By Mike Harland
It’s one of my favorite stories in the Bible. Two disciples—one named Cleopas and the other unnamed—are walking to their home village of Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. Assuming they walk at an average pace, they have a little more than two hours to talk about the events of the week.
On the way, a fellow traveler joins them and enters the conversation. The stranger draws them in as he explains to them everything they have been discussing.
But it is only when He breaks bread with them at dinner that they recognize the stranger is Jesus. Then He disappears without warning, only to reappear to the two and the others they had joined in Jerusalem. He explains again how everything written about him from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms had to happen.
Thinking about how Jesus used the Scriptures to interpret the last events of His life helps us understand something about the spiritual discipline of worship.
Look at what He did again.
Then He told them: “These are My words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about Me in the law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).
I understand why He used the writings of Moses to explain the events of His life, death, and resurrection. Perhaps He started with creation, went to Abraham and Isaac, and then to the law.
He most likely would have talked about the tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant, both early prototypes of the eternal salvation He would secure for us.
And quoting the Prophets makes sense too. After all, it was Isaiah who would tell us about the birth of our Savior and the suffering that would come to the Messiah.
He would describe the Shepherd who would lay down everything for the sake of His sheep. The Old Testament prophets had a great deal to say about God’s redemption of His people.
But the Psalms?
What did the songs they sang all of their lives have to do with understanding Jesus? A more important question for us today is, “What do the songs we sing in church have to do with our understanding of Jesus?” Or more simply: What does worship have to do with following Christ?
When God wired the human brain, He did some amazing things. Studies have shown a significant connection between music and memory. Doctors are learning more every day about the ways our brain engages when we sing or listen to music.
We already know this. It’s why we teach our children the English alphabet using a melody.
Years ago, I was asked by a pastor to visit his mother in an Alzheimer’s care facility near the church where I served. I took my guitar and started singing hymns for the precious people there.
What happened next amazed me; the patients, who could not recall their own names, could sing every word of the hymns.
Does God have a higher purpose for singing in worship that really is for our own benefit? I’m convinced He does.
The Apostle Paul must have thought so as well. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he wrote in song form in various passages of his letters to give us vital information about Jesus.
- In Colossians 1:15-20, he tells us in artistic language the essence of Jesus.
- In Philippians 2:5-16, he gives us a concise description of what Jesus did.
- In Romans 11:33-36, Paul models, in lyrical style, the right response to the understanding of God’s character.
- In 1 Corinthians 13, he “sings” about love in a way that sharpens our awareness of what God’s love really is.
- In 1 Corinthians 15:50-57, he gives us a song describing the mystery of the end of life.
The lesson for us? What we sing in worship really matters.
We worship God in response to what we understand about Him. We worship Him because we are compelled to worship Him, once we realize what He has done for us.
We worship Him because the presence of His Spirit draws us into fellowship with Him and when we are with Him, we worship Him.
God, in His infinite wisdom, gave us an instrument of worship that deepens our understanding of Him and helps us recall what we know about His goodness and grace every time we use it, even when our frailty, both spiritual and physical, causes our memory to falter.
So, how should we approach this aspect of worship, understanding how powerful this tool can be in developing followers of Christ?
Our worship must focus on Jesus and tell the story of the gospel. Our songs must give us language to use in our response of worship. And the praise coming from the believers gathered in worship must be more than listening; it must engage the people of God to join in the celebration of Him.
Hebrews 13:15 says, “Therefore, through Him let us continually offer up to God a sacrifice of praise, that is, the fruit of our lips that confess His name.”
When we sing songs in worship, we imbed deep truths about God in the soul-center of our being—exactly where those truths belong. And on a day we least expect it—while we are walking away in disappointment and toward our own Emmaus—the lyric of one of those songs can bring Him right to our side and remind us who He is and just how closely He is walking with us on the way.
We don’t celebrate the wonder of our God because He has some kind of worship quota to be filled. God is adequate with or without our praise. We worship our God because it changes us—one road and one song at a time.
Mike is the former director of Lifeway Worship.