A Birthday Reflection on the “Hallelujah Chorus”

Hallelujah Chorus 

Last night I attended a wonderful performance of Handel’s Messiah presented by the Church Music Division of New Orleans Baptist Seminary, where I teach. With the Hallelujah Chorus still ringing in my heart and mind this morning, I wanted to reflect on it.

Many people would agree that one of the most glorious pieces of music ever composed is the Hallelujah Chorus written by Georg Frederick Handel in 1741. Even though it is characterized as “classical music,” it is well-known by many who otherwise may not be very acquainted with classical repertory.

So, here’s a piece of trivia about Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. It was written in the key of D Major. Do you know how many times the four vocal parts sing the pitch of “D”? And which vocal part (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass) sings the pitch “D” the most?

You might say that’s the most useless piece of data ever. Who cares? you say. It’s not how many times the individual pitches occur in a piece of music that make it a masterpiece, but it’s how those pitches are arranged and relate to all the other pitches in a particular sequence that somehow transcends ordinary musical elements (like individual pitches) into a work of art.

I would have to agree. Those individual pitches (like the pitch “D”) are employed in something far greater than themselves. How boring would the music be if it were comprised only of a single pitch? Yet, at the same time, the pitch is not unimportant. Have you ever tried to play a piano with one of its keys sticking and unable to sound? Do you know what that does to the song you are trying to play on the piano? Frustrating at the least! So, the individual pitches DO matter. But they don’t matter as much just by themselves. They matter in the bigger picture of the musical composition—the song!

So, how is this a birthday reflection, you ask?

Think of an individual’s life analogous to a single musical pitch. God created each life, each with its own birthday. Whenever we celebrate a person’s birthday, we are celebrating the date commemorating his or her arrival here on this earth. That’s a good thing to do, because every person created by God possesses the very breath and image of God and for that reason alone, that life matters. Sort of like the individual “pitch” we were discussing earlier. However, there is a bigger picture. Every human life was created for doxology, in order to bring praise and glory to our Heavenly Father. When the human being created by God comes to know “the Author of life” through Jesus Christ, imagine the potential for that life to pour out doxology to our Creator God!

But also imagine how an individual life may relate as a part of a larger community of humankind pouring out doxology to the Father in concert! The potential “praise effect” is far beyond what we can imagine this side of Heaven!

Back to our trivia question: (Drumroll………………!)

The pitch “D” is sung 406 times by the various voice parts in the Hallelujah Chorus. The sopranos win for the most “Ds”, singing that pitch a whopping 126 times! The basses come in a close second with 122 times. The tenors aren’t far behind with 115 times. And, the altos sing “Ds” 43 times. That’s a lot of reiterations of a single pitch! (Note: I actually counted them myself!) And “D” really contributes quite a lot to the construction of this profound piece of music—in concert with all the other pitches!

So, go ahead and celebrate someone’s birthday! Celebrate the giftedness, personality and contributions that are unique to the individual. And, at the same time, celebrate the bigger picture of the Body of Christ collectively on mission to share His Gospel with the world, resulting in an ever-expanding Hallelujah Chorus to the glory of our awesome God!

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Paul on the subject of Thanksgiving, pt. 4 (The Power of the Gospel)

For the apostle Paul, there was another huge motivator for expression of thanksgiving. It was gratitude for what Christ had done in the lives of those with whom he had had the privilege of sharing the Gospel. As he started new churches throughout the region, those new churches were made up of real people, individuals whom Paul had led to Christ. He spent time with them, he knew them, and he loved them. Time after time, he wrote letters back to the churches, expressing thanks to God for those precious saints whom he knew personally. He rejoiced to see how the Gospel was powerfully at work transforming their lives.

To the Church in Corinth, he wrote:
I always thank God for you
because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in 
him you have been enriched in every way—in all your speaking and in all your knowledge— because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you. (1 Cor. 1:4-6)

To the Church in Rome, he wrote:
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world.
(Rom. 1:8)

To the Church in Colosse, he wrote:
We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for youbecause we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints—  the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you. All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth. (Col. 1:3-6)

To the Church in Thessalonica, he wrote:
We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers.  We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess. 1:2-3)

To the Church in Philippi, he wrote:
I thank my God every time I remember you. (Phil. 1:3)

Paul knew the believers who made up these churches as well as the circumstances of their lives. He  knew how their lives had been before encountering the life-changing power of Christ. His observation of the stunning changes the gospel had made in their lives gave Paul abundant reasons to rejoice and give thanks to God for them.

For personal reflection: Are there any Christians around you in whom you have been able to see God  change over time? Have you witnessed life-transformation in someone that you have had opportunity to disciple or encourage in Christ along the way? Reflect on some real-life examples of God’s trophies of grace. See if that doesn’t cause your heart to give thanks as you remember them.


Paul on the subject of Thanksgiving, pt. 3 (The Partnership in the Ministry)

We’ve already seen how Paul valued the notion of our lives being a continual outpouring of thanksgiving, despite the trials and sufferings that to some degree accompany everyone’s journey. Yesterday we looked at what fueled his gratitude to the Lord, the chief motivator being the “gift” God had given him, a personal relationship with his Savior, Jesus Christ. Paul referenced this gift as the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us… (Eph. 1:7-8).

But I believe there was another Thanksgiving motivator for Paul: his calling to share in the ministry of the Gospel to the Gentiles. His specific calling to this ministry followed right on the heels of his encounter with the Living Lord:

As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around
him.  He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you
persecute me?”  “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are
persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”…Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus.  At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.  All those who heard
him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem
among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners
to the chief priests?” Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews
living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.  (Acts 9:3-6, 19-22)

It wasn’t as if Paul hadn’t been doing “religious work” previously. Prior to his call to the Gospel ministry, the former “Saul” had been a zealous Pharisee. But the call on his life experienced on the Damascus Road fundamentally shifted everything about the way the new “Paul” saw his work for God. Here are a few comparisons:

PAUL THE APOSTLE referred to himself as a “servant of Christ”, an “ambassador in chains” (Eph. 6:20) while SAUL THE PHARISEE “served God” as a member of the religious elite.

PAUL THE APOSTLE received his ministry calling by revelation from Jesus Christ (Gal. 1:12) while SAUL THE PHARISEE saw his calling as upholding the “traditions of my fathers” (Gal. 1:14), which Jesus called “traditions of men” (Mark 7:8)

PAUL THE APOSTLE took part in a ministry of the “Good News” (by grace are you saved through faith – Eph. 2:8) in contrast to SAUL THE PHARISEE’s ministry, which turned out to be the “Not-so-Good-News,” rebuked by Jesus as: you load people down with burdens…you will not lift one finger to help them (Lk. 11:46).

PAUL THE APOSTLE participated in sharing about the grace of God (not of works, lest any man should boast (Eph.2:9) while SAUL THE PHARISEE advocated favor with God through religious ritual.

PAUL THE APOSTLE, like Jesus Himself, ministered the Gospel as a “suffering servant” (Acts 9:15; I am crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20), while SAUL THE PHARISEE belonged to a group which Jesus indicted as self-serving and self-exalting (Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces– Luke 11:43).

PAUL THE APOSTLE focused on building up the Body of Christ in sharp contrast to SAUL THE PHARISEE’s goal of destroying the Church (Gal. 1:13).

PAUL THE APOSTLE’s brand of “Thanksgiving” was centered on Christ while  SAUL THE PHARISEE’s thanksgiving prayer might have sounded like this: God, I thank you that I am not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tithe of all I get. (Luke 18:11)

I believe Paul was grateful to God, not only for saving him, but for replacing his mis-guided service to God with the ministry of “Good News.” He expressed this idea in his letters to Timothy as well as to the Church at Corinth:

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me
faithful, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a
persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and
unbelief. (1 Tim. 1:12-13)

But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and
through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. (2 Cor. 2:14)

For personal reflection: The work of Kingdom-expansion through the Gospel belongs to all who follow Christ. Think about the opportunities Christ has given you personally to be a bearer of “Good News” to the people in your relational networks.  Does the invitation to join God in His redemptive mission fuel a grateful spirit of Thanksgiving in your life?


Paul on the subject of Thanksgiving, pt. 2 (The Person of Christ)

Yesterday we discussed Paul’s perspective on life, that is the importance of expressing gratitude to the Lord in all things. This perspective, which seems quite amazing against the backdrop of suffering and hardship in Paul’s life, undoubtedly was shaped by the Gospel. But what motivated him to give thanks? I believe, first and foremost, his
heart of gratitude was fueled by the fact that God, in his mercy and kindness, had given him a new life in Christ! Paul wrote often about the “gift” God had given him.

When someone receives a gift from a friend or family member, the natural response is to express thanks to the gift-giver. At the same time, the depth of appreciation naturally correlates to the quality of the gift. This must have been true for Paul exponentially. He often expressed throughout his letters to the churches how much this special gift meant to him. The”gift” Paul had received was nothing less than a personal relationship with Jesus Christ–the gift John wrote about in John 3:16:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Sonthat whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 

Over and over again Paul refers to what God has done for humanity’s sin problem as a “gift” from God:

 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and
in this way death came to all men, because all sinned—  for before the law was given,
sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law.  Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over
those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the
one to come. But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!  Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the
gift followed many trespasses and brought justification.  For if, by the trespass of the
one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive
God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through
the one man, Jesus Christ.  (Rom. 5:12-17)

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our
Lord.  (Rom. 6:23)

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in
Christ Jesus,  in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches
of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.  For it is by grace you
have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God (Eph.
2:6-8)

Paul’s life had been marked by God’s gift through Christ. For this former Pharisee, it wasn’t just theological theory; it was intensely personal! As a former persecutor of the Church and of Christ himself, Paul had been gloriously saved from sin and rebellion through God’s kindness in Christ Jesus. An acute awareness of this gift of God most certainly fueled his joy and his thanksgiving. The apostle, who was rarely at a loss for words, couldn’t seem to find words to describe this gift!

Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! (2 Cor. 9:15)

For personal reflection: One of the best antidotes for a heart that lacks a sense of gratitude is a bit of personal reflection. The intentional process of thinking back to the first time that God’s love became very real and personal inspires a sense of gratitude. As we revisit that occasion, we shouldn’t be surprised to hear the words naturally flow from our heart and mouth: “Thank you, Jesus, for the precious gift of forgiveness of my sin and new life in Yourself!”


Paul on the subject of Thanksgiving, pt. 1 (The Perspective of the Gospel)

Paul was consistently writing to the early churches about gratitude. He encouraged them to give thanks always and for everything, that is, in all circumstances. He wrote to the Church in Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Phil. 4:4-6)

The person who did not know Paul might be tempted to say: “Paul, that’s easy for you to say! But you don’t know my circumstances! If you knew all the things I faced, you wouldn’t be telling me to give thanks in all circumstances!” But what about Paul? Did he ever experience any difficulties? Take a look at this list:

• He was struck blind on the road to Damascus.

• On five different occasions, he received the maximum 39 lashes.

• Three times he was beaten with rods.

•Once he was stoned and left for dead.

• Three times he was shipwrecked.

• He was snake-bitten.

• While onboard a severely battered ship, he was food deprived.

• He was imprisoned and put in shackles.

• He was falsely accused by religious leaders.

• He was hauled before the government officials on various false accusations.

• He often suffered persecution.

• He was seized and dragged out of the temple.

• He experienced some heated disagreements with ministry partners.

• He was ridiculed by the Greeks while sharing the gospel with them.

• He became the center of a riot with the crowd yelling “Get rid of him!”

• He was the focus of a plot in which some Jews bound themselves under a curse not to eat or drink until they had killed him.

• He was transported under cloak of darkness because of threat of ambush to kill him

• He experienced a persistent “thorn in the flesh” that God wouldn’t relieve him of.

• While he was preaching, he witnessed a young man fall out of a window and die.

• He had to deal with immoral church members in his new church start.

•He had to be a mediator for feuding women in the church.

This was the same Paul who encouraged others to rejoice in the Lord…always! and to give thanks in all circumstances. This was the same Paul who turned a prison cell into a choir loft!

As incredible as it seems, and despite the many hardships he experienced, Paul desired to live his life for the Lord with an attitude of thanksgiving. He encouraged his brothers and sisters in Christ to do the same. The life-changing gospel of Christ had changed him from a Christian killer, breathing out murderous threats, to a devoted follower of Christ breathing out a continuous “Thanks Be to God!”

For personal reflection: What is your reaction to those words of Paul give thanks in all circumstances? Does that notion seem impossible? Maybe a bit ridiculous? Or, perhaps encouraging? Stay tuned. We’re going to dig into some “thanksgiving motivators” in Paul’s life…


A One-Day Workshop with Jesus, Part 2 (Reflections on Matt 14)

Lesson 2: Compelled by Compassion

The disciples had observed the priority their Teacher had placed on personal, private prayer. This was an important lesson for them–one that would be reiterated throughout their ministry mentorship with Jesus. On this occasion, as they accompanied Him to the place of his prayer retreat, yet another ministry lesson came into focus. Again, it was not a lecture, or even an answer to one of their questions. Rather, it was a glimpse into the heart of their Teacher which allowed them to see the motivation behind His ministry.

As Jesus withdrew by boat to the solitary place for prayer, something caused him to change his plans. His personal retreat was momentarily postponed. Matthew explains why:

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. (Matthew 14:13-14 ESV)

What exactly had preempted Jesus’ plans? What had caused him to turn aside from the important activity of prayer?

handsHis heart of compassion. He had compassion on them. The sight of a helpless multitude of people looking for a morsel of hope compelled Jesus to interrupt what He was doing in order to shepherd those lost sheep. And so, for the better part of the day, the disciples watched as Jesus moved among the people, touching and healing them, as He taught them about the Heavenly Father who loved them and cared for them.

The take-away for the disciples? It was this: Jesus had demonstrated for them exactly what a heart for ministry looks like. It is compassionate concern for those in need. And if something is important enough to interrupt a personal prayer time, it must be really important. If prayer provides the gateway to empower our ministry, compassion fuels our motivation for ministry.

In the days to follow, Jesus would continue to mentor His disciples to become compassionate shepherds as He traveled about teaching and healing and giving them opportunities to do the same. He healed blind men; he made lepers clean; and every time, the disciples saw that same familiar look on Jesus’ face–the look of compassionate concern, the tender kindness of a Physician who enters into the suffering of his sick patients and desperately wants to help them.

Peter evidently “caught” the concept. This was probably in part because of that famous three-question oral exam Jesus gave Him after the Resurrection. Every time Peter tried to answer the question Do you love me?, the Teacher had admonished him to “feed my sheep.” Later Peter would write to other church leaders:

...shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. (1 Peter 5:2-4 ESV)

FOR PERSONAL REFLECTION: The question for us today: what truly motivates us for ministry? Is it a heart of compassion for others? Are we compassionate enough to allow our personal plans to get interrupted? Let’s pray that Christ will create in us a true heart of compassion. Let’s pray that Christ may allow our hearts to be broken over what breaks His.


A One-Day Workshop with Jesus, Part 1 (Reflections on Matt 14)

Mentoring has become an increasingly popular method of teaching. The Bible is filled with examples of effective student-teacher interactions of this type. But arguably none were more effective than the mentorship provided by Christ to His chosen Twelve. In these devotional thoughts, we are going to look at one day the disciples spent with their Mentor, as recorded in Matthew 14, and hopefully discover a few “lessons” Jesus imparted to his disciples as He was preparing them as ministry leaders.

Lesson 1: The Priority of Private Prayer

Some mentoring lessons are not so much “taught” as they are “caught.” This was true for the disciples as they learned by direct observation of the behavior and actions of their amazing Teacher. The first lesson of the day was this kind of learning.
He [Herod the Tetrarch] sent and had John beheaded in the prison, and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus. Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. (Matthew 14:10-13a ESV)

kneel in prayer

Whether because of grief or because of the crowd’s expectations, or simply to rest, Jesus needed to get away to the desolate (or solitary) place. The solitary place was a place for prayer, to process things with the Heavenly Father. Jesus had begun His ministry with a forty-day prayer retreat in the solitary place. The Gospel of Mark (1:35) notes that Jesus got up before daybreak and went off to a solitary place for prayer. Later He would visit the solitary place of the Garden of Gethsemane for a time of intense prayer on the eve of His crucifixion. And in the present instance, in the midst of the grief and uproar around the death of John the Baptist, Jesus removed Himself to a place where evil and chaos could once again be placed in proper perspective–in quiet communion with His Heavenly Father. He did it because He needed to–He wanted to hear the Father’s voice and commune with Him.

The disciples surely took notice. If Jesus their Teacher found it necessary to spend time with the Heavenly Father in prayer, how much more so would it be important for them? Luke’s Gospel even introduces the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:1-4) as a request from one of Jesus’ disciples to teach them to pray. They knew prayer was important to their Teacher.
Peter must have learned the lesson. As a leader in the early Church, he spent time alone in private prayer. It was on that rooftop in prayer that God helped him grow in his understanding of the Gospel. He later encouraged the Christians scattered due to persecution to “cast all your cares upon Him (God) because He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)

FOR REFLECTION: So, what about you and me? Do we intentionally follow Jesus’ example, especially in the intensity of our ministries, to get away to the solitary place for prayer, to hear the Father’s voice and rest in His Presence? Ministry 101 begins with the simple but important truth: private prayer is essential for fruitful ministry.