Chapter 5

Music in the New Testament

From the booklet How God Values Music
By Ryan Malone

After spiritual giants like Zerubbabel, Haggai, Zechariah, Ezra and Nehemiah passed from the scene, the Jewish nation became heavily secularized. It succumbed to Greek influence, brought about by Alexander the Great’s efforts to Hellenize his empire. This influence affected Jewish music.

Jewish leaders feared encroachment of Hellenism on Jewish life. Religious purists argued that because of Greek influence, all secular music was profane, even obscene. Many even felt the use of instruments was pagan because of how the Greeks used them.

But Jesus Christ disagreed.

In a ruler’s house, Christ “saw the minstrels and the people making a noise” (Matthew 9:23). The Greek word for minstrel is “aulos player.” The aulos, or the flute, was the most important instrument to the Greeks. Jesus Christ apparently made no disparaging comments about the use of this instrument in this encounter with its players. He also referenced the instrument in Matthew 11:16-17, again, without any disapproval.

Christ referenced secular music in the parable of the prodigal son, where the celebration over the son’s return included “musick and dancing” (Luke 15:25). The Greek symphonia (translated “musick”) means musicians playing together. Clearly Christ did not condemn music simply for being secular, even instrumental secular music. Nor did He condone the Jewish resistance to instrumental music in worship. Neither, later, did the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 14:7).

A Spiritual Nation

During the time of Jesus’s ministry, the Jewish priesthood was “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” and worshiping God in vain (Mark 7:7). Even the most prized musical document in Jewish history—the Psalter—was largely forgotten. Notice these occasions when Christ had to remind the Jews of their psalms: “Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?” (John 10:34); “… And Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?” (Matthew 21:16); “Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner …” (verse 42; also Mark 12:10). These quotations were essentially from the Jews’ hymnal. The Jewish religion and its music were in severe crisis.

It was at this time that God began working with a new nation—a spiritual one. Galatians 6:16 calls the Church “the Israel of God.”

God has declared that the people who comprise the New Testament Church are the “holy nation” and the “lively stones … built up a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:9, 5). They are a “holy” and “royal priesthood.” For what purpose? “[T]hat ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”

Just as physical Israel should have done through their works and their music, this holy nation is to point the world to God. Culturally it has many similarities to the physical nation of Old Testament times.

Everything we have studied about Israel’s music has largely revolved around the monarchy, the priesthood and the temple. This new nation is a “royal priesthood”—what the Bible calls “kings and priests” (see Revelation 1:6; 5:10), and they spiritually comprise a new, spiritual temple: a “holy temple in the Lord … for an habitation of God through the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:21-22).

This nation includes people not physically descended from ancient Israel; these “strangers and foreigners” have become “fellowcitizens with the saints” (verse 19).

This new monarchy, priesthood and temple will—like their physical counterparts—“shew forth the praises of him,” partly through its music.

Psalms, Hymns, Spiritual Songs

The New Testament refers to three categories of sacred music: psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19).

Psalms is from a Greek word that means striking, twanging or playing chords. This word alone endorses the use of instruments to accompany sacred singing in the Church. In Romans 15:9, Paul uses the root of this word when he writes: “For this cause I will confess to thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name.” It can also be found in 1 Corinthians 14:15 and James 5:13. The word implies that this style of congregational singing was accompanied by instruments.

Unaccompanied sacred music is not wrong, however. The word for hymn is found in Mark 14:26, where Christ and His disciples sang a hymn, likely one of the psalms, during His final Passover in the flesh. Given the circumstances, it was likely unaccompanied. The Greek for “hymn” simply means “to sing the praise of.” A similar word describes what Paul and Silas did in prison, which was definitely unaccompanied (Acts 16:25).

For New Testament songs, the Greek is ode, a word we use in English. Ode is used in Revelation to describe the heavenly music, in the ode of Moses and the ode of the 144,000 saints. Ode implies a song of any kind, though Paul qualifies it as a spiritual song in Ephesians 5:19.

The remainder of that verse exhorts citizens of spiritual Israel to be “singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” The singing and plucking can be literal, but it can also happen “in your heart.” Interestingly, science has confirmed that music that we only imagine in our minds can have very positive effects. Anthony Storr wrote how music drawn from memory “has many of the same effects as real music coming from the external world” (Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia). In This Is Your Brain on Music, Dr. Levitin discusses an experiment that showed how, in brain scans, “it was nearly impossible to tell from the data whether people were listening to music or imagining music. The pattern of brain activity was virtually indistinguishable.” Dr. Sacks showed that “the imagination of music, of rhythm, may be as potent, neurally, as actually listening to it” (op cit).

Sacks was convinced that we all “to varying degrees, have music in our heads,” and that music in our minds is not connected with the memory but rather an active, present mental process. “[R]emembering music is not, in the usual sense, remembering at all. Remembering music, listening to it, or playing it, is entirely in the present” (ibid). This emphasizes the importance of having godly music in the mind.

The main point of these verses is to show the all-important attitude in singing praises to God. The Almighty bemoaned the fact that some of Israel’s praise to Him were mere flatteries and lies (Psalm 78:36). Particularly under the New Covenant, physical singing must include the vital spiritual element, or the praise is useless (see Psalm 51:14). The right spiritual attitude will motivate the Christian to sing out God’s praises the best way possible.

A companion verse to Ephesians 5:19 is Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” Here again is the admonition for a spiritual component in the Christian when making music. This verse also says music can help Scripture “dwell in you richly in all wisdom” and says music can be used as a spiritual tool in “teaching and admonishing one another.”

This verse states what every advertiser and childhood educator knows: We remember information best when it is put to music. This mnemonic power works for all of us, especially those with a mental malfunction. Sacks noted: “It is similar with some autistic people and with severely retarded people, who may be unable to perform fairly simple sequences involving perhaps four or five movements or procedures—but who can often do these tasks perfectly well if they set them to music. Music has the power to embed sequences and to do this when other forms of organization (including verbal forms) have failed.” This is why Paul admonished the Colossians to learn their Bibles this way. It was why the great Irish minstrel-bards could retain and recall so much information in advising the Irish kings: They knew, as Sacks wrote, that “music … has played a huge role in relation to the oral traditions of poetry, storytelling, liturgy and prayer. Entire books can be held in memory” (ibid).

God wants His Word dwelling richly in His spiritual nation. And He wants it to teach and admonish through music. (Today, the Philadelphia Church of God makes the lyrics to its many original songs available online at

Through Church History

How were biblical music traditions continued within God’s one true Church after the scriptural record ends? It is difficult to say, because God’s “little flock” remained relatively undetected in history for centuries. Around the time of Jerusalem’s fall to Titus in a.d. 70, darkness fell over Church history for about a century. The church that emerged in the history books was quite different from the one founded by Christ. (This is explained in our free book The True History of God’s True Church.)

In the Middle Ages, however, congregational singing was practiced in the remote areas of France, Portugal, Sardinia and Bohemia. Mr. Armstrong’s Good News magazine commented: “These were Dark Ages indeed for the beautiful church music that had inspired singers in the days of David. No longer were people familiar with the accounts of spiritual edification that the apostles and early Church received from singing hymns together” (March 1962).

A dominant and counterfeit form of Christianity advocated chanting, which actually originated in ancient pagan Egypt. The true Church—though scattered, persecuted and hiding out for the most part—kept alive the proper use of music in worship.

The preservation of proper forms of congregational singing, however meager, was brought to light by Martin Luther. When he attempted to revive congregational singing, he found that it was actually being preserved among God’s people. “The persecuted Bohemian … churches, settled on the borders of Moravia, sent to [Luther] … Michael Weiss, who not long afterward published a number of German translations from Old Bohemian hymns” (Americanized Encyclopedia Britannica, 1980).

Michael Weiss is a major character in the little-known true history of God’s true Church—against which the “gates of hell” cannot prevail (Matthew 16:18). These Bohemians were, in fact, the small and persecuted surviving remnant of God’s people who had fled from the Holy Roman Empire. They preserved and practiced congregational singing through the centuries. Soon after Weiss’s visit, Luther began work on the first Protestant hymnal. The Good News remarks: “Had God not preserved the light of His true Church we still might be hearing only the chants of the Middle Ages in the world” (op cit).

Is it too remarkable to consider that God’s Church has shaped Western music history, like its physical counterpart of Old Testament times? The Protestant Reformation rocked the music world and dramatically changed its course!

The true Church of God, however, was fraught with its own problems, and Jesus Christ kept moving the lampstand, as the prophetic account of the Church eras in Revelation 2 and 3 reveals. At one point in history, members of the true Church were known as Waldenses. They were known, according to William Beattie’s book, for their musical practices: “Among the Waldenses, a knowledge and taste for sacred music is diligently inculcated; and thus, being early instructed in vocal harmony, their psalmody is as correct in sound as it is rich in expression” (The Waldenses).

Modern Church History

As in physical Israel, the spiritual health of God’s spiritual nation is reflected in the people’s music.

Through a large portion of the 20th century, the Philadelphia era was characterized by a mighty work because of the doors God opened for it and the special understanding God gave about the “key of David” (Revelation 3:7-8). Other scriptural references pinpoint this to be the era when a man came in the spirit and power of Elijah and restored all things, as Christ said he would, just before His Second Coming (Matthew 17:10-11).

This was a great spiritual renaissance in the history of the Church of God, especially following an era described as “dead” (Revelation 3:1). Its physical leader, like the original Elijah, restored true worship to Israel—this time, spiritual Israel. This restoration included putting the true God back into the hymns sung by the Church. After all, Christ said this end-time Elijah would come and “restore all things.” (Request A Pivotal Sign of the End Time for proof that Herbert W. Armstrong was this end-time Elijah.) History shows that music was part of this restoration.

Mr. Armstrong himself came from a musical family. His brother, Dwight, was an especially gifted composer. Mr. Armstrong employed Dwight full time (not unlike many of the temple musicians of old) to compose the Worldwide Church of God’s Bible Hymnal.

The hymnal reached its completed form around the time of another musical accomplishment by God’s Church: the inauguration of a magnificent auditorium in 1974. This was a modern version of a physical house for God to dwell in—patterned after the first and second temples as described in the Bible, yet with modern applications for spiritual worship and other uses befitting God’s presence. It became one of the finest concert venues in the United States. It featured some of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. Due to its unmatched acoustics, artists and patrons had reactions similar to those found in 2 Chronicles 9, which describes the Queen of Sheba’s reaction to Solomon’s temple.

Revelation 3 shows that the next and final era of God’s Church, however, was prophesied to be “lukewarm.” Soon after Mr. Armstrong’s death, Church administration advised Church members to start omitting some of the hymns from their song services. The real agenda became clear when the Church published another hymnal in 1993—replacing most of the “Armstrong” hymns with many unscriptural and lesser-quality compositions. The concert series shut down in 1995, and the lights of Ambassador Auditorium went out until 2004, when the building was sold to another local church.

The Bible is not silent about the connection between this Laodicean Church’s rotten spiritual state and the state of its music. Our many books and booklets prove how the ancient captivities of Israel and Judah are dual in fulfillment—captivity will come again, particularly to the “lukewarm” segment of God’s Church. Amos 6:5-6 show that something is wrong with the music of these apostatizing Christians—that the songs of their worship are “howlings” (Amos 8:2-3).

But God also prophesied through Amos that He would raise the ruins of those golden years of the Philadelphia era (Amos 9:11-12). This is occurring through the remnant known as the Philadelphia Church of God. (Request our free books Malachi’s Message to God’s Church Today and Raising the Ruins for more information.)

Musically, the work of the pcg is patterned after Mr. Armstrong’s, even in its cultural and musical emphases. Until the wcg released the Bible Hymnal into the public domain, the Church used as many copies of the book as it could find. Now, thanks to the public domain release, the pcg has produced various editions of the hymnal, even a complete version in Spanish.

The pcg began sponsoring a concert series only three years after Ambassador Auditorium’s lights went out. Then in 2008, ground was broken on a performing arts center—Armstrong Auditorium—at the pcg’s world headquarters. This “second temple” (at least as far as modern Church history goes) is one of the most visible monuments of how the pcg has raised the ruins from its splendor under Mr. Armstrong. Like God’s nation in Old Testament times, this tiny spiritual nation is making an impact on the world of music and the arts through this grand edifice.

Additionally, Church members living in far-flung places around the world can livestream many of the performances that occur in Armstrong Auditorium. What a rare opportunity in human history. Historically, for people to witness such performances, they had to have been born into a privileged palace that patronized the arts. Now, it is common for people to be able to watch great performances, particularly with the advent of television and film. Art museums are also affordable and attainable for many, particularly in the First World and Israelite-influenced nations. God gives great opportunities to His people scattered around the world!

Now project this culture forward into the world to come, when the whole world will be God’s, when all will be keeping God’s laws (Isaiah 2:1-4), and when the spiritual nation is the ruling Kingdom of God (Daniel 2:44).

The Culture of Tomorrow’s World

This time is preceded by “great tribulation” (Matthew 24:21). Psalm 137 prophesies about the music of God’s people who have been taken into captivity. The Bible reveals that they will find great comfort in the Song of Solomon (as our Song of Songs booklet explains).

While the faithful remnant of God’s Church is protected from these horrors, Scripture shows they will be making music from their place of refuge (Isaiah 42:10-12).

When Christ returns to stop humanity from annihilating itself (Matthew 24:22), His appearance will be heralded by the sound of a “great trumpet” (Isaiah 27:13; Revelation 11:15). He will establish His government and usher in a new age of music.

Christ will free those who languished in captivity, and they will emerge into freedom “with songs,” “with singing,” with dancing, and adorned with tabrets (Isaiah 35:10; 51:11; Jeremiah 31:4-13; see also Psalm 126 and Isaiah 26). God will also silence the pagan Babylonian system, including its music (Revelation 18:22).

When God establishes His government over the Earth, He “shall comfort Zion: he will comfort all her waste places; and he will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody” (Isaiah 51:3). The wilderness will be transformed into Eden and the desert into the garden of the Eternal—both types of God’s throne room! The throne-room culture will be planted here on Earth during the reign of the Messiah. “The voice of melody” will be heard—more evidence that music existed in the original Eden. The Hebrew root for melody means to strike with fingers. So there will be voices and instruments—all kinds of music—in the future Eden!

The culture of the World Tomorrow will be an export of God’s throne-room culture! It will be a world of true culture.

Mr. Armstrong wrote in his March 1978 article on culture: “There is much sophisticated ‘culture’ in this world that is pure snobbery and vanity. But true culture is based on God’s great law: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ (Matthew 22:39). That part of culture and good manners that expresses concern for one’s neighbor in politeness, graciousness, pleasantness, smiles and service is true culture.”

God wants humanity to savor the finest things, to have excellent standards, manners and tastes. Why? Because these qualities reflect the character of God.

“For the Lord hath redeemed Jacob …. Therefore they shall come and sing in the height of Zion, and shall flow together to the goodness of the Lord, for wheat, and for wine, and for oil, and for the young of the flock and of the herd: and their soul shall be as a watered garden; and they shall not sorrow any more at all. Then shall the virgin rejoice in the dance, both young men and old together: for I will turn their mourning into joy, and will comfort them, and make them rejoice from their sorrow. And I will satiate the soul of the priests with fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness, saith the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:11-14).

One of the most vivid images of the 1,000-year rule of the Messiah on Earth is that people will “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks,” and learn war no more, every man enjoying security “under his vine and under his fig tree” (Micah 4:3-4). Consider how this time of peace will affect the musical output of the world.

Imagine the resources being poured into education and agriculture as opposed to war and the grueling processes of arming, manufacturing and training for battle. The glorious alternative to destruction is creation. What a creative time this coming world will be! Artists are, after all, a product of the society they live in. Imagine how this pervading peace will encourage and stimulate their creative efforts!

Zechariah 8:3-5 picture a time when Jerusalem will be “full of boys and girls playing in the streets thereof”; this can refer to “playing” instrumental music and dancing.

One pure worldwide language (Zephaniah 3:9) will also impact music. Not only does this verse imply significant changes for religious music, it implies a purification of the lyrics of the coming music. It may also impact the structure of music itself. As Mr. Armstrong wrote, “A different language means a different culture, different music, different habits, different education, different values and standards, and a whole different approach to life” (The Wonderful World Tomorrow—What It Will Be Like). Musicologists and linguistic experts know what Mr. Armstrong stated: Language deeply affects the musical architecture of any culture.

This coming great musical renaissance will surely be enhanced by the resurrection and participation of King David himself (Ezekiel 37:21-25).

Jeremiah 30:9 confirms that God will “raise up” the sweet psalmist of Israel, and he will resume his role as united Israel’s king! With David reigning, surely music will assume a prominent place in the culture of tomorrow’s world!

And music—as well as this sophisticated culture—will not be just for the elite, as in Satan’s world. A time is coming when all will partake of the finer things, including fine food and drink, singing and dancing. Jeremiah 31:12-14 show that all this typifies spiritual bounty. These physical things represent God’s goodness.

Continue Reading: Chapter 6: The Importance of Music