Hang around Lutheran musicians long enough, and you will, no doubt, hear these famous words of Martin Luther. “Music is a handmaid of theology.” It is easy to understand why this quote is so popular. Luther’s words are rich in their simplicity, beauty, and truth. They point to the heart of every good Christian hymn: Christ crucified and risen for you.
Luther’s words also point to a deeper truth, one found in another of God’s great gifts, the imagination. After all, the musician, the composer, the singer all have at least one thing in common when it comes to singing, playing, and hearing the gospel in Christian hymns and songs. Behind each and every word, note, and melody, the imagination is at work.
What is true of music is also true of our imaginations. Whether you are in the pulpit or the pew, teaching, studying or meditating, reading the Scriptures or hearing them read to you, praying or serving your neighbor, indeed, no matter what you are doing in the Christian life, you are using your imagination as you read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest God’s holy word. In other words, your imagination is a handmaid of the gospel.
There are so many places in Scripture where God calls us to use our imagination to help us rightly hear and understand his Word; we might begin to feel overwhelmed at the task. Where do we begin? Think of your imagination like a muscle. The more you move it and exercise it, the stronger it will grow. So, whatever the passage, start by asking yourself a few simple questions to get your imagination working. What kind of language is being used? Is it a psalm, a historical narrative, or an epistle? What images or pictures come to mind as you read the Scripture passage or passages before you? How do the words evoke your imagination and play like a movie in your mind? How is our Lord using the imagination to reveal his love and promises for you? And above all, how is our Lord using the handmaid of the imagination through his word to point you to Jesus’ saving work?
I would also suggest reading some of the most vivid and beautiful parts of Scripture where our Lord’s inspired words invite us to use our imaginations, the psalms, prophets, and parables.
Consider David the shepherd, warrior, musician, and anointed king. David is also a king of the imagination. It’s hard to imagine reading or singing the psalms without our imagination at work. We may find ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23) or ensnared in the nets of the wicked (Psalm 9), and yet the Lord promises that he will hide us in the shadow of his wings (Psalm 17) and be our rock and fortress and deliverer (Psalm 18). You see, before David ever put his fingers to his harp or wrote those divinely inspired poems and hymns of the Old Testament, God was working to inspire David’s imagination to create a whole songbook teeming with good news. Good news that never fails to point us to the Good Shepherd, the Mighty Warrior, and Anointed King, David’s Son, and David’s Lord, Jesus.
The prophets, too, are heralds of the gospel, using their God-given imaginations to proclaim God’s promises. Consider Isaiah foretelling and forth-telling the good news of the coming Messiah. He is a shoot that will come forth from the stump of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1), and he is the root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:10). That’s right; God inspired the prophet Isaiah to compare Jesus’ coming to that of a branch or a shoot that grows out of a stump of a dead tree. It doesn’t get much more imaginative than that. Our Lord is not only the King of creation but the King of creativity. You see before Isaiah prophesied and proclaimed the words God sent him to deliver to Israel and to all nations, God was working to inspire Isaiah’s imagination to deliver his concrete promises of the coming Savior who would be the flesh of our flesh and bone of our bones.
It should come as no surprise, then, that when the long-expected Messiah, God in human flesh, finally shows up walking and talking and teaching in Judea and Galilee, he wraps so much of his teaching in the imagination. Consider the parables of Jesus. The kingdom of God, his good and gracious rule and reign that comes in his dying and rising, is compared to ordinary, everyday things like a net, a tree, a seed, a man in search of pearls, or a woman who found a lost coin. To be sure, God could simply say, “I love you; I sent my Son to die and rise for you,” and that would be good news. But our Lord is a gracious, abundant giver, especially when it comes to his gift of the imagination. So, he paints a gallery of portraits displaying his love for us in the beauty, comfort, and joy found in the great handmaids of the imagination and the gospel. Two good examples of this include the parable of the prodigal son and the good Samaritan. As you read these parables, you can picture God’s love revealed in the wealthy, noble father who runs and embraces his lost-and-found, thought-to-be-dead-and-gone son. Even so, he embraces each of us in Christ crucified and risen. You can see in your mind’s eye Christ’s mercy in the good Samaritan who placed the beaten, broken, bloody man on his donkey and charged everything to his account.
Hang around and meditate upon the Scriptures long enough, and you’ll quickly come to see God’s gift of the imagination truly is a handmaid of the Gospel.