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.” 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:
- The New Testament Christological Hymns: Their Historical Religious Background by Jack T. Sanders (1971)
- New Testament Christological Hymns: Exploring Texts, Contexts, and Significance by Matthew E. Gordley (August 2018)
 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