in lifting their voice in adoration. Hymns, sin, forgiveness, and heaven are now metaphors used by pop songs. The spiritual reality beneath them is vanishing. How will the church embrace the hymnless today?

Weekly Worship Thought – Hymn Paraphrase of “Children of the Heavenly Father”

Putting the text of a hymn in your own words is a wonderful exercise for devotion and reflection. Here is my paraphrase of “Children of the Heavenly Father”:

1 All God’s children have a safe haven where they gather in God’s Spirit.
Rescue is found in God’s Spirit, embodied in the community of God’s people.

2 All people have an advocate and a provider in God.
God shelters from hatred and harm and raises up in the power of the resurrection.

3 There is no thing, good or evil, in all our living and dying that can separate us from God’s love.
All God’s children receive mercy and pardon because God knows their stories. God knows their troubles.

4 In times of plenty, and in times of hardship, God is there.
God is purifying us so that we might last longer and flourish.

Original Text:

1 Children of the heav’nly Father safely in his bosom gather;
nestling bird nor star in heaven such a refuge e’er was given.

2 God his own doth tend and nourish, in his holy courts they flourish.
From all evil things he spares them, in his mighty arms he bears them.

3 Neither life nor death shall ever from the Lord his children sever;
unto them his grace he showeth, and their sorrows all he knoweth.

4 Though he giveth or he taketh, God his children ne’er forsaketh;
his the loving purpose solely to preserve them pure and holy.

Text: Carolina Sandell Berg, 1832-1903; tr. Ernst W. Olson, 1870-1958
Text © 1925 Board of Publication, Lutheran Church in America, admin. Augsburg Fortress.

Weekly Worship Thought – Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing

Spanish FountainOne of my favorite hymns is “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” (ELW 807). It is one of my favorite songs to sing in worship. The lyrics made an impact on me once a long time ago, and they have stuck with me ever since. The ELW version of the hymn has some different verses in stanza 1. The version I am familiar with says, “Teach me some melodious sonnet sung by flaming tongues above. Praise the mount, I’m fixed upon it, mount of thy redeeming love.” The flaming tongues provide a throwback to Acts 2 and Pentecost when the crowd was able to understand the preaching in their own languages about the marvels of God. God’s love is truly like a mountain, steadfast and unchanging throughout generations. Check this out if you want to see even more variations on the text.

There Is a Balm in Gilead

ThereIsBalmGileaArr (2)

One of my favorite hymns is “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” There is a depth to this hymn that expresses a longing for healing and wholeness. It acknowledges that there is a wellness in Jesus Christ that goes beyond physical healing and reaches into our very souls and even the entirety of creation.

“Balm of Gilead” was an aromatic medicinal ointment. Jeremiah 8:22 asks, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” The refrain of this African American spiritual answers the question: “There is a balm in Gilead.” At first blush that seems like a strange answer, because the stanzas seem unconnected to it, until you realize that they tell you where the balm is located.

It is not in Gilead or in any place in this world where horrible things like oppression and lynchings happen. No, it is the Holy Spirit who “revives my soul,” and it is Jesus who “is your friend” and “died for
all.”

This means that if you know where hope is found—namely, in God—the balm is paradoxically precisely in Gilead and in every other
place in this world. Or, as James Cone said when he cited this spiritual, “Hope, in the black spirituals, is not a denial of history, [but] the belief that things can be radically otherwise than they are: that reality is not fixed, but is moving in the direction of human liberation.”

Like many black spirituals, the origin of the text and tune for “There Is a Balm in Gilead” is difficult to track down. Many of these songs
were anonymously handed down through an oral tradition. The song was probably formed in the early part of the nineteenth
century. The first appearance of the refrain was found in Washington Glass’s 1854 hymn “The Sinner’s Cure.” The complete spiritual appeared in Folk Songs of the American Negro in 1907.

(excerpts from Paul Westermeyer, Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg Fortress, 2010, p. 454-455.)

"Let Us Break Bread Together" sung by Desi Lancaster

Here is a track I recently recorded with my friend, and one of my favorite singers, Desi Lancaster (@Dexxie35). It is my arrangement of the spiritual, “Let Us Break Bread Together.”

Let Us Break Bread mix

Recorded in my office at Faith Lutheran Church, Bellaire, TX (using my PreSonus Audiobox USB and GarageBand).

  • Lead Vocals – Desi Lancaster
  • Organ, Acoustic Guitar, Electric Guitar, Percussion, Background Vocals – Clayton Faulkner
  • Mixed by Stephen Bolech at Studio K in Waco, TX (@sbolech)

The Bible’s Hymnal

ELW PsalmsThe Psalms are often overlooked and neglected. They have historically been an essential component in the liturgy of the people of God across the Testaments. I recently decided to reinstate the chanting of the Psalms in our assembly with the beginning of the season of Lent. Lent is a very appropriate time to commit to the Psalms, especially because the content of the assigned Psalms captures the mood of the season so well. There are many good reasons for including the Psalms in our liturgy, and I’ll start with three.

The Psalms are the Bible’s hymnal. Literally, the Psalms are a collection of 150 poems that are intended for singing. These poems were written and compiled across the centuries before Jesus was born. The Psalms are the hymns of Israel. They are the songs of faith that have sustained God’s people for thousands of years. The use of Psalms in worship can be traced all the way back to the dedication of the first Temple in Jerusalem (957 BC, 2 Chronicles 7:3). Even earlier, Moses’ song of praise at the deliverance of Israel in Exodus 15 is the archetype for the Psalms. Typically the Psalms are used in Christian worship as a response after the first reading from the Old Testament. When we sing the Psalms we are connecting our voice to millions of ancestors in the faith. They sang the very same words to God that we do.

There is a healthy spectrum of human emotion expressed to God in the Psalms. The Psalms teach us that God is big and loving enough to handle any human emotion that can be thrown God’s way. The Psalms contain some of the highest praises as well as some of the darkest emotions. The Psalms demonstrate to us that we can laugh, scream, and sob our prayers to God – and God finds them all acceptable. Psalm 136:1 declares with gladness, “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good. His love endures forever.” By the next chapter, Psalm 137:1 despairingly states, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” Each Psalm can be divided into different categories: Royal Psalms (songs from the king, who idealizes himself as the entire nation of Israel), Songs of Thanksgiving (individual or national thanksgivings for God’s deeds), Laments (individual or corporate cries of lament), and Didactic Psalms (that teach or try to influence people).

Jesus sang the Psalms. The practice of singing in Christian worship is deeply influenced by the singing of Psalms by the Hebrew people. Paul encouraged the faithful to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God” (Colossians 3:16). Jesus, as a person shaped by the Jewish faith, would have relied on the Psalms in his own prayer life. We have a record of this in Matthew 27:46, at the time of Jesus’ death. From the cross Jesus cried out the words of Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The words of Psalm 22 were the heart response of Jesus in his moment of sacrifice. But Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 22 was also a prophetic fulfillment of God’s redemption made available through Jesus: “future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn—for he has done it” (Psalm 22:30-31).

"In My Heart There Rings a Melody" can be cool too.

So on the twitter, this guy David says, “What are your best tips for young worship leaders leading an older congregation?” This immediately made me give a knee jerk response: “ask older folks what songs they like; learn them; sing them.” This is an important lesson I’ve learned. So the rest goes like this:

David: what if they recommend songs that are nearly impossible to do? Just too old & too irrelevant?
Me: you’re joking right? If it’s old it’s not irrelevant. Try reading the psalms to start. If music is difficult, try practicing.
David: i was referring to a song like “in my heart there rings a melody” something that wouldn’t connect with the majority.
Me: that’s a cool song. It sounds like a challenge to make it cool to me. I’m gonna work on a recording to prove ya wrong…

And that led me to this little rough draft…

In My Heart There Rings a Melody

Don’t be fooled kids – hymns can be cool. If they’re not cool, it says less about the hymn and more about your creativity.