Sing As Though Your Life Depended On It

The Lord's Day Morning

June 10, 2007

Colossians 3:16

“Sing As Though Your Life Depended On It”

Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Amen. Now turn with me if you would to Paul's Epistle to the Colossians…Colossians, chapter three, and our reading this morning will be in the sixteenth verse. Colossians 3:16. Before we read this verse together, let's look to God in prayer. Let us all pray.

Father, we thank You from the bottom of our hearts that You've given to us the Bible, this extraordinary book. Sixty-six books, yet one; forty and more human authors, yet one Author; over two million words, and yet one Word, the Word made flesh and dwelling amongst us. We thank You that Your word is given by inspiration, that You breathed it out, You caused it to be written for our good, for our betterment, for our salvation, for our growth in grace, to teach us, instruct us. Father, we pray now this morning that…as we are a needy people we are prone to wander. Our hearts too often grow cold. We find we do things we ought not to do, and leave undone things we ought to do; and we pray that You would instruct us afresh by Your Spirit. So, come, we pray; open Your word to us. May Your word find a place to reside within our hearts today, that we might love it more than our necessary food, and all for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

This is God's word. Verse 16, of Colossians, chapter three:

“Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you; with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”

Amen. And may the Lord add his blessing to the reading of His holy and inerrant word.

There's something about Colossians 3 and the opening sixteen or seventeen verses or so that provide for us a series of keys, keys that unlock the door to the nature of the Christian life. There is a sense in which Colossians 3 can serve as a kind of portal through which we may enter into a grasp of what the Bible describes to us as the nature of the Christian life.

In the earlier service, I was referring to Bishop Ryle, Bishop J. C. Ryle. Many of you have books by J. C. Ryle– Holiness… Practical Religion… some others. And if you don't, I'm sure they are in our book store. They are still well worth reading. Ryle wrote in simple prose. He believed that you should say it as you see it, and he wanted everyone to grasp what it was he was saying. And there's still a prophetic element to much of his writing. Well, one of the things that J. C. Ryle said somewhere was that many Christians are like jellyfish. Jellyfish have no spinal column; they have no central nervous system, no skeleton. They have no backbone. [Now, it's not me saying this, you understand; it's dear, charming Bishop Ryle who's saying this.] But there are many Christians who have no backbone. They flop about, as it were. They are blown about by every wind of doctrine.

And these particular verses here in Colossians 3 provide the skeleton. They provide, as it were, the backbone, the structure of what the Christian life looks like. One of the things that Paul wants us to understand (he wants us to understand a number of things) is that for you and I who are Christians, who believe in Jesus Christ, who have forsaken all and put our trust in Jesus only for our salvation, that there is a sense in which we live in two worlds. We live in this world, to be sure [and at 8:30, it was a hot one!]; we live in Jackson, Mississippi; we have a zip code. Paul, when he writes to the Colossians in chapter one and verse two, he addresses the letter to Christians who are in Colossae, but they’re also in Christ. They’re in Colossae. Colossae was a twin city of Ephesus. Both were in the Lycus Valley, in what we would call Turkey…in Asia Minor, as the Romans would call it. It had a zip code. It had a physical dimensional reality about it.

We live in this world — I don't need to convince you about that. But we also live in Christ. We live in this world [there’ll be no cell phones in heaven!] but we also live in Christ. We live in union with Christ, we live in fellowship with Christ. Do you remember how Paul puts it when he writes to the twin City of Ephesus? He says, “We sit in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” You’re sitting on these comfortable chairs for one more week, but there is a sense in which we are also sitting in the comfortable chairs of heaven; and right beside us is the exalted magnificent body of Jesus Christ, and one day we shall see Him. We are already, even now, in union with Him, but one day we shall see Him even as He is.

We live in two worlds. We’re in this world, to be sure, but we're also in Christ, and that means that we live our lives like that. That means that we're always caught, as it were, in a tension between our responsibilities to the things of this world, and yet at the same time that our citizenship is not here. Our citizenship is in heaven. We live in the ultimate sense not for the things of this world; we live in the ultimate sense in the things of the world to come. We “set our minds on things which are above” where Christ sits at the right hand of God, not on things which are below, Paul says in the opening verses of this chapter. Now that's one of the keys.

Another key that Paul wants us to understand — and both of these will become important as we look at the text this morning — another key that Paul wants us to understand is the key of gospel grammar…the key of gospel grammar. He is going to tell us in this verse something that you and I need to do. He's going to give an imperative: there's something that you and I must do, that we do on the basis of something that has already happened. We do it because we are in union with Christ. We do it because we have already been saved. We do it because we have already experienced grace, because we've already been forgiven, because we have died to sin and we have been made alive unto righteousness. We have been baptized into the death of Christ, and raised to newness of life in the resurrection of Christ. That grammar is so very, very important because Paul isn't telling us to do something in order to win the favor of God; he's telling us to do something because of what we already are. Realize who you are: that you’re a child of the King, in union with Christ.

Now our text this morning…let me divide it into three questions: What we are to do; How we are to do it; and Why we are to do it.

I. What are we to do?

Well, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” That's what we are to do. We are to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly.

Now Paul is using a word picture. He wants the word of Christ to come into our lives as an owner might come into a new home. You know what it's like when you move house. And maybe it's you or maybe it's your wife, or maybe it's your mother-in-law, or maybe it's somebody else that you hire, and they come in and they say, “That has to go, and that has to go, and this has to come down, and that wall has to go, and new carpets have to go here, and new curtains have to go here, and all of this has to be repainted.” And that's the word picture that Paul is using here: Let the word of Christ come in and take ownership of your home, of your hearts, of your lives. Let it dwell in the secret crevices of your being. Let it seep to the innermost parts that otherwise are concealed. It's Paul's version of the Psalm that Brad read for us this morning in Psalm 119: “Thy word have I hidden within my heart.”

You notice that it's called Christ's word; that the word of Christ, not only because Christ is the Author of the word, not only is Christ the author of the Bible, but in the sense here I think that Christ is the focus of the Bible. It's the word about Christ. What is the Bible about…what is the Bible from Genesis to Revelation about? And principally, it is about Christ. It is about the Redeemer, it is about God so loving the world that He sent His only begotten Son, that whosoever believed in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. It's a word about Christ.

You remember on the Emmaus Road those two forlorn…Luke describes them as looking sad...Cleopas and his companion…and they’re making the seven-mile journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and Jesus comes alongside (although they don't recognize Him), and after a series of questions, you remember what Jesus did. He began to expound to them, beginning in Moses and all of the prophets. He expounded to them the things concerning Himself. In other words, He took them on a guided tour of the Old Testament Scriptures from Genesis to Malachi, selecting various passages along the way. And in each of those passages He brought the focus to Himself, because He was telling these disciples that the Old Testament is principally and primarily about Christ, about the Redeemer.

You remember that marvelous passage in Acts 8, where Philip meets the Ethiopian eunuch. You know — he's on a chariot. He's heading back to his mistress, Queen Candace of the Ethiopians, and he has a scroll, a scroll of Isaiah, the prophet. Scrolls, you know, were phenomenally expensive to purchase. Even the Queen of Ethiopia could only afford one, and he's reading it. It's Isaiah he's reading–of all the passages–Isaiah 53 about the Sheep that is led to the slaughter, the Lamb that before whose shearers His mouth is dumb…that passage. And you remember what [Philip] does. He asks the Ethiopian eunuch, ambassador, “Do you understand what it is that you’re reading?” And beginning, Luke says, beginning with that same passage, he expounded to him…Jesus. He told him about Jesus.

Let the word about Jesus dwell in you richly. You know, this is what Jesus Himself said. There's a marvelous little verse in Isaiah 50, verse 4, and it's a description of Jesus. God put this word in the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, foretelling what Jesus would do:

“The Lord God has given Me the tongue of disciples,
that I may know how to sustain the weary one with a word.
He awakens Me morning by morning,
He awakens My ear to listen as a disciple.”

You understand it's talking about Jesus. It's as though it's saying every morning Jesus awoke, He was listening to His Father's voice. And how did Jesus do that? By plummeting through, by ransacking through the pages of the Old Testament. He loved the Bible. He loved the Scriptures. He learned the Scriptures. His mind was saturated with the Scriptures.

Like Frances Riddley Havergal, the hymn writer, whose hymns include Take My Life, and Let It Be; Who Is On the Lord's Side?; Like a River Glorious. Her sister tells us that Frances Riddley Havergal used to get up early in the morning and she’d spend several hours reading and studying the Bible, with Greek and Hebrew Bibles on the desk, and lexicons and dictionaries. And she’d make notes, and often do this in bitterly cold rooms and weather. She loved the Bible. “Let the word about Christ dwell in you richly.”

How much do you love the Bible? That's a great question to ask, isn't it? Do we really love the word about Christ? And do we miss it when we don't have it? How many days can go by and we haven't even missed the word about Christ? If you want to grow as a Christian, if you want to mature as a Christian, if you want to face what Shakespeare called “the slim arrows of outrageous fortune,” let the word about Christ dwell in you richly.

Can I say this morning that I love the Bible more than I love food? That I love the Bible because it's God's word, and I love it more than anything in this world? That it's sweeter to me than honey… [and I like honey]? But it's sweeter to me than honey, than the honeycomb itself?

II. How are we to do that?

And if the answer of the “what” is to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly, the “how” is by singing to one another with psalms and hymns, and spiritual songs. Now that's not the answer you’d expect. You know, let the word of Christ dwell in you richly by…going to a Bible study…by listening to a sermon…by reading a book by J.C. Ryle…or, the obvious, by reading the Bible.

Now Paul isn't ruling out–of course he's not ruling out!–any of those things. But he wants to focus here on one particular way in which the word about Christ can dwell in us richly: by singing, by corporate singing, singing to one another. He's not…this isn't singing in the shower, this is singing in church on Sunday. This is singing to one another. This is singing in a corporate setting, singing Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.

Psalms. Well, of course the Book of Psalms. We are to sing the Book of Psalms. You know the word psalm originally meant…it's derived, at least, from a word that means “to pluck an instrument.”

And hymns, hymns over and above the Psalms. There are hymns in the Bible: The Magnificat of Mary; The Benedictus, the song of Zechariah; Philippians 2, beginning at about verse 5 or so —

“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,
Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery
To be equal with God,
But made Himself of no reputation…”

—that segment. If you’re reading in a modern translation, ESV or NIV, you’ll see that it's put in verse form. It's poetry. It was probably a hymn that the church sang and Paul incorporated into the letter to the Philippians. Colossians 1:15-20 is more than likely a hymn that the church sang to the praise and glory of Christ before Paul wrote Colossians.

And, spiritual song…I think originally meaning ‘a song inspired by the Holy Spirit.’ In other words, as we sing these various types of songs — psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, and we do a little bit of all three here — as you do that, you let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.

You see, there's something about singing. You know, singing is a physical act. At the time of the Reformation, Luther, Farel, Calvin, others…they saw this as a fundamental principle: that it wasn't just the choir that was to sing (and they sang, of course, in the medieval period in Latin, and they didn't understand anyway), but the congregation also were to sing. One of the very first things that Calvin did in Geneva was to have all of the Psalms put into metrical verse and new tunes be allocated to them. Now, we couldn't sing those tunes to save our lives, but the principle is the importance of singing.

You know, when you get here in the morning, especially when you come to the 8:30 service, and you’re not a morning sort of person [and I'm not a morning sort of person], there's something about having to stand and open your mouth and sing that has a physicality to it. Every aspect of your being is involved in that. It's not just your brain, but your affections are aroused, and your entire body is involved in it. And I think that that's what Paul is saying here, that one of the ways to let the word of Christ dwell in you richly is that you let the word of Christ and the word about Christ affect you in the totality of your being, not just in your heads and not just in your hearts, but let it affect you in your voice and in your lungs; and as you gasp for a breath of air as you sing the song, that your whole being has been transformed by what Christ has done, because He has saved us, because He has rescued us, because He has brought us out of darkness into light, because He has forgiven us our sins, because He has brought us into communion with Himself. Now let the word about Christ dwell in you richly, by singing.

Now Paul is saying to you and me this morning that we're all supposed to do this, not just the singers. Not just the songbirds behind me with marvelous, marvelous, marvelous voices, but you, too.

One of my most endearing memories is of a man who's still alive, though elderly now…an elder in the church I served in Belfast…dear, dear, sweet, gentle man. He could not sing to save his life. He could not carry a tune for love nor money. He would sit next to me when we served the Lord's Table, and it was a mixed pleasure listening to him sing. He insisted on singing. He didn't belt it out; he was conscious that he was always out of tune. But I just loved to hear him sing, because no matter the faultiness of the equipment, the spirit was willing. And, boy, did he convey that he loved the Lord by the sheer effort it took him to try at least to get it on the right note! It would have been altogether wrong to say to him, “You can't sing, because you’re singing out of tune.” No, it actually in a way brought to the surface what communal life in the body of Christ is actually like: that we are made up of saved sinners.

Yes, we are in union with Christ, but we are still in Colossae. We’re still in Jackson, Mississippi. And Paul is saying, you know, this is one of the things that happen when we sing. We minister to one another. Do you notice the language he uses? He says “teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” We minister to each other through this physical process of making melody to the Lord. There's something about singing that appeals to the totality of our beings — our minds, our wills, our affections, our physical natures. And as we sing, we minister to each other, encourage each other to look up and to behold with the eye of faith a festal choir, the like of which you've never seen…of cherubim and seraphim, and angels and archangels, and perhaps creatures that the Bible doesn't even mention that God has created for His glory, and the church triumphant that has gone to the other side…and we join with them in singing the praise of God. Isn't that what so much of the Book of Revelation seems to be telling us? That the life to come is one of glorious singing? Because there's a sense in which once you have tasted the gospel, once you have really tasted what it means to have your sins forgiven and wiped out by the blood of Jesus, once you've tasted that, once you've experienced what it means to be raised with Christ and to sit with Him in heavenly places, there's nothing else that you can do except sing!

No, my friends, don't let the terraces of the football stadium outdo the joy, the palpable joy of corporate singing that should be reflected in the gathered community of Christ's church. I wonder if a stranger would walk in…and they haven't sung a hymn perhaps in their lives…I wonder what they would think if they would come and sit next to you and they listened to us as we sing God's praises. Does it come from a renewed spirit, a transformed spirit that has brought us into union and communion with Christ? That we are saved men and women? That we are justified men and women by faith in Christ, and that we are heading for — with absolute certainty! — we are heading for an eternal city, a city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God?

III. Why.

And do you see the Why? Look at the text: “…With thankfulness in your hearts.” That's why we sing, because we're thankful. Because of what has already been done to us and for us in the gospel, we're thankful people. The one thing that is true of us this morning is that we are thankful people. We have gratitude in our hearts for the grace that we have received in Christ. Do you know what thankful people sing? George Matheson, that Scottish, nineteenth century poet, preacher, whose fiancĐše broke off their engagement because he was blind…he wrote:

“O Love that wilt not let me go,

I rest my weary soul in thee;

I give thee back the life I owe,

That in thine ocean depths its flow

May richer, fuller be.

“O Joy that seekest me through pain,

I cannot close my heart to thee;

I trace the rainbow through the rain,

And feel the promise is not vain

That morn shall tearless be.

“O Cross that liftest up my head,

I dare not ask to fly from thee;

I lay in dust life's glory dead,

And from the ground there blossoms red

Life that shall endless be.”

Now there's a heart that is thankful.

You see, my friends, as you sing in gratitude the word about Christ, the gospel, the forgiveness of sins, the hope of glory, as you sing to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, the trials and the problems and the difficulties of this world will dissipate. They’ll recede into the background, because they cannot be compared to the weight of glory that is ours in Jesus Christ.

Here's a little test. What do you think about? What do you think about when you’re not thinking about anything in particular? You know — what's the default setting of your mind and of your heart? And Paul is saying let the word about Christ be the default position; that when you’re not thinking about anything in particular, your mind and your heart is so full of Scripture, so full of the word about Christ, so full of gospel promises, that you just can't help but think on those things which are above, where Christ sits at the right hand of God.

Father, we thank You for this Your word, and we ask that truly You would hide it within our hearts, that we might not sin against You. Fill us with a glimpse of the glory and greatness of Christ. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.

[Congregational Hymn: What Wondrous Love Is This?]

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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