Have you ever wondered how musical worship as we know it came to be?
If we got some Christ-followers from AD 50, 1250, and 1850 and showed them a modern worship service, how would they compare it to their experience? Would they recognize it at all?
More important, I’d like to know whether there is a biblical basis for today’s worship service.
I was pleasantly surprised to find out that we can follow the path of today’s worship music all the way back to Christ’s time and before. Here’s how.
Jesus Worshiped in Song
Worship songs exist in the Old Testament which I’ll get to a little later. First, let’s talk about Jesus of Nazareth himself. What example did he set when it comes to worship music?
I was shocked when I dug into this question. Jesus worshiped with music in strikingly similar fashion as compared today.
After Jesus called out Judas as a traitor, he and the remaining disciples shared communion. It was his final night on earth pre-crucifixion. Mat 26:30 tells us “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” (NKJV) Wait, they sang a hymn? What hymn?
It turns out the eleven remaining disciples and Jesus himself sang from the book of Psalms.
The Greek word translated “hymn” is hymneo, which refers to what the Jews called the “great Hallel” or more specifically, Psalm 113-118 and Psalm 136.
Some passages from that area of Scripture, all in NKJV, are as follows.
Praise the LORD!
Praise, O servants of the LORD,
Praise the name of the LORD!
Blessed be the name of the LORD
From this time forth and forevermore!
From the rising of the sun to its going down
The LORD’s name is to be praised.
Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us,
But to Your name give glory,
Because of Your mercy,
Because of Your truth.
Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good!
For His mercy endures forever.
I don’t know about you but I think Chris Tomlin, Paul Baloche, and Jesus of Nazareth are singing from the same source. The style is different, but our worship today is following the example Jesus set.
I love the image of Jesus and the disciples sitting in a circle, singing God’s praise with songs they all knew by heart. If Jesus himself chooses to worship in this manner, it’s a good reason for us to do it too.
Worship Music after Christ’s Time
Congregations still sing hymns written just 300 years after Christ walked the streets of Jerusalem. According to SingWithUnderstanding, there is a long line of worship song writers starting shortly after Jesus’ time here to the present.
Here’s a list of hymns that have survived the centuries.
Savior of the Nations, Come. Composer: Ambrose of Milan (later translated into German by Martin Luther, and finally translated into English). Written mid-300s AD.
Be Thou My Vision. Composer: Dallan Forgaill. Written in the 700s AD.
All Creatures of our God and King. Composer: Francis of Assisi, who wrote more than 60 hymns to be sung in his monastery. Written in 1225.
A Mighty Fortress is our God. Composer: Martin Luther, leader of the reformation. Written around the year 1527.
Before the Throne of God Above. Written by Charitie Lees Smith in 1863. My favorite version is by Sojourn.
Great is Thy Faithfulness by Thomas Chisolm who also wrote 1,200 poems and hymns. Composed in 1923.
As the Deer, a classic by Marty Nystrom, written in 1981.
Revelation Song by Jennie Lee Riddle in 2004
Oceans, written by members of Hillsong, 2012
There is no great divide between old and new worship music. We sing and perform it differently depending on what is most edifying to our specific congregation. But if a new song is biblically based and glorifies God, it falls into the same category as one written a thousand years ago.
Worship Music Before Christ
Or even further. Our worship music through the millenia are mainly pulled from the book of Psalms, written in part by King David about a thousand years before Christ.
We could even go back to around 1400 BC when Moses sang the first song recorded in the Bible. Exodus 15 praises God for deliverance from Egypt, penned with astounding elegance.
The point is, people have been praising God in song probably since the Garden of Eden. It’s our honor and privilege to carry on that tradition in our local churches.
I know it’s hard to put a screaming electric guitar, an organ-led hymn, and a Gregorian chant in the same category. But they are all in the same bucket in God’s eyes and hopefully ours too.
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