“He Lives” Has Poor Theology

Empty TombAs Easter approaches, churches are preparing their musical selections for their Sunday services.

Many of them will probably sing Alfred Ackley’s popular song, “He Lives,” without putting much thought into the theology that the hymn promotes.

I serve a risen Savior, He’s in the world today;
I know that He is living, whatever men may say;
I see His hand of mercy, I hear His voice of cheer,
And just the time I need Him, He’s always near.

He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and talks with me
Along life’s narrow way.
He lives, He lives, salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know He lives?
He lives within my heart.

But as for me and my house, that song is on our banned list.

To be fair, I agree with most of the tenets of the song. But the part that I disagree with is so fundamental to the message of the song that I have to throw out the whole thing.

The first stanza begins by saying, “I serve a risen Savior, He’s in the world today.” This is wholly unbiblical.

Here are three reasons this is incorrect:

1. Ascension of Jesus Christ
After His resurrection, Jesus appeared to His disciples over a period of forty days before ascending into heaven (Acts 1:3). The ascension of Jesus is a fundamental aspect of Christian belief, affirming His exaltation and reign as Lord and Savior at the right hand of God the Father (Acts 1:9-11; Ephesians 1:20-21). As such, Jesus is not physically present on earth in the same way He was during His earthly ministry.

2. Presence of the Holy Spirit
While Jesus is no longer physically present on earth, He promised to send the Holy Spirit to dwell within believers (John 14:16-17). Through the Holy Spirit, believers experience the presence of God in their lives, guiding, empowering, and transforming them to live according to His teachings (Romans 8:9-11; Galatians 2:20).

3. Body of Jesus Christ
In the absence of the physical presence of Christ, the Bible refers to the congregation of believers as the body of Christ here on earth. Christ is depicted as the head of the body, and the church derives its direction, purpose, and vitality from Him (Ephesians 1:22-23; Colossians 1:18). As the head, Christ exercises authority over the body, nourishing and sustaining it, and guiding it in accordance with His will. The church is entrusted with the mission of continuing the work of Christ on earth, proclaiming the Gospel, making disciples, and demonstrating God’s love and compassion to the world (Matthew 28:19-20; 2 Corinthians 5:20).

Based on all of this biblical evidence, how confusing is it, especially to people who are still young in their faith, to exclaim triumphantly that Jesus is “in the world today”?

He Is Not HereHe is not here! He is risen, and now he sits at the right hand of the throne of God (Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1). Christ does, however, continue to work in the world through the Holy Spirit and the congregation of the saved.

Continuing on, the chorus of the hymn declares, “You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart.”

While personal experience can indeed play a role in one’s faith journey, it should not be the sole or primary basis for belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

1. Subjectivity vs. Objectivity
Personal experiences, feelings, and perceptions can vary widely among individuals and are inherently subjective. While they may provide comfort and assurance to believers, they do not provide objective evidence for the truth of the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a historical event with objective implications, supported by eyewitness testimony, historical documents, and archaeological evidence.

2. Reliability of Experience
Personal experiences can be influenced by various factors such as emotions, biases, cultural background, and psychological state. While experiences of God’s presence or spiritual encounters can be meaningful and transformative, they are not always reliable indicators of truth. Moreover, individuals from different religious traditions may claim similar experiences, leading to conflicting interpretations of truth. Therefore, personal experiences should be critically examined in light of Scripture and the broader Christian tradition.

While personal experiences can be meaningful and significant in the Christian faith journey, they should be grounded in the objective reality of Jesus’ resurrection and the teachings of Scripture.

If “you ask me how I know he lives,” my answer echoes the simple truth of another well-known song: “The Bible tells me so.”

Jesus does not live in my heart, but the Holy Spirit does (on behalf of the Godhead).

Yes, Jesus lives! Not because I feel like it, and not because he takes care of me.

He lives because He arose again, just like he said he would, and I know all of this because the Bible says so.

Hymn Story: In the Garden

If you attend a classic “singspiration” at a church gathering or the funeral of an older person, the odds of you singing or hearing this song are pretty high.

At least in my experience. Along with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” this one seems to rank up there as one of the all-time favourites for people from the middle of the 20th century.

Flowers in the Garden

“I Come to the Garden Alone,” also known as “In the Garden,” is a hymn with lyrics written by American songwriter C. Austin Miles in 1912. The hymn is based on an experience Miles claimed to have had in his garden while reflecting on the biblical account of Mary Magdalene encountering the risen Christ in the garden near the tomb.

Interestingly, I also find that many people are unaware of the song’s connection to Jesus’ resurrection and his appearance to Mary of Magdala. They latch onto the personal nature of the song as they think about God’s abiding presence with them, but they don’t know that the song originated from someone’s literal meeting with Jesus in a garden while he was still on Earth.

According to Miles, he was inspired to write the hymn after reading the Gospel of John, specifically the passage about Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus on the morning of His resurrection (John 20:11-18). In this account, Mary goes to the tomb and, finding it empty, encounters Jesus, whom she initially mistakes for the gardener. It’s at this point that Jesus reveals Himself to her, saying her name, and Mary responds, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

Miles was deeply moved by the idea of a personal, intimate relationship with Jesus, akin to the relationship between the gardener and the visitor in the garden. This inspired him to write the lyrics to “I Come to the Garden Alone” as a reflection on the joy of communing with Christ in a quiet and solitary place, similar to the garden setting in the biblical narrative.

The hymn has resonated with many over the years for its emphasis on the personal connection with Jesus and the sense of peace and communion found in spending time alone with Him.

But more significantly, its lyrics speak to the profound experience of encountering the risen Christ in the garden. Oh, what a day that must have been! I would love to hear Mary’s first-hand account of it someday.

By the way, C. Austin Miles wrote and contributed to several Christian songs. Did you know that he wrote a hymn entitled, “In the Upper Room” (1898)? Perhaps we’ll take a look at that song in a future post.

Hymn Story: Joy to the World

“And heaven ‘n nature sing! And heaven ‘n nature sing!”

Is anything more indicative that Christmas season has arrived than that familiar chorus wafting triumphantly through the air?

Ironically, the basis for these words is separated from the events of the nativity by over 2000 years.

Joy to the World“Joy to the World” as a hymn that reflects on the universal joy that should accompany the coming of the Lord, drawing inspiration from Psalm 98. The lyrics of the song were penned by Englishman Isaac Watts, a prolific hymn writer. The “Father of English Hymnody” published the lyrics in 1719 as part of his collection of hymns titled “The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament.”

Ironically, just as “Joy to the World” is not actually a Christmas song, Psalm 98 is not actually attributed to David.

The specific inspiration for the hymn came from verses 4-9 of Psalm 98. These verses express the joy of all creation at the second coming of the Lord. Watts adapted and paraphrased the psalmic text to create the lyrics that we now erroneously associate with Christ’s first advent.

A closer look at the Psalms shows us that Psalms 96 and 97 are thematically tied to Psalm 98, each of them celebrating the Messiah’s rule over the entire world. As we know (and as Watts knew) from the New Testament, Jesus did not rule over the whole earth during his first coming.

In another twist of misunderstandings, the musical setting commonly used for “Joy to the World” is attributed to the German composer George Frideric Handel. However,  the melody was likely adapted by Lowell Mason in the 19th century from themes found in Handel’s works, thus lending to the misattribution to the “Messiah’s” composer.

I love to sing “Joy to the World,” and I love to play it and hear it played. Its lively and awe-inspiring melody, combined with the exuberant lyrics, has made it a timeless and festive addition to Christmas celebrations around the world.

Personally, I am not opposed to its inclusion during the Christmas season, but I think it should always be placed in its proper context.

Just as we remind people that Santa Claus doesn’t actually deliver gifts on Christmas Eve, we should never sing or play “Joy to the World” without reminding people that it’s not a song about Christ’s birth.

Misappropriated theology is bad theology, and if we sing or play this hymn unaware of its true message, we communicate misinformation and confusion about what really happened when Christ came to earth the first time.

Here’s an idea: Read Psalm 98 together before singing the song so that Scripture can breathe even more life into Watts’ lyrics!

Why Your Church Should Have Handbells- Part 1

This last Sunday was an exciting day for me. For about three years I’ve dreamed about directing a handbell ensemble, and that dream finally came true, much sooner than I ever expected! Sometimes even those dreams that you don’t dream come true!

In the future I will provide more details about how God provided this unique new opportunity at my church, but in this series of posts I am going to share why I think every church should consider starting a handbell ministry.

Lighthouse Baptist Church has never had this ministry in the past, and as far as I know, we are one of the few Baptist churches in our area to have a ringing ensemble. Fourth Baptist Church is on the other side of the Twin Cities here in Minnesota, and they have a thriving handbell ministry. But aside from them, I don’t know of anyone else nearby.

Why So Few?

Based on my travels around the country and my observations from the orders that came in when I worked in a handbell repair shop, the churches with handbell ensembles are primarily Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Catholic. Oh, and let me add that many of these churches have not just one but *two* sets of bells.

So why don’t more Baptist and non-denominational churches have handbell ministries? I have no idea.

Maybe it’s because we have less money and don’t want to pay for the instruments. Maybe it’s because we often favor more progressive music styles and don’t think that handbells fit into that style.

Maybe we just don’t know much about them and no one is telling us about them.

Lighthouse Baptist is now the second church that I have been part of in the last few years that has decided to start a handbell ministry, and I think it is a very positive move. Today I am going to share just one reason why.

Bell RingingA Unique Opportunity

Handbells offer a unique opportunity to teach biblical truth.

Yeah, but why do we need need to spend thousands of dollars on new instruments and start a new ministry just to do that?

Great question! But slow down…that’s only the first reason. I’ll give more in the future. Right now let me explain this one.

Hopefully we teach biblical truth in our churches with the sermons, the singing, the Sunday School classes, the conferences, and the Bible studies. But for the most part, those are all lecture-type settings.

But handbells are hands-on, and they require immediate application.

When I preach or teach, I’m a huge proponent of offering practical ideas for application and implementation of biblical truth. You should never conclude a teaching time without telling people how to implement what they have learned as soon as they leave the building.

Once they leave, only time will tell if people respond or not.

But in handbells, ringers are forced to immediately apply what they are learning, or the group won’t progress. The theoretical instantly becomes reality. This provides ensemble directors with the opportunity to show people the difference between doing things one way and doing things another way.

So how does this enable the church to teach biblical truth?

More than Music

This week we spent the whole rehearsal learning basic ringing techniques. We are going to do the same thing next week…and the week after that…and the week after that.

Why? Because they need to know the basics before they can move on to the more advanced. They need a strong foundation so they don’t develop bad habits.

In other terms, we could say that they need to learn the elementary principles of ringing. (Does that terminology ring a bell? 😉 If not, it will soon.)

But if I told them that they need to learn the basics and then I immediately started teaching them more advanced techniques, I would undermine my own authority. My mouth would say, “The basics are really important,” but my actions would say, “Just kidding!”

I can assure you, however, that at the end of this month, my ringers will know the basics exceptionally well. They will have no choice because I won’t give them a choice 🙂

Not only will they hear me talk about it, but they will experience immediate application. Either that or they won’t continue to ring with us.

I told my ringers on Sunday that we are going to end every rehearsal by applying the day’s rehearsal to a truth from Scripture.

This week we compared our rehearsal time to the truth taught in Hebrews 5:12-14: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.”

Many people in our churches have been reborn long enough that they ought to be able to teach and disciple other believers. Unfortunately, they have not reached full maturity yet because they have not been properly fed! They need more milk!

Likewise, our ringers need a solid foundation in the basics before they can move on to greater things.

Wrapping It Up

Here’s the conclusion. The ringers at Lighthouse Baptist have been told that they need to learn the basics. For four weeks they will apply what I have told them by actually doing nothing but the basics.

They will experience hands-on what it means to implement what I have asked them to do, and they will eventually see the difference it makes.

As a result, I can also take biblical truth and apply it to our hands-on “experiment.” When they think of Hebrews 5:12-14, they can think back to when they spent a month “drinking the milk” of handbells.

For the most part, when you preach or teach, you can tell people how to apply Scripture, and you can give them illustrations, but it’s harder to give them that visual, hands-on illustration that says, “See, this is why.”

But with handbells you can do that, and at Lighthouse, that is exactly what we will do.

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Echo His praises!