It’s probably true that most of the people here today have heard at least one sermon on instrumental music and why, in the churches of Christ, we believe that it’s wrong for us to use the instrument in worship. I certainly have heard sermons like that; indeed, I’ve preached a few myself. I think that such sermons are true and important to the spiritual health of God’s people.
However, I also think that preaching on the outward form of worship that ignores the substance of worship is gravely incomplete. If we believe that it’s wrong for us to have a praise band up here on stage blaring away, we must also acknowledge that the worship we offer here without an instrument in sight can be just as wrong. God doesn’t only instruct us in what our worship should look like. He tells us how we should worship, and even though obedience to those commands is a much more subtle matter, it is just as important. This evening, then, let’s consider God-pleasing worship.
The first thing that Scripture teaches us about such worship is that it must be SPIRITUAL. Here, let’s consider Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well in John 4:19-24. As one might expect from a Samaritan having a conversation with a man she thinks is a divinely inspired prophet, she asks Him about the key religious distinction between Samaritans and Jews. Samaritans worship on Mt. Gerizim; Jews worship at the temple in Jerusalem. Who’s right?
Jesus replies, though, that soon people will worship neither on the mountain nor in the city. This is a strange reply. After all, both Jerusalem and Mt. Gerizim still exist. If we want to, we can go worship at either place right now. That can’t be what the Lord meant, so what’s He talking about?
I think the key to understanding His words is to read them not in terms of negation but in terms of emphasis. His point is not that people will no longer be able to worship in a particular location. It is that the location in which they worship will no longer matter. For true worshipers of God, both the temple and the mountain are going to be superseded.
As Jesus points out, this only makes sense. After all, God Himself is spirit. He’s not tethered to any particular earthly location. If you want to talk to me, you need to come stand next to me, but when it comes to a God who is present everywhere, any place is just as good as any other.
What is important, then, is not geographical correspondence. It’s spiritual correspondence. If we want God to hear us, we have to be on His spiritual wavelength. According to Jesus, this has two components: spirit and truth.
The truthful half of this tells us that our worship must be MINDFUL. Here, let’s examine 1 Corinthians 14:13-17. In context, Paul is discussing the problem with speaking in tongues without an interpreter. Even though your own spirit is lifted up, you aren’t helping anybody else. Today, we live long after the era of spiritual gifts, but it’s still important for us to sing both with spirit and with understanding. As the tongue-speaker had to ensure through the interpreter that others could be built up, we have to sing things that will ensure that others will be built up, and this is only possible when we sing hymns with content.
Because Christians in the pews hardly ever get to choose the hymns they sing, this is a responsibility that falls on the shoulders of song leaders. As Tim will tell you, there’s a lot to the technical craft of worship leading. You have to think about blowing pitch, beating time, communicating the emotional mood of the hymn, and a whole bunch of other stuff. However, the most important job of the song leader, bar none, is selecting hymns that will appeal to the understanding of the worshiper and build up the church. Every song leader needs to think first about what he wants to teach and second about what he wants to lead. He must have his message in mind and choose hymns that communicate that message. In my experience, song leaders who follow this one rule will avoid selecting unsuitable hymns 99 percent of the time.
However, all the rest of us have the responsibility of thoughtfully considering the content the song leader is offering us. As I know just as well as anybody, it’s all too easy for us to fall into the trap of singing hymns on autopilot. This hymn has important things to say, but rather than thinking about them, we’re thinking about the roast in the crock pot or the Titans game this afternoon.
That’s not good enough. Instead, we’re called to be effortful worshipers, worshipers who are concentrating on the words we’re singing and actively intending our singing to edify others. When we work on understanding, we help others understand too.
On the “spirit” side of the equation, true worship must be FROM THE HEART. Look here at Ephesians 5:18-19. This is, of course, a familiar text. However, the way that we often use it is a little strange. The only negative instruction in the text has to do with wine. Everything it says about worship is positive. However, we most commonly use it to make a negative point about worship: don’t use instruments. I think that’s a correct application, but I also think we need to be careful not to get so excited about the application that we miss the point.
The point is this: we are to worship God by singing to one another outwardly and making melody in our hearts inwardly. Even here we see a place where the application has swallowed Paul’s original intent. I think it’s correct to argue that the heart is the only musical instrument Paul contemplates in this text, but at the same time, he doesn’t talk about making melody in our hearts primarily to explain his use of psalmos. In fact, if we get the making-melody-in-our-hearts part wrong, it doesn’t really matter whether we’re outwardly using an instrument or not!
In order to get it right, we first must understand what Paul means by “heart”. I think most of us recognize that he isn’t talking about the blood pump in our chests, but he isn’t even using “heart” in the same figurative way that our society does.
In ordinary American speech, we use “heart” to represent the seat of our emotions. Following your heart means being led by your emotions, and so on. That’s not what it means in koiné Greek. Instead, in Greek, it stands for a concept we don’t really have—the place where our intellects and emotions unite. We might call it the mind-and-heart.
As a result, then, making melody in our hearts doesn’t mean only that we are joyful. It means that we are reacting emotionally to our intellectual appreciation of the truth we are singing. Things that our society considers opposites actually work together in the Biblical model of worship.
We see how this works when we contemplate the divine requirement that our worship be THANKFUL. Look just a verse down in Ephesians 5:20. This is a perfect illustration of the way that the Biblical concept of the heart works. Thankfulness isn’t merely a thought. When we’re thankful, we react emotionally to the good thing that someone has given us.
However, it isn’t merely an emotion either. I didn’t have to teach my children to feel emotions. For instance, both of them figured out how to be angry just fine on their own! Thankfulness, on the other hand, is something I have had to teach. I have had to tell my kids, “Say ‘Thank you,’” whenever somebody gives them a gift or a compliment. Thankfulness, then, doesn’t merely engage our intellects or our emotions. It engages both, and they work together in producing the attitude.
This process is what should produce thankfulness in our song worship to God. We can’t just be thankful. We have to be thankful about something. There has to be an intellectual component to the hymn we are singing that recalls the wonderful things that God has done for us. The more thoughtful and Biblically based the hymn, the more powerful this reminder will be.
However, just the intellectual reminder isn’t enough either. We can’t merely hear and acknowledge on some dispassionate level how good God has been to us. Instead, we have to listen. As Jesus said, we have to let those words sink into our ears.
We should never be indifferent to God giving us life, breath, and all things. We should never be indifferent to the spectacular gift of His Son. Those things should fill us with gratitude and joy. They should matter to us, and the fact that they matter to us should be evident in our outward expression of song and in our inward expression of worship in the heart.
Finally, and in much the same way, our song worship should be REVERENT. In this, let’s ponder Hebrews 12:28. The writer’s point here is plain. The only worship that is acceptable is the worship we offer with reverence and awe. In some ways, this was much easier for Christians 2000 years ago to understand. Back then, nobody believed that all people were on basically the same level. Instead, emperors and kings were way up there, and the common people were way down here. Either you treated the emperor with reverence, or you got squashed. It was easy for first-century Christians to apply that same way of thinking to their relationship with God.
Today, on the other hand, we don’t think like that. Our country is literally founded on the proposition that all men are created equal. There really isn’t any human being whom we are taught to regard with reverence. The president isn’t intrinsically better than I am. He has to put his pants on one leg at a time too!
As it did 2000 years ago, this attitude transfers to the way that our society today thinks about God. It shows up in the way so many rewrite the Bible to make it say what they want. It particularly shows up in the way that they “worship”.
There was a Facebook video going around a few years back that rewrote “How Great Thou Art” to “How Great I Am”, arguing that it better expressed what modern Christians feel. If we were being honest, the video claimed, this is what we would actually be singing. Sadly, it is entirely true that most of what is offered as worship now reflects this self-centered perspective.
As the Hebrews writer would say, though, we are called to better things than that. God wants us to be reverent. He wants us to express our reverence in the form of worship we use, according to His commandments and not our preferences. He wants us to show reverence by singing, every one of us, whether we can sing worth a lick or not. He wants us to be reverent in our language, addressing Him in a way that reveals His superiority and our inferiority. Finally, He wants us to be reverent in our hearts, so that whether we are sitting or standing up, we are still bowed in worship. God deserves this kind of worship, and it is the only kind that will please Him.