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New Testament Instruction on Congregational Singing: An Examination of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 (Part 2 of 3)

Last week, we begin this short series by looking at Ephesians 5:19 with a view towards learning how to worship with singing and music in a congregational assembly. This series continues this week by examining Colossians 3:16.

Having examined Eph 5:19, it will become clear that the terminology and some of the concepts of Col 3:16 have already been explained, making for a briefer examination of this verse. Nonetheless, Col 3:16 has its own distinctive elements, which give us further instruction for how to worship with singing and music in a congregational assembly. 

Colossians 3:16 (ESV)
16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

Colossians 3:16 begins with a command. The Colossians are commanded, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.”1 This “word” (logos) is perhaps not so much what Christ Himself spoke as it is what is spoken about Him.2 This phrase (“the word of Christ”) is used only here in the NT,3 and the ones who speak in context are the readers themselves, and that in musical form (“teaching and admonishing… singing”). This phrase helpfully specifies for us the priority of their content (Christ), and He as the content must dwell “richly” so among the congregation. A dismissal of this command could lead to a poor or nonexistent presentation of Christ in the church’s singing, which thus leaves the word of Christ not dwelling richly among the congregation.

Up to this point in the context of Colossians, many a good hymn would therefore focus on Christ as preeminent over all things (Col 1:15–20), how He has saved us to serve Him by proclaiming Him to all (Col 1:16–2:5), and how He has changed our lives to live for things above and not for the things of this world (Col 2:6–3:17).

The means whereby the word of Christ dwells richly in a congregation is through “teaching and admonishing,” which involves both the positive instruction of the word of Christ (“teaching”) and, in contrast, warning or correcting others of what comes to those who disbelieve or disregard this word (“admonishing”; from noutheteō; cf. Acts 20:31; 1 Cor 4:14; Col 1:28; 1 Thess 5:12, 14; 2 Thess 3:15).4 “One another” specifies the recipient of this teaching and admonition. The individuals of the congregation are thus teaching and admonishing and being taught and admonished at the same time. This teaching and admonition must be done “in all wisdom,” which implies a careful examination of the words used about Christ, a consideration of those singing, and a thoughtful look at the music being used for singing.

This congregational teaching and admonition are presented in three ways, through “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” As explained above, there are differences between the terms, but these differences are not necessarily important. What is helpful about these terms, though, is what they imply, which is also mentioned above—the use of instruments, singing psalms, singing other songs, etc. Like Eph 5:19 above, so also in Col 3:16 “spiritual” technically falls after this threefold series and matches the gender of “songs” but refers to the series as a whole. All three forms of singing are “spiritual” in that they are sung as the congregation is led by the Spirit of God.5

“Singing” technically falls after “spiritual” and even after “with thankfulness” in the Greek. This being said, it is clear that “singing” indicates how the psalms, hymns, and songs were to be communicated. “With thankfulness” indicates gratitude was to be the underlying motivation and manner whereby the singing was to take place. “With thankfulness” also implies that whatever the words about Christ were, they were to involve texts that provoked the Colossians to thank God for Him. “In your hearts to God” parallels Eph 5:19’s “with your heart to the Lord” (literal translation). Just as the Lord Jesus is the One to whom we sing, so also is God the Father. We thank Him in song for what He has done for us in Christ, and we do so with the heart, the whole person.

In summary, Col 3:16 commands the congregation to let the word of Christ dwell richly in them, that this dwelling takes place by teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. This teaching and admonition take place through song, is motivated by thankfulness, and while addressed to one another, is ultimately directed to God.

This 3-part series will conclude next wee by comparing and contrasting Eph 5:19 with Col 3:16 in order to give some helpful points of instructions as to how a congregation should worship in song.

About David Huffstutler

David pastors First Baptist Church in Rockford, IL, serves as a chaplain for his local police department, and teaches as adjunct faculty at Bob Jones University. David holds a Ph. D. in Applied Theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His concentration in Christian Leadership focuses his contributions to pastoral and practical theology.

  1. Col 3:16 specifies the recipient—“you.” Though “you” is singular in the Greek, the context indicates a collective “you,” that is, the body that was able to sing the word of Christ to “one another.” See Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon (PNTC; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 286. []
  2. Moo, Colossians, 285–86. Even if one takes “the word of Christ” to be what Christ Himself spoke, it is still a word about Him. William Hendriksen, Exposition of Colossians and Philemon (NTC; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1964), 160 comments that, in this understanding, the word would be “objective, special revelation that proceeds from (and concerns) Christ.” Even a position between these two leaves one with the same understanding in the end. James D.G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (NIGTC; Grand Rapids, MI; Eerdmans, 1996), 236, states, “As such it can denote both the word (gospel) of which (the) Christ is the content…and the word which (the) Christ spoke…there is no reason why the genitive form should be pressed to an either-or decision (either objective or subjective).” []
  3. “The word of Christ” in Rom 10:17 (NASB, ESV, etc.) is a translation of rhema and not logos for “word.” []
  4. But these means are by no means the only means—e.g., consider teaching, exhortation, and the reading Scripture (cf. 1 Tim 4:13). []
  5. Moo, Colossians, 289–90. []