“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…as you sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.”
“Word of Christ,” in context, is the good news, the gospel, of His headship (2:10), of our union with Him (2:12; 3:1), of our being made alive in Him (2:13), and of His triumph over the powers and authorities (2:15).
Most often, we evangelicals tend to think that this word of Christ dwells in us by means of Bible study. Certainly this is true. Part of our “teaching and admonishing one another” is our reading the Scriptures together and allowing the Spirit to form us through the teaching that takes place there. We evangelicals furthermore acknowledge that the word of Christ dwells in us by means of the preached word. And certainly this is true, as well.
But that’s not what this passage is talking about. Here, we have a radical statement that this “Word of Christ” dwells in us richly as we sing in worship. The Gospel has a special “dwelling” among us as we sing. Firstly, yes, this passage is referring to the act of corporate worship. The verbs are all plural in Greek, and the “one another” is a dead giveaway that this is referring to gathered, corporate action. Secondly, blown to smithereens is the notion that music in a worship service is merely a “warm up” for the sermon. As far as the word-of-Christ-dwelling-richly barometer goes, they’re both on equal footing. Thirdly, notice the interconnectivity of it all. The connection between this “teaching and admonishing” and “singing” is even more stark in the original language of the text. And here, I’ll note that the new NIV (2010) has actually brought this out with more precision:
(Old NIV): “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.”
(2010 NIV) “Let the message of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.
The latter reflects the literal flow of the Greek text. The former breaks up the ideas a bit with “and as you sing,” but no such conjunction “and” exists in the Greek. It flows literally, “teaching and admonishing one another in/by/with* psalms, in/by/with hymns, in/by/with songs…”. Kudos to the new NIV team! So, ultimately, the language points us to the fact that the Gospel dwells in us uniquely in the act of singing together.
Just as profound is the fact that singing together is an instrument through which we teach and admonish one another. This certainly means several things:
1) It raises the stakes for the theological content of our songs. If one of the goals of our singing is to teach and admonish one another, we can’t do this if our content is simplistic, theologically shallow, or downright wrong. If I want to encourage your physical health, I can’t hand you a milkshake. If I want to encourage your spiritual health, I can’t do so without healthy theology. But let it be known that this doesn’t mean that our songs need to be theologically dense. They can be simple, just not simplistic.
2) It raises the stakes for the need for our active participation in singing. How well does teaching and admonishing work when it comes from a half-hearted source? If I am attempting to encourage you with the Gospel, can I do so effectively through a yawn (I see a lot of yawns as we sing on Sunday morning!)? If I am ministering the word of Christ to others, I should do so with the utmost zeal, with all that is within me.
3) It means that worship is an important context for true spiritual formation. Born again evangelicals have inherited a strong “me and God” emphasis on spiritual formation. But here we have a passage which emphasizes that the teaching and admonishment, which are necessary parts of my spiritual growth, happen in the context of worship, as we sing together. The drum needs to be beat time and again: one of the best things you can do for your spiritual health and growth is to regularly worship with the gathered people of God.
Who knew that so much truth could be so densely packed in one Greek sentence? Well, I guess God knew.
*For those who know Koine Greek, “psalms,” “hymns,” and “songs” are all dative constructions, and the context indicates that they’re being used instrumentally, as means through which teaching and admonishing happen.