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The Importance of Song Worship

Saturday, October 02, 2021

We have seen a tremendous shift over the past fifty years in how denominations approach song worship. Fifty years ago, the common practice was congregational singing along with choirs and musical accompaniment, a deviation from the Scriptural pattern of the churches in Acts but a pattern which had not changed since the Victorian era. Today, this “traditional” approach has fallen out of style if favor of something completely new. Why the sudden change?

Popular books like Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Church— which claims to be a church-growth handbook—advocate making the assembly more “seeker-sensitive” by removing the expectation for visitors to sing. The worship, therefore, is conducted more like a concert where visitors can feel comfortable observing. While it is good to be sensitive to visitors to the assembly (a principle Paul teaches in 1 Cor. 12:20-25), God is the “seeker” we must be most sensitive toward (Jn. 4:23). When it comes to our worship, God is seeking heartfelt participants not mere spectators. Following are six reasons why singing in worship is still important today.

Our worship is a sacrifice of praise. Hebrews 13:15 says, “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” Under the Law of Moses, faithful Jews would offer sacrifices to praise God. Those sacrifices were active (not passive) and intentional (not accidental). One did not worship God merely by experiencing the ambiance at the temple. The act of sacrifice engaged the mind and senses. Worship under the new and better covenant is also a “sacrifice,” albeit a living one! (Rom. 12:1) The words we sing with our “lips” are our heartfelt sacrifice to the Lord (Mt. 12:34).

Our worship is an expression of joy. James 5:13 says, “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.” Singing praises to God gives us a vehicle to express our joy and directs that joy heavenward. Expressing that praise in song not only acknowledges the origin of our joy but also completes our joy. When we experience something wonderful, we are compelled to verbalize it.

Our worship is an outpouring of the word. Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” A heart filled with God’s word overflows with grateful singing. This has the added effect of “teaching and admonishing” others around you. As a side note, this passage also instructs us to select hymns with rich Scriptural content.

Our worship is a symbol of authority. Colossians 3:17 says, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” The words “whatever you do” would certainly include the method and manner of our worship. Coming on the heels of the previous verse, this is by no means a stretch in application. Acting ‘in someone’s name’ means both representing him and being empowered to do so. We can be certain that we have the authority from Jesus to worship him by singing. Let us not add to that command in any way so it can truly be done “in his name.”

Our worship is a sign of the Spirit. Ephesians 5:18-19 says, “…be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.” In context, Paul is teaching Christians to imitate God’s character. He compares one who is “drunk with wine” with one who is “filled with the Spirit.” The influence of wine leads to “debauchery” while the influence of God’s Spirit leads to a list of positive ‘spiritual side-effects,’ among them, singing spiritual songs together. This, along with the parallel passage above, teaches that one is filled with God’s Spirit as one is filled with God’s word.

Our worship is a display of unity. Romans 15:5-12 is part of the climax of Paul’s teaching on unity among Christians in Rome. The world was previously divided between Jews and Gentiles until Jesus came to fulfill and remove the barrier which separated them, the Law of Moses (Eph. 2:11-22). Paul’s goal was to see a unified Roman church that could glorify God “with one voice” (Rom. 15:6). He quotes a series of verses from the Old Testament inviting the Gentiles to praise God along with the Jews. Singing together as one spiritual family is an expression of that unity; it says, “We are together. We are in agreement. We share a common goal.”

The harmony we make with our lips is a physical expression of the spiritual harmony we enjoy together in Christ. Our singing should be the result of our living peacefully with one another and together with God. May God help us to protect our relationships and cultivate our unity together so that our singing can truly be “with one voice.”

The Promise of God

Saturday, September 25, 2021

The LORD God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,

    cursed are you above all livestock

    and above all beasts of the field;

on your belly you shall go,

    and dust you shall eat

    all the days of your life.

I will put enmity between you and the woman,

    and between your offspring and her offspring;

he shall bruise your head,

    and you shall bruise his heel.”

Genesis 3:14-15

The passage above is sometimes called the protoevangelium by biblical scholars because it is the very first announcement of the “good news” in Scripture. What is so striking about this promise is that it occurs immediately after sin first enters the world. This shows not only God’s foreknowledge of events but his predestined plan to defeat evil and save humanity. Much later, the apostle Paul calls this plan of salvation God’s “eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:11; cf. 1:10-11). In Genesis 3, God actively sets this plan, which was “foreknown before the foundation of the world” (1 Pet. 1:20), into motion.

Adam and Eve’s rebellion in Eden (Gen. 3:1-7), resulted in the fracturing of God’s world. The natural order was turned on its head: instead of man leading woman and ruling over the beasts of the field together, which was God’s intention (Gen. 2:28), the beast (the serpent) led the woman, who led the man, which resulted in creation being “subjected to futility” (Rom. 8:20). Evil and death spread over creation and had severe effects on humanity.

The Curses — God presented a series of “curses” pertaining to the three beings involved in humanity’s downfall. These “curses” were not arbitrary punishments from God but the natural results which corresponded to the choices made and the people who made them. Adam and Eve would both suffer “pain,” prolonged toil and misery, in their respective roles.

The man, who was created from the ground, would struggle to get the ground to produce food. Adam’s primary “work” of farming would result in prolonged “pain” (Gen. 3:17-19), whereas the woman’s unique role in “childbearing” would be increasingly painful. This “pain” does not merely refer to the physical pain women suffer in childbearing but also includes the emotional suffering of childrearing (the word found here carries both meanings), that is, the pain of raising children in a sin-sick world (cf. Gen. 4:8).

The curses upon the man and woman were severe but they were indirect and mediated. The ground was cursed, not Adam. Eve’s womb and role as wife and mother were cursed not Eve herself. Their life was certainly made more difficult but the serpent was cursed directly (“cursed are you…” Gen. 3:14). There is hope for humanity but none for the serpent. Thus began the “enmity” between the serpent and the woman.

The Serpent — The identity of the serpent is later revealed as the devil or Satan, the adversary of God and humanity (Rev. 12:7-9; 20:1-3). It is a creature in rebellion against God who wants other created beings to doubt God’s goodness and set themselves against God’s purposes. He is opposed to life and all that is good.

The Seed — Notice how Gen. 3:15 develops. In 3:15a, the “enmity” is singular, a personal enmity between the serpent and the woman. In 3:15b, the “enmity” extends to the “offspring” of the serpent and the woman. “Offspring” or “seed” is a collective noun referring to a group or line of descendants. The Bible presents these groups clearly: the serpent’s “seed” are those who follow him and fall under his curse, while the “seed” of woman are those who oppose the serpent (see Gen. 4:12, Jn. 8:44; 1 Jn. 3:8-10).

Finally, notice how the woman’s “seed” becomes singular and the serpent comes back into view (“he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel”). Out of this mysterious language a picture emerges. Eve, the representative woman, would someday bear a son who would crush the serpent’s head and destroy evil at its source. However, during the battle, the serpent will bite the son’s heel and both will die in a mutual destruction (God’s words suggest that the serpent is poisonous). Grabbing the heel is a Hebrew idiom for supplanting (Gen. 25:26) and trampling the head is an idiom for the complete subjugation of an enemy (Psa. 8:6; 110:1). Both are bruised but the more devastating blow is on the serpent’s “head.”

Interestingly, the serpent’s defeat comes not through the man but through the woman. It is “her” seed not “his.” The woman’s unique child-bearing capability would be the means of the serpent’s defeat. In Eden, the serpent used the woman for evil, but in Christ, God turns the tables (1 Tim. 2:13-15).

This all leads us to Jesus, God’s Son who, “when the fullness of time had come,” was “born of woman…” (Gal. 4:4). Jesus had no earthly father fulfilling Genesis 3:15’s “her”-seed-not-“his” promise (Mic. 5:2-3; Isa. 7:14; cf. Mt. 1:23). His death on the cross was that fatal snakebite. But this was no victory for the serpent, for, on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead never to die again, defeating both sin and death. Though there is no New Testament passage which explicitly states the fulfillment of God’s curse upon the serpent, there are many allusions (1 Tim. 2:15; 1 Cor. 15:25; 2 Cor. 11:3-15; Gal. 4:4; Eph. 1:20-22; Rev. 12).

Genesis 3:15 is not exclusively a prophecy about Jesus. Amazingly, all those who are in Jesus also share in his victory over evil. Paul says that “the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom. 16:20). Just as David fought Goliath as Israel’s representative, and Israel, through David shared in his victory, Jesus conquered Satan on our behalf, and we, through him, share in his victory!

Christ + Nothing = Everything

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Paul wrote to the Christians in Colossae to fortify them against false teaching. Since Paul doesn’t come right out and state it, the exact nature of the heresy is difficult to determine. Colossae was never excavated so there is no archaeological evidence available to say what kind of local cults and religions may have been present. But examining his refutation of the heresy gives us several clues.

Depreciation of Christ — Early on in the letter, Paul emphasizes the supremacy of Christ with a beautiful poem (1:15-19). Evidently, there were some who thought of Christ merely as a beginning to their spirituality. To go on to maturity, some taught the need to follow certain rules and practices that go beyond what Jesus taught. Perhaps they thought of Christ as a created being less than God. Paul insists that Christ is “the image of God” and the agent of creation (1:15-16). Every created thing owes its existence to him, even the angelic beings, which some in Colossae evidently worshiped (2:18). Paul says that the fullness of God dwells in Jesus (1:19; 2:9), that Christ is supreme over all, and that there is no way of ever going beyond him to a higher spirituality. Any “philosophy,” therefore, that depreciates Jesus is “empty” (2:8).

Paganism — Paul also refers to “wisdom,” “knowledge,” (2:3) and “asceticism” (2:23) which may have had Greek roots. He makes a curious reference to the “elemental spirits of the world” (2:8, 20). The “elements” were the ABC’s of a subject. For example, letters are the elements of which words are composed. The “elements” came to mean the ‘stuff’ of which the universe is composed (2 Pet. 3:10, 12). But Paul also uses this phrase to refer to the basic teaching that brought us to faith in Christ found in the Law of Moses (Gal. 4:3, 9; also Heb. 6:1). Whatever this “elemental” teaching was, Paul assures the Colossians it was inferior to faith in Christ.

Judaism — Paul perhaps makes reference to Judaism as well when he writes of “human tradition” (2:8, 22) and food regulations (2:16, 21). The concepts of “circumcision” (2:11; 3:11) and the observance of certain festivals (2:16) are certainly Jewish. There were some Jews during this time who tried to persuade pagan Christians that their position was incomplete (Acts 15:5), a problem Paul labored against his entire ministry. Paul assures the Colossians that they have already been spiritually “circumcised” (2:11) and set free from the claims of Mosaic Law (2:16, 18, 20). If there was a Jewish influence in Colossae, Paul portrays Judaism as just as inferior to Christianity as paganism. Judaism in the Christian age is just another “philosophy” (2:8) and “human tradition” (2:8, 22). To follow the Old Law would be the same for these Gentiles as going back to paganism. Paul says it’s like clinging to the “shadow” when the “substance” (the one casting the shadow) has arrived (2:17).

Syncretism — What may have been going on in Colossae was a kind of syncretism: a blending of various religious ideas, practices, and philosophies. This was popular in the ancient world and enticing to newer, immature converts as it brought the ‘best of both worlds’ into the religious system. This “the-more-the-merrier” approach is still popular today in many so-called Christian traditions. But we don’t develop a religious system and try to fit Christ into it, nor do we use Christ as a mere basis and add to it. Paul’s argument is that Christ is the “head” that ties everything together. To be connected to God, one must be “holding fast to the head” (2:19).

The good news was that the Colossian church had not bought into these lies (1:3-5; 2:5; 3:7). Paul was writing, therefore, only to further ground them in the truth and protect them from error. We might sum up the thrust of the letter like this: Christ + nothing = everything. Paul's letter to the Colossians helps us properly calibrate our faith by regarding Jesus as supreme over all. We have nothing to gain and everything to lose by believing otherwise.

Love and Justice 20 Years After 9/11

Saturday, September 11, 2021

“Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’”

Isaiah 45:22-23

It’s been 20 years since the series of four coordinated attacks against our country by the militant Islamist terrorist group al-Queda. Like you, I remember what I was doing that Tuesday morning in September when the news began to break. As a freshman in High School, I watched the TV screens as smoke billowed out of the north tower of the World Trade Center. Then, to everyone’s horror, the south tower was struck and both collapsed.

The principal decided to let the kids leave school early. My brother Pete, who was a senior that year, drove us both home where we continued to watch the news with our family. I was just old enough to know the scale of death I had witnessed but not old enough to understand why it had happened at all. No one knew, save God, the lasting impact these events would have on our world.

Just like that, our country was at war, we were thrown into a recession, and many lived in fear of more attacks to come. The US’s recent withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s swift return to power—after deposing them and spending two decades fighting the war on terror on their soil—was a poignant reminder of the instability of the human governments of the world.

As Christians, 9/11 is a reminder that the devil is still hard at work sowing religious confusion, discord, malice, oppression, and violence in the world “because he knows his time is short” (Rev. 12:12). Disciples of Jesus know that behind every evil act “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” collude with the twisted hearts of men (Eph. 6:12). But we believe that, in the end light will overtake the darkness, death will be swallowed up by life, and God's glory will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. We are assured of this ultimate victory not because of some vague wish but because of a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus.

While a political and military response may be necessary to restrain evil acts like terrorism (Rom. 13:3-4), Christians know that mere human responses cannot open the eyes of the blind or heal the deep wounds which separate humans from each other and from God. Our Lord came to earth to heal those spiritual wounds, to end the hostility, and to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn. 3:8).

We know that nations, kings, and governments will come and go, but we find confidence in the fact that “the Most High rules the kingdoms of men and gives it to whom he will” (Dan. 4:25). We rejoice in being part of a kingdom which cannot be shaken (Heb. 12:28). We rest under the just, peaceful, and eternal government of Jesus (Isa. 9:6-7). Our instruments of war have been beaten into tools for cultivation. We have ascended the mountain of the Lord and given our complete allegiance to King (Isa. 2:1-5). And we publish the good news that our God reigns (Isa. 52:7) in Jesus.

He defeated sin in his death on the cross. He defeated death in his resurrection from the grave. And he will return to set the world right. In Christ, God’s love for sinners and justice against sin came together to offer hope and victory to everyone.

We are those who recognize and share in that victory because we have bowed the knee and confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil. 2:10-11). God's offer of grace goes out into the world through us now. We look back at 9/11 and see the reason for Christ's first coming, but we also confidently look forward to Christ's second coming when his victory over evil will be complete.

The 'Littlest' Christian

Saturday, September 04, 2021

“To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.”

(Ephesians 3:8)

Who was the smallest Christian? We may think of Zacchaeus, who was “small in stature” (Lk. 19:1-10), but Paul claims he was the smallest. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul described the “mystery” made known to him (Eph. 3:1-6) and then the “ministry” entrusted to him (Eph. 3:7-13), which was “to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.” Paul considered this commission an enormous privilege. “This grace,” as he called it, was given to him by God despite the fact that he was “the very least of all the saints.”

This is a striking expression. What did Paul mean by it? First of all, in Paul’s writing, “saint” (one who is holy or consecrated) is a title for every one of the Lord’s people. All Christians are “saints,” being consecrated by God in Christ and having redemption through his blood (Eph. 1:7). Paul was certainly a “saint” but he categorized himself as “less than the least of all the saints” (NET).

Paul was stretching the Greek language for his purposes. He used the superlative “least” or “smallest” (elachistos) and turned it into a comparative “leaster” or “less than the least” (elachistoteros). This may have been a deliberate play on his name. When Paul’s mission brought him into primarily Gentile territory Luke ceased referring to him by his Hebrew name (“Saul” i.e. Shaul = desired) and began referring to him exclusively by his Roman name, “Paul,” which is Latin for ‘little’ or ‘small.’ Tradition says (take this with a grain of salt!) Paul was little in stature as well. Perhaps Paul is saying, “I am little in every way: little in name, in stature, and spiritually littler than the littlest of all Christians.”

But the apostle was not groveling in self-deprecation or indulging in false modesty. He truly meant what he wrote. In other places, he describes, with excruciating sincerity, his deep awareness of his unworthiness even to be saved let alone be chosen as the Lord’s apostle. Taking three of Paul’s self-descriptions in chronological order is instructive:

  1. First, Paul said he was “the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because” he “persecuted the church of God.” (1 Cor. 15:9, ~ AD 55).
  2. Next, as we have already noted, he said he was “the very least of all the saints” (Eph. 3:8, ~ AD 60).
  3. Later in his life, he said God had appointed him to service “though formerly” he “was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” of Jesus. But he “received mercy because” he “had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for” him “with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” (1 Tim. 1:13-17, ~ early AD 60’s)

As he progressed in his faith, Paul’s view of himself diminished while his view of God increased. This personal humility, however, never hindered him from executing his mission as Christ’s apostle. On the contrary, God's overflowing grace and mercy filled his ministry with divine strength. He “worked harder than any” of the rest of the apostles, though it was not him, but rather God’s grace at work in him (1 Cor. 15:10). When his apostleship was questioned by false apostles he vigorously defended it (2 Cor. 10-11). He appealed to—even commanded—Christians on the basis of his apostolic authority (2 Thess. 3:6). While minimizing himself and magnifying his office, Paul, the ‘littlest’ one, was glorifying his Lord.

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