"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." John 1:14

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs

Having just exhorted the Colossians to teach and admonish one another, Paul then refers to a common teaching method of the day, saying “as you sing songs hymns and spiritual songs” (3:16). The early Christians had only the Old Testament, and did not have access to the New Testament (which was being written in various forms) or to other Christian books. The teachings and life of Jesus were memorized and passed on verbally, from person to person. Sometimes these verbal traditions were set to music. Thus, music became an important part of both education and worship. The purpose was to glorify God, but also to teach people truth in a way they could remember and pass on to others.

Part of our understandable confusion about such passages has to do with changing traditions and methods as well as the changes in meanings of words over time, including the English language. Today, for example, when we hear the word psalms, we assume it refers to a lengthy book of poetry in the Old Testament. In the original language, and when first translated into English, psalms was derived from a literal meaning referring to the striking of one’s fingers on the strings of a musical instrument (today we might refer to such similar things as “strum” or “pluck”). In the Bible, it refers either to the Psalms of the Old Testament, or, as in this passage, to sacred songs with musical accompaniment. Hymns now conjures more modern traditions in the church, accompanied by an organ or piano, with several verses, packed with teaching and doctrinal principles. Hymns as understood in this manner were the dominant singing tradition of the church in recent generations. When Paul wrote the word, it simply meant “a song of praise addressed to God.” The last words, spiritual songs, includes the generic word for song, ode, and a modifier, spiritual. So, in Colossians 3:16, Paul was referring to the common teaching methods of the time: psalms (sacred songs accompanied by musical instruments), hymns (songs of praises to God), and songs of spiritual nature and content. There was not one style or preference for music in the church, even in the first century.

What we can take from this phrase, is that a primary purpose of music in Paul’s culture was to teach. Style was not an issue, however, meaningful and doctrinally sound content (lyrics) are the common denominator of all these kinds of music. Just as we are to evaluate whether the teaching we receive tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, we should run the Christian music we hear through the same filter. If we are in a position to choose music to be sung in our local churches, we are responsible for running it through the filter before it reaches the congregation. We carry equal responsibility as those teaching. Music carries its message into the heart, soul and mind. It is a gift of common grace to all people, as it strikes chords in the soul. Use it wisely to “teach and admonish one another in all wisdom.”

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and as you sing songs, hymns and spiritual songs…” Col. 3:16

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Teach One Another

In Colossians 3, Paul encourages us to let the message (word) of Christ dwell among us richly. He then tells us how this is to happen: “as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom”(vs. 16). He goes on to say some things about praise, but for today I want to meditate through the keyboard about the quoted phrase… teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom.

These are not necessarily attractive words in western culture these days. If someone invites us to be taught and admonished, we may have flashbacks of grade school where we were told to sit down, shut up and “behave ourselves.” We would much rather be entertained than taught, and we rather fancy ourselves as being above admonishment. After all, admonishment is for the unruly and we are good Christian folk. These cultural attitudes speak to our narcissism, our sense of already having arrived. We prefer to compare ourselves to the lost world around us. By comparison, we then feel smug and secure, patting ourselves on the back as we leave our local gatherings, thanking God that we are not like “those sinners” we encounter day after day.

The problem is we have not arrived, any of us. We do not yet fully grasp or comprehend the mind of Christ. We have not yet completely yielded ourselves, and every area of our lives, to the will of God. So we need desperately to be taught. Our default modes still gravitate toward the flesh, either in disobedience or pride. Admonishment is the loving hand of God’s Holy Spirit remodeling us from the inside out- the sledge hammer that takes down cracking walls and the crow bar that rips up moldy carpet. We are works in progress. He does not require us to be finished, cleaned up, fully redeemed (sanctified), before He loves us. But He does require that we undergo the process of redemption, not only from hell, but also from ourselves.

As I ponder this phrase, the risen Christ’s words to the Church in Laodicea come to mind:
“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either one or the other! So because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your sinful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. THOSE WHOM I LOVE I REBUKE AND DISCIPLINE. So be earnest and repent. Here I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” Rev. 3:15-20

At first glance this does not sound like much of a love letter. However, Jesus clarifies his motives: He rebukes and disciplines those he loves. He states his intentions: to persuade us to open the door so we can fellowship with him. There can be no intimacy without conflict. Conflict-free relationships are neither hot nor cold—they are lukewarm. Lukewarm relationships are not real, whether with God or people. Jesus is saying to the church (today?): “Get real or move on!”

So Paul’s reminder to “teach and admonish one another in all wisdom” fully aligns itself with the heart of Jesus for his church. Biblical wisdom keeps in view the holiness of God, and the brokenness of the world including those who dwell in it. It looks not to doom and gloom, nor to unrealistic optimistic denial, but focuses on the realities of a stumbling, bumbling band of vagabonds who need desperately to be taught and admonished on the road home to intimacy with God and others. Through these means, He will complete in us the good things He has started. And that’s an optimism we can count on.

“In my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Philippians 1:4-5