Music and Prophetic Ministry

 

David Peterson

1.  Singing as communication

1.1        When the apostle Paul wrote about the use of ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ in    congregational meetings (Eph. 5:19-20; Col. 3:16-17), he envisaged three things happening at once:

  • ‘The word of Christ’ (the gospel) would dwell richly among believers (implanted in hearts and relationships);
  • Believers filled with the Spirit would ‘teach and admonish one another with all wisdom’ to edify the church;
  • God would be praised in the gathering and in the everyday lives of believers.

1.2        Christian songs can be vehicles for communication in three directions:

  • God communicates with us as the words of the gospel feed us and challenge us;
  • We communicate with one another as we seek to strengthen each other with the comforts and challenges of the gospel;
  • We communicate with God as we respond to him in praise, thanksgiving, and petition: some songs speak directly to God, and others to one another.

1.3        This pattern is modelled for us clearly in the biblical psalms (e.g., Ps. 33, 34), which ought to be said or sung more frequently in our churches!  It is appropriate that the forms of speech in our songs reflect the three-way communication that should be at work when Christ’s people gather.

1.4        A good preacher chooses words and phrases that will confidently proclaim the truth, and persuade the hearers of a particular perspective on a matter of belief or practice.  In a pastoral conversation, a person will likewise choose words that will be thoughtful, truthful, and wise, which will be communicated in a manner that is loving and respectful.

1.5        Music ministry has the same potential to be pastorally effective: the right song at the right time can greatly strengthen or challenge, perhaps in a way not possible through a sermon or a private conversation. In good songs, the tunes and harmonies will enhance the meaning and effectiveness of the words, and enable people to affirm and respond to the same truths together.

1.6        If music in church is a vehicle for communication, then song lyrics are especially important. This is not to say that all communication in church is verbal, or that we should never use instrumental music to aid in a time of reflection. However it is the gospel that is ‘the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes’ (Rom. 1:16), and this message needs constantly to be restated, re-expressed, and remembered as we gather together.

1.7        Because of the importance of lyrics, great care should be taken by songwriters and service planners to be faithful to Scripture, not only in points of fact, but also to the breadth of themes portrayed throughout, and to the manner of expression used by the Bible to express those themes.

1.8        For example, a music selection that never covers the topic of judgment or sin does not do justice to the message of the Bible. Equally, songs that treat such topics jovially or trivially do not do it justice. On the other hand, songs that speak of salvation in a purely factual manner are not being faithful to the Bible either!

2.  Prophetic communication

2.1        In 1 Corinthians 14, where the focus is on edifying the church, Paul opposes ‘an understanding of worship as a private exercise in which individuals seal themselves off from others and concentrate exclusively on their personal experiences.’[1]

2.2        Prophesying is favoured over tongues, because those who speak in a tongue edify themselves, ‘but the one who prophesies edifies the church’ (v. 4). The principle of intelligibility is extended to praying and singing in church (vv. 14-17), but agreement about the content of what is said or sung is implicit (by saying ‘Amen’).

2.3       Some would restrict prophesying to the spontaneous uttering of revelations, giving insight into current situations, or predictions about the future. But such definitions do not do justice to the evidence. For example, Paul envisages that a believer may come to a gathering with a revelation previously given, and that there may or may not be an opportunity to speak about what has been revealed (14:26-33).[2]

2.4       Paul also writes about unbelieving outsiders being convicted of sin and brought under judgment by those prophesying to the church, so that the secrets of their hearts are laid bare and they fall down and worship God, exclaiming ‘God is really among you!’ (14:24-25). The content of such prophesying is not insight into the particular sins of those addressed, or a prediction about their future, but a ministry of encouragement and challenge that Christians are having to one another. If unbelieving outsiders are converted in this way, the prophesying must have some generally applicable gospel content.

2.5       Thiselton rightly argues that the limitation of congregational prophecy to ‘mini-messages’ debases and trivializes ‘the great tradition of the term in the biblical writings as something altogether more serious, sustained, and reflective.’[3] He defines it as ‘the public proclamation of gospel truth as applied pastorally and contextually to the hearers.’ 

2.6       This coheres with Paul’s teaching about the declaration of the wisdom of God ‘among the mature’, ‘in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to spiritual people’ (2:13). The essential work of the Spirit is to give understanding of the gospel about the crucified Messiah and to reveal its implications for Christian life and ministry (cf. Eph. 1:17)

2.7       There appears to be a link between prophecy so defined and what Paul describes in 1 Cor 12:8 as a Spirit-given ‘word of wisdom’ or ‘word of knowledge’. Wisdom and knowledge were prized by the Corinthians, but Paul redefines these terms for them, writing about the wisdom of the cross and how it should help them understand themselves in relation to God, to one another, and to the world (1:17–2:16).

2.8       Both the gifts mentioned in 12:8 may have involved a Spirit-directed reflection on the truths of the gospel, with reference to everyday situations and needs. Wisdom and knowledge appear to have been two different, but related forms of utterance known to the Corinthians. The manner of description (‘a word’) suggests discrete and limited messages. Since prophecy is listed as a separate gift (12:10), it may be that prophecy was a more comprehensive phenomenon, and that it included the deliverance of more developed and sustained teaching.[4]

2.9       However, a simplistic equation of prophecy with contemporary patterns of preaching is not legitimate. There is nothing in 1 Corinthians to suggest that prophecy was ‘a sustained, uninterrupted twenty-minute monologue delivered by a “trained” speaker.’[5]

2.10      Prophecy in Luke-Acts appears to be an umbrella term for a range of Spirit-directed communications, including the initial proclamation of ‘the mighty works of God’ on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4, 11), evangelistic preaching that brought many to repentance and faith, predictions (11:27-28; 21:10-11), and an exhortation to a Christian congregation based on the reading of an apostolic letter (15:30-32; cf. 1 Tim. 4:13).[6]

2.11      My thesis is that Christian song writing may be a prophetic activity in the sense outlined above: a Spirit-directed ministry of proclaiming gospel truth, applied pastorally and contextually to the hearers.

3.  Prophetic communication in the OT

3.1       Paul and the other NT writers are like the OT canonical prophets in terms of their unique revelatory role and authority (e.g., 1 Cor 14:37-38; Eph 3:1-13). But a broader prophetic ministry by all believers is envisaged by Joel 2:28-32, and the implications should be explored.

3.2       Although some OT prophecy was predictive, much of it was declaratory and hortatory, restating and applying previous revelation to new situations (e.g., Isaiah 40-55 directed to the exiles in Babylon).

3.3       NT writers cover this sort of ministry with the noun paraklēsis (and the related verb). Depending on the context, these terms refers to comfort, encouragement, exhortation, persuasion, or admonition on the basis of gospel promises (e.g., Acts 2:40; 11:23; 14:22; 15:32; 16:40; 20:1-3; Rom 12:1; 1 Thess 2:3; 5:11; 1 Tim 4:13).[7]

3.4       We can see examples of Christian paraklēsis in the sermons in Acts and in the style and content of many NT letters. But what can we learn from looking at the pattern of OT prophecy?

Some reflections on Isaiah 40-55

  • The prophet constantly reflects on the covenant promises of God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the saving events of the exodus, Israel’s journey through the wilderness and establishment by God in the Promised Land: God’s promises and previous actions are applied to the present crisis(e.g., 40:3-5; 41:8-20; 43:1-7)
  • The prophet builds on promises of restoration after exile and judgment in passages such as Lev 26:40-45; Deut30:1-10; and in later writings: words of hope are restated in new ways
  • Words of comfort and encouragement predominate (e.g., 40:1-2, 6-11), but also challenge and rebuke (40:12-26), powerful imagery, rhetorical questions, parallelism, showing insight into the real needs of those addressed(40:27-31)
  • Old ideas are developed, such as Israel being called to serve God and bring blessing to the nations, by proclaiming their fulfillment though a chosen individual and his suffering: a Christological application of previous revelation is given(e.g., 42:1-4; 49:1-7; 50:4-9; 52:13–53:12)
  • The prophet regularly draws attention to the character of God and his trustworthiness (e.g., 40:10-26; 42:5-9, 14-17; 43:14-28), moving from declaration to exhortation or warning, and inviting God’s people to respond with praise, affirmations of trust, or expressions of repentance and obedience(e.g., 42:10-13; 51:17–52:12; 54:10; 55:1-13)

3.5       The biblical psalms are also prophetic in the sense outlined above (cf. 2 Sam 23:1-7). They combine reflections on the character and actions of God in the history of Israel with personal affirmations of faith in God and exhortations for others to join in prayer and praise with similar confidence.

3.6       Two ‘wisdom’ psalms (1-2) establish what it means to live in the light of God’s revelation and his kingdom purpose associated with the promise to David in 2 Sam 7:8-16. Personal reflections often lead to community exhortation (e.g., 4-5), though some psalms are more consistently corporate in focus (e.g., 33, 44, 46-48, 65-67).

Conclusions

What are the benefits of viewing Christian song-writing and congregational singing as a Spirit-directed ministry of proclaiming gospel truth, applied pastorally and contextually to the hearers?

  1. We have a significant biblical framework within which to understand and exercise this ministry.
  2. Biblical models and Paul’s teaching in particular suggest that the gospel is the control, but that the Spirit gives liberty and wisdom in various expressions of the gospel.
  3. Prophetic ministries must be exercised in Christ-like humility, which includes exposing our contributions to the evaluation and feedback of others.
  4. There is a vertical and a horizontal dimension to prophetic ministry that is well illustrated in biblical models. Sometimes we proclaim God’s name (his character and deeds) to glorify God directly, and sometimes our proclamation is more specifically for the edification of the church, but there is always an overlap.
  5. The challenge to edify the church must include melodies, harmonies, arrangements, performance, and relationships (between the musicians themselves and between musicians and congregations).
  6. The challenge to edify the church means that a significant pastoral role is given to those who choose songs, arrange for their placement, and lead God’s people in corporate worship.

[1] Ralph P. Martin, The Spirit and the Congregation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), p. 70.

[2] The ‘revelations’ mentioned in 1 Cor. 14:26, 30 need to be ‘weighed’ or ‘evaluated’ (v. 29). They do not have the same status as Paul’s apostolic commands and prophetic revelations (vv. 37-8). When the language of revelation is used with regard to ordinary believers (Eph. 1:17; Phil. 3:15), it seems to refer to insight and conviction about apostolic revelations already given.

[3] Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) 826.

[4] Cf. Thiselton, 938-944, 956-965.

[5] Thiselton, 2000: 961 (Thiselton is speaking against this view).

[6] The ministry of Judas and Silas in Acts 15:30-32, explaining and urging a positive response to an apostolic letter, has obvious parallels with much preaching in our churches today. Cf. David G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 140-144, 357, 374-376, 579-582, 715-719.

[7] In Col 3:16 two terms are used together to cover this (didaskontes kai vouthetountes, ‘teaching and admonishing’).

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