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