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

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Weekly Worship Thought – Patriotic Music

photo-1428515634197-76c85896cf1fThis weekend is the Memorial Day holiday. Every once in a while someone will ask why we don’t sing patriotic songs in worship around Memorial Day, or Independence Day, or other national holidays. I am aware that there are many churches that will sing “God Bless America” or “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies” during worship around a holiday. In my thinking, that makes about as much sense as going to a Post Office and singing “How Great Thou Art” or “Amazing Grace.” Churches don’t owe their allegiance to a government. People of faith, while being citizens of a nation/state, are citizens of a spiritual country, a far off land. Sometimes (most times?) the priorities and engagements of a government can be in complete opposition to the principles of God’s kingdom as taught by Jesus. In some churches, the nationality of the members is so diverse that it wouldn’t make sense to lift up the patriotic music of any one group. Shouldn’t hospitality be shown to residents of every country, not just “ours.” God calls us to a higher citizenship.

Thoughts on Patriotic Music in Worship

from Bob Kauflin

In brief, since God’s kingdom is not of this world (Jn. 18:36), we don’t feel any obligation to draw attention to, highlight, or celebrate civil holidays as part of our Sunday gatherings. There are a number of reasons. Our country doesn’t set the agenda and priorities for the meetings of the church – God’s Word does. Also, one country’s celebration may confront another country’s values. For instance you won’t find many Christians in Britain excited about Independence Day. Finally, we gather on Sundays to remember the covenant God has made with us, celebrate the redemption He has provided through His Son, and to encourage one another to live lives worthy of the Gospel. The values celebrated by a particular public holiday may not always line up with those goals.

from Jordan Fowler

However, every year I receive complaints that we didn’t sing any “America songs” in our worship service around July 4th. I’ll take the complaints yet still won’t slot them, why?

  1. America didn’t die on the cross for my sins.
  2. Nationalism does not equal being a better Christian. Anytime nationalism and Christianity have gotten too close, it is never nationalism that suffers but always Christianity (ex. Nazi nationalism couched in Christian terms, Constantine’s Christianity, Three Self Patriotic Movement in China). We are called to value our country, serve our country, pray for our country and honor its rulers and laws, but our primary citizenship and allegiance is to a greater King and greater kingdom.
  3. We have people from many nationalities at NorthWood and while they greatly appreciate the blessings of America, many of them have no connection to a song glorifying America when they are from Vietnam, Chile, or Taiwan.
  4. In worship, the unifying principle is the centrality of Christ and the cross, making “Jew” and “Greek” one. If God is the God of the nations, would your congregation sing an Iraqi patriotic song on Iraqi independence day? The Iraqi Christian is more my brother than the non-believing American, no?

from Harry Boonstra

I’m not sure that I am willing to concede that not having patriotic songs in a hymnal is a “failure.” If one of the hallmarks of the Christian church is its inclusiveness and universality, then patriotic songs about America, Canada, or any other country do not seem particularly appropriate in public worship. Whenever we do sing “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies,” I find myself hoping there are no French or Mongolian visitors in the congregation.Secondly, patriotic songs often glorify the country or its history, gloss over its faults, and assume that one country receives special perks from God. It seems that me that one can express (national) gratitude to God in more humble ways.