Have You Ever Wondered What Songs They Sang in New Testament Times?August 8, 2016
It is a faithful saying: For if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him: If we suffer, we shall also reign with him: if we deny him, he also will deny us: If we believe not, yet he abideth faithful: he cannot deny himself. — 2 Timothy 2:11-13
Have you ever wondered what kind of worship services took place in the first-century Church? What did the early believers do during their praise and worship? How did they take their offerings? How did they pray for the sick? How loud did they pray in the Spirit? Or how did they flow in the anointing and gifts of the Holy Spirit? Imagine the kind of vitality that must have filled their church services!
In Second Timothy 2:11-13, Paul gives us a glimpse into one of those Early Church meetings. As he writes to Timothy, Paul actually quotes a literal song or hymn that the early believers sang when they met together to worship. “Hymnic literature” is what scholars call Second Timothy 2:11-13. In other words, these verses are an actual quote of a real New Testament hymn. This song was so well known that Paul included its lyrics in this epistle. It was most likely sung by Paul, Timothy, the apostle John, as well as thousands of others.
In addition to this hymn in Second Timothy 2:11-13, a second hymn is found in Colossians 1:15-19 that proclaims the Lordship of Jesus Christ and His dominion over all the universe. In both of these instances in the New Testament when “hymnic literature” is used, the quote is from a “hymn” that was well known throughout the Church. These hymns were intended to be more than mere music; they were tools of instruction that chronicled the true thinking of the Early Church.
But when Paul was writing Second Timothy, he was trying to encourage Timothy to bravely face the challenges that were before him. By using this hymn, it is almost as if Paul is saying, “Timothy, I know how to get you to understand the point I am trying to make to you! Do you remember that powerful song your congregation sings every week? You surely know the one I’m talking about. You know, the one that goes like this.…” Then Paul quotes the familiar hymn from Second Timothy 2:11-13, which says:
It is a faithful saying: For if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him:
If we suffer, we shall also reign with him: if we deny him, he will also deny us:
If we believe not, yet he abideth faithful: he cannot deny himself.
Look at the first line of the song, “It is a faithful saying: For if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him.…” Can you imagine getting together in church to sing about martyrdom? This was not an allegorical speech; this was reality for these early believers! Persecution and death were so imminent that Christians actually included these subjects in their worship services!
One great historian said, “Let me write the songs for a nation, and I can determine the history of that nation.” In like manner, the leaders of the Early Church understood that to prepare themselves and the people to live bravely for the Lord, they had to use every available tool to instill bravery in the ranks.
One tool these early believers used was hymns. Just as we leave church each week with a song in our hearts and minds, these early believers left their church services with songs of bravery echoing in their souls — and they would sing those songs all week long to encourage themselves!
The first line of the song in verse 11 says, “…If we be dead with him.…” This phrase comes from the Greek word sunapothnesko, which refers to a literal partnership in death with someone else. This means the first line of this hymn could be rendered, “…If we join Him as a full-fledged partner in death.…” Imagine trying to put that to music! Even more, imagine trying to teach your congregation to sing those words with conviction!
The song goes on, “…we shall also live with him.” This phrase is based on the Greek word sudzao, which conveys again the idea of partnership. However, this time it means to join someone else in life, not in death. This line of the song could be taken as a kind of faith declaration that proclaims, “…We will join Him in the same kind of life that He now lives.” Singing this kind of song over and over again worked bravery into the fiber of the Early Church.
Today we still need songs that produce brave warriors. Oh, that the Church today was committed enough to sing this type of song and mean it! Instead, most people would be offended by such lyrics and would refuse to even participate in singing them. Others would claim that these lyrics were filled with doubt and unbelief. But these lines represent powerful faith, not unbelief! They basically declare, “Come hell or high water, we’re in this to stay! If they kill us, that’s all right, because we will soon join Jesus in His glorious, new, resurrected life!”
The next line of the song says, “If we suffer, we shall also reign with him…” (v. 12). The phrase “if we suffer” once again conveys the idea of partnership. Literally translated, it means, “If we join Him in His suffering and suffer the same way He did.…”
Notice that this line has no note of sorrow or pain about these Christians’ suffering. They knew that feeling sorry for themselves wouldn’t help the situation, so they faced it bravely in the power of the Spirit. Although they didn’t seek to suffer, they weren’t afraid to suffer if it was forced upon them because of their faith.
These were the lyrics of a fearless people. They were determined to win the victory, regardless of the price they had to pay. Therefore, the song continues, “…we shall also reign with him.…” The phrase “reign with him” is the Greek word sumbasileuo, which can be translated “…we will reign and rule like nobility with Him….” These believers had their sights fixed on ruling with Jesus! To reach that goal, they were willing to face and fight any foe!
Now comes the hard part of the song — the part that carries consequences. It says, “…If we deny him, he also will deny us.” Can you imagine looking someone straight in the eyes to sing to him, “If you deny the Lord, the Lord will deny you too”?
These early believers saw no room for the excuses of defectors in the army of the Lord. Either a person was with Jesus, or he was against Him. Furthermore, when a brother in the Lord defected, the early believers didn’t sweep it under the carpet. Neither did they simply pat the errant brother on the back and say, “Well, now, come back and visit us again some time.” They saw themselves as a mighty army, and those who deserted the ranks were not worthy of honor or privileges.
This militant lack of tolerance couldn’t be any plainer than in this line of the hymn they sang. It was a reflection of who they were and how they thought. They had no tolerance for defectors!
From the content of this hymn, it is quite clear that these early saints were extremely serious about what they believed and about the Kingdom of God. Their Christian walk wasn’t just “another thing” for them to do in life. Christianity was their “all in all,” for they had given their lives — lock, stock, and barrel — over to this cause.
Please understand that this hymn was not a theological statement; rather, it was a reflection of the hour in which these believers lived and the attitude that they possessed. Church songs are always indicative of the specific period in which they were written. The hymn writer, whoever he or she was, chronicled the messages preached to the congregation and put them to music so the saints could sing them at home, at work, in their leisure time, or at church gatherings.
I can almost hear the first-century saints singing the lines of this hymn now! Can you can hear them raising their voices and bravely singing?
If we are killed like He was killed,
Then we shall live again as He now lives;
If suffering is forced upon us,
Then we’ll reign with Him like nobility;
If we deny or forsake Him,
He will deny us of our rewards;
If we believe not or grow faint-hearted,
Still He abideth faithful.
He cannot, cannot, cannot deny — Himself!
As time moves on and the coming of the Lord draws nearer, God expects you to step forward and take your place in His modern-day army. It is very possible that in the days and decades to come, there will be clashes between the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of God. Are you ready for this? Are you ready to follow the voice of our Commander-in-Chief? Are you committed to getting in the fight and staying in it until the victory is won? Are you a true soldier in the army of the Lord?
Take advantage of the time you have right now to strengthen yourself spiritually, to become dressed in the whole armor of God, and to develop a winning attitude. It is a fact that attitude is 99 percent of every fight; therefore, being mentally equipped is very important for your survival and victory.
The believers in the Early Church maintained the attitude to never give in, give up, or surrender to defeat. As a result, they conquered the world in which they lived.
Do you have the same kind of attitude that will assure your victory in life? If not, you need to start developing that attitude in your life immediately! There is too much at stake for you to allow yourself to be defeated because you didn’t possess a right attitude!
My Prayer for Today
Lord, help me have an attitude that is determined to win every struggle and fight that I face in life! You have given me spiritual power, spiritual weapons, and the wonderful Word of God. It is a fact that You have equipped me with everything I need to win. Now the victory depends on me and my attitude. Help me maintain the attitude that never gives in, never gives up, and never surrenders to defeat. As I make up my mind to take hold of Your power, Your spiritual weapons, and Your Word, it is guaranteed that I will push the devil clear out of my life. So please help me to make this decision and to do it quickly!
I pray this in Jesus’ name!
My Confession for Today
I confess that I am following the voice of my Commander-in-Chief. I will go where Jesus says to go, and I will do exactly what He tells me to do. I am committed to get in the fight and stay in it until the victory is won! I have an attitude that never gives in, never gives up, and never surrenders to defeat. God has given me spiritual power, spiritual weapons, and the promises of His Word on which I can stand. He has equipped me with everything I need to win — and now the victory depends on me!
I declare this by faith in Jesus’ name!
Questions to Answer
1. What do you think about this song that the believers sang in the first century? What do the lyrics of this song tell you about the early believers and their attitude about life and about living in victory?
2. Do you have the necessary attitude for winning the victory in your life and circumstances? Can you say with confidence that you are committed to staying in the fight until the victory is yours and the long-awaited prize is finally in your hands?
3. Is your Christian walk just “another thing” for you to do in life, or is it your “all in all,” as it was in the lives of these early believers? Are you giving your life — lock, stock, and barrel — to the pursuit of your walk with God?