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The First Hymn

The church's first hymn retells the story of Jesus with poetic beauty.

Please turn to the first hymn. No, not the first one in the hymn book. The first one in history, or at least the first one in the history of the church. The first hymn was not "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" by Charles Wesley, or "A Mighty Fortress" by Martin Luther. The first hymn was one the early church used to sing around the year 60. You can find this ancient hymn in 1 Timothy 3:16.

Imagine entering the church in Ephesus. That's where Timothy was the overseer. On this particular day, or perhaps this particular night, Timothy might have been visiting the church that met in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. Paul had previously been there for two years. As we enter the hall we see that it is a simple building with benches and a low platform. They've arranged it like a synagogue with a lectern and a large chair on the platform. Off to the side, a cantor starts to sing, almost chant:

He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,

seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,

taken up in glory.

The cantor reads well and the people appreciate the beauty of the language and the depth of the thought.

The first hymn is a beautiful poem.

Like all poetry, this hymn makes use of sound. It sounds beautiful. Each line has a verb ("manifested," "vindicated," "proclaimed," and so forth), and in Greek each of those verbs ends in "thā"—ephanerothā, edikaiothā, ophthā, ekeruxthā, episteuthā, analempthā. And following each verb (except for one) is the small word "en," ephanerothā en, edikaiothā en, and so forth. It is poetry. It is musical.

The hymn also moves. It has form. It starts on earth and ends in heaven. The first line says he "appeared in the flesh." That happened in a stable in a village called Bethlehem. And the last line says he was "taken up in glory." That happened on the Mount of Olives, as a cloud received him out of sight (Acts 1). The first hymn is a beautiful poem, a gem from the early Church.

But even though it's skillfully written, it's not particularly clear. In fact, because it is skillfully written poetry, because it is so compact, because so much meaning is crammed into so few words, it may not be clear. It needs some unpacking. Playwright Christopher Fry said that "[poetry] has the virtue of being able to say twice as much as prose in half the time, and the drawback, if you do not give it your full attention, of seeming to say half as much in twice the time." So let's give this poem, the first hymn, our full attention. What does it mean?

The first hymn describes the work of Christ.

The first hymn captures the breathtaking work of Christ, from the incarnation through the ascension, and all between: he came into the world, he was believed on in the world, and he was taken out of the world in victory. The first hymn may sound a bit like Caesar, "I came, I saw, I conquered" (vini, vidi, vici), but Jesus did not come as a general with his legions. He did not come with battle mace and spear, but with a demonstration of the Sprit's power, with love, and with service. He stooped to conquer.

Look again at the text and notice that all the verbs are passive. He was sent, he was vindicated, he was seen by angels, he was proclaimed, he was believed on, and he was taken up in glory. The Father directed the Son, and the Son delighted to do the will of his Father. So rather than "I came, I saw, I conquered," the first hymn says, "He was sent, he was seen, he was believed on." This poem describes the work of Christ. Let's look further.

As Hebrews 10:5 states, "A body you prepared for me." The One who had no beginning, began. The One who was limitless, limited himself. The all-powerful One became weak. As another hymn says, he traded "ivory palaces" for a stable.

How did that happen? How did God become man? I don't know. The Apostle didn't know either. Look at the first phrase, the introduction to the hymn: "Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness." You could translate this" "incontestably," or "undeniably," the mystery is great. God becoming man is indeed, as the King of Siam would say, a "puzzlement." But the word "mystery" means more than the kind of mystery we might find in an Agatha Christi novel. You can figure out that kind of mystery if you apply yourself. No, the mystery of the incarnation is something we would never have guessed in a thousand years. The word mystery here means something that has to be revealed. It is the breathtaking plan of God which we could never deduce on our own. Incontestably, undeniably, we confess, the mystery of God becoming flesh is great.

This mystery causes some people to doubt the gospel, but for me, this mystery actually helps me believe the gospel. You see, if I could fully understand God, I would be suspicious. If I could box him up, understand him fully, put him in my pocket, and carry him around like an idol, I would doubt the truth of this so-called god. No, he is beyond our comprehension. After all, we can't even understand the physical world—the space time continuum, dark matter, multiple dimensions—and surely God is more complex than that.

But having stated that the incarnation is a mystery, the first hymn goes on to say that our belief is based on more than "mere faith." Yes, there is plenty of historical evidence that he is the incarnate Son of God.

The second line of the hymn says that he was "vindicated by the Spirit." That's a difficult phrase. Here's the idea: he looked like a regular guy; he dressed like other people in Israel; he ate, drank, and slept; he didn't stand out in a crowd. No halo, neon sign, or "x" on the treasure map told you who he was. Therefore, he was "vindicated," or "justified," or "argued for" by the Spirit. The second phrase of the hymn is referring to Jesus' baptism where the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased" (Luke 3:21-22). The Spirit put his stamp of approval on this man, this ordinary looking man, this carpenter from Galilee. He was vindicated by the Spirit.

If you watch "Antiques Roadshow" on PBS, you will often see this scene: a hopeful collector brings in her prized possession. Maybe it's grandpa's old harmonica. She waits with suspended breath as the expert appraiser studies the object. He turns it this way and that. To the unpracticed eye it looks like … well, it looks like an old harmonica. But then the expert turns it over, holds it up to the light, and what does he see? A signature, a mark, a seal! This is not any old harmonica. This harmonica was made by Professor Hinglenorthbottom himself! It's a Hinglenorthbottom original! Handmade in the 1800's by the grand master of all harmonica makers! It's worth 90,000 dollars! You see, the mark vindicates the harmonica. It indicates its value, its authenticity. That's what the Spirit did for Jesus. The Spirit indicated that the carpenter from Galilee is the Beloved Son of God. We saw that at Jesus' baptism. The first hymn celebrates the fact that Jesus was sent.

The first hymn declares Christ's resurrection.

The third line of the hymn says that he was seen by angels. Do you remember that poetry is compact language? Its few phrases carry a heavy freight of meaning. This phrase, "seen by angels," is shorthand in the New Testament for Jesus' resurrection appearances. This phrase is another way of saying that he rose from the dead. As the Apostles' Creed, formulated a few decades after this hymn, says: he was crucified, dead, and buried. But then on the third day he rose again. Life returned to the body. His waxy skin grew warm. Stiff limbs flexed. Wounds healed. And angels saw it! Jesus rose!

Then what happened? Where does the hymn take us next? The fourth phrase says that after Jesus rose, "He was preached in the nations." This probably refers to the Great Commission. The Apostles, not just the angels, also witnessed Jesus' triumph. They saw him too. He stood with the apostles on a mountain in Galilee and assured them that he would be with them always, even to the end of the age. All authority had been given to him, so the apostles were to announce this to the nations and make apprentices, disciples of Jesus, in all the world. The apostles saw it! What their ears had heard, what their eyes had seen, what their hands had handled—the Word of Life—they preached. They were objective eye witnesses. Jesus was seen by angels and apostles.

While it may be true that Caesar came, set his eye on whatever he wanted, and took it, Christ was sent and he was seen. He lived among us, went about doing good, died for our sins, rose from the dead, and was preached among the nations.

The first hymn declares our mission.

Finally, as the last line says, he was believed on, or embraced, in the world. In other words, people responded. When the apostles preached, people believed. In the Middle East a Pharisee named Saul believed, and a visitor from Ethiopia also believed. In Europe a business woman named Lydia and a jail keeper in Philippi believed. The gospel traveled east to India, perhaps with Thomas, and people believed. The gospel traveled north with another of the apostles, and people believed. Christianity became a missionary movement, and that movement continues today. The greatest era of conversion is happening right now. The gospel is exploding in China, Africa, South America, and India. He is being believed on, accepted, and embraced all over the world.

And then the first hymn concludes with the ascension: He was "taken up in glory." He is not dead. He sits at right hand of God. From thence he will come to judge the living and the dead. We look forward to the Second Advent with holy fear. We expect to see him come again in like manner as he left.

He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,

seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,

taken up in glory.


May I suggest two implications from the first hymn? The first implication is for those of you who believe in Jesus, those who claim him as your Lord and Savior: Let doxology motivate ministry. Did you notice the context of the first hymn? The Apostle Paul quotes it in the middle of a discussion of church life. Look at verse 8: instructions for deacons. Look at verse 14: instructions on how to manage the church. And then the Holy Spirit, inspiring his apostle to quote the first hymn, seems to say to us that this hymn is the motivation for ministry. Because he was sent, because he was raised to life, because he conquers through humility, because all authority was given to him, because he is coming again, we carry out the work of the church. Our motivation for ministry arises from doxology. As we contemplate the breathtaking work of Christ, we find our hearts strangely warmed, and we are stirred to serve him and to serve others. Because he served, we serve. Because he laid aside his garments, wrapped himself with a towel, and washed the disciples' feet, we wash each others' feet. Because he was generous, we are generous. Because he saved us, we do our part to save others. Because he founded the church, we do church.

Remember this in your board meetings. He is the cornerstone of the church. Remember this when you're organizing the church pot luck. He is the ultimate example of gracious service. Remember this when you're chasing toddlers. He said, "Let little ones come to me." Remember this when you write a check. Though he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor so that through his poverty we might become rich. We minister because he ministered to us. We are his disciples, his apprentices, so we follow in his steps, letting doxology motivate ministry.

The second implication is for those of you who are exploring Christianity. We're so glad you have come to church today. You honor us by your presence. Perhaps this poem encourages you to trust him as multitudes have. Embrace him. That's why he came, so that we might believe. The mystery of godliness is great, I know, but the mystery has been revealed: he was sent; he was seen by angels at the resurrection; and he was believed on in the world. Would you like to believe? If so, perhaps you would like to start your relationship with Christ with this prayer:

Dear Lord, your Book says that you sent Jesus. He came to earth to open heaven's doors and to forgive our sins. Your book says that many people believed on him. I want to be part of that group. I turn from my sin, and accept the free gift of eternal life you offer through Jesus. Please consider me as one of your people. Amen.

For Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? ____________________________________________________

Jeffrey Arthur is professor of preaching and communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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Sermon Outline:


I. The first hymn is a beautiful poem.

II. The first hymn describes the work of Christ.

III. The first hymn declares Christ's resurrection.

IV. The first hymn declares our mission.