Feeling stuck? Try this songwriting tip (Understanding Worship In the New Testament Part 4)

Posted by Chris Jack on 10 June 2014

The hymns and hymnic material of the New Testament are a great treasure as we consider early Christian worship. Both in its quantity and in its substance, this is the richest worship material of all.
There are sufficient references to singing in the New Testament to show that this was a common element of early Christian worship (see 1 Cor. 14:26; Eph. 5:19-20; Col. 3:16; cf. Acts 16:25).

Our difficulty, once again, is to know precisely what was going on. What kind of sung material did they use? Jewish? Hellenistic? How often did they sing? Was it a regular feature of their worship, or something more occasional? And what about accompaniment? What musical instruments, if any, did they use? Indeed, what did their singing sound like? Here, as in other matters concerning the form and structure of early Christian worship, we simply have to profess our ignorance. For, concerning these sorts of details, the New Testament is silent. Furthermore, specialist studies on the Jewish and Hellenistic backgrounds, exploring the nature and use of music in society and in religion, have yielded no firm conclusions.

Investigation of the music of the early church has drawn on the efforts of liturgical scholars, musicologists and historians, as well as biblical scholars, in attempting to find out what the music of the earliest Christian church consisted of and where it came from. There are still many questions to be answered, and perhaps many questions yet to be asked.

Even the reference to 'psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs' in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 is somewhat enigmatic—at least from our standpoint. Some have attempted a threefold distinction: the 'psalms' are Old Testament Psalms, or Christian compositions along similar lines; the 'hymns' represent carefully worked verse texts; while the 'spiritual songs' are spontaneous, ecstatic, sung offerings. However, the foundations for such distinctions are very tenuous, since we simply do not have sufficient evidence. In fact, most scholars take the view that it is not possible to differentiate these three in any rigid way. There are no neat distinctions; rather, there is considerable overlap in the meaning of the words. It should be noted, too, that, grammatically, the adjective 'spiritual' can qualify all three nouns. That is, there is no one category that is necessarily more 'spiritual' than the others!

The only factor that allows us to designate any passages as hymns at all is the presence of a more poetic or metrical form. It should be observed that where there is a reference to 'song' or 'sing' in the New Testament, we are not actually told the substance of what was sung. The only exceptions to this are in the book of Revelation (see Rev. 4:8,10-11; 5:910; 15:3-4), and in each of these passages the setting is not early Christian worship but the courts of heaven!

In all, over 100 passages have been proposed as possible hymn material. Here are just some of the more significant and widely accepted ones. Take time to read them and to reflect on their content.

  • Luke 1:46-55
  • Luke 1:68-79
  • Luke 2:29-32
  • John 1:1-18
  • Ephesians 1:3-14
  • Philippians 2:6-11
  • Colossians 1:15-20
  • Hebrews 1:3
  • 1 Timothy 3:16
  • 1 Peter 3:18-22

A number of these passages have served to inspire subsequent hymn writers and hymns and songs we sing today that use the biblical words, or are based on them. In this way, we join our song with that of first-century believers. They may not recognize (or appreciate!) the music, but the lyrics would be very familiar!

And what about the lyrics? Perhaps the most striking thing is the extent to which they are focused on the person and work of Jesus. The passages above include many of the most outstanding statements about Jesus’ person and work in the whole of the New Testament. In particular, they carry a high Christology, to use a bit of theological jargon. That is, in worship, the Church acknowledges Jesus to be who He is—God, the Son—and worships Him. They are hymns that focus on Jesus and God’s redeeming work through Him. Of course, New Testament worship is truly Trinitarian. Jesus is not worshipped apart from, or in contrast to, the Father and the Spirit, but together with them. Indeed, rightly understood, to worship one is to worship all three, for they are one.



Taken from 'InsideOut Worship: Matt Redman and Friends' published by Survivor.


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