Psalm 96; 6 Observations about Singing in Worship.

(Disclaimer: There are a great many wonderful worship songs that are loaded with powerful truths about God. Indeed, Sovereign Grace Music, Townsend, the Getty’s, Shane and Shane, Matt Boswell, Matt Papa, and many more are writing wonderful music that exalts God and leads the church into authentic worship. This is not intended to be a critique of modern church music, but an exhortation towards authentic, Scriptural worship.)

One of the great joys of planting a church is that you get to wear many hats. In my particular church, I am the teaching pastor and the worship leader. This is partly out of necessity, but it is also due to the gifting that my wife and I have. My wife is a classical pianist by trade and I am a decent worship leader. My weaknesses tend to be in the area of administration, but that is for another time. Week in and week out I labor to find songs that glorify God and inspire the congregation to praise God. Sometimes I fail at this, sometimes I succeed, always I delight in the process of praise.

Reading through the Psalms is a beautiful way to learn to lead worship. Today, I’d like to look at Psalm 96. Below are 6 observations about worship that we can see in the Psalm, then 3 exhortations to congregants as a result, and then three encouragements to worship leaders.

So, let’s see what we might learn from Psalm 96 about worship.

In Psalm 96 we are admonished to “sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD all the earth!”

What does this exhortation teach us about praise and singing?

  1. The motivation for our praise is not circumstantial. This exhortation does not come with qualifying remarks such as, ‘if you feel like it’ or ‘if God has met your every desire.’ Instead, this particular psalm says “Sing to the LORD…For great is the LORD and greatly to be praised!” The motivation for singing is centralized on the character and nature of God. We sing because we see Him! We sing because He is God! Indeed, the Psalm begins by declaring God’s greatness and concludes by awaiting His judgment on the earth.
  2. The timing and conditions of praise are God’s to decide. Too often we seem content to praise the LORD on our own terms. We come to a gathering and sing, if we feel like it or if the music is good. But we fail to ask what His terms are. As a result, we rob ourselves of the powerful experience of worshiping through adversity. Perhaps God wants us to sing when we do not feel like it. Perhaps God wants to see us push past our own hearts and struggle to see His. After all, God did name His chosen people, “Israel” meaning “One who wrestles with God.” Seems like God likes to wrestle with us.
  3. Praise is a corporate reality! We praise well when we sing together. In this Psalm, we are admonished to bring our families along in worship and “ascribe to Him Glory and strength” in verse seven. We are called to come into the court with praise and praise Him among the nations. Singing is a corporate responsibility for the people of God. This Psalm admonishes us to join with the corporate body and even the entire earth in singing praise to God (c.f. v.11 and 12).
  4. Praise requires sacrifice. We are encouraged to bring an offering before the LORD when we come to join in praise. Worshiping the Lord in song requires a sacrifice of self just like every other act of worship. Did you know that the first time worship is mentioned in the Bible is when Abraham is going to sacrifice Isaac? The first mention of the word worship is tied to a tremendous act of sacrifice. Worship is sacrifice. We must bring before the LORD offerings of our lives, comfort, and even simple petty possessive pleasures; only then will worship begin to flow out of us in spirit and in truth through song.
  5. God is to be worshiped “in the splendor of holiness” with trembling (v.9). Consider for a moment what that means. It means that you are going to delight in worship only when God is supremely lifted up as glorious above all others. It also means that you are going to recognize the severity of what you are doing when you sing praise to the Almighty. When you join in singing during corporate worship, is God’s glory truly what you are recognizing? Are you seeking to raise Him up? If not, then we fail to worship. Further, the psalmist gives us a powerful reminder that the LORD is going to judge the earth, yet, there is no fear in the psalmist’s tone. He is not afraid, because he knows the Judge. Likewise, we sing with severity, but also with joy. We recognize the judgment of the Lord is coming and will land on the earth. But we know the judge and He is just and merciful! So with severe joy, we worship the Lord in song.
  6. Worship is not about us. It is about the One being worshiped. In this psalm, God is the focus of singing praise. Indeed, in every song of praise, it is God who is the focus. He is the motive, He is the subject, and He is the one about whom we sing.

Three Encouragements for Congregations

  1. Strive to worship regardless of the song. It is easy to be critical of the songs we sing at church. It is easy to dissect lyrics and judge a song as errant. However, if you are in a healthy church and the leaders are striving to maintain truth, then give them the benefit of the doubt and strive to worship. Try to see past particular wordings and focus on truths you can see about God. If you cannot, in good conscience sing a particular song, then strive to pray during that song instead.
  2. Bring words of encouragement to your leaders with every critique. Worship leaders get critique all the time. As a result, it is sometimes exhausting to hear people talk about worship music. You will guide your own heart into worship if you begin by thinking about what is good rather than what you want to critique. Further, the Psalms seem to indicate that singing is a corporate reality. So, recognize that you have as much to do with worshiping as the leader. Strive to lead from your seat. Sing loud! Then when a song does not land well with you, go to the person who selects the songs and then talk to them about that song. Tell them what is good in the song first, then discuss what is difficult for you. In this way, you will engage in corporate worship even when having difficulties.
  3. Sing! There is no greater encouragement to a worship leader than the voices of the congregation. Sing, and sing loud. We know you are thinking deeply. We know that sometimes you don’t feel like singing. We know that the music is not always your style. We know because we feel the same way. Worship leaders don’t always want to sing either. Sing anyway. Remember the Psalmist’s example – singing is not about your feelings or circumstances. It is about the character of God. Prepare for worship ahead of time by reading your Bible and praying. Get a picture of God before you enter into worship. Lay your sacrifice before the Lord and SING!

Three Encouragements for Worship Leaders

  1. Choose songs that are about God, not us. So many of the songs in our churches are narcissistic in nature. American churches often sing songs about the way we feel and call it praise. But songs about us do not praise! We exalt our own experience above the truth by proclaiming our own experiences in place of the deep truths of God’s character. Don’t misunderstand, there are numerous examples of Psalmists citing their feelings or experience towards God, but the praise always results from a recognition of God’s character. Indeed, when we lead others in singing, we ought to strive to display the character and nature of God so thoroughly in our music that people cannot help but praise.
  2. Sing songs that are easy to sing. This is more a simple practical thing. Your song selection may be beautiful and loaded with great content. However beautiful the song may be, if people cannot sing it, then you are not leading worship. Some easy ways to teach a song are 1. Repeat verses so people can get the melody, 2. Repeat new songs for two weeks then skip one week and do it again the next week, 3. Make your worship list available online for people to listen to the week of service, 4. Talk about the meaning of the songs you sing with members of the congregation.
  3. Worship in transparency. We don’t always feel like worshiping. Sometimes, as leaders, we would rather not lay our hearts bare before the Lord… but worship is not about our feelings or our circumstance. Worship is about God! Be honest with your brothers and sisters and tell the people when you are struggling. Let them see you push through to worship the Lord in tears or difficulty. Lead people to think deeply and engage with God in transparency. Let people know what is going on inside you and worship with a little transparency.
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Philemon 9-11; brief thoughts

9yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you – I, Paul, an old man now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus – 10I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11(Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)

To this point in the letter, Paul has not made a request of Philemon. Issuing reminders of the gospel progress in Philemon’s work, Paul reminds Philemon of the great blessings he has in the faith. Standing in stark contrast to Philemon’s Christian experience is Paul’s own testimony. Paul is in prison, Philemon is in comfort. Paul is alone, Philemon is surrounded by friends. Yet the Gospel has impacted and transformed both of them. Paul has sacrificed for the sake of the gospel. He has surrendered everything for the sake of the mission of God. He has lived a life worthy of the gospel.

There are men and women in the world who, by the sheer magnitude of their character can compel those around them to acquiesce to their encouragements. They are people who have such deep and profound integrity that their gaze seems to see past the surface of a person and into their very soul. These are men and women who have a tremendous presence. It is as if a weight of solemnity is laid upon anyone they come in contact with. Paul was such a man.

Paul’s character and integrity were beyond question because of his willing submission to circumstance over a long period of time. His personal journey began years prior on a road to Damascus. God transformed him in an instant and then trained him for three years before he began his missionary journeys (c.f. Galatians 2:11-24). He suffered and struggled all throughout his ministry being rejected by his Jewish kinsmen and sacrificing status for the sake of the gospel.[1] Even at the time of this letter, Paul has been arrested and is imprisoned for the Gospel. Now, at the approximate age of 60, Paul has been proven. His character has been tested and he has passed.

There is a wisdom in Paul’s age that can only be developed over years of experience. Knowing that Philemon could easily be commanded to set Onesimus free, Paul chooses instead to appeal to Him. When negotiating a plea bargain or a settlement, it is always better to start at a demand and work backward to an appeal. However, Paul is not solely concerned with Onesimus’ freedom. Paul is concerned for the gospel and the result of that gospel in Philemon. So, rather than command Philemon, Paul strongly encourages him to do what is right. In this way, Paul treats Philemon with respect and leaves the decision squarely in Philemon’s hands.

Paul, by mentioning his age and circumstance to Philemon, appeals to Philemon on the basis of personal integrity, not positional authority. Paul could have easily asserted that he was an apostle. He could have cited that he was the one who founded the church in Colossae, where Philemon lived. He could have even have said something to the effect that he could appeal to the apostles in Jerusalem to compel Philemon to release Onesimus. Yet, Paul takes the least aggressive method available to him. Rather than compel obedience to the gospel, Paul lovingly appeals to Philemon’s transformed nature and reminds him of Paul’s transformed nature.

Onesimus now shares in that same transformation that the gospel affords to all true believers. At some point in Paul’s imprisonment, Onesimus became a believer in Christ. The runaway slave turned from sin and was granted freedom in Christ Jesus. So Paul became a father to Onesimus, the once useless slave. The transforming power of the gospel rescued Onesimus and, more than that, made him a useful part of the Kingdom. Paul appeals to Philemon on Onesimus behalf because he loves the gospel. The gospel that has transformed Onesimus must also transform the way that we live in society. We must be completely different than the world. Slavery is not a condition that former slaves permit, whether physical or spiritual. So to, Philemon must no longer live like the world and the surrounding society demonstrate. Rather, he must be different. As Onesimus has been transformed from slave to son, so now, Philemon must accept the appeal of one transformed (that is Paul) on behalf of Onesimus.

Society demands expedience and self-center benefit. It demands a utilitarian view of people, insisting that you evaluate each person as to their benefit to society as a whole. It is this view of humanity that perpetuates slavery and oppression. In society’s view, people are commodities that serve the greater good. Yet, the gospel demands a different approach. People are not commodities to be used to serve our needs. When we think of people as commodities, we will find that they are useless unless they serve our own needs. However, when we recognize the value of a person through the lens of the gospel of Jesus Christ, that which was once useless is now useful, that which was once wretched now beautiful! Onesimus’ story is the same as Paul and Philemon. All three were once slaves. Though they now all live in very different circumstances, all three are made valuable through the gospel of Jesus Christ! For the gospel brings value to every person who believes.

[1] A simple read of the book of Acts will provide ample evidence to this truth. Indeed, so antagonistic are the Jews to Paul’s ministry that they follow him from place to place and strive to expel him from almost every town he enters.

What is Required? Philemon 8-9a; Brief Thoughts

8 Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9yet for love’s sake…

What is required of the Christian? Freed from the law of Sin and death, Christians now live by a law of Spirit and life (Rom. 8:2). Christians are no longer required to live by a law. Rather, they have been set free from the law and given the freedom to live in grace. The grace that Christians receive from God is astounding. God, the sovereign ruler over all things, sacrifices His own son for a people who utterly reject Him as God. Indeed, He saves those who are His enemies (Romans 5:10). He extends grace to those who despise Him and kneels down to serve those who fail Him (John 13:14).[1] His grace is extended to those who hate Him.

What is required of the Christian? Nothing… and everything. God offers redemption freely and without cost to the one who will believe. Though He requires nothing, it is a gift that surely demands everything. Grace is given freely with no invoice. When someone becomes a Christian, their hearts’ affections change. Christians surrender everything they have, which amounts to nothing, in order to find life, which is everything.

What is required of the Christian? The Lord answers the same question in Micah 6:8 – “To do justice and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8b). The Lord requires that you do what is just and live in humble obedience to Him. The Christian is to stand for what is just. Notice, Micah’s command is not simply to avoid injustice. He does not merely call His people to avoid what is wrong. Rather, He calls His people to do what is right! They are to actively pursue what is good and right. Justice is what is required.

Justice is required, but not as a term for admission into grace. Rather, justice and mercy are the evidence that grace has been given to the Christian. The Christian walks justly because he has been transformed by grace. Grace moves in the heart of a man to change from corrupt to clean (c.f. Col. 3:9-10, 2 Cor. 5:17, and Romans 6). God’s grace needs no demands of obedience. The magnitude of the gift of grace is enough to compel obedience to the precepts of God. The Christian stands for justice, not because he is commanded to do so, but because he, being born wicked, has been supernaturally transformed and made just by the grace of God. It is not by works or effort of their own that the believer is capable of doing what is just. It is because God is gracious to him.

It is important to note that Paul would not be out-of-line to command Philemon to set Onesimus free. He could, justly, demand that Philemon surrender his worldly rights in relation to Onesimus on the basis of his own citizenship in Heaven. But Paul acts towards Philemon with the same grace that God does towards us. He reminds Philemon that He could command what is required, but he would rather appeal to Philemon’s redeemed nature. A nature that has been granted to him by a loving and forgiving God. Philemon, once a slave to sin, must extend the same unmerited favor to those in his charge.

Paul’s appeal to Philemon is based on love. The term translated love in verse 10 is the word “agape.” Agape has a connotation of self-sacrifice and surrender. So here, when Paul states that he is appealing to Philemon for the sake of love, he is asserting a call to surrender the “rights” that Philemon considers himself to hold. Philemon was well within his rights to exact punishment from Onesimus. Onesimus had run away from the assigned position of a slave. The Bible does not tell us how Onesimus became a slave, but according to the social and political system of the first century, Philemon’s enslavement of Onesimus was seen as just. Yet, because Christians have a citizenship that transcends this world, a world in which slavery does not exist and is never acceptable, Philemon is behaving contrary to his citizenship.

Are there areas of your life where you have compromised the precepts of the gospel for the sake of social norms? Have you surrendered the rights that earthly citizenship affords for the sake of love? Remember, Christian, we are subject to a higher citizenship.

[1] Consider how Jesus engages with Judas.

Philemon 8; Accordingly

8 Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required,

Justice and moral engagement therewith are not appealed to in a vacuum. Justice and morality are developed most fully in the context of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the subsequent relationship that develops with Him. So, Paul begins his direct exhortation with, “accordingly.” According to the gospel that has been so evident in Philemon’s life already. According to the love that Philemon has shown to all the saints. According to what has occurred in Philemon’s life. Paul sees an injustice in keeping a slave and the answer to that injustice is in the “accordingly.”

Justice and morality can be appealed to in two different senses. The first and most common in modern society is the concept of a social contract. (Feel free to look up social contract and see what it means. For the purpose of this blog, I am defining it as – that which society views as just or unjust based on how it affects others in society.) This is the appeal that says, we do what is just because it is best for society. This is the appeal that most modern movements are based on. Social activism is practically a way of standing up with many people and saying, “See, we all agree!” If society agrees that something is good, then it must be…. Maybe? The social contract method of appeal can be a powerful motivator toward justice. Usually, these kinds of justice movements that are based on society’s accumulated view are generational and often short-lived. Telling someone, “Everyone believes this to be wrong!” Does not offer any actual authority because “everyone” could be wrong. Further, a social contract may work for the benefit of all people on occasion, but, more often than not, social contracts work in favor of the loudest and most prominent group in the debate.

However, Paul does not appeal to Philemon on the basis of society or even a social contract. He does not state that Philemon needs to do what is right because “everyone knows slavery is wrong.” Of course, in Paul’s time, almost no one confessed slavery as wrong. Though we could be tempted to think that we have now grown and now live in some evolved society of a greater morality, the truth is we have merely relegated slavery to positions acceptable in society. Between pornography/sex trafficking and general educational disparities of rural/urban versus suburban areas, we have managed to relegate slavery to acceptable areas of society – the profane or economic. If we appeal to the social contract in order to engage in justice or morality, we inevitably neglect justice for the sake of compromise with society. This is effectively what society has done. Yet, it is not the champions of social contracts that inspire nations to justice. It is those who stand on a higher ground of principle or authority that change the world and see justice exalted. It is those who lay down their lives for a greater message that are venerated as heroes.

The second and less common appeal to justice or morality is the appeal to a higher morality or deeper truth. This is an appeal that is based on a much deeper reality than a social contract can provide. That is to say, there is no one in society that is going to agree with this source. The call to justice here sets a man apart from society. Though all the world tells Philemon that slavery is ok and Onesimus should be punished and placed back in servitude, the gospel sets Onesimus free and demands the same of those who claim to follow the gospel! This appeal to the gospel is more than just a call to believe in Jesus. It is a call to Philemon to BE a Christian.

It is easy to minimize the difficulty of what Philemon is called to do. However, a simple survey of anti-slavery writing will easily uncover the difficulty of those who are convicted by the societal injustice but feel entrapped by the system they live in. Thomas Jefferson is, debatably, the most obvious example of this conflict. He argued that slavery was wrong, but that it must be left up to a future generation to abolish it… because it would be too hard. This is the result of a man who sees injustice through the lens of a social contract. Injustice may still be noted and appalling. Yet still, it will remain in light of other considerations. Not so with those who profess that justice is answered from a higher morality or deeper truth. Those who believe in a higher morality must live in that higher morality. They must fight for justice because it is just. They stand up for life because murder is wrong. They call from freedom because slavery is wrong. So the gospel demands a pursuit of freedom for the lowest of society because all who trust in Jesus have been redeemed from the lowest place. The message of the gospel demands justice and morality that may or may not be agreed on by society. It demands that those who have been forgiven by Jesus must also forgive those who wrong them. The gospel calls a man to spread justice across the earth because it is the gospel. In short: the gospel demands that adherents act “accordingly.”

So Paul pleads with Philemon: “Accordingly…”

Brief Thoughts: Philemon 6-7

6and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. 7For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.

The prayer of Paul for Philemon’s effectiveness draws attention to the practical outworking of the gospel. He specifically prays that Philemon’s faith would be “effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.” Paul’s concern for Philemon is not that Philemon would chiefly understand the theology of the gospel. Nor is his interest that Philemon would necessarily grasp nuanced truths about God’s character. Rather, Paul’s words to Philemon directly connected to the reality of gospel effectiveness. For Paul, faith must have hands. Faith must change the way we work and walk in this life. So, the call to Philemon is that his faith would overflow through effectiveness. That is to say, that Philemon’s faith would be evidenced in his own life through the outworking of his own hands.

To what extent must faith become effective? Faith must become effective in “every good thing.” Consider that for a moment – “every good thing.” Christians do not get to choose the good they want to do. Believers in Jesus must pursue “every good thing.” This is what James explains when he states, “to him who sees what is good and fails to do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17). Further, the word translated “full knowledge” indicates an active participation in the attainment of knowledge. In this simple phrase, Paul is urging Philemon to engage fully in learning the good things that Christ has birthed in the hearts of believers. Indeed, it is the good that is in us. The good that has been placed in our hearts when we were transformed through faith in Christ. This good does not spring from adjustments made to our actions, but from adjustments that have been wrought to our hearts. Christians do good because they are changed. Likewise, justice and righteous deeds ought to flow from within the heart of a believer.

From the overflow of the heart, the believer brings praise to Christ. These good things that are in us are present for the sake of Christ and His glory. James asks, “does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?” (James 3:11). Likewise, the words and deeds of a Christian must bring forth only praise to Christ. The world judges our Lord through our testimony. Therefore, we must strive to live a life that is above reproach and exalts the name of Christ at all times. For, “every good thing that is in us” is “for Christ.”

Philemon has been an exemplary brother in the past. His love for the saints and for Paul has been a model of charity and grace. Yet, even the most disciplined and loving members of the kingdom are susceptible to blind spots in their own senses. Because we live in a fallen world in which injustice is normative and sin is acceptable, it is easy to overlook errors that are so easily granted in our society. So it is with Philemon. He has accepted the practice of slavery and of exacting punishment from slaves who have sought freedom. Still, in many other areas of life, he was kind and gracious to the other saints. So Paul, before bringing up Onesimus and Philemon’s obligation to him, Paul reminds Philemon that he has loved the saints well in the past and his character is one of love and grace to the church.

What follows this encouragement and friendly urging will be a gentle, yet firm calling to abandon slavery and forgive Onesimus.