My top recommended book on a biblical theology of worship is David Peterson’s Engaging with God. If you’re responsible for leading in your church, either as a pastor or a musician, I think you’ll serve people more faithfully and biblically if you read it. I go through it every year with my interns and never fail to come away from our discussion times with fresh understanding and inspiration for leading corporate worship.
Peterson focuses on worship as it’s understood in the Old Testament, the gospels, and various epistles. The chapters on Hebrews and Revelation by themselves are worth the price of the book.
This past Wednesday we were discussing the chapter on Revelation. Many Christians tend to avoid Revelation because they view it as a somewhat obscure and confusing book. Others think it’s simply a code-book for figuring out the significance of end time events.
Peterson makes a compelling case that one of the primary purposes of John’s letter was to “encourage Christians to maintain their faith in Christ and resist every temptation to idolatry and apostasy” (p. 277). We still need that kind of encouragement today. And the hymns scattered throughout Revelation (Rev. 1:5-6, 4:11, 5:9-10, 7:11-12, 11:17-18, 15:3-4, 19:6-8), with their focus on the sovereignty of God and the victory of the Lamb, do just that.
In summarizing his chapter on Revelation, Peterson makes application to the songs we sing today:
The hymnic material in the book of the Revelation…should alert us to the importance of singing God’s praise in a way that is truly honoring to him and helpful to his people. Do our hymns and songs concentrate on praising God for his character and his mighty acts in history on our behalf? Do they focus sufficiently on the great truths of the gospel? There is always a temptation to focus too much on the expression of our own immediate needs.
This is gold. Our songs should both honor God and help people. It’s not either/or. It’s both/and. We don’t come together merely to sing about how passionate we are for God (although that’s a very good thing!) or to be emotionally affected. Our songs should help us concentrate and focus on God’s character and his mighty acts in history on our behalf, especially the gospel.
One aspect of praise we see in the Psalms involves acknowledging our needs, longings, and desires. But an awareness of our need is meant to drive us to the sufficiency and supply of the gospel – God has clothed himself in flesh! Jesus has perfectly fulfilled God’s law! Christ has suffered and died, becoming sin for us and enduring God’s wrath and judgment in our place! God has raised him from the dead! Jesus is reigning and will one day return to bring salvation to all those who have placed their faith in him! He will right every wrong, establish his unending rule, and be the eternal joy of those who know him! These are truths that are completely outside of us and will never change. Their implications for our lives are massive and eternal. Hope and comfort in trials doesn’t come from continually rehearsing our problems and needs but through remembering the compassionate, all-powerful Savior who cried out “It is finished!” for his people’s joy and his Father’s glory.
Is the language we use as powerful and as simple as in the material given to us by John? We need to avoid the extremes of being trite and trivial, and loading our hymns and choruses with so much imagery that only the well-instructed can appreciate them.
This is relevant to both worship leaders and song writers. Our songs ought to be powerful and simple at the same time. Powerful doesn’t equal verbally dense or complex. Simple doesn’t mean repetitive, boring, or trite. We need fresh images and phrases that communicate unchanging biblical truth in clear and compelling ways. “Jesus came my soul to save, then he rose up from the grave,” is gloriously true but perhaps not as informative or gripping as say, “And on the cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied, for every sin on him was laid.” But both are simple.
Finally, Peterson says:
Do our hymns and acclamations help us to rejoice in God’s gracious and powerful rule, acknowledge its blessings and look forward to its consummation in the new creation? Do they challenge us to take a firm stand against every manifestation of Satan’s power and to bear faithful witness to the truth of the gospel in our society? It is not good enough to sing certain items merely because they make the congregation feel good! (p .278)
Peterson’s questions are challenging. They move us away from generalities and towards specifics in our songs. What is good about God’s rule? How do we rejoice in his gracious reign and his opposition to evil? What are the blessings of the consummation? How is Satan’s power manifested in our lives and our world? What are ways we can be faithful witnesses? What will that cost and require?
Of course, songs aren’t the only way we can proclaim these truths to one another. But the hymns of Revelation seem to indicate that they’re meant to be an important way we build up our faith in God’s sovereignty, faithfulness, compassion, and ultimate victory.
So, while Revelation Song may represent one aspect of what we can learn from John’s book, let’s not neglect all the other ways God wants John’s heavenly vision to inform our songs and our lives.