Because of their poetic and stylistic features, the hymns we encounter in the New Testament cannot simply be understood as doctrinal statements created for cognitive assent. Rather, their rich poetic language, metaphors, and elevated style were well-suited to engage the emotions and hearts of those who would hear them or recite them.
A concern of many church leaders is the extent to which Christian worship today reflects the practices, values, and significance of worship in the earliest Christian assemblies. With nearly two millennia separating us from the first followers of Jesus, and living our lives in vastly differently cultural and social settings, it can be hard to assess where our worship practices are in line, or out of line, with how the earliest believers worshipped. Our resources for doing so are limited since descriptions of early Christian worship and primary sources about Christian practices are generally a century or more removed from the very first Christian assemblies.
While such resources do provide important insights, they also reflect the cultures and practices that developed in later centuries as the message about Jesus was embraced by new communities with their own understanding of what worship should entail. The New Testament is our only direct source from the first century and it provides a little by way of describing Christian worship with particular mention of prayer, “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:16), the practice of baptism, the Lord’s supper, and the sharing of prophecy in the gatherings of believers. But these biblical references are generally specific to one particular context or letter, and have lead to many differing interpretations of the extent to which they are descriptive of what was happening in one community or prescriptive for all believers everywhere.
One under-utilized source we have for understanding the nature of early Christian worship are the words of the earliest Christian hymns some of which, as it turns out, are preserved for us in the pages of the New Testament. For about the last century, biblical scholars have used tools of literary analysis to identify passages throughout the New Testament which reflect the features of ancient hymnody and psalmody. Their research has revealed a wide range of passages from the gospels to the epistles to Revelation which reflect the kinds of hymns used in worship by the believers in the first century.
In some cases, these are highly poetic passages which may have been hymns in their own right. These include passages like Phil 2:5-11, Col 1:15-20, and John 1:1-18 which many commentaries now identify as christological hymns and which are readily observed to be poetic in their construction. In other cases we find phrases or passages which may have been excerpts from longer hymns, such as Eph 2:14-16 and 1 Tim 3:16. In still other cases, we have language in the New Testament which may not be from actual hymns, but is so formally styled that it likely reflects the kinds of language that was being used in worship (e.g., Heb 1:1-3; 1 Pet 3:18-22). The songs of praise recorded in Luke 1-2 and the praises of God and the Lamb in Rev 4-5 likely also reflect the ways in which Christ was praised within the early Christian assemblies.
What do these hymns and hymn-like passages tell us about early Christian worship? We can approach this question in two ways: what we learn from the content of the hymns, and what we learn from the context of the hymns. These angles help us understand the power of hymns in early Christian worship.