by Richard C. Resch
“Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16).
Could it be any clearer? I think not! For here our God tells us that there is a simple, beautiful and joyous way for His dear Son to dwell richly in us. As the saints sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs together, they will be filled with Christ — and they are taught the faith.
A lifetime of singing psalms and hymns filled with scriptural truths is one of the main ways that saints of all ages have, throughout history, learned the church’s doctrines. When asked what they believe about any doctrine, from angels to the Trinity, the saints will often answer with words straight from a hymn text learned through a lifetime of singing. The hymn had been their teacher all along, and they probably did not even realize it.
Soon after his first hymn hit the streets, Martin Luther witnessed something that surprised him. He saw that if he set words to music in the form of a hymn, he was able, quickly and effectively, to spread the content of that hymn to all ages. That’s exactly what happened as his first hymn spread like wildfire throughout Germany and beyond. The hymn told the powerful story of faith that led to the death of the first two Lutheran martyrs.
As a musician, Martin Luther knew that music was powerful. After seeing what happened with his first hymn, he realized how combining music’s power with the power of the Gospel in the form of a hymn would make it an extraordinary tool for the spreading of that Gospel. This is when “the Nightingale of Wittenberg” took flight. The result of this flight is a glorious inheritance of hymns that beautifully set forth the truths of Scripture as they let Christ dwell richly in the singer.
Another way to hear the Gospel set to music is by listening to the sacred music of Johann Sebastian Bach. This highest of all Lutheran cantors and composers is often called “the Fifth Evangelist,” and for good reason, because his church music always preaches the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Listening to one of his cantatas, oratorios, motets or even his simple chorale settings will bring the good news of the Gospel to ears while carried by some of the most glorious music ever written. This is yet another case of someone, like Luther, who worked to combine the power of music with the power of the Gospel in the task of spreading the Gospel. People throughout the world listen to Bach because they love his music. As they listen, they also hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed in the words paired with his music. Such musical proclamation is happening right now in all parts of the world.
When the saints gather in God’s house around His Word and Sacrament, they sing together. And what a good, right and salutary thing it is for them to do! For in this singing — which is, by the way, no ordinary singing — the saints teach and admonish one another, and Christ dwells richly in them. God in His Word has told them that this will happen, and they believe it to be true. Week in and week out, this happens as they sing the Psalms of David, the canticles of Luke, the Sanctus of the angels, the Kyrie, the Agnus Dei, together with the rich bounty of hymnody and sacred music that all beautifully confess the faith.
What does Col. 3:16 mean for pastors, teachers, church musicians and parents? Since the passage is a description of the saints’ life together, those who oversee what our children sing in the communion of saints have a responsibility. They make choices about what feeds not only the hearts and souls of our children, but also their minds and memories. The “teaching and admonishing one another” part of this passage is meant for even the youngest saint among us. It would be good for them, as they grow up, to be given songs to sing that are the best food. Actually, it is the same food that they will then be rehearsing for the rest of their lives as they gather around Word and Sacrament.
This is, then, how hearing and believing come together.
Give us lips to sing Thy glory,
Tongues Thy mercy to proclaim,
Throats that shout the hope that fills us,
Mouths to speak Thy holy name.
May the light which
Thou dost send
Fill our songs with alleluias,
Alleluias without end! (LSB 578:5)
The Rev. Richard C. Resch is emeritus professor and kantor, Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne.