If you read through the Old Testament, you find that there are entire chapters devoted to describing what Israel’s worship was to look like. There are sections detailing what they priests were to wear (Ex. 28), who is to offer sacrifices and when, what qualifies as an acceptable offering (Lev. 1-7), the dimensions of the tabernacle (Ex. 25-26). This is just a small sampling of all that was laid out for the Old Testament worship to take place.
When we turn to the New Testament however, we find a surprisingly small amount of instruction in regard to our gathering.
We’re called to preach (2 Tim. 4:2), be devoted to the public reading of scripture (1 Tim. 4:13), and sing (Col. 3:16, Eph. 5:19).
The case could (and should) be made for the place of the ordinances here as well—but that’s not really the point I’m driving at. The issue is, what happened to all the micromanaging? Why did God have such great concern for the way things were done in the tabernacle/temple but not so much in the New Testament gathering?
Generally speaking, we see a switch from outward forms to inward realities as Christ fulfilled the law—so that certain ceremonial aspects were no longer binding because they were fulfilled in Jesus, our true temple (John 2:19-22), priest (Heb. 4:14-16, 9:11-12), and sacrifice (1 Cor. 5:7, Jhn. 1:29).
So, lets zero in on one of these New Testament discussions and see exactly what Paul calls us to do;
Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Col. 3:16)
As we break this verse down, we see that Paul really advocates that the singing community be concerned with three things; dwelling deeply in the gospel, singing outward to other fellow worshippers, and singing upward with thankfulness to God.
Paul starts off this verse by saying that we should let the “word of Christ richly dwell within you”. The only other time Paul has used this phrasing, “the word of Christ”, is in Romans 10:17 where he tells us that “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ.” In other words, Paul wants us to dwell deeply in the gospel, Jesus’ sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins (1 Cor. 15:3-4). It is in this message, after all, that we are made worshippers—given access before the throne of God and encouraged to bring our requests and praises to His presence (Heb. 10:19-22).
Now, lets just speak from a practical standpoint for a second. The beauty of dwelling in the gospel before engaging in worship is that it reminds us of our need of a savior to begin with. Remember when Paul told us that he was the biggest sinner he knew (1 Tim. 1:15)? He told us that it was a “trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance”—meaning, we aren’t just to understand that Paul was a really big sinner, we’re all supposed to see ourselves as really big sinners. The beauty of dwelling deeply in the gospel is that it makes us needy worshippers—since there is no such thing as a self-saving worshipper. Read through 2 Chronicles 20 and notice the link between deliverance and worship in Jehoshaphat’s kingdom. True worshippers find themselves in real need of deliverance.
So, its natural to start a worshipping heart with reflection on the life-giving gospel of Jesus. This is the means whereby we gain access to God in the first place. Not only so, this is the means by which we are sustained and kept (Eph. 3:14-19).
As we dwell deeply, Paul pushes our focus horizontally so that we are called to “with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another” sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”. Notice that song is a means by which we teach and admonish one another.
I remember leading a service where we engaged in a specific reflection about God’s goodness to those who are in the midst of trial. In the front row, a gentlemen who had just lost his wife to cancer raised his hands in worship to the God who not only knew about the cancer cells but also chose not to bring healing. As this gentlemen raised His hands and responded, many witnessed and were “admonished” for their lack of faith—myself included.
While admonishing carries the negative connotation of correcting wrong behavior, instruction might be considered more postive, imparting truth to those who didn’t formerly know. Today we have more music resources than any other time in church history. There are numerous wells to draw from in regard to church music, many of which help us to search the depths of God’s character and lead us to greater understanding of His person and work on our behalf.
Regardless of how you apply this principle, singing outward should be on our radar as we plan worship services or participate in them from the pew. Worship isn’t just a vertical interaction (though, it isn’t less than that, either). Which brings us to our last reflection…
“…singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God”. Paul also instructs us to sing toward God with thankfulness—to sing upward.
Notice, that the heart of this instruction is that we sing with thankfulness, not out of a sense of duty. Once again, I want to point out how this must start with dwelling deeply. Deserving worshippers (if there were such a thing) don’t sing thankfully—just look at the Pharisees (Lk. 18:9-14). When we’re forgiven much, we love much (Lk. 7:36-50). Dwelling deeply in the gospel fuels thankful worship.
Do you find yourself dry in your worship to the Father? Paul tells us to continue in Christ just as we received Him—by faith (Col. 2:6). Reviewing the gospel and its work in you should prompt thankfulness—if not, try again, you didn’t look hard enough.
The act of worship starts with gospel reflection and concludes with thankful expression. We are moved from considering how we are affected to considering whom we are affected by. In this way, our gaze is slowly lifted from ourselves—our problems, our fears, our sins—and placed firmly on the God of the universe. This is what is at stake in our worship services.
An Old Testament Consideration
One of the main critiques stated by God about Israel’s worship was that it was outwardly oriented.
Then the Lord said,
“Because this people draw near with their words
And honor Me with their lip service,
But they remove their hearts far from Me,
And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote, (Is. 29:13) (see also 1 Sam. 15:22, Is. 66)
or David writes;
For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it;
You are not pleased with burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise. (Psalm 51:16-17)
It’s not that we should understand that God is displeased with the form of sacrifice that He required. Rather, we should see that the heart of the sacrifice—the contradictory nature of sacrificing at the temple and then doing what you pleased the rest of the day (see Is. 58:1-7)—was such that God would not delight in it. He needed to remedy worship by changing the worshipper, replacing the heart of stone and giving them a heart of flesh (Ex. 36:26). Renewal in Jesus was the means by which God makes true worshippers—dwelling deeply in the gospels, outwardly teaching and admonishing others, and upwardly giving thanks to God.