One of the First Christian Hymns

Without question, this is the great mystery of our faith:

Christ was revealed in a human body
and vindicated by the Spirit.

He was seen by angels
and announced to the nations.

He was believed in throughout the world
and taken to heaven in glory.

- I Timothy 3:16

As I was planning worship last week, I decided to choose a portion of Paul's letter to the young Timothy as an affirmation of our faith. The text (I Timothy 3:16) is thought to be an early hymn fragment. It is a beautiful, poetic articulation of the "mystery of our faith." From a literary point of view it consists of 3 antithetical couplets, affirming the reality of two spheres: heaven and earth. The two spheres are the setting for the actions which follow in the hymn. Each action on the earthly plane is matched by a corresponding event in the celestial realm. According to Ralph Martin, "the meaning seems to be that, by this divine epiphany of the Incarnate, the two spheres of existence are brought together."

It is interesting to note what the early hymn writer did and did not include. You find no mention of the Cross or the Resurrection, though the early church would certainly affirm both as vital to the faith. What you do find, however, is an explicit affirmation of the Incarnation and the Ascension. According to Martin, "The effect of His coming and His exaltation is seen in the acknowledgment of His lordship upon earth as the gospel is preached and men believe; and in the celestial sphere His triumph is attested by the homage of the spirit-powers and His supreme place in the heavenly court 'in glory.'"

For the past five years or so I have studied, read, and articulated my own thoughts regarding the doctrine of the Ascension. Though it is a highly neglected doctrine in the modern evangelical church in our current day and age, I find it interesting that it was a vital part of the worship and hymnody of the primitve church.

We do not know who wrote this hymn. According to Martin, it is "likely to be the product of some Hellenistic Jewish-Christian community, of which the school of Stephen is the most illustrious example in the pre-Pauline period." I know that is a mouthful of terms! Basically what Martin is describing is an early Greek-speaking Christian community, before the writings and evangelistic journeys of Paul, shaped around the teaching of Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Acts 7).

Imagine an early house church worshiping on the Lord's Day, Sunday, the day of the week on which Christ arose. They would not have a New Testament Bible in their hand so they would be relying on the teachings of the early Apostles and leaders such as Stephen. They devoted themselves to prayer, to the breaking of bread, and to fellowship (as Acts 2:42 recounts). And they would be articulating this new faith in Christ (Christology) in song and in creed. All of this "pre-Pauline" worship and development of the faith would be somewhere between 30AD and 50AD, the period when this early hymn would have likely been written. So by the time Paul is writing his letter to Timothy around 60AD, the primitive church would have been singing this as a part of their common worship. Having Paul include this hymn fragment in his letter is basically like him putting his "stamp of approval" on its theological content.

The reason I find all of this fascinating is because these early hymns are a like a window into the worship and songwriting of the church as it is first developing; and, they shed light on what the early church deemed as fundamental to the faith. As a worship leader and songwriter, I want to listen to and be formed by both of these observations.


Bruce said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bruce said…
nice paxson. you will love this and should write music to it. My versification of 1 Tim 3:16.

Popular Posts