So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father.
"The Christian Church was born in song." Those are the words of Ralph Martin in his book called Worship in the Early Church. (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1964, p. 39). We are a singing people. And there is a reason for this. The reality of God and Christ and creation and salvation and heaven and hell are simply too great for mere speaking; they must also be sung. This means that the reality of God and his work is so great that we are not merely to think truly about it, but also feel duly about it. Think truly and feel duly -that is, feel with the kind and depth and intensity of emotion that is appropriate to the reality that is truly known.
If we think truly and do not feel duly, at best we render to God half the honor he is due. And if we feel strongly (I do not say "duly"because I think it is impossible to feel duly without thinking truly) - if we feel strongly, but do not think truly, we render to him even less than half the honor he is due.
Jonathan Edwards, who knew God's reality with his head and passionately felt God's reality in the love of his heart, is right when he says,
God glorifies himself towards the creatures also [in] two ways:
(1) by appearing to . . . their understanding.
(2) in communicating himself to their hearts, and in their rejoicing and delighting in, and enjoying the manifestations which he makes of himself. . . . God is glorified not only by his glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in. . . . [W]hen those that see it delight in it: God is more glorified than if they only see it; his glory is then received by the whole soul, both by the understanding and by the heart.
Once you see this - that the work of the heart (the emotions) is as important for reflecting the glory of God as the work of the head (understanding) is, then you will begin to see why music and singing is so important for Christian worship. The reason we sing is because there are depths and heights and intensities and kinds of emotion that will not be satisfactorily expressed by mere prosaic forms, or even poetic readings. There are realities that demand to break out of prose into poetry and some demand that poetry be stretched into song.
So music and singing are necessary to Christian faith and worship for the simple reason that the realities of God and Christ, creation and salvation, heaven and hell are so great that when they are known truly and felt duly, they demand more than discussion and analysis and description; they demand poetry and song and music. Singing is the Christian's way of saying: God is so great that thinking will not suffice, there must be deep feeling;and talking will not suffice, there must be singing.
So what I want to do this morning is take these several verses from Ephesians 5:17-20 and make six brief statements about singing in corporate worship, which is what this text is about. Each of these six points could be developed for an hour easily, but I will only state them as a kind of outline for a basic theology of music in our worship. I hope you will take them and fill them up with more Bible and more experience and turn them into reality here at Bethlehem.
Singing is to be an Expression of the Fullness of the Holy Spirit.
Verses 18 and 19: "And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord." You see how singing flows out of being filled with the Holy Spirit. This means that Christian singing is not natural, but supernatural. The Holy Spirit is God. He is supernatural. He comes and he fills his people and moves them to act in certain ways.
Singing about Christian things in Christian settings is not necessarily pleasing to the Lord. Recall Amos 5:23-24, "Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."There is religious singing that is offensive to the Lord, namely, singing that is not a work of the Holy Spirit along with his other fruit.
You get a glimpse of what being filled with the Holy Spirit is by the comparison in verse 18 with being drunk. "Don't get drunk with wine, be filled with the Holy Spirit." Getting drunk with wine means being controlled by wine. It masters you and makes you feel and act in certain ways. So being filled with the Spirit means being controlled by the Spirit so that you feel and actin certain ways, in this case with singing - and a certain kind of singing, as we will see in a minute.
How are we filled with the Holy Spirit? The clue to that question is in the question: How do you get drunk with wine? The answer is: by drinking a lot of it. So it is with the Holy Spirit. I don't have time to develop it here, but I believe we could show from 1 Corinthians 2:12-16 and Romans 8:4-8 and Galatians 3:5 that the primary way to drink the Spirit is to read and meditate on and believe the breathings of the Spirit recorded in the Scripture. This is why, in the book of Acts, when people are filled with the Spirit, what spills over is the word of God (Acts 2:4, 11; 4:8, 31; 9:17, 20;Colossians 3:16).
So Christian singing in corporate worship is to be the expression of the fullness of the Holy Spirit. That's the first thing to say about it.
Singing is to be from the Heart.
Verse 19b: ". . . singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord." The opposite of "singing and making melody with your heart" would be singing and making melody with your mouth and whatever willpower it takes to make the mouth move. But "with your heart" signifies that you mean it and that you feel it.
In other words, as we have seen for several weeks now, the essence of Christian worship is not mere liturgical actions - or any other kind - but an inner, authentic valuing of God in the heart.
Let me mention here that this does not mean that worship is authentic only when you are red-hot for God. It can mean that when you are not red-hot, your heart feels a longing for the passion that you once knew or want to know more of. That longing, offered to God, is also worship. Or it can mean remorse that even the longing is gone, and you are scarcely able to feel anything but sadness that you don't feel what you should. That remorse, offered to God, is also worship. It says to God that he is the only hope for what you need. So don't have an all-or-nothing attitude about worship. The heart can be real even if it is not as enflamed with zeal as it ought to be - which it never is in this life.
Singing is to be "to the Lord."
Verse 19: "Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord." Now I am aware that the verse begins with "speaking to one another in psalms . . ." I will get to that in a minute. What is remarkable is that both are true and they are true in this one verse in the same singing: sing both to one another and to the Lord.
"To the Lord," means that worship is to be God-centered, of Christ-centered(the "Lord" is Jesus, but notice in verse 20 that thanks are continually offered to God the Father in the name of the "Lord" Jesus). But not just God-centered in that everything in worship relates to God, but also God-centered in that everything in worship is done toward God - in the presence of God, with a view to God's hearing it and seeing it, with a desire that God receive it into his hearing with approval and delight.
When you sing, whether you are singing directly to the Lord("You, O Lord, are a shield about me . . .") or whether you are singing indirectly to the Lord("A mighty fortress is our God . . ."), sing with a focus on the present hearing of Jesus and the Father.
But surely, this word will encourage us to sing many songs in the second person ("you") rather than only the third person ("you," rather than"he")."Great is Thy faithfulness . . .", "Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty! Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee . . .", "Come, Thou Fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy praise . . .", "You are Lord .. .", "I love you Lord . . ." We should want to linger in the presence of the Lord speaking to the Lord about what we think and feel in response to who he is and what he has done and what he promises to do and be for us. That's what "to the Lord" means in verse 19b. Worship is fundamentally Godward, not manward.
These three have a powerful impact on the way we conceive worship: Spirit-driven, heartfelt, God-centered. This is not a time for trifling or joking or silliness or superficiality. Worship comes from roots that are too deep in God, and is meant to take root too deep in the human heart, and focuses so relentlessly on God himself that it has to be a seriously joyful (or joyfully serious) affair.
Singing is to be Undergirded by a Deep, Biblical Theology of God's Sovereign Goodness.
Why do I say this? Because in verse 20 Paul says, ". . . always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father."Now giving thanks for all things is an outrageous idea unless you have a deep, Biblical theology of God's sovereign goodness. I call this theology deep because it avoids superficial conclusions like a chipper praise-God-anyhow approach to pain. Paul said, "Weep with those who weep"(Romans 12:15). He said, "Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good" (Romans 12:9).
However it is that we may thank God for horrible circumstances of sickness or lostness or sinfulness, it is not in the same way we thank him for healing and salvation and holiness. Yet, there is, I think this text points out, a way to see in all things the hand of God moving for the glory of his name and the good of his people. And what we need is a theology that is deep and Biblical enough that we can hate and repudiate and oppose (in prayer and social work and evangelism) the evils of the world, and not cancel out the truth that in these very things and in our very hating of them, and working against them, and patiently enduring in them, there is also a ground for thanks (Romans 8:28; Genesis 50:20).
I say that our singing needs this deep, Biblical theology because this text on singing calls for such thanks, and because there is not a week that goes by in this church but that some people are dealing with horrible and painful things. There is a deep way to worship God with those people that quietly bears their burden with them, and quietly leads them to the all-sufficient God who is working for them in and through it all.
Understanding this and believing this makes for the greatest of all congregational singing - which is why "It is Well with my Soul" is almost like a theme song among us.
Singing is to be to Each Other.
Verse 19: ". . . speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord." Here is one of the clearest mandates for corporate worship in the New Testament. You can't obey this in solitude. God calls us to speak in song to one another.
This has at least three implications for us. One is that we should get together and sing as a congregation and as small groups. We should sing in each other's hearing and want to be heard by each other. The second implication is that it is justifiable that many of our great hymns and newer worship songs are addressed not to God but to each other. "O Worship the King," "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name," "Crown Him with Many Crowns," "Majesty, Worship His Majesty."
The third implication is that the use of solos or musical groupings like worship teams and choirs can be part of this speaking to one another in songs. If it is good to speak to each other in songs as we do this in a Godward way, then we don't always have to do it all at the same time, though we do think that congregational singing should be the defining sound of our worship. A choir can speak the word to us in song from the heart, filled with the Spirit, with a view to God's presence and undergirded by a deep, Biblical theology of God's sovereign goodness. And we can hear this and say Yes and Amen to the glory of God.
In 1 Corinthians 14:15-16 Paul says, "I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. Otherwise if you bless in the spirit only, how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted say the 'Amen' at your giving of thanks?" In other words, God means for us to hear each other pray and sing so that there can be corporate responses of agreement - "Amen."
There are reasons for this corporate dimension to worship. Being together and singing to each other, and not just alone, intensifies our emotions for God, communicates our witness to God, and unifies our corporate life around God(Romans 15:6).
Finally, Singing is to be Varied in its Forms.
Verse 19: ". . . speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord."
Referring to these the words, "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs," Ralph Martin says,
It is hard to draw any hard-and-fast distinction between these terms; and modern scholars are agreed that the various terms are used loosely to cover the various forms of musical composition. "Psalms" may refer to Christian odes patterned on the Old Testament Psalter. "Hymns" would be longer compositions and there is evidence that some actual specimens of these hymns may be found in the New Testament itself. "Spiritual songs" refer to snatches of spontaneous praise which the inspiring Spirit placed on the lips of the enraptured worshipper, as 1 Corinthians 14:15 implies. (p. 47)
Now there is a reason for different kinds of music. The main reason is that God is infinitely varied in his beauty and he relates to us in profoundly and wonderfully different ways. If you experience God in the death of your four daughters and your wife, in the sinking of a ship, you may write, "It Is Well with My Soul." If you are overwhelmed with the truth of the incarnation at Christmas time, you may write "Joy to the World." If God meets you simply and quietly in your prayer closet, you may write, "Father, I adore you, lay my life before you . . ." If you are stunned at the marvel that you are saved, you may write "Amazing grace! How sweet the sound . . ." If you area Sunday School teacher longing to teach your students profound things in simple ways, you may write, "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. . ."
God meets us in high and holy ways. He meets us in lowly and meek ways. He meets us in thunderously glorious ways; he meets us in quiet, intimate ways. He meets us in complex ways and simple ways, furious ways and merciful ways. There are aspects of God's character and relation to us that can only be expressed with high and fine expressions of music like Handel's Messiah, and there are aspects of God's character and relation to us that can only be expressed with more common and folk-like kinds of music like "Amazing Grace" and "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," and "The B-I-B-L-E."
Conclusion - Pray for your Worship Leaders
My pastoral exhortation is that we seek the Lord earnestly in all these things and go deeper with him in our understanding and experience of corporate worship each week. Pray for each other, and especially for Chuck and me as we try to flesh out this text from week to week. Pray:
1. that we would be filled with the Holy Spirit,
2. that all our worship would be "from the heart,"
3. that we would be radically God-focused and God-centered,
4. that all would be undergirded by deep, Biblical theology of God's sovereign goodness,
5. that we would provide the most helpful ways for you to speak to each other with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, and
6. that we would embrace the variety of music and singing that is most helpful for this cultural setting and this great God.