A Singing People

Is any among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise (James 5:13).

The people of God are to be a singing people.

As James began to conclude his letter he set forth a series of exhortations for Christians in their walk with God (James 5:7-20). Christians who are suffering should pray; those who are cheerful should sing praise (James 5:13).

James’ exhortation should not surprise us. While in prison Paul and Silas sang and prayed (Acts 16:25). Christians are to speak, teach, and admonish one another in song (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). Such exhortations build on the heritage and experience of Israel, singing the psalms before YHWH in the Temple and in their lives (1 Chronicles 25:1-31, Matthew 26:30). Thus, when things went well, the people sang praise; when things were not so well, they sang laments. They sang thanksgivings; they sang prayers. In all this they were singing before God. Thus we do well to consider: are we a singing people?

It seems that the voices of the people of God continue to grow quieter. In the assembly many can barely be heard; Christians will listen to secular and/or “contemporary Christian” music, get used to hearing singing, but do not share in that singing themselves. It is easy to believe that singing is better left to other people.

Bifurcation of life in terms of times of “worship” and the “rest of life,” along with an emphasis on the performative elements of singing, have proven very deleterious. We do well to note that James tells individual Christians to sing praises when cheerful (James 5:13). As there is no authorization for the use of instruments when Christians sing together (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16), there is no authority for them in the individual praises of Christians, either (James 5:13). Attempting to suggest the problem features instruments “in worship” and not in the “rest of life,” as many are wont to do, simply beg the question. From where do these distinctions come? They are not in the pages of Scripture; singing in the assembly is not uniquely defined as “worship” over and against individual singing. No direct association is made in Scripture between singing together and “worship” as commonly understood. Likewise, while we all like to have good singing, and we would all love to sing well, performance should never be the driver when it comes to our singing, individually or collectively; the substantive message of the song should always be the driver. The best performed song that does not speak, teach, or instruct has no share in Ephesians 5:19 or Colossians 3:16; praise can be beautiful, but beauty without substance is not praise (James 5:13).

Abide with MeSinging is designed to build up and encourage (1 Corinthians 14:26); we can only do that when we recognize the profound value in the substance and singing of songs. Science has known for some time that people learn messages better when put to a tune; the best preached sermon can hardly match the visceral power of a well written hymn. Singing can change your mood; singing can help us keep our minds and hearts on Christ as they should be, even in difficult circumstances, just like Paul and Silas in Acts 16:25. We can sing praises when alone; we can join our voices together to praise God in song and instruct each other, audibly demonstrating the unity we share in God in Christ (1 John 1:1-6). From song we can derive strength in the moment of trial and reinforce the joy of more fortunate times.

Singing is not better left to other people; God intends for all of His people to sing. The quality of the performance is never nearly as important as the value of the substance. Singing edifies mind, heart, and soul. In good times we do well to sing; in distress we ought to cry out to God in prayer and sing laments. There is a song for every circumstance if we are only willing to sing it. May we be the singing people of God to His glory and praise!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Blood

And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, that eateth any manner of blood, I will set my face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh atonement by reason of the life. Therefore I said unto the children of Israel, No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood. And whatsoever man there be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, who taketh in hunting any beast or bird that may be eaten; he shall pour out the blood thereof, and cover it with dust. For as to the life of all flesh, the blood thereof is all one with the life thereof: therefore I said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall eat the blood of no manner of flesh; for the life of all flesh is the blood thereof: whosoever eateth it shall be cut off (Leviticus 17:10-14).

There certainly seems to be a lot of blood involved in Christianity.

Many of the popular hymns prominently feature blood; many of its uses would be considered graphic and revolting if taken literally. In song people are encouraged to hide in Jesus’ blood, or request to be drawn near to Jesus’ “bleeding side.” But by far the most common imagery is drawn from Revelation 7:13-14: the saints as having white garments after washing them in the blood of the Lamb. Such an image cannot be taken literally, as anyone who has ever attempted to get bloodstains out of white clothing can attest. Such talk of blood is not limited to song; Christians seem to always be talking about the blood of Christ and cleansing that comes from it. How could an image so graphic and almost grotesque as if understood literally become so powerful in Christianity?

We do well to consider what blood is and why it is important to the body. We have discovered that blood is one of the main transport vehicles throughout the body, bringing oxygen and nutrients to cells throughout the body while taking away carbon dioxide, toxins, and the like. The functions of blood are entirely essential to life; if blood is not flowing to and from a given body part, it will die.

The critical value of blood to life is what makes it so powerful as an image, as we see in Leviticus 17:10-14. God commands Israel to not eat blood, and does so with some vehemence. The reasoning behind the prohibition should interest us greatly in both of its dimensions: the life of flesh is in the blood, and it is given upon the altar to make atonement. Blood makes atonement by virtue of the life it represents (cf. Leviticus 17:11).

Blood, therefore, represents life. The great interest in the Bible and in song regarding the blood of Jesus is really a strong interest in the life of Jesus which was offered up and sacrificed for our sins (Hebrews 7:26-28, 9:11-26). This imagery is only possible because of the second aspect of blood as life as declared by God in Leviticus: a life can be given to atone for another life. In the Old Testament, animals were sacrificed upon the altar in order to accomplish this atonement (Leviticus 4:1-35, 17:11). Yet, as the Hebrew author demonstrates, the blood of bulls and goats could not truly atone for sin (Hebrews 10:4). The Hebrew author goes on to explain how Jesus’ life, represented by His shed blood, proved fully sufficient to atone for sin (Hebrews 10:5-18). There is no other offering of blood (thus, life) that needs to be added to what Jesus gave; thus all animal sacrifices are concluded. Jesus’ life can provide atonement and thus life for all mankind (Hebrews 7:24-26)!

Another potent image for atonement is cleanliness; that which has been ritually cleansed is pure and holy and suitable for God. In Leviticus, the holy place (the Tabernacle) and the holy people (the priests) were consecrated and made holy through the sprinkling of anointing oil and blood (Leviticus 8:1-36). This makes no sense literally; oil and blood do not get anything physically clean. But the physical actions are the means by which the spiritual reality can be established: the blood, as representing the life of the slain sin offering, is devoted to God for the atonement of sin, and thus becomes holy, communicating holiness to whatever it touches (cf. Leviticus 6:24-30). This is how blood can provide cleansing power: not on account of any physical property of blood, but through faith in God in the atonement that comes through the offering of a life for a life and the sanctification of first the offering and then the one who provided the offering.

There is, therefore, wonderful working power in the blood, particularly in the life of which the blood is the concrete representation. The power is not found in the physical property of blood, although the centrality of blood to the proper functioning of the body is what gives meaning to the imagery. The power comes from God and the means by which He provides the opportunity for atonement, or cleansing, from sin and its consequences, and the restoration of relationship with Him. When we consider the image of blood in Scripture, in song, or in preaching and teaching, let us think soberly about the life which the blood is representing, and be ever thankful for the gift of life which we enjoy, both now in the flesh and eternally in the spirit and in the resurrection thanks to Jesus and His life which He freely offered for our atonement!

Ethan R. Longhenry

One in Christ

There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither bond nor free, there can be no male and female; for ye all are one man in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

Humans find endless ways of making distinctions between themselves and others. Different races, different ethnicities, different cultures, different religions, different languages, different geographical origins, all the way down to different political or sports preferences– all such differences can lead to real division. Humanity seems so fragmented.

Such fragmentation has served evil purposes for generations. When you can separate “them” from “us,” it is easier to discriminate against “them,” oppress “them,” or kill “them.” It is much harder to discriminate, oppress, or kill those whom you consider to be like yourself!

Strong forces always exist that serve to divide people from one another. Yet, in Jesus Christ, all such division is to be healed.

In Jesus Christ, Jew and Greek are one, no longer to be separated by generations of mutual hostility.

In Jesus Christ, barbarians, Scythians, and other such “uncouth” types are one with civilized, “cultured” types; such categories are not to matter any longer.

In Jesus Christ, master and slave are to gather around the same table and together share in the meal of the Lord (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:16-17).

The power of the Gospel and the greatness of the Kingdom can be seen whenever people of different races, cultures, socioeconomic statuses, likes, and dislikes come together to become one in prayer, one in song, and one in remembering the Lord (cf. Ephesians 5:19, 1 Corinthians 14:17, 1 Corinthians 11).

As Christians, we cannot allow differences to get in the way of our service to Jesus Christ. The Kingdom is strongest when people of different backgrounds and different stations in life work together for the Lord’s purposes (1 Corinthians 12:12-28)!

This also means that no matter who you are, you also can be a servant of Jesus Christ, and part of His Kingdom. It does not matter what race you are, your cultural background, what language you speak, whether poor or rich, “cultured” or “uncultured,” “blue collar” or “white collar,” or anything of the sort. Your contribution to the Lord and His body are as important as everyone else’s!

The world may provide every reason to focus on what is different and what leads to division, yet Jesus Christ seeks to unify us all in Him. Let us be one with Christ and one another!

Ethan R. Longhenry