June 4, 2020

Ralph Martin on an Early Christian Hymn

One of the fundamental texts on worship for college and seminary students when I was in school was Ralph P. Martin’s Worship in the Early Church. I thought I’d go back to it and pull out an excerpt for our Church Music Month.

So here, from his chapter on “Hymns and Spiritual Songs” is a discussion about one of the text in the New Testament that likely represents lines from an early Christian hymn.

Ephesians v, 14 is usually regarded as the most cogent example of early Christian hymnology. And there are good grounds for this confidence. The introductory words, “Wherefore it says” read as though they were added expressly to prepare for the citation of a familiar passage, well known to Paul’s readers. The verse naturally falls into three lines on the grounds of style, with a swinging trochaic rhythm in the Greek and the employment of a rhetorical device by which the first two lines end with the same sound. A translation runs:

“Awake, O sleeper,
From thy grave arise.
The light of Christ upon thee shines.”

As a whole the verse contains an invocational appeal addressed to the Christian and summoning him to action. At the same time if offers him the promise of Divine favour and aid. The first two lines are a rousing summons to moral activity; and the third line is the accompanying promise of God.

In view of these contents, couched in the language of exhortation and using a combination of metaphors (sleep, death, light) applied to the spiritual life of the Christian at his conversion and entry into the Church’s fellowship, the most natural event with which the verse is to be associated is Christian baptism. The lines would then be the accompanying chant to the actions of the baptismal service when the believer was buried in the water with Christ and raised again to newness of life (Romans vi, 4ff; Colossians ii, 12); and this leads one commentator on the text to submit that such a verse as Ephesians v, 14 would be fixed indelibly upon the heart and mind of the convert as he emerged from the baptismal water. Paul recalls it in his appeal to the Ephesian Christians, just as a preacher today might reinforce a point by the citation of the verse of a well-known and loved hymn.

Just a few observations:

  • This hymn serves a pastoral purpose, as Paul cites its words to reinforce the Gospel teaching and exhortations he is giving.
  • This hymn is Gospel; it focuses on Christ and his grace, calling forth faith from his people.
  • This hymn uses vivid metaphors to stimulate the imagination of the congregation.
  • This hymn is integrated with the liturgical actions and sacraments of the church.
  • This hymn shows how significant church music can be in the life of individual believers — reinforcing their most meaningful spiritual experiences and encouraging the formation of their faith.


  1. “Awake, O sleeper,
    From thy grave arise.
    The light of Christ upon thee shines.”

    “The first two lines are a rousing summons to moral activity; …”

    Moral activity?

    Jesus summons us from the grave. That is not an appeal…He calls us forth. It is His action. As He raised the little girl. As He raised Lazarus. If Jesus had just said, “come forth” (no name)…all the dead would probably had arisen.

  2. Rising up a new creation in the light of Christ. Doesn’t that take your breath away?

    It seems to me that turning each of these five observations into questions would be an excellent method in discerning the songs used during church services.

    • Amen!! Too bad Paul didn’t include the guitar tabs …. 🙂

      I did try to suggest once that “Jesus Freak” (DC Talk) was massively inappropriate for the youth group … NObody seemed to get what I was going on about …

      • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

        I refused to play it when I was a youth also, but mostly ‘cuz the solo is just awful, man… just awful

      • Inappropriate in what way? As a song to be used in worship, sure. It’s a pretty darn good song still, though. Actually, for mainstream CCM, DC Talk’s last three albums (Free At Last, Jesus Freak, and Supernatural) were pretty darn good. Their touring band during those albums was incredible.

      • Too bad Paul didn’t include the guitar tabs

        We can work on that. Not a bad idea, either.

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    This is the first time I’ve heard that chapter of Ephesians was written as a poem or hymn instead of the usual Spiritual Engineering Manual and Checklist. (But then, when I came to the same conclusion about Genesis 1, I learned real quick to keep my mouth shut.)

  4. I’ve been reading Richard Hays book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, and his thesis is that the ethical framework of the NT is centered around the themes of community, cross, and new creation. It strikes me that this hymn falls nicely into that sort of scheme. In the community of the church, this little hymn is a way for Christians to remind each of what Christ’s death and resurrection mean to them. It’s a way to call them to live as if they are a new creation. It’s kind of amazing how much theology can be packed into three little lines.

    • …which is a great skill for songwriters to develop. Were that I was the eloquent and profound poet, but in the mean time, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to find those who are and use their stuff.

  5. Christiane says

    these words in Scripture were, I believe, the basis for the Holy Saturday prayer, the ‘harrowing of hell’:

    . . . ‘I command you:
    Awake, sleeper,
    I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld.
    Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead.
    Arise, O man, work of my hands,
    arise, you who were fashioned in my image.
    Rise, let us go hence . . . ‘

  6. Nice post! Although I agree that Eph. 5:14 was most likely a hymn, I would add that is was prophetically inspired and Paul was writing to correct the misinterpretation of the prophecy.