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.

Hymns in the New Testament – Introduction

The church has always been a singing church. Song was tied to the life of the church from the very beginning. This is largely because of the rich heritage of our Jewish ancestors. Since the time of David music has been inextricably linked to worship. In his time he wedded the use of instruments and singing to the temple’s worship offerings (1 Chronicles 25:1-8).

The singing tradition of Judaism was carried forward when the disciples gathered for Passover. Jesus, on the night of his betrayal, joined his disciples for a meal and concluded with singing (Mark 14:26, Matthew 26:30).

The writer of Luke’s gospel chose song as the vehicle for Mary (Luke 1:46-55), Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79), Simeon (Luke 2:29-32), and the angels (Luke 2:14) to express their exuberance at the incarnation.

Paul and Silas lifted their voices in song and were miraculously liberated from their prison (Acts 16:25-34).

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God” (Colossians 3:16). Song was a sign of thanksgiving. The church was encouraged to continue the use of the Psalter from the Old Testament, as well as sing new hymns composed to the crucified and risen Lord. “Spiritual songs” are believed to be short, repetitive, spontaneously composed pieces of music that flowed out of dwelling in the Lord’s presence.

Some of the lyrics to the hymns of the early church have survived. How do we know they were hymns? “Most biblical scholars use the method of form criticism—looking for clues that suggest a biblical passage had an earlier use than its current literary location—to locate hymns that have found their way into the New Testament compositions. These include: parallel statements, vocabulary that is distinctive to the author, the frequent use of pronouns, and elevated prose. If one uses these critical criteria, one will likely conclude that such passages as Phil 2:5-11, Col 1:15-20, 1Tim 3:16, Heb 1:1-3, and 1Pet 2:21-25 may very well have had earlier literary lives as actual hymns sung by early Christian communities.”[1] Much similar to today, these hymns strengthened the faith of believers, provided instruction, and helped to unite the hearts of all those gathered.

It is significant that we only have the lyrics to these hymns and not the musical notation. Similarly, the music that accompanied the Psalms has not survived. I believe that is by divine design. I can imagine that if ancient musical notation had survived, it would be a divisive issue among churches (not that we struggle in creating divisions around music). Churches would be labeled as those that use the correct music and those that do not. The notation would be idolized and placed on a pedestal. Churches and their musicians would continually reference backward to the original music, making sure they were in line with the performance practice and style of the original.

Instead we have freedom. The church has wide-open spaces to explore the creativity that God has endowed us with. The church is freed to translate music into the sounds of the surrounding culture. The church sings a million different songs in a million different contexts. In this God frees us to not be confined to the past, but to express our hearts in the way that is best suited for when and where we are.

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