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Instruments of Music in Worship

Friday, January 03, 2020

Today, it’s time for me to return to what has been my theme throughout 2019:  preaching on sermon topics requested by members.  On this occasion I want to take up a topic requested by one of the sisters here—the use of musical instruments in our assemblies.

I think this is a worthwhile subject for a couple of different reasons.  First, it’s something that stands out about our services as compared to church services elsewhere.  Visitors to our assemblies are nearly guaranteed to notice that we only sing together, that a praise band or a piano is nowhere in sight.  It’s useful to offer them an explanation of why we do things this way.

Second, if we want to continue our tradition of a-cappella singing, we have to continue to teach on that tradition, to explain why it’s an important aspect of our obedience to God.  It’s easy to assume that everybody here gets it, but too often, that assumption is unjustified.  With these things in mind, let’s examine instrumental music in worship.

From a Biblical perspective, I see four main problems with the practice.  The first is that IT DOESN’T FOLLOW THE PATTERN.  For evidence of why this is important, look at 2 Timothy 1:13.  Here, Paul tells us that his instructions to Christians aren’t random and unique to each individual.  Instead, when we put them all together, they constitute a pattern, a coherent system of worship and service that Timothy, and indeed all Christians, are supposed to follow. 

Because this is so, whenever we want to know if something is acceptable to God or not, all we have to do is look at the pattern.  If it’s part of what we see in the New Testament, we should do it.  If it isn’t part of what we see in the New Testament, we shouldn’t do it.

Within the New Testament, there are about half a dozen passages that talk about singing praise to God as part of worship.  Some of them we’ll look at this morning; some we won’t.  However, they’re there, and they make it clear that a-cappella worship is part of the divinely ordained pattern.

By contrast, when we search through the New Testament, we never find anything said about Christians using musical instruments in worship.  The instrument isn’t part of God’s pattern for us.  Of course, there are plenty of churches that pay no heed to this and use instruments in worship anyway, but that isn’t for us.  In this congregation, we don’t want to follow ourselves.  We want to follow God.  We want to be Christians simply, and to be simply Christians.  That means that we leave the instrument to others.

Second, instrumental worship is problematic because IT DOESN’T TEACH AND ADMONISH.  Here, consider Colossians 3:16.  According to this text, one of the main reasons that we are to sing to one another is because we learn from our song worship.  It builds us up in the faith.  In fact, it’s possible for someone to be taught the gospel merely by listening to our singing.  On the other hand, no one ever learned the gospel from an instrument.

Let me give you an example.  Back when I was in law school, I was leaving my apartment one day when I heard somebody playing a flute.  I listened for a moment, and I recognized the melody as the tune for the hymn “Something for Jesus”.  The flutist was very good.  They did a beautiful job.  However, if somebody who didn’t know Jesus had heard them playing, that beautiful melody would have taught them nothing.

As Clay taught us last Sunday evening, when we sing, we’re supposed to listen to the words.  We’re supposed to take the meaning to heart.  A-cappella singing is perfectly suited to accomplishing this goal.  By contrast, no instrument ever created can add to the meaning of a hymn.  It can only be a distraction from it.

The third problem with using instruments in worship is that IT UNDERMINES “ONE ANOTHER”.  Let’s spend some time reflecting on the words of Ephesians 5:18-19.  Notice that as described here, the Biblical model of worship isn’t a bunch of Christians passively listening to a performance.  It’s ordinary Christians singing to one another.

In many ways, this resembles the Bible’s teaching on ordinary Christians studying the word and figuring out God’s will for themselves.  This teaching is so important because most of the religious world believes that ordinary Christians can’t do it themselves.  They say that we can’t figure the Bible for ourselves, so we need a priest or a pastor to tell us what it says.  Similarly, the practice of instrumental worship implies that the singing of ordinary Christians isn’t good enough, that we need an organist or a praise band to do it right.

Brethren, I don’t believe either one of those things!  When I’m in one of our Bible classes, what I hear is ordinary Christians figuring out the word for themselves.  Maybe we aren’t great Bible students by ourselves, but when we come together, the class’s comments reveal great wisdom and insight into the Scriptures.  We don’t have clergy here because we don’t need clergy.  God’s word is our birthright.

In the same way, during our song worship, I hear God’s people doing a great job of praising and glorifying Him.  Maybe by ourselves, we aren’t great singers.  I’m sure not!  However, when we come together, our combined singing is beautiful and edifying. 

That’s God’s plan for us.  He wants us to be a people of song.  His worship is our birthright too.  Whether they realize it or not, people who want to bring in the instrument want to take that birthright away.  They want us to sit quietly and let the professionals do it for us because the professionals do a better job.  I think that would be a terrible shame.

Finally, instrumental worship DOESN’T HELP THE CHURCH GROW.  I want to explore this topic by way of analogy, using Psalm 33:16-17.  This passage highlights another way in which the Israelites wanted to be like the nations around them.  Those nations won their wars with warhorses and chariots, so the Israelites wanted warhorses too.

The psalmist warns, though, that warhorses were a false hope for victory.  The Israelites couldn’t succeed by imitating their neighbors.  They needed to succeed by being different and trusting in God.

Sadly, there are many Christians today who look at things like the ancient Israelites did.  They look at these big denominational churches that use the instrument, and they argue that if we start using instrumental music, we’ll grow and become big like them.

However, that way of thinking is a false hope.  If you’ve got horses, that doesn’t mean you’re going to win the war.  After all, the other guy has horses too!  In the same way, if we were to adopt the instrument, that doesn’t mean that our church would get super-big.  After all, many other churches in town have the instrument too.  It only would put us on the same footing as them.

In fact, it would put us on a worse footing.  Those other congregations are bigger, so they can afford a better band and a more impressive show.  They have decades of experience in the spectacle of instrumental worship that we don’t have.  How in the world are we going to grow by doing the same thing they’re doing, only worse?

Like the Israelites, we don’t succeed by becoming like those around us.  We succeed by continuing to be different and trusting in God.  We show that trust by obeying His word, by worshiping Him with our voices and nothing else.

The Life and Teachings of Jesus 2020 Bible Reading Plan

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Our relationship with Jesus is like a journey, the more we walk with Him the more we know Him. Would you like to know Jesus on a deeper level? If so, then let us invite you to join our congregation on a journey through The Life and Teachings of Jesus. Through a combination of the four gospels, we'll chronologically trace the footsteps of Jesus’ life from His preexistence with the Father, through His ministry in Galilee, to His submission to the cross and His ultimate triumph in the resurrection. Through short daily readings (starting Jan. 6th), along with insightful summaries and challenging questions, there's much to learn. Download your copy today. It is our hope that as we journey together through the greatest story ever told we’ll find, as did the apostle Paul, that “everything is loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). ~Clay Gentry 

The Life and Teachings of Jesus 2020 Reading Plan PDF

Self-Defense and Public Order

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Like most brethren, I’ve been transfixed by the tragic events this past Sunday at the West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, TX.  I mourn the deaths of both the guilty and the innocent, but I salute the courage of the members of the security team who put their own lives at risk to ensure that no more innocents would die.

I suspect that most Christians feel as I do.  Intuitively, we sense that a man who kills in order to protect others from a criminal has done no wrong.  Like a shepherd, he is defending the flock from wolves. 

Nonetheless, our feelings aren’t enough to decide the matter.  We also must reckon with the Scriptural witness on the subject.  Previously, I’ve both written and preached that Jesus’ famous commandment to “turn the other cheek” should be read narrowly, with reference to persecution by the Roman government.  It does not address defending ourselves from criminals.  In fact, at several points, other Biblical arguments assume that people will practice self-defense.

However, that leaves another question.  What about the many times in the book of Acts when Paul and others are attacked by angry anti-Christian mobs that aren’t part of the government?  We don’t see Christians fighting back against the mobs either.  Doesn’t that imply that Paul and the others were pacifists?

The behavior of Paul in Acts 16 and elsewhere is consistent with pacifism, but that’s not the only reasonable explanation.  Throughout the New Testament, in numerous passages, Christians are told to live in a peaceable, quiet way that will bring respect from outsiders.  This makes the gospel more attractive (the kind of people who will submit their lives to Christ generally don’t appreciate disturbance of the peace), but it also protected early Christianity from being crushed by the government. 

The early church had its troubles with both Jewish and Roman officials, but those troubles would have been much worse if the first-century church had developed a reputation for provoking and participating in public disorder.  Gamaliel would not have spoken up to save the apostles in Acts 5 if there had been blood in the streets.  Paul would not have been able to defend himself before Felix in Acts 24 if he had been stirring up more trouble by fighting back.  His defense in 24:12 is based on the fact that he didn’t.

The logic of 1 Timothy 6:1 applies here too.  Disobedient Christian servants and unruly Christian brawlers both lead to the doctrine of Christ being spoken against.  The reputation of the church is more important even than our own lives, and we should act accordingly.

By contrast, Christians protecting their own from murderers does not bring the doctrine of Christ into disrepute.  The opposite is true.  I’ve seen nothing but praise for the West Freeway members who stopped the shooter in six seconds flat. 

Indeed, if all such incidents were resolved so quickly, I suspect there would be many fewer shooters.  Killing sheep appeals to cowards, and shooters are cowards.  Fighting guard dogs doesn’t.

We are responsible for submitting to the government that God has put in place, and we cannot participate in public disorder.  However, the Bible also calls us to be wise in an evil age.  The death toll at West Freeway is heartbreaking, but it could have been much worse.  I am thankful for those whose foresight ensured that it would not be, and I think that all churches will do well to imitate their example.

Summaries, Psalms 146-150

Monday, December 30, 2019

Psalm 146 is an outpouring of praise to God for His goodness.  Its opening phrase (“Praise the Lord!  Praise the Lord, O my soul!”) is used, among other places, in the third verse of “It Is Well with My Soul”.  The psalmist continues from there to promise God that he never will cease to praise Him.  He urges others not to trust in princes, who are mortal, but in God, who created all things and remains faithful.  Whenever His people are in need, God sees them and blesses them.  By contrast, He strikes down the wicked.  He will reign forever, and everyone should praise Him.

Psalm 147 continues the theme of praise by considering God’s work in creation.  The same God who cares for His people numbers and names the stars.  He uses His infinite strength to care for the weak and vulnerable.  Because of His providence, He is worthy of praise.  He feeds all living things, and He cares for His own. 

Next, the psalm invites the people of Jerusalem to praise God.  He has cared for them, and His power is so great that even the weather does His bidding.  Finally, His care is shown in that He has given His people His law.

Psalm 148 is one of the most familiar psalms in the psalter because it is paraphrased in our hymn “Hallelujah!  Praise Jehovah!”  It invites all of the creation to praise God:  the angels, the celestial bodies, the elements of creation, living creatures, and all people.  God is worthy of praise from all of these because He is above everything else.

Psalm 149 calls God’s people to praise Him.  They are invited to glorify Him in a number of different ways.  They praise Him because they can be certain of His help in defeating their enemies among the nations.

Psalm 150, the final psalm in the book, is another call to worship.  It invites God’s people to praise Him in different locations, for His great works, and with various musical instruments.  The psalm (and the book) concludes by appealing to everything that has breath to praise the Lord.

This Jesus

Friday, December 27, 2019

This morning, all of us are aware that this Wednesday, December 25th, is Christmas, a day on which people across the world will celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.  Most of us also are aware that there is nothing in the Bible that says that Jesus’ birth should be celebrated on December 25th, or, indeed, on any other day.  Nonetheless, it is true that at this time of year, more than any other, people are talking about Jesus.

What’s the big deal?  What’s so important about a baby born in a stable in a backwater of the Roman Empire that we should still be talking about it 2000 years later?  Certainly, the fact that Jesus was born of a virgin is impressive, but if that were the most noteworthy thing that Jesus ever did, He would be nothing more than an obscure historical footnote.  This morning, then, let’s turn to the Scriptures to see why we should care about this Jesus.

I had the idea for this sermon about six weeks ago, when Mike Young preached for us on Acts 2 and the first gospel sermon.  As I was following along in my Bible with him, I noticed something I’d never seen before.  At least in the ESV, the phrase “this Jesus” occurs three times in Peter’s sermon, and the three uses of the phrase highlight the most important things about Jesus’ life.

The first “this Jesus” phrase points out that He WAS CRUCIFIED.  Let’s read together from Acts 2:23.  There are three things in this verse that I want us to focus on.  The first is that Jesus was killed on the cross.  This might seem like a duh point, but believe it or not, there are plenty of folks who want to argue about this.  Muslims believe that Jesus only appeared to be crucified and was brought up alive into heaven.  Many skeptics argue that Jesus only passed out on the cross and came back to His senses in Joseph’s tomb.

Not so.  As Peter says here, and as everyone in Jerusalem at that point knew, Jesus died.  He breathed His last on the cross, and he was taken down dead from the cross.  Even extrabiblical writers like Suetonius and Josephus confirm that Jesus was killed.

Second, Jesus was delivered to crucifixion and death by the plan of God.  Around this time of year, people like to put up nativity scenes, and even though I don’t think that the shepherds and wise men came to visit Jesus and Mary at the same time, there they all are, gathered around the manger. 

Though of course it wouldn’t be historically accurate either, I think it would be thematically appropriate if all those nativity scenes also included a cross, because Jesus was quite literally born to die on that cross.  Indeed, the Bible tells us that even before the world was created, God had determined that Jesus had to die.  His death was the culmination of a plan that was older than the universe.

Third, let’s pay attention to “you”.  None of the people in the crowd that day were directly involved in Jesus’ death, but Peter tells them that they were responsible anyway.  This morning, I want us to consider our own responsibility.  Before anything else existed, God looked into the future and knew that He would have to send His sinless Son to die, and it was our sin that made His death inevitable.  We didn’t nail Jesus to the cross either, but neither can we walk away from our share in His suffering.

The second “this Jesus” statement in Acts 2 reports that He WAS RAISED UP.  Look at Acts 2:32.  Let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge how extraordinary a statement this is.  In my time as a preacher, I’ve preached many funerals and attended many more, but never once have I seen the body in the casket come back to life.  We know that dead people don’t rise from the dead, but Peter here is insisting that Jesus did exactly that.

In order to back up this extraordinary statement, Peter says that “we all are witnesses.”  There are a couple of senses in which I want us to consider his words.  First, he is obviously talking about himself and the other apostles who are standing next to him.  They saw the risen Jesus, they talked with the risen Jesus, they ate with the risen Jesus, and they even touched the risen Jesus. 

They were so sure that Jesus had risen that they spent the rest of their lives proclaiming that He had, and many of them even died because of their testimony.  Indeed, our word “martyr” comes from the Greek martus, which means “witness”.  Because they were willing to go to torture and death rather than take back their testimony, we can know that they were completely convinced Jesus had risen.

However, besides the human witness of the apostles, Peter’s sermon points out two other kinds of witness.  The first is the witness of prophecy.  Just before v. 32, Peter quotes from Psalm 16, which is only one of many prophetic passages in the Old Testament that foretold that God would raise His Holy One from the dead.  Today, we know that weather forecasters can’t correctly predict the weather next week, but the prophets of the Old Testament looked into the future and predicted the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Christ, right down to the tiniest detail.  This proves that both the prophecy and its fulfillment are the handiwork of God.

The third witness in this text is the witness of miracles.  The apostles confirmed the word they preached with signs and wonders.  In Acts 2, they display the miraculous ability to speak in foreign languages.  Other miracles that are even more impressive appear throughout the New Testament.  If somebody says they saw a dead man come back to life, you can safely ignore them.  If they claim that, then raise a man from the dead themselves, then you’d better start listening!

Our third “this Jesus” phrase reveals that He WAS MADE LORD AND CHRIST.  Consider Acts 2:36.  Let’s begin by talking about what “Lord” and “Christ” mean.  “Lord” is straightforward.  God put Jesus in control of everything.  “Christ” is less so.  I suspect that most Americans believe that “Christ” is Jesus’ last name.  It isn’t.  It’s a title, like “King”.  It means “Anointed One”, and it carries with it the idea that Jesus is God’s anointed prophet, priest, and king.  In short, Jesus was the fulfillment of everything the prophets had told the Jews to expect.

Second, notice that Peter says that we can “know for certain” that Jesus is Lord and Christ.  This is the consequence of the witnesses we talked about in the last section.  If you accept the eyewitnesses, the prophecies, and the miracles, you also must accept the pre-eminence of Jesus.  As the next verse shows, the people who saw these things certainly were convinced!

That, in turn, is a belief with consequences.  We can’t accept that Jesus is Lord and go on living the way we used to live.  That would be like acknowledging that we live in the United States of America, yet refusing to obey any of its laws.  Like the Jews in v. 37, we also have to ask, “What shall we do?”  Sometimes, the answer is the answer of v. 38.  We have to obey the gospel.  We have to become Christians through baptism for the forgiveness of our sins.  Always, though, the answer must be that we will devote our lives to the One we call “Lord”.

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