Knowing Christ through Musical Worship
Music has always been an important part of society. From Aristotle who believed that “Music directly imitates the passions or states of the soul,” to J.K. Rowling who wrote in Harry Potter: “‘Ah, music,’ he said, wiping his eyes. ‘A magic beyond all we do here!,’” music has been present and influential in our society. In the Christian church, music holds no less value than it does in our contemporary society. Just as essential as it is in soundtracks of a movie or even the atmosphere of coffee shops, music is, in many churches, essential and incredibly important. It is not difficult to imagine instances where our walk with God or our “Christian life” have been intertwined with music: the hymns we sing at church services, Christmas carolling, music we listen to during our quiet times, and the list goes on. Yet why is it that music has held and still holds such importance to our worship and knowledge of God?
Compelling evidence of the power of music can be found as early as its use in accompanying the lyrics of the book of Psalms in the Old Testament, a book of 150 songs of praise, lamentation, and worship. Even in the time of King David, music was used to connect to God in the form of songs. After the death and resurrection of Christ, songs became a centrepiece in the education and knowledge of Jesus. Evangelical Christian New Testament scholar Darrell Bock points to the necessity of hymns in the early Christian church in teaching the theology of Jesus. In Philippians 2:10–11, Paul writes that “every knee should bow… and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,” quoting an often-sung hymn at the time. This line echoes Isaiah 45:23, as the Lord declares: “Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear.” This passage from Isaiah emphasises the core Jewish understanding of the monotheistic God. Yet, the hymn’s verse, confessing that “Jesus Christ is Lord,” informs a new understanding of God, exemplifying the many ways musical worship was used in teaching the theology of the gospel and Christianity in the early church.
Today, musical worship is still central in our understanding of the Gospel, of the Christian faith, and of Jesus. I don’t know whether this connection is deep and natural for others, but for me, it has always made sense: God and song, song and God. I was raised in a family that believed deeply in the importance of music. My father owns a book titled How to Raise a Music Lover, and he was committed to showing me the beauty of music and how I could use it to glorify God. Music quickly became central in how I related to church. My youth group involvement at church was highly tied to my identity as the worship band’s keyboardist and vocalist. In my first week at Columbia, I met Jubilation! Columbia’s Christian A Cappella Group, and since then, it has been my family on campus, deepening my understanding of worship and my faith. As an a cappella group, Jube! allows for a unique type of worship that intersects with performance, allowing us to explore songs that are less widely sung in worship services and events. Ranging from spirituals to songs written by contemporary Christian artists, they are often expressions and contemplations of individuals’ experiences, relationships, and knowledge of God. They speak to the many purposes of musical worship: praise and thanksgiving, repentance and confession, mourning, reflection, prayer and petition, evangelism, and more. Of course, song cannot be the only avenue through which one gets to know about Jesus, but is one way through which one can begin to learn more. Over these years of falling more and more in love with musical worship, I have also found myself learning more about Jesus, and strengthening my walk with Him. As I reflect on my multifaceted understanding of Jesus, I realize just how much songs have helped me see what Christ has already done, what this means for the future, and how it dictates my response amidst my sin and circumstances.
Musical worship reminds me that Jesus is the Messiah, our Saviour and Lord, and the Awaited One. Simple and often heard hymns such as Amazing Grace are structured around the idea that Jesus “saved a wretch like me.” Each year as Christmas approaches, a popular Advent Carol, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” exemplifies this teaching: we are told that He is long expected, born to set His people free from fears and sins. We are taught that Jesus was “Born a child and yet a King,”4 that He is Lord, that He will reign, that He will bring His Kingdom, and that He has been long awaited to deliver us. In fact, most Christmas songs that we are so familiar with, be it “O Holy Night” or “Angels We Have Heard on High,” point to the long-awaited and Messianic nature of Jesus, as they celebrate His birth and place an intense weight on His arrival.
Musical worship not only reminds me of Christ’s purpose and identity, but also of His character: Jesus is Love. This is perhaps one of the very first concepts I learned about Jesus, which may be true for most who grew up in the church, many familiar with the children’s hymn lyrics: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Of course, as time passed, my understanding of Jesus and His love surpassed the mere knowledge that Jesus loves me and that this is in the Bible. Performing a mash-up of this hymn and the contemporary wor ship song “How He Loves” at a recent Jube! concert, I was reminded of the purity and simplicity, and at the same time complexities of Jesus’ love. The song begins “He is jealous for me,” a line I have always found strange: what does a jealous God, a jealous Jesus even mean? Yet Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, is comfortably aware of the jealous love of Christ: “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to Him.” My knowledge that Jesus is Love also translates into my understanding of my own love to those around me. One of my favourite Cantonese praise songs quotes the Scripture that is so often heard at weddings: “We love because He first loved us.” Musical worship helps me engrave Scripture in my heart and use it as a daily encouragement, reminding me of God’s unconditional love on days when I forget my identity as a child of Christ.
Musical worship reminds me that this unconditional love is made perfect through Christ’s birth, crucifixion, and resurrection, reconciling us to His Father. Singing songs embedded with Scripture has helped me understand, perhaps not fully, but a little more of what the “triune God” means. Many other experiences have informed me about the Trinity, yet some of my favourite hymns have helped me capture and learn the different roles and relationships that we have with our Father, with our Saviour and with the Holy Spirit. One of my all time favourite hymns is “In Christ Alone,” because it depicts so well the trajectory of Christ and the gospel. The song tells me of Jesus’ identity as fully human and fully God, as He “took on flesh/ Fullness of God in helpless babe.” The song goes on to describe Christ’s life and mission on earth:
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For every sin on Him was laid,
Here in the death of Christ I live.
I learn the reason Christ became man is to reconcile the gap between God and man, distanced by man’s sin and hence God’s wrath. I see how Jesus reconciles God’s love for us and God’s wrath due to our sin. The next stanza describes the glorious resurrection of Christ, concluding that:
And as He stands in victory,
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me;
For I am His and He is mine,
Bought with the precious blood of Christ.
We are now reconciled with God the Father, because of the death and resurrection of God the Son. Yet where does the Holy Spirit fit into this? Interestingly, the language of belonging to God and Him to us is echoed in the last few lines of “Oceans” by Hillsong: “My soul will rest in Your embrace/ For I am Yours and You are mine.” Yet, the essence of the song is captured most strongly in the bridge:
Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders,
Let me walk upon the waters,
Wherever You would call me.
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander,
And my faith will be made stronger,
In the presence of my Saviour.
In this simple stanza, I am deeply reminded of the expanse of the triune God, and Jesus’ role in connecting the three: He was sent by the Father who loves me so much He would send His only Son. He died so that the Father’s wrath would be satisfied. He rose again so that He would be victorious over death and sin. And we are brought into His presence and the Father’s presence, where our faith is strengthened, by the Holy Spirit who guides us.
Musical worship reminds me that Christ’s crucifixion is not only an act of reconciliation, but also a demonstration of God’s justice, and hence promises us justice to come. Jubilation!’s name and theme verse come from Psalm 98, a victory psalm full of imagery of praise. Each semester, we read and reflect on this psalm together, and without fail, we discuss the overwhelming sounds of rejoicing within this psalm, as well as the seemingly outof- place conclusion the psalm ends on:
let them sing before the Lord,
for He comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples with equity.
This sudden shift to judgement seems harsh and unexpected amidst nature’s celebration just a verse before this. However, understanding Jesus as the reconciliator on the cross is helpful in realising that the judgement here is not a shift, but rather an explanation of why we can have deep joy. This judgement helps us understand why it was necessary for Jesus to die on the cross, and why God’s wrath had to be satisfied. This psalm has helped me understand the crucifixion of Christ as evidence of God’s justice: that He will not merely tolerate the injustices in this world and the brokenness that we see around us. The omnipotent God could have forgiven our sins without sacrificing His Son. But who then would have been held responsible for our sin? Would it merely have been forgiven and forgotten about? As nice as that may sound, it should make us uncomfortable: if our sin can be easily forgotten about, who are we to be angry about the injustices in the world? How could we call it unfair when somebody is murdered or assaulted, when one is robbed or bullied? We are only able to do so because our sins were paid for through Christ. That God’s wrath was satisfied allows me to be confident that justice will come again. Judgement, through song, has become something I am not afraid of, but something for which I cry out with joy and jubilant song.
Musical worship reminds me that I should not fear justice and judgement, but rather that I should confess, knowing my sins are covered by grace. This has taken me much longer to understand, and even today I wrestle deeply with sin, insecurities, self-doubt, and accepting my identity in Christ. Growing up in the church, I was constantly surrounded by teachings from Scripture on living life for God. One of these teachings came from a song based on Romans 12:21, which states: “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” which was seemingly easier when, as a child, the biggest evil I had to battle was the urge to steal my neighbour’s eraser which was prettier than mine. But as time passed, I began to fight more difficult battles: idolatry, addictions, and deception to name a few. Knee-deep in my knowledge of sin, it was hard sometimes for me to be equally aware of the power of grace. Yet, the hymn “Jesus Paid It All” reminds me:
Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.
As a visual person, I am deeply moved by the imagery of my crimson stains completely washed away and that I can be as white as snow. At the same time, this was nearly impossible to imagine, because I was constantly rejecting His grace. I often allowed myself to wallow in my sin, and to indulge in my self-pity. Hillsong’s “Scandal of Grace” addresses the absurdity of grace and allows me to make sense of why it is so hard to understand and accept it. The song questions: “Grace, what have You done?” and echoes my sentiments in its second stanza:
Too much to make sense of it all,
I know that Your love breaks my fall.
The scandal of grace, You died in my place,
So my soul will live.
This doesn’t answer all my questions, but allows me to accept the seeming impossibility of grace. As I sing the words: “I know that Your strength is enough,” I feel a reassurance that I can lean on this fact when dealing with sin. The song concludes with a climatic repetition of “It’s all because of You, Jesus.” This simple line is an important reminder of the humility that is involved in confessing and repenting. My rejection of grace could very well be due to pride: the desire to be perfect and to not need God’s help or Christ’s sacrifice, the thought that I am whole and pure without Him. The acknowledgement that it is all because of Jesus is helpful in my giving up of pursuing purity for the sake of purity, and allowing confession and repentance to actually be a process of lifting up my sins to Christ and relying on His strength in overcoming them.
Finally, musical worship reminds me not only to respond with confession, but also with trust, and to comfort in Him, regardless of circumstances. This has been most pertinent to me recently in light of graduation and my uncertainty about the future. One of the more well-known “Jesus songs” in secular culture is perhaps Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel,” and although it may be overused, it’s a metaphor that brings me great comfort. In these times of uncertainty, I have increasingly had to learn what it means to ask Jesus to ‘take the wheel of my life.’ One of my ‘motto verses,’ is Proverbs 3:5–6— my daily reminder to trust in God, for He will guide my paths. Yet in dark times or times of difficulty, this verse becomes distant: a promise I cannot bring myself to believe, a command that I cannot follow. In these situations, Hillsong’s “Desert Song” exposes me to the notion of joy in suffering, a seemingly paradoxical concept. The verses begin: “This is my prayer in the desert,” “This is my prayer in the fire,” “This is my prayer in the battle,” and “This is my prayer in the harvest.” It has helped me come to see song as a form of prayer, of talking to God. The choruses repeat: “I will bring praise,” and “I will rejoice,” and the bridge says:
All of my life,
In every season,
You are still God,
I have a reason to sing;
I have a reason to worship.
I am taught that regardless of my circumstances, I can trust in Him. For the longest time I thought I could do that—I believed myself to be joyful and trusting in God. Perhaps I had simply not faced troubles, anxieties, and struggles that were great enough to break down my comfort zone. However, as my walls and securities began tumbling down over the last two years, and as I saw many of the idols I worshipped torn down, I began to question what suffering meant, and how Jesus could be a comfort in such a time. Laura Story reflects on the big question of suffering in her song “Blessings” as she shares her experience with suffering and listening to God’s voice. The song talks about what we often pray for: “blessings, peace, comfort for family, healing, prosperity, and eased suffering,” and yet reflects:
…what if Your blessings come through raindrops,
What if Your healing comes through tears?
What if a thousand sleepless nights
Are what it takes to know You’re near?
What if trials of this life
Are Your mercies in disguise?
These provocative questions help me make sense of unanswered prayers and seemingly perpetual periods of silence from God. It is another reminder that God’s plan extends far beyond my understanding, and His love for me extends far beyond my imagination: evidenced in the death of His Son.
The list of reminders is in no way comprehensive, and definitely not the only avenues through which I have connected with Christ. There is still so much more I need and desire to know about Jesus, and I am deeply aware of the necessity for other ways to grow my understanding of Christ: Scripture, prayer, community, and so much more. Yet what is unique about musical worship is the integration of words with melodies that empowers songs to move me, to captivate others, and to provide constant reminders. At times when I am at a loss for words, when silence overcomes my prayers, song is what I often turn to. From reminding me of simple theological concepts as a child, to engraving deeper truths and scripture in my heart today, musical worship has provided me a way to connect with Jesus. As I reflect on my time here at Columbia, my involvement in Jubilation!, and all the times I’ve plugged my headphones in to drown out noises around me and in my head, I’m grateful for how songs have taught me about Jesus and shaped my relationship with Him.
1 Donald Grout, A History of Western Music (Norton, 1988), 7–8. 2 J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (London: Bloomsbury Children’s, 1997), 128.
2 J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (London: Bloomsbury Children’s, 1997), 128.
3 Charles Wesley, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” in The Hymnal 1982 (Church Publishing Publishing, 1985).
5 Anna B. Warner, “Jesus Loves Me” in Say and Seal (J.B. Lippincott & co, 1860).
6 John Mark McMillan, “How He Loves” in The Song Inside the Sounds of Breaking Down, Integrity Media, 2005.
8 2 Corinthians 11:2, NIV.
9 讚美之泉, “我們愛讓世界不一樣” in 沙漠中的讚美 (讚美之泉 Streams of Praise, 2008).
10 Keith Getty & Stuart Townend, In Christ Alone (Kingsway Music Thankyou Music, 2001).
13 Hillsong United, “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” in Zion (Hillsong, Sparrow, 2012).
15 Psalm 98:9.
16 Steve Green, “Overcome Evil With Good” in Hide ’Em In Your Heart, Vol. 1 (Sparrow Kids, 2003).
17 Elvina M. Hall, “All to Christ I Owe” in Hymns and Tunes (J.J. Little, 1882), no. 261, p. 840.
19 Hillsong United, “Scandal of Grace” in Zion (Hillsong, Sparrow, 2012).
24 Carrie Underwood, “Jesus, Take the Wheel” by Brett James, Hillary Lindsey, and Gordie Sampson, in Some Hearts (Starstruck Studios, Plant Recording, Electrokitty Recording, 2005).
25 Hillsong Church, “Desert Song” in This Is Our God (Hillsong, 2008).
29 Laura Story, “Blessings” in Blessings (INO Records, 2011).
Lilian Chow (CC’15) studies English, Educational Studies and Psychology, and calls the beautiful city of Hong Kong home. She loves reflecting on the majesty of her King through writing and musical worship.Aristotle, Carrie Underwood, Columbia University, confession, Darrell Bock, grace, Harry Potter, Hillsong, JK Rowling, joy, love, music, suffering, theology