I have just finished listening to a CD biography of William Tyndale by David Teems. It was so fascinating that I asked the library to find a hard copy so I could re-read what I had heard. Tyndale loved the Word of God and the English language which was still in its infancy. Listening to his translation of the Greek, sometimes I thought I was listing to the KJV which was published about 90 years later. Tyndale, although raised Roman Catholic, because he possessed God’s word, learned the truth. Both he and his biographer clearly and distinctly declared the gospel and the doctrines of salvation.
I need to read more from the pen of that biographer to understand more fully the state of his soul. At times, while accurately expressing the gospel, I’m not sure he wasn’t merely quoting Tyndale. In other words, I can’t be sure of the biographer’s salvation. And furthermore, despite his love for Tyndale’s Bible, I wasn’t convinced that he was looking at it as the revealed Word of God. It was as though he merely considers it to be among the finest English literature ever written. He believes the Tyndale Bible, followed by the Authorized Bible, are the most beautiful English words ever written. I fully agree with him, but I go beyond him, declaring that the Bible is not merely the beautiful words of Tyndale.
The King James Bible really is the greatest and most beautiful of all literature. And anyone, from a eight-year-old to a college professor, could do a lot worse than reading the Bible, whether he believes it to be the revelation of God or not. There is as much drama, joy and mystery in the pages of the Bible as there are in a lot of secular fiction. But, in this case, the facts are all true, and the only fiction is clearly declared to be fiction.
While considering this a question came to my mind: “When was the last time I considered Biblical beauty?’ Our Bible, especially when compared to modern Bibles, is beautifully written. Lay aside, for just a moment, the importance of the revelation; over and over again it is pleasing to the ear. “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” The writings of Paul and Isaiah are just as poetic and beautiful as that of David and Asaph. And often, the words describing essential doctrine are just as beautiful as the poetry. But this is just the beginning of the subject – both as a doctrine and as God’s way of doing things.
Why is it that when Christians should be the most aware of beauty, we seem to be the first to reject it? Now, stop and think about these things for a minute. Compare our church to the average Roman Catholic church or any number of others. Compare our buildings for example: The Catholic is often a beautiful structure with stained glass, gold plating and fantastic architecture. At our best, this building is plain and unappealing to the eye. Is that good? Is that bad? Or doesn’t it matter? It shouldn’t matter, but the fact is, to a great many people it does.
Then compare the music in any mainline denomination to that of the fundamental Baptist church. Ours is functional and simple. We sing the same 200 songs over and over again. They have words and rhythms which can be easily picked up by anyone, including children. But theirs is often Bach and Handel, oratories and symphonies, and choirs that practice 6 hours a week. Sometimes they have a stringed orchestra to accompany the choir. Their music minister is on the paid staff, fully dedicated to that one form of service. Sometimes they don’t have congregational singing, because most of us don’t really have good singing voices. In the average Baptist church, we rejoice just to have a piano and someone to play it. The Catholics have produced museums full of art depicting all kinds of religious themes. Some of their buildings are like galleries filled with expensive art. But the average Baptist church runs and hides from any thought of art on our walls. And what kind of church is more likely to have a skit or play on Sunday evening? Not ours. More and more churches present a theater kind of atmosphere even during the preaching service. They have a huge screen or perhaps three screens with computer controlled images of the preacher, then of the scriptures, then of a pretty mountain scene or a picture of death and destruction. In contrast to them, there is the little Baptist church with nothing more than a pulpit and lectern. Then for those of you who’ve never experienced the ceremonialism of a Catholic or Anglican church, you cannot understand the beauty of that kind of worship which has addicted so many in our world.
I’m not sure that I really have a sermon for you this evening. It’s more like a few random thoughts to try to stimulate your own random thoughts about art.
My first point tonight is that God is not against beauty.
Years ago I read an article on this subject by Leland Ryken; someone unfamiliar to me. He said that there is a heresy ruling vast segments of evangelical Christianity. It is to defend the neglect of the imagination and the arts on the grounds that believers must be busy about God’s work, and God’s work is never artistic. He said, “Of all the people on the face of the earth, Christians have the most reason to value the arts.” Take the Creation, as an example, one of the first doctrines of the Bible. God created the world, and it was beautiful and esthetically pleasing – as God Himself declared. In Eden God made to grow “every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food.” This is a double statement – one artistic, the other utilitarian. Can a Christian justify the time spent reading a novel, or writing a poem, or visiting an art gallery? God created people in His own image. In its immediate context, the doctrine of the image of God in people means that they too are creative. The artist can honestly see himself as a kind of earthly illustration of God – carrying on the work of making things beautiful. This applies equally to those who are not themselves creative artists but who delight to enter into the creativity of others. And it stands as a rebuke to those who disparage God’s gift of creativity in people.
Let me step beyond Mr. Ryken and point out that the word “beauty” is common to the Bible. For example, the word is found attached to many of the people of the Bible. When the Bible says that Rachel was beautiful, that was not Jacob’s opinion, it was fact. And I Samuel says that David was handsome and of a ruddy countenance. Abigail was beautiful, Esther was beautiful, and apparently so was Bathsheba. Sarah was one of the most beautiful women in the world even as she grew older. The word “beauty” is attached to buildings, mountains, valleys and other natural things in the Bible. Certain precious stones are said to be extremely beautiful. And even the legs of the gospel preacher descend down to something called “beautiful feet.”
So God is not against beauty, and He is not against artistic talent. When Moses was commissioned to establish the worship of Israel, God ordained the aid of Bezaleel. Bezaleel was a artisan, skilled in stone-cutting, weaving and a number of other crafts. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he was a quilt-maker – just like his wife. When that man was finished, the priests of Israel were dressed in most beautiful garments imaginable. There were dozens of exquisite and priceless stones across the front and over their shoulders. And at the hem were tiny bells and golden replicas of fruit. And the materials were the finest available, even to the point of being interwoven with gold fibers. No, God is not against the arts and beautiful things.
And where did those priests work? In the Tabernacle, a place that is described in great detail in the Bible. Visualize the golden utensils in the Holy Place; the candle-stick, and the table and altar. Remember how they were decorated with figurative pomegranates, almonds and other things. Picture the brazen laver with its fancy base. In Solomon’s Temple there were 12 oxen molded to hold that huge moulten sea. Then there was the very utilitarian, but beautiful brazen altar. And what about the Ark of the Covenant, perhaps the most exquisite thing ever fashioned by man.
In the New Testament Peter and John found a lame man, who was in need of the grace of God. He went every day to the Temple and sat begging for alms. The place where he sat was called “The Beautiful Gate.”
Then our text tonight is one of four references to the “beauty of holiness.” No, God is definitely not against beauty; in fact that is the way that He wants us to approach Him. Maybe it was Shakespeare who first said that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Well, if the Lord said holiness looks like beauty to Him, then it should be beautiful to us as well.
Not all so-called “art” is beautiful and holy, but neither is art unconditionally condemned by our Holy God.
What about the performing arts?
There are churches in these United States which say that to use a piano in the worship of God is sin. They condemn organs and other keyboards, applying all kinds of arguments against them. For example, they say that organs and pianos can’t be found in the Bible. They say that to use organs would be to stoop to the decadence of Catholicism. They say that instruments like that mean that we are worldly and thus sinful. It is true that THOSE musical instruments are not to be found in God’s Word. But I think that the only reason is that they had not been invented as yet. Just because their invention came later than the Bible doesn’t mean that they are anti-scriptural. The fact is that musical instruments are found all over the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. Not only that but they are deliberately requisitioned by, and used in, the worship of the Lord. David, a man very near to the heart of the Lord, was particularly skilled in music. And he deliberately selected musicians to minister in the worship of God.
And that includes the writing and singing of songs. Where would the Book of Psalms be if God didn’t approve of music? The Psalms ARE music. Furthermore, there are songs and psalms scattered throughout the writings of Moses. When we were in Calgary last month, we attended a Reformed Church. All the congregational music was in the singing of the Psalms. But as I thought about it later, I had to laugh because the piano player, who was excellent by the way, played out of a song book like ours for half an hour before the service stated. Paul praises the use of good music in Colossians, pointing out that through music we can uplift and instruct. And it doesn’t have to be confined to the Psalms. “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.” Music is an excellent way to come before the Lord in a holy and beautiful manner.
But what about other forms of writing, besides of music? The Old Testament is filled with poetry, sometimes put to music and sometimes not. The Proverbs are poetical, but not sung. The Song of Solomon is a beautiful story; it is Hebrew literature and approved of the Lord. And along with these there are wonderful stories, fictional stories used to convey the Lord’s will. There are the parables, for example, coming even from the lips of the Lord Jesus Christ.
And can we find any actors and performing in the Bible? What about Jeremiah, wearing farm implements like yokes around his neck – and Ezekiel. What about the dramatic way that they cut their clothes, or cut groomed their hair? Look at Elijah on Mount Carmel; will you say that his repair of the altar of God was not very dramatic? God is not against beauty and the arts.
So what am I trying to say tonight?
Don’t be afraid to cultivate artistic talents in either yourself or your children. The Lord needs people like Bezaleel in order to encourage the people of God in their worship. We need song writers and music writers like Newton, Crosby and J.W. Peterson. There is nothing wrong with a good painter putting his impression of Elijah’s translation on canvas. Sure, any good thing can be turned into evil – someone might even want to worship that sculpture. But the sculpture in itself is not evil until it is corrupted. I would delight in more instrumental solos and duets in our services.
But what about using the talent God has given in ways that are not directly beneficial to His worship? What about the writer who pens innocent stories for children, or even adult fiction? Just as you might use your energy and physical strength in a secular job, you might use your artistic talent in a secular way, but that use does not become sin.
The development of the arts in a person’s heart or fingers, can be very beneficial. It certainly takes far more self-discipline to become a fine violinist than a good football player. And the violinist can be a blessing to the Church of God, whereas the football player doesn’t contribute in the same way. The practice necessary to become a good musician or artist can strengthen the person’s entire character.
No, God is not upset to see that a child wants to learn to play the guitar or piano. The Lord is not ashamed of the adult who loves to entertain people with good stories. That person may be able make Bible truths come alive in such a way that others will long remember. The man with an imagination often becomes a better preacher of God’s Word than the cold theologian.
The thing to keep in mind is that whatever talents the Lord has given to you... Whether there be 10, 5 or just one talent, it is the Lord’s talent and not our own. We are nothing but stewards of the gift of the Lord. It is sin to bury that talent, and that will bring us to judgment. Seek to honor and glorify God, with every aspect of your life. “Acknowledge every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.”