NOTE: The following is revised and expanded from an article I wrote that appeared in the February 4, 2001, edition of The Christian Standard.
Sports fans are passionate people. They love their favorite teams and cheer them on with great enthusiasm. But sometimes their passion gets out of control, and violence erupts. We have seen this on a number of occasions, especially when a favorite team wins a big game or a national championship. Revelry and carousing take place in the streets, some even firing guns into the air, while others are hurt or injured from brawls that break out.
Don’t Get Drunk on Wine. . .
The country witnessed this behavior in 2000 when Los Angeles residents rioted after the Lakers won the NBA title. No doubt in many of these incidents of individuals or crowds getting out of hand, alcohol was a major contributing factor. Alcohol breaks down our inhibitions and our sense of self-control, and leads to all kinds of misbehavior. Although Midwesterners are a little more subdued in their celebrations, I have no doubt that St. Louisans lined Busch Brewery’s pockets after Games 6 and 7 of the 2011 World Series.
Expressing passion for a sports team can be turned into a positive model of worship. After all, the word “fan” comes from the word “fanatic.” Do we love God and express our praise for him as much as we do our favorite teams? Hasn’t God done much more than win a World Series or an NBA title? Now granted, I don’t want us going out and getting drunk for Jesus. Eph 5:18 provides a good balance for us when celebrating what God has done in our lives: “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” Paul warns that controlled substances and uncontrolled behaviors are not the proper way to celebrate or to let off steam at the extremes of life. These only lead to trouble, hardship, and sin.
Instead, Be Filled with the Spirit
Instead, Paul exhorts his readers to “be filled with the Spirit.” The similarity here with the negative command against alcohol may escape some: with alcohol, we give up control of our faculties to a mindless substance, and our corrupt flesh nature rises to the surface. If you’ve ever had too much to drink, you know what I mean. You say things when you’re tipsy that you wouldn’t say when you’re sober. Your ability to drive and walk is impaired. Being filled with the Spirit, however, implies that we are giving up control to “the mind of Christ” and to the God who created us for his purposes—our “new man” shines forth.
Understanding this truth is one key to getting a handle on the “worship wars” that many congregations have experienced in the past twenty years. Many in the older generations (“the builders” and to a certain extent, the “boomers”) fuss at the younger generation because of the latter’s desire to have more contemporary choruses and the additional accompaniment of guitars, drums, and so on. At the same time the younger generations (“busters,” “X,” and “2K”) complain about the slow tempo of some traditional hymns and the unpopularity (from their perspective) of the piano or church organ, or both. (One is hard pressed to find a successful radio station today that plays only piano and organ music!) When I moved back to Nebraska in 2010, I got reconnected with the congregation that sent me off to seminary. The sermon series that first Sunday I was back was “I Love the 80s.” Each week, the worship team performed a different (secular) hit song from the 80s, and the pastor used Scripture to highlight the significant themes of the song.
The one who is critical of the worship style a congregation uses is equally as guilty as the one who condemns another for not jumping on board a congregation’s preferred worship style, or a congregation’s desire to establish a more culturally relevant style. Neither group is filled with the Spirit. Neither group is more holy or righteous than the other is simply because of what its preferred style of music is. If we are filled with the Spirit when we come to worship, we allow the Holy Spirit to break down our inhibitions about style, while he directs our attention to the substance of the hymn or chorus.
Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs
When we get beyond our personal preferences about style, only then can we truly appreciate the command to “sing a new song” to our Lord. Paul goes on in Eph 5:19–20 to explain what he means by being filled with the Spirit. The first aspect is “speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music in your hearts to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything.” Paul here seems to bring the old (psalms, hymns) and the new (spiritual songs) together for the mutual edification of the body, and for the purpose of expressing thanks to our God. In fact, the five verbs that come after “be filled with the Spirit” are all subordinate to that command in some way, because they are all participles. Here is my outline for the organization of those verses:
Be filled (πληρόω) with the Spirit
Speaking (λαλέω) to one another with psalms (ψαλμός), hymns (ὕμνος), and spiritual songs (ᾠδή)
Singing (ᾄδω) and
Making music (ψάλλω) in your hearts to the Lord,
Always giving thanks (εὐχαριστέω) to God the Father…
Submitting (ὑποτάσσω) to one another out of reverence for Christ.
The passion in that exhortation is self-evident. The musical expression of God’s Word was a vital part of the fellowship experience of first century Christians. This has been true throughout the centuries in the Christian faith, and still holds true today. Passionate worship is one of the signs of a living, growing, fruit-bearing congregation. Passionate worship shows the world that we really do love our Lord with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind.
The second aspect of being filled with the Spirit is that we “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21). Like the Fifth Commandment (Ex 20:12), this command serves as general statement of transition between our spiritual relationships (worship of God within the body) and our earthly relationships (family and work). In the context of the former (worship), submitting to one another implies that we show mutual respect for each other’s preferred styles. If the Spirit is present, style is at best a secondary concern. What matters is keeping the unity of the Spirit with the bond of peace (Eph 4:3).
The New Song
The most common hymnbook in the pews of the churches I served in the past twenty years was Favorite Hymns of Praise (Tabernacle Publishing, Wheaton, IL) copyrighted in 1967. One day while preparing a sermon on the topic of the “new song,” I thumbed through the hymns and browsed an Internet site with hymn histories. I discovered that most of the hymns were in the public domain or the copyright had expired. In other words, they were written before copyright laws went into effect in the early 1920s. Although many of these hymns contain important, timeless truths about God and our faith, they are nonetheless “old.” The fact that they are old does not detract from their value, but it may detract from their appeal to younger generations.
The command to “sing to the Lord a new song” (Psalm 98:1) is not one which was negated by the New Covenant. All nine occurrences of the phrase “new song” in the NIV are connected with the victory, salvation, and justice of God.
God is still winning victories today, every time someone professes faith in him and receives baptism by immersion. In Luke 15, we see that the angels throw a heavenly party over each sinner who repents. Each soul has a unique story of how he or she came to know Christ, and each story is worthy of a “new song.”
Psalm 98 is by far the most vivid statement of the “new song” in Scripture. The psalm consists of three stanzas of three verses each. In each of the first three verses, God’s salvation is mentioned. Verses 2–3 are particularly prophetic: the word for “salvation” (יְשׁוּעָה) is related to the word translated elsewhere as “Joshua,” or to the Greeks, “Jesus.”
Verses 4–6 make it clear that enthusiasm and passion are important, if not necessary, elements of worship. This second stanza begins and ends with the command to “shout for joy” (רוע). Verse 4 in the NIV is rendered “burst into jubilant song with music,” but the KJV reveals that the phrase is actually made up of only three verbs. “Burst” (KJV has “make a loud noise”; פצח) has the image of flood waters built up behind a dam or levee that suddenly break through clearing out everything in its path. “Jubilant song” (KJV has “rejoice”; רנן) is used of the mountains in vs. 8. “Music” (KJV has “sing praise”; זמר) is actually the root word for “psalm” (see the Ephesians passage above), which is a song sung to musical accompaniment.
God as Audience
Verse 6 is the crux of the entire psalm. The word “before” can also be translated “in the presence of.” When we “shout for joy in the presence of the Lord, the King,” the obvious conclusion here is that God is the audience. Those of us who worship, then, are the performers. The condition in Psalm 33:3 makes a great deal of sense, then: “play skillfully.” God wants us to give our best. Our best may not win us any recording contracts, but he does want us to worship with all that we are.
God wants us to praise him even when we do not feel like praising him, or even when we do not think our talents are good enough to contribute to the body. Jehoshaphat placed the choir out in front of the troops, and ultimately they did not have to lift a finger in violence against their enemies. God won the victory. Praise has a power that goes far beyond our ability and our comprehension. The point is: “SING!”
The final three stanzas reveal that worship is for all of God’s creation, not just his chosen people. In part, it is evangelistic. 1 Corinthians 14 indicates that orderly, comprehensible worship is a powerful tool for reaching the unsaved. If our forms of worship are foreign to the culture around us, we will not have a significant impact on our culture.
A Bold Example
One congregation I served in had a “talent” night. Two high school freshmen boys “rapped” Will Smith’s song “Just the Two of Us.” The “rap” is about Will Smith’s desire to be a good father to his son, in spite of his divorce from the boy’s mother. Nothing in the song is offensive to the Christian values of parenthood. I know some of our elderly members were squirming, if not fuming, from allowing that song to be performed in the sanctuary. But neither of these two young men has significant contact with their biological fathers. I interpreted that song as a heartfelt prayer of those two young men for a relationship like the one Will Smith sang about.
In worship, we long to draw near to our heavenly Father, just as those two teenagers longed to have a close relationship with their earthly fathers. Singing a new song to the Lord is one way to praise God for his victories in our lives, both past and future. If we are not singing new songs to the Lord, the rocks themselves will cry out declaring the righteous rule of our Savior and Lord.