Singing Lessons for Heaven’s Choir

January 31, 2018 by Trent Hunter 0 comments

Posted in: General

On Sunday morning we stumbled upon one of the New Testament’s two points of instruction on singing in our sermon titled, "The Christ-Centered Community." Apparently, we need singing lessons. Some of us can’t carry a tune, and others of us have been singing since we were children. But when it comes to singing, this little pocket manual puts our attention on a whole different set of priorities for our singing; the things that make our singing acceptable to God, and a joy to hear, whatever the tonal quality.

Here’s the verse:

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. (Col. 3:16–17).

Here are nine singing lessons for the church choir, which is you. Along the way, we’ll make some applications and balance some principles:

First, sing the Word of Christ.

That is, the message about Christ—his life, death, and resurrection. This is the content of our singing. We don’t sing songs that would be passable for a gathering of worship to another god. Our songs are songs with specificity; songs that flow from and lead to the center, which is Christ. We need songs that are thick with truth, and songs that are more simple and sharp like a razor; songs which fill the mind and songs that focus the mind.

This doesn’t mean that every song we sing must cover every doctrine we believe. Yet, even as every song doesn’t get everything done, our Sunday selection of songs reveals the gospel’s logic, tells the gospel story, sets our mind to gospel texts, and rehearses the gospel’s themes. Along the way, we respond to the revelation of Christ. We confess our sins, which is our need for the gospel, we celebrate the pardon we have received in the gospel, and we consecrate our lives to Christ, which is our whole-life response to the gospel.

Second, sing rich texts.

This is the quality of our songs. Paul says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another with all wisdom” (Col. 3:16). This work of teaching and admonishing in song requires a richness of words. Our texts have to do work. They have to teach. They have to admonish. They have to do both with all wisdom. Not every true song is worth our time singing and remembering. If we’re going to write a song on our heart, let it be the kind that will carry us on our best and worst days, and on our last. We want to sing songs that say true things and say them well, songs that express well both the greatness of God and his grace, his majesty and his mercy, his awe-inspiring transcendence and the intimacy of his nearness.

For this reason, we put in the time to discover and sing the best of what’s out there, old and new. Some of us might be tempted to think older is better. But that’s not always the case. The old songs we sing are the songs tested by time. Plenty are left to the dust bin. Old songs remind us that God has worked in the generations before us. New songs remind us that he’s at work today among us.

Third, sing to one another.

This is the direction of our singing. Do you realize that when we come together to sing, we come to sing to one another? You are singing for your neighbor next to you. We sing not just for exaltation, but for edification. The singers up front do not sing to you, as if they are performers and we are observers. Rather, they help all of us sing to one another. The spiritual work of singing is for all of God’s people to all of God’s people.

Consider this: one of God’s ways of keeping us in the faith is to re-convince us week-in and week-out that Jesus is great by means of the songs of our brothers and sisters around us. These voices say, “you’re not alone. This really is true!” Some weeks you’re the one reminding everyone else about that, even the person next to you whom you don’t know (yet!). And some weeks you’re there to hear it in their voice.  Which is one reason that except for ministry, health, or capacity reasons, you need to be in the auditorium on Sunday mornings. Not in bed, even if you’re tired, and not in the lobby even if that feels more intimate. The more voices in our ears the more richly the Word will dwell in us. We need your voice, and you need ours.

Fourth, sing musically.

This is the sound of our singing. This is what makes singing singing and not just speaking. It’s musical. In Ephesians, Paul says to sing and “make melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph. 5:19). This is why we need to pick sings that are singable, and singable by the spectrum of voices that the Lord has crafted, high and low, young and old. Of course, music itself is a gift, and God receives glory in our study of music, in our making and playing of instruments. In corporate worship, music is a gift for the particular work of impressing and expressing the Word of Christ. It carries God’s revelation of Jesus into our hearts, and it carries our response to him from our hearts. It adds a dimension to the things we say to God in song. I think that’s what Augustine meant when he said, "He who sings, prays twice."

Of course, we can make too much of music. Remember, at least here, God commands us to “sing.“ It is neither all-important nor unimportant. It has been suggested that music is like a tortilla. Tortillas are awesome, even powerful. Consider the meat and the beans that they hold with a seeming infinite combination of shapes. But you can’t live on tortillas. A tortilla makes an insufficient meal, but a tortilla makes a fabulous holder for a meal. And there are different kinds of tortillas out there. Some are poor holders of meat. Some aren’t made well. There’s hard and soft. But as tortillas only have so much taste, music only has so much power. However well we wrap the Word of Christ, no tortilla can improve or ruin that Word. Music never raised anyone from the dead and it won’t keep anyone from being raised from the dead. Music, incredibly still, is God’s designated carrier to the soul of that which can. That’s why our musicians should play skillfully, together, with preparation, with heart, and with undistracting excellence. They serve up and adorn the Word.

Fifth, sing with variety.

This is the diversity of our singing. Paul says to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” What exactly these were is not plain to us. Psalms likely refers to our Old Testament song book. Hymns were more contemporary first century poems that captured and taught doctrinal truth. And spiritual songs were likely more spontaneous bursts of praise in song. The takeaway for us is that Paul was not prescriptive or restrictive regarding the church’s textual or musical forms. He said, in effect, sing different kinds of songs!

And so we want balance in our singing. A balance in the kinds of texts and tunes we sing. All our textual and musical forms probably shouldn’t sound the same. Otherwise, we should consider a return to the forms of first century middle eastern writing and singing. How can this variety be expressed? Some churches divide into different gatherings by musical form. But this cuts against the grain of the unity that singing is supposed to bring and express. There are better ways. For example, having a range of ensembles across Sundays over time, or even a range of forms in a given Sunday.

Sixth, sing from the heart.

Our singing should be heartfelt and sincere. It’s possible to sing good texts and to sing them well and for the Lord to cover his ears. Our sounds are beautiful to his ears when our souls are tuned to his heart (Isa. 29:13; Ps. 51:16, 17). As modeled in the Bible’s own Psalm book, our texts and tunes should mirror a range of human emotion—from sorrow to exuberant joy; from songs that lead us to contemplation and confession to songs that lead us to joy-filled clapping; from songs that put us on our face before God in reverence to songs that lift our eyes to heaven in raptured glory; from satisfied in God to striving for his presence.

On this topic of heartfelt singing, consider the sheer diversity of musical expression across the globe. If music is a kind of language of the heart, then it’s no surprise that we find differing musical expressions from place to place and people to people. And it’s no wonder that in our own context, as diverse as our own nation is, that we find differing musical expressions. That doesn’t mean that every popular song for listening is equally fit for congregational singing. But it’s reason not only to expect but to embrace Sunday morning as a time to sing songs with tunes that resonate with you personally and some that don’t. That deferential rather than preferential spirit is the point of the church. After all, in Christ’s church “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11).

Seventh, sing to our Triune God.

We sing to one another, but our Triune Lord is the greatest object of our singing. Our singing is heartfelt because our hearts that have been rescued by and rescued for the very praise of God.

We sing to the Father who planned for our salvation and who orders our lives. We sing through the Son, who accomplished our redemption. We sing and do everything “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col. 3:17). And we sing by the Spirit, who inscripturated the Word of Christ, who opens our eyes see it, and who regenerates our hearts to receive it. In Ephesians, Paul says, “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:18–19).

Eighth, sing with thankfulness.

This is the overflow of our singing. And as the overflow of our singing, it’s everywhere. “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, … And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly … singing … with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And … do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:15–17). When Adam and humanity fell into sin it’s because they “did not honor God or give thanks to him” (Ro. 1:21). This is what the Word of Christ reverses.

Thankfulness is the recognition that God is God and we are his creatures, and everything we have we have received from him. Thankfulness is important enough to repeat because it’s that important and we’re that bad at it. The overflow of thankfulness to God is the true sign that Christ has filled us up. It’s the way to know if Christ’s peace really is ruling, if his Word really is at home, and if his name really is enmeshed in everything we’re doing.

Ninth, sing as one expression of a whole life of worship.

This is the context of our singing. Only one verse later, Paul will sum up his thought: “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” (Col. 3:17). This is the place where all we say and do we do because of him, unto him, for more of him, and in thankfulness to God through him. In Christ’s church everything revolves around him.

Singing, then, is that corporate catalyst for all-of-life worship, and an overflow of that worship when we’re together. And so we sing songs that not only bring awe before God, but action in life for God, songs which send us out as “living [sacrifices], holy and acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual worship” (Ro. 12:1). Our experience of the presence of God in song when we gather expresses itself in the all-the-time pursuit of God when we scatter. So, friends, whether “you eat or drink [or sing], or whatever you do, you do all to the glory of God” (1Cor. 10:31).

There’s more to say about singing. There are 150 poems for singing given to us in the Bible, for example, and plenty to ponder there. Then there are songs that were sung at the highpoints of Scripture’s story, from Moses to David to Hannah, to the congregation around Jesus’ throne in Revelation. Did you know that the Lord sang a song too? “The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing” (Zeph. 3:17). That’s my favorite. But those are for later.

Here in Colossians we find Scripture’s only direct lesson in singing for Christ’s new covenant people, the church. Apparently, this is the kind of singing God is listening for. This is the kind that happens when we are filled with Christ and Christ alone. Let’s give ourselves to it.

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