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Colossians 3:16-17 & Ephesians 5:18-20 by Robert Dean
God tells us to sing. Why? To express the word of God that dwells in us richly, teaching and admonishing in wisdom. Our inspiration is God’s grace; our motivation is truth; our audience is God; and our conduit is excellence. Worship, expressed in this way, will transform our values in the midst of a culture that has no absolute values. Excellence is in the standard. Adhere to the standard, and real beauty will be expressed. Our question is not, “Is this good enough?” Our question should be, “Is this the absolute best means to glorify God, reflect who He is and echo the Truth He has given?”
Series:Colossians (2011)
Duration:57 mins 8 secs

Glorify God in Song and All Things. Colossians 3:16, 17; Ephesians 5:18-20


In the Old Testament the importance of singing was emphasised. It is part of the message of the Psalms calling us to sing to the Lord. We have an emphasis in the Scripture of the importance of singing, and we see how we as a congregation and everyone in the body of Christ coming together in corporate worship glorifies God. We are to glorify God in singing, and we are to glorify God "in all things," everything that we do.

We have this command in Colossians 3:16 to let the Word of God take up its residence within our souls. That is the idea of to dwell richly in us. It is to inhabit us. As the Word of God enters into our soul and we think about it, meditate upon it, it is to live itself out within us. It is going to change our values and change our personal tastes. As we grow as Christians we are going to find that over a period of time God is going to change the desires of our heart. He is going to help us to understand creation as he has created it and those changes will come as the Word of God changes us. That is part of the command we find in Scripture, especially Romans 12:2, that we are not to be conformed to the thinking of the world or the cultural values around us, but we are to be transformed by the renewing, the renovation, the overhaul, the re-education of our thinking. So the Word of God is going to teach us how things are in reality, not as our background, our families, our friends, or all the influences on us as we grew up might have shaped us.

But there is a major battle being waged in evangelicalism today over this very issue of music. The Word of God teaches us how to deal with issues of life. There is no area in life, whether it is music, politics, law, ethics, art, literature, that is not addressed in some sense by the Word of God and giving us a framework for understanding it so that we can be engaged in every area of creation in a way that honours God. So we are to "Let the word of Christ richly dwell within us," and this is followed in the Greek text by two participles that indicate the result of this. The first result mentioned here and in the parallel passage in Ephesians 5:19ff are "with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another."  So we are to let the Word of Christ richly dwell within us with the result that we will teach and admonish one another in all wisdom. That phrase in the Greek essentially means "wisely."

The Greek word there is sophia [sofia], and the Greek concept of sophia has more to do with abstract knowledge and philosophy, but that is not the biblical background for understanding wisdom. Wisdom is first introduced to us in the Old Testament and, remember, the writers of the New Testament are all coming from a deeply embedded understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures. So their concept of wisdom is not influenced by Plato and Aristotle but is influenced by Moses and David and Solomon, and it has to do with skill. One of the first times we run across the Hebrew word for wisdom (chokmah) happens in the context of God's instructions to Moses and the Jewish people to build the tabernacle. He puts His Spirit upon two craftsmen. God cares about beauty so much that when He instructs the Israelites to build the tabernacle He empowers these two men so that they can skilfully (chokmah) craft all of the different pieces of furniture, artefacts, tools and vessels that were used in the tabernacle. They were made beautifully; God cares about beauty. And in the Old Testament when the Israelites came together to worship there was beauty there. There was probably the most beautiful clothing and architecture anywhere in the ancient world, because it was to glorify God. So the idea of wisdom from an Old Testament background was the idea of skill.       

So in this verse telling us to let the Word of God dwell richly within us one result is that we teach and admonish one another in all wisdom. And the suggestion here is that it is to be done skilfully, not just haphazardly, which all too often seems to be the case. There is a place for spontaneity but there is also a place for training, for teaching, for instruction, so that we can as a congregation sing better. We may not sing like some large congregation that is made up of many people with a lot of money to invest in instruments, etc. but we are to do the best that we can do and we should constantly challenge ourselves to do better.  

"… with psalms {and} hymns {and} spiritual songs." Each of these words is used in the LXX to describe the book of Psalms, so these are not talking about three different categories of songs that we sing but they are synonyms of one another that refer to not just the Psalms of the Old Testament but any songs that are sung glorifying and honouring God. So we should understand this to be the command "let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, with the result that you are teaching and admonishing one another wisely (or, skilfully), in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs." And then we hit a motivation, by means of "singing with thankfulness in your hearts [thinking] to God." This is talking about the mental attitude that is the foundation of our worship. We are grateful to God for all that He has done and supplied for us. We can sing with joy because it is a reflection of our own understanding of what God has provided for us. So when we come together at any time and sing it is not entertainment. We are singing to God reminding Him of who He is, what we have learned about Him and what He has done for us, and expressing our gratitude to Him in a way that encourages and teaches one another.

Then Paul concludes: Colossians 3:17 NASB "Whatever …" The Greek actually states it, "all that you do." There is nothing in our lives that is outside the authority of God's Word directing us and guiding us in how we are to think and live in these areas. There is no neutrality. Everything comes under the authority of God. "…you do in word or deed, {do} all in the name of the Lord Jesus." What does it mean that we are to these things in the name of the Lord Jesus? That means that we are to understand that as believers in Christ, members of the royal family of God, at the instant of salvation we are all adopted into God's royal family. We are given a new identity, new capabilities, new gifts, are indwelt by all three members of the Trinity. As such we have a new role as ambassadors for Jesus Christ. We are either a really bad ambassador or a good ambassador seeking to improve ourselves. But we don't have an option as a Christian; we are ambassadors. We are a representative to this world from the High Court of Heaven.

Too often we are concerned about what little we can do to get by rather than how I can do this in a more excellent way. Too often we are asking the wrong question: Is this good enough? rather than, how can I do this better? Our standards are mediocre, and this has really impacted contemporary worship and music. We have, like so many areas in modern American culture, targeted the lowest common denominator in the culture and have imitated their tastes in order to attract them rather than shooting for the highest common denominator and pursuing excellence in all that we do and lifting up the culture. Some hundred years ago a historian by the name of Arnold Toynbee observed that cultures on the ascent imitate the upper classes: the fashions, the speech, the tastes of the people, imitates the upper classes. They idolise the aristocracy, the wealthy. Cultures on the decline imitate the lower classes. They have disdain for the wealthy, the aristocracy. We can see where that applies in much of our contemporary political discourse. We are always running down today, it seems, the person who is successful, the person who has become wealthy. When it comes to music it is the music of the ghetto that has become popular, it is the dress style of the ghetto that has become popular.

We are a culture in decline and that has leaked into the evangelical church so that we want to imitate the music that the culture imitates. Rather than pursuing excellence and looking up we want to imitate mediocrity. But that is not what Scripture indicates. We are to do all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, motivated by our gratitude to God the Father through Him.

This is paralleled in verses such as 1 Corinthians 6:20 NASB "For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body."

1 Corinthians 10:31 NASB "Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God."

Psalm 86:9 NASB "All nations whom You have made shall come and worship before You, O Lord, And they shall glorify Your name…. [12] I will give thanks to You, O Lord my God, with all my heart, And will glorify Your name forever." The Hebrew word that is translated "glory" and "glorified" is a word that means "heavy" literally, something that is weighty. This literal meaning is easily translated to a figurative sense that if somebody was important, significant in their contribution to society and you wished to honour them, then you would glorify them, emphasise their seriousness, their weightiness, their significance and importance to society and to the culture. So the word came to primarily be used in this figurative sense of focusing on the importance and centrality and importance of someone. When we glorify God we are showing that He is the most important element of our life. To glorify God means that we are going to do everything that we can to please Him because He has given us everything in Jesus Christ. This is going to impact every single area of life.

The conclusion is that the Word of God gives us the standards for establishing excellence in every area, excellence being identified as doing it to glorify God. In the Old Testament there are a number of different words used, and used synonymously, to emphasise the value of God's character and that He is the ultimate standard for beauty, for glory, for excellence—words such as glorious, magnificence, splendour, splendid, beautiful, excellent. All emphasise God as the ultimate standard.

When to comes to music, how do we establish some precise standards? With music and art it is difficult because it is a little more abstract and a little more nebulous. But there are some standards. The right question we should be asking is not, Is there something wrong with this music? The question is: Is this the absolute best that I can do? Is this something that I should value? Does what I am doing glorify God?

A second question that we should ask is: Does this song that we are singing reflect the creative acts of God? That is our standard. When we look at God's creation and His creative activity we see planning, order, that He is technically excellent down to the most minute detail. Regarding music we know that music is good or bad, music can promote or take away from positive morality, and does it have purpose and meaning? These are questions that we should ask related not only to the lyrics but even of the music. Another question: Does is display simplicity and complexity, unity and harmony?

God is one but He is many. Deuteronomy 6:4 NASB "Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!" That is really talking about a unity. He is a multiplicity; He exists as three persons who are equally one. That is unity and diversity. This reflects who God is. This does not mean that every piece of music has an element of sophistication; there are different types of music.

Negatively, we should avoid that which is unstructured, that which is difficult to sing, unplanned or just simplistic—it can be simple but not simplistic. It shouldn't be trivial or banal, trendy or mediocre; and yet that is often what we find.

In Scripture we see an emphasis on these values. In Philippians 1:9, 10 NASB "And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ." The Greek word for "discernment" there is aisthesis [a)iqhsij] from which we get our word aesthetics. It is a form of knowledge. We are to advance in knowledge and discernment for the purpose that we may approve the things that are excellent. We are to be pursuing excellence, not mediocrity, always pushing ourselves to the next level.

Philippians 4:8 NASB "Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell [logizomai/logizomai] on these things."

It is easy for people to say they don't want to sing anything that is not biblical, but "biblical" is not just are the words right? There are a lot of biblical worship choruses that take Bible verses and just sing them in unending repetition, and there is no meaning there, no doctrinal development. The Psalms are the divinely-inspired standard for the kind of lyrics that we should have in singing. If we read through the Psalms we see that they are not just endless repetition of a few phrases.

David Wells, distinguished research professor at Gordon-Conwell Seminary has analysed a number of contemporary chorus and worship books and hymn books. He got as much as he could and read through the words of all of these different things. What he concluded was that of all of the praise and worship choruses sixty-five per cent had no doctrinal development. They were just songs. Is it biblical? Yes. Is it true? Yes. Is there any doctrinal development? No. The song dealing with Psalm 103: "Bless the Lord O my soul, And all that is within me, Bless His holy name." That is biblical, but that is all there is to the song. It is just sung over and over repetitively many times and perhaps add another couple of lines from Scripture, but there is no doctrinal development; it is just singing the same thing over and over again. This is what he is focusing on. Is there any teaching there? Colossians 3:16—is there any teaching or admonishing; is there any doctrinal development. He is not looking at whether the doctrine is right or not; he is just asking if they develop any thought. If we look at all of the traditional hymn books that have been produced over the last 1900 years by Christians it is almost impossible to find a hymn that doesn't have doctrinal development. So this is a tremendous indictment of the entire contemporary Christian movement because the writers that we are developing are simply reflecting the impoverished doctrinal culture out of which they come. If they have never learned anything how can they write anything of substance? They can't!

So when we have a dumbed-down, theologically illiterate culture how can we produce artists that produce excellence in terms of the content of their writings? They can't, because they don't know anything.

Notice the doctrinal development in Psalm 103. Psalm 103:1 NASB "Bless the LORD, O my soul, And all that is within me, {bless} His holy name. [2] Bless the LORD, O my soul, And forget none of His benefits." The psalmist doesn't stop there, he begins to tell us what those benefits are and why we should bless God. The term "blessing" is this kind of context is used as a parallel to praising God.

Why should we praise God? [3]  "Who pardons all your iniquities, Who heals all your diseases; [4] Who redeems your life from the pit, Who crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion; [5] Who satisfies your years with good things, {So that} your youth is renewed like the eagle."

Then there is a focus on who God is: Psalm 103:6 NASB "The LORD performs righteous deeds And judgments for all who are oppressed… [8] The LORD is compassionate and gracious, Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness…[10] He has not dealt with us according to our sins, Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. [11] For as high as the heavens are above the earth, So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. [12] As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us." What tremendous content we have here! This is what they sang.

How do we pick music to sing?

1.  The lyrics should reinforce and express biblical truth. The lyrics are to teach and admonish one another. They should be based on biblical truth.

2.  The lyrics must follow the principles of superb poetry. We should look at the words without the music and ask if this is good poetry. Is it expressing sound theology in a way that utilises the magnificence of the English language?

3.  The message of the music (not just the words) of previous generations connects us to others in the body of Christ who preceded us and prevents us from being overly impressed with the present generation. If we are singing the great hymns of the history of the faith it prevents us from becoming self-absorbed and arrogant. It reminds us of our heritage, our history and our doctrinal distinctives.

4.  Wonderful, beautiful music elevates our own appreciation for music. If we sing good music we will learn what good music is. If we sing mediocre music we will only learn to appreciate mediocrity.

5.  The timeless hymns that we sing help develop an atmosphere of majesty, splendour and beauty. One of the sad contradictions that we see when we watch the marriage of royalty in England and know the music that they are singing, we know some of the garbage that goes on in the background of royalty. But that music is majestic. Many of them are great hymns of the faith and it elevates our consciousness just listening to that music. It drives us up and not down. When we come together to worship we come together to worship the God who created the heavens and the earth and the seas, and who redeemed us. We are not singing songs to impress our next door neighbour, so it should be different.

6.  The enduring hymns that we sing should deepen and enhance our spiritual lives.

7.  What we sing should elevate our thoughts toward God, His person, His work, and His gracious provision for us, rather than simply elevate our emotions. It is not about us, it is about God.