A couple of weeks ago, the most recent Sumphonia recording session wrapped up. As the Sumphonites often do, they released video of one of the songs they recorded (“Before the Throne of God Above”), which you can find here.
I have many friends who participated in the recording, so I watched as the video made its way around social media, generally to appreciative commentary.
However, there was one exception. Someone whom I do not know (I’m withholding his name for reasons that will become obvious) asked, “Is this singing for entertainment?” When others responded, he added, “My final post in this string. You sing, you record, you sell, even have venues, people buy... That's singing hymns of worship for entertainment.”
This is certainly a serious charge. It is tantamount to accusing the Sumphonia organizers and singers of taking the things of God and commercializing them for the sake of material gain. For that matter, it is tantamount to accusing everyone who listens to worship recordings of reducing sacred song to an avenue for fleshly pleasure.
Now, doing so is certainly possible. I suppose there could be someone associated with song worship in the churches of Christ who does it for the money. I think it’s even more likely that people might listen to hymn recordings for aesthetic rather than spiritual reasons.
However, to argue that this necessarily _is_ what is happening, without knowing anything about the people involved, far exceeds the evidence. It’s impossible when it comes to Sumphonia. Sumphonia is a nonprofit, its board members are unpaid (indeed, the cashflow arrow tends to point in the other direction!), and the equally unpaid singers travel to the recording venue and find lodging there at their own expense.
Even if that were not true, is it somehow less legitimate for someone who produces worship recordings to be paid than it is for someone who preaches gospel sermons to be paid? Does getting income from some godly activity automatically render it ungodly? If so, lots of brethren are in trouble, from the apostle Paul on down! It seems wise to me, then, to refrain from judging hearts without very, very good evidence.
The same holds true for those who listen to hymn recordings. In fact, that’s about all I listen to these days. I have no interest in giving the sin merchants in the secular entertainment industry more space in my head than they’ve already got.
I don’t know what goes on in anyone else’s head when they listen to worship recordings, but I know what goes on in mine. It is true that I enjoy the beauty of the singing (though to say that I am “entertained” by it is a stretch). I believe, though, that such enjoyment is part of God’s plan for worship. Why would He command us to engage in that which is beautiful if we are not supposed to find joy in it?
Even more than that, though, I enjoy the beauty of the message. For instance, in the car yesterday morning, I was listening to Psalom’s recording of “My God and King” (which you can find here). Lovely to listen to? Sure! Those Russian brethren really can sing!
Nonetheless, what has stuck with me all day was not the harmony, but the meaning. For those who haven’t spotted it, “My God and King” is a paraphrase of Psalm 84, built around the opening line, “How beautiful are Your dwelling places, O God!” I meditated on that all morning: how much I enjoy moments of fellowship with God, and how much I long to spend eternity where He dwells.
If that’s about entertainment, then Christianity itself is about entertainment too.
Obviously, anything, no matter how good, can be misused. That holds true for sacred song. However, those who are quick to level accusations of misuse are probably saying more about themselves than they are about anybody else.
Psalm 79 laments the destruction of Jerusalem. The psalmist begins by enumerating several woes: the temple has been defiled, the city has been ruined, its inhabitants have been slaughtered, and the survivors are being mocked by their neighbors. He asks God to reveal how long this horrible state will continue and encourages Him instead to punish the heathen kingdoms that are responsible for Jerusalem’s destruction.
The psalmist then implores God to forget their sins and rescue them for three reasons: because of the magnitude of their suffering, for the glory of His name, and to rebut the nations who doubt His power. He encourages God to hear the cries of the captives and punish Judah’s enemies instead so that they can glorify Him.
Psalm 80 expresses similar sentiments. It opens with an appeal to God to save His people. V. 3 contains a refrain that is repeated in vs. 7 and 19. In the second “verse”, the psalmist observes that God has made His people suffer, figuratively feeding them their tears.
The third “verse” (which is considerably longer than the others) begins by contrasting God’s past behavior to current conditions. He established Israel in Canaan like a vine in a vineyard, but now the vineyard wall has been broken down and Israel’s enemies are ravaging it. Then, the psalmist appeals to God to have compassion for His vine, and particularly for “the son of man”, who is probably the king. If God will rescue His people, they will praise Him.
Psalm 81 is a contrasting psalm of praise. It encourages God’s people to praise Him with various instruments during a feast day. Then, the psalmist looks back to the historical origins of that feast day. It stretches all the way back to God’s deliverance of His people from Egypt.
After this, the psalmist considers God’s words to His people at Meribah. In exchange for their rejection of idolatry, He promises to bless them. However, they ignored Him. God then laments their decision, because if they were to listen to Him, He would defend them from their enemies and feed them with the best food.
We live in a society that is increasingly defined by an absence of male leadership. This is evident first of all in the family. Today, only 58 percent of American children live with both birth parents, and the vast majority of the time, if a parent is gone, it’s Dad. As our nation continues to decline, this number will only rise.
Leadership problems are prominent within the church too. Based on an informal, decades-long survey, Steve Wolfgang estimates that only a quarter to a third of churches of Christ have elders. The most common reason for a man to be unqualified to serve is his unfaithful children.
I’m not here to assign blame for any of these things, but I am here to say that men of God need to do better. If we allow our corrosive culture to corrode those who should be leading the church, the Restoration movement surely will end in failure. With this in mind, let’s take another look this evening at Job 31 and God’s model of the virtuous man.
The first attribute that Job examines in this part of the context is JUSTICE. Look at Job 31:13-15. This passage, is about the way that a man handles being in authority. You’re the master. You’re the boss. You’re the man. However, one of your servants comes to you with a complaint. They have no power. They can’t make you do anything. All they can do is appeal to your sense of fairness. A good man will listen to them and deal justly with them. A bad man will dismiss them because he has the power to do so.
The applications of this passage are legion. First, it applies to those who are business owners or even managers. How do you treat those who are under you? Are you fair with them? Are you understanding? Or, instead, do you use your power to bully them and be a jerk because you can and nobody’s going to call you out on it? If the latter, Job wants us to remember that no matter who we are, God still is over us, and if we are unfair to others, we will have to give an account.
The same can be said for husbands and fathers. Men, God made us the head of the family, but our model for headship isn’t Louis XIV. It’s Jesus. We’re not called to stomp all over our wives and children. We’re called to serve them and consistently seek their good. If we refuse to hear their concerns and be persuaded when it’s appropriate, we aren’t the leaders God has called us to be.
Similarly, Job makes the point that God has called us to GENEROSITY. Consider his words in Job 31:16-20. Notice that in this text, all the sins that Job cites are sins of omission. They are all times when a man of God has the opportunity to help and chooses not to. There is a widow he could feed, and he allows her to go hungry. There is an orphan he could clothe, and he allows him to be cold instead. Men, if all we do is stand by and allow the poor to suffer without any help from us, we are not being godly!
Of course, we also should use wisdom as we offer help. If you toss twenty bucks to the guy who is sitting on the sidewalk outside the liquor store begging for money, you’re not helping anybody! At the same time, though, we must not allow wisdom to lead us into hardheartedness. If all we ever do is make excuses about why we are not being generous, at some point, we have to admit that we don’t actually want to be generous.
Now, I must say that in the time I’ve been here, I’ve seen that this is a generous, caring congregation, and all of you who are involved in that, I applaud you! Keep doing that, and even if you get burned, don’t let that discourage you from doing good in future.
Third, Job lauds the merits of FORBEARANCE. Let’s keep going in Job 31:21-23. This is another image that takes some unpacking. Back in the day, some of the poorest, most vulnerable people were the fatherless—orphans. They didn’t have anybody to protect them or stand up for them. By contrast, the gate is where the elders of the city sat to pass judgment on local business. What Job is saying, then, is that wicked men are emboldened by their powerful friends to oppress the poor. If you take the lands of the fatherless away from him and split them with your buddy, who’s going to object?
Job’s answer is that God will. If you raise your hand against the fatherless, God’s going to rip your arm off. The same principle applies today. God loves the poor. He loves the widows. He loves the fatherless. Indeed, everyone who is weak and vulnerable and despised by society, He loves, and He will surely punish those who harm and exploit them.
We must take care that we are not involved in the oppression of people like this ourselves. I don’t think that God is pleased with those who operate title-loan and check-cashing businesses, nor with those who take advantage of political connections to profit at the poor’s expense. If we are merciless, God will be merciless toward us.
Finally, we see Job endorsing GODLINESS. Let’s wrap up our reading for the hour in Job 31:24-28. This is another text where we see Job making connections that we don’t expect to see until the New Testament. We see idolatry all the way through the Old Testament, but it’s not until Colossians 3 that Paul says straight-out that covetousness and greed are another form of idolatry.
However, notice the structure of the passage here. Here, Job talks both about trusting in gold and worshiping false gods, but he does so in the same context. Clearly, he regards those things as related, and he thinks that both are a betrayal of God.
Today, we don’t have too much to do with idols. The only idol I know of in town is that one in the donut shop in Sunnyside. I think it’s a statue of Lakshmi, but I haven’t seen anyone worshiping it.
Covetousness is another matter. There are an awful, awful lot of people around here who worship money, even if they go to church on Sunday morning. Sometimes, their love of money is how they determine where they’re going to go to church! The point is that it’s easy to think that money isn’t the most important thing in our lives and yet be totally deceived. A quick rule of thumb is that if we find ourselves thinking more about money than we do about God, we’re on the wrong side of this one. We need to trust in Him to protect us, not money.
Having considered the work of the Father and the Son on previous Sunday mornings, it’s now time for us to turn our attention to the work that the Holy Spirit continues to do today. Of these three subjects, this is the one that is by far the most controversial.
Many of us know people with charismatic or Pentecostal convictions. They believe that not only is the Spirit still at work today, but that part of His work is still the bestowing of miraculous spiritual gifts. On the other end of the spectrum, there are many brethren who believe that today, the Spirit works only through the word.
These are two extreme, indeed irreconcilable, positions. However, our concern is not with the doctrine promoted by anyone, but with what the Scriptures truly teach. With this in mind, let’s see what the Bible says about how the Spirit works today.
First, we learn that the Spirit GUIDES us. Look here at John 16:13. Sometimes, you’ll hear people talk about being guided by the Spirit to make various life decisions. The Spirit guided them to take a particular job, or marry a particular person, or so on.
However, if we look closely at this passage, we will see that that’s not what it is teaching. This text isn’t about the Spirit guiding us to good life decisions. Instead, He is guiding us into all truth. Similarly, He isn’t giving us feelings or nudges. He is speaking and declaring. When we put these things together, we see that this is a passage about prophetic revelation. In the first century, Christians received the Spirit’s guidance through the spoken word of prophets. Today, we receive it through the word they wrote down.
From this, we must conclude that the word, as produced by the Holy Spirit, is the only reliable guide to divine truth. Sure, people might have these promptings or feelings, but when we experience those things, we always have to evaluate them according to the Scriptures. Only the Scriptures have been confirmed as genuine revelation.
If, on the other hand, we start valuing those experiences as much or more than we value the Scriptures, we are going to get into all sorts of trouble. I know a brother in the Chicago area whose wife left him because she said she felt guided by the Spirit to have an affair with the pastor of her church. When we easily accept the validity of unconfirmed revelations, we give an opportunity to the devil.
Second, the Spirit GUARANTEES our heavenly dwelling. Consider 2 Corinthians 5:4-5. Once again, in order to understand the passage here, we have to focus on the words that Paul is using. He says that the Spirit is given as a guarantee. Other translations will describe the Spirit here as a deposit or a down payment. Incidentally, the Greek word arrabon, which is translated in so many ways here, is used in modern Greek to describe an engagement ring.
What all of these things have in common is the idea of certainty, particularly when it comes to deposits, down payments, and engagement rings. You put down a deposit on an apartment when you rent it so that the landlord knows that you won’t trash the place and leave him stuck with the bill. You spend thousands of dollars on an engagement ring so that your fiancée knows that yes, you’re serious about marrying her.
Once again, then, the operation of the Spirit here can’t be about a conviction or a feeling. It has to be something that is tangible and certain, something that is proof. In the first century, that proof came through the miraculous gifts of the Spirit. When Peter raised the dead, that proved that the promises he made came from God. Today, the guarantee of our hope is found in the written word. In the inspired record of God’s revelation, we have the evidence we need to conclude that it truly came from God.
Third, the Spirit CONVICTS. Let’s examine both this statement and its implications in John 16:7-11. This is another place where working our way carefully through the text will help bring its true meaning to light. First, notice that the convicting work of the Spirit is directed at the world. The Greek word used here isn’t about filling somebody with conviction. It’s about exposing and rebuking wrongdoing.
There are three areas in which the Spirit convicts: sin, righteousness, and judgment. Jesus says that the Spirit convicts the world of sin because they don’t believe in Him. In other words, they have all the evidence they need to accept Him as the Christ, but because they willfully choose to reject that evidence, they do wrong. He convicts the world of righteousness because in the absence of Jesus, the word of the Spirit is the new standard of righteousness, which the world doesn’t meet. Finally, He convicts the world of judgment because Satan has been judged, and if even the devil can’t protect himself from judgment, how will all the servants of the devil fare?
All of this should remind us that the gospel doesn’t only affect those who are willing to hear it and be saved. For those who turn to the Lord, the Scriptures are a message of life, but for those who reject Him, they hold a message of death. We must be willing to sow the word even on hearts we think are hard because that’s part of the purpose of God too.
Finally, the Spirit INTERCEDES. Let’s turn to Romans 8:26-27. I have to admit that this is a passage that brings a smile to my face. I can’t read it without thinking of my father because he and I argued about it for 20 years. He believed that this passage wasn’t about the Holy Spirit at all, rather being about our own spirits. I still have great respect for my father as a Bible student, and I agree that every time the translators use a capital S isn’t necessarily talking about the Holy Spirit, but I think he was wrong on this one.
Let me explain why. Romans 8:26 is the conclusion of a series: three things that are groaning for God to answer them. The first is the creation, which in 8:22 is groaning to be set free from corruption. The second is we ourselves, who are groaning in 8:23 for our adoption. The third is the Spirit, which is groaning in 8:26.
The problem with saying that the “spirit” in 8:26 is our spirits is that we already have appeared in Paul’s list. He’s already talked about our groaning four verses earlier. In 8:26, then, Paul isn’t repeating himself. He’s moving to a new topic: the groaning of the Holy Spirit.
This is significant because this is the only passage I’m aware of in which the Spirit is clearly working outside the word right now. He is helping us in the times when we don’t know what to say in our prayers, so that our meaning gets through to God. The Spirit certainly communicates God’s will to us, but there are times when He communicates our will to God too.
Psalm 75 praises God for the way that He brings order to His creation. He keeps the earth from tottering, and he rebukes the boastful and wicked. No one else but God can be relied on to judge righteously, and the wicked cannot escape drinking the cup of His wrath. In addition to bringing the wicked low, He will exalt the righteous.
Psalm 76 contrasts God’s power to the power of an earthly army. He took Jerusalem for His dwelling place, and there he broke an enemy army’s weapons and rendered its troops unable to fight. As a result, it is God, rather than they, who is to be feared. No one on earth can oppose Him. As a result, it is appropriate for mankind to worship Him because of the judgments He brings against even the rulers of the earth.
Psalm 77 expresses the psalmist’s confidence that God will hear him. His trouble is so great that he is practically fainting. At night, instead of sleeping, he finds himself asking whether God has abandoned him.
He finds the answer to the question in God’s past works. He has always worked wonders to deliver His people. In fact, His power and determination to save them are so great that He even parted the Red Sea to save them.
Psalm 78 explores the paradox of God’s faithfulness to Israel and Israel’s unfaithfulness to Him. The psalmist begins by explaining his purpose, which is to teach the children of God’s people about the stories of God’s power that the fathers taught him. Indeed, God established His law so that His people could hand that law down from generation to generation, so that they would not fall into the faithlessness of the Israelites of old.
The psalmist cites the Ephraimites as the foremost example of this faithlessness. They did not walk according to His will, despite the power He displayed in parting the Red Sea and giving them guidance and water in the wilderness. They doubted that He would be able to provide food for them too.
In response, God provided them with manna and quail, but their sin made Him angry, so that He struck down many of them as they ate. Nonetheless, they continued in sin, only repenting briefly when He punished them. However, He was merciful and did not destroy them altogether.
Their repeated sin was particularly offensive because of all that He had done to deliver them from Egypt. He struck down the Egyptians with a multitude of plagues, but He led His people safely to Canaan.
Even there, the Israelites continued to sin. They provoked God with their idolatry. As a result, God rejected Israel and abandoned His dwelling place at Shiloh, allowing His priests to be struck down. Instead of continuing to dwell among the Ephraimites, He selected Mount Zion in the midst of Judah, to be His new dwelling place, and the Judahite David to be the new king of His people.