Teaching series from Hebrews

The New Worship

Hebrews 12:28-13:16

Teaching t10585


Review key theme of Hebrews: Jesus has fulfilled the Old Testament religious system and replaced it with a new and better way to relate to God (Heb. 7:18,19).  EXAMPLES:

The Old Testament High Priest was a normal, sinful human who couldn’t really fix the problems between us and God.  He was but a picture of Jesus, who because he was sinless and both human and divine, could be our true mediator.  Now that Jesus has come, God’s people are to set aside the Levitical High Priest.

The Old Testament sin sacrifices were animals who couldn’t really pay for human guilt.  They were but pictures of Jesus, who because he was sinless and both human and divine, could truly pay for all of our sins through his voluntary death.  Now that Jesus has come, God’s people are to set aside the offering of animal sacrifices.

We come now to a third example of this theme—a new and better way to worship God.  Early in Jesus’ public ministry, he announced that he was inaugurating a radical change in the way God’s people should worship him (read Jn. 4:21,23).  This is one of the most important and least understood features of New Testament Christianity, as you will soon see.  Before we look at how the author of Hebrews explains this new worship, let’s briefly familiarize ourselves with Old Testament worship (CHART).

Old Testament worship took place in a special building (tabernacle/Temple) with special furniture (altar; candlesticks; etc.).  It was done on special days (Old Testament festivals).  It was officiated by special people (Levitical priests), who led a special (liturgical) order of rituals, prayers, sacrifices, songs, etc.

Does this sound familiar?  It should, because this is what the church has been imitating for the last 1700 years.  While there are variations in the details (style of music; building architecture; time of the service; garb of the clergy; communion instead of animals; etc.), the same basic perspective that Christians must have a “worship service,” and this is the most important thing that Jesus’ followers do, is assumed without question.  By far the question/objection most frequently raised by churched people who visit Xenos is “When do you worship?”—which (translated) means “Where is your worship service?”  Let’s let the author of Hebrews answer this question...

The argument of this passage

Read 12:28,29.  “Worship” in both passages is latreuo, which means “participate in the worship service.”  His point is that the new worship involves humbly thanking God for the gift of eternal life through faith in Jesus.  We don’t worship God in order to earn our way into heaven (ME AS A KID)—we worship God to thank him for this gift once we have received it by entrusting ourselves to Jesus (Jn.3:16).  Have you made this decision?  Why not make it today?

What does this worship look like?  As 12:28 says, it involves expressing our gratitude for God’s grace—but not in a worship service.  There really should be a colon rather than a chapter division here, because 13:1-7 provide a snapshot of this new worship (read excerpt).  (In fact, this chapter division obscures the author’s intention and reflects the bias of the translators toward worship as a liturgical service!)  “Here we begin to see what Christian worship means in the context of everyday life: it has to do with entertaining strangers, visiting prisoners, being faithful in marriage, trusting God to provide material needs and imitating the faith of Christian leaders.”1  In other words, the new worship is not a service/meeting—it is a pursuing a lifestyle of faith and loving service.  We’ll look more closely at these key elements of the new worship in the next few weeks, but let’s go on with the rest of the author’s teaching about this subject...

Read 13:8-14.  This seems like a change in subject, but it is not.  The author is warning his audience not to be drawn back into forms of ritualized worship.  They were evidently being pressured to return to a form of worship that focused on eating certain ceremonial foods—but he reminds them that it is focusing on God’s grace that strengthens our hearts to worship God.  They were evidently being pressured to return to a form of worship that involved a physical altar—but he reminds them that the Old Testament altar was just a picture of Jesus’ death on the cross.  They were being reproached by people because they weren’t participating in ritualized worship services—but he reminds them that bearing this reproach is part of following Jesus, who was rejected by his own people.  The new worship involves refusing to succumb to pressure to revert to the old worship!

Read 13:15,16.  This is the summary of the entire passage.  God is no longer interested in liturgical worship services with their ritual sacrifices; he desires a worship lifestyle of praise and loving service.

Let’s summarize by contrasting this new worship to the worship service of the Old Testament (and Church) (CHART).  The old worship took place in a special building; the new worship takes place wherever you are.  The old worship took place on special days; the new worship takes place continually.  The old worship was officiated by priests/clergy; in the new worship, all who know Jesus are equally authorized to worship.  The old worship is a liturgical, ritualized service; the new worship is a lifestyle of gratitude and loving service to others.  New Testament scholar Robert Banks summarizes Paul’s view of worship, which is identical to the author of Hebrews: “One of the most puzzling features of Paul’s understanding of (church) for his contemporaries...must have been his failure to say that a person went to church primarily to ‘worship.’  Not once in all his writings does he suggest this is the case.  Indeed it could not be so, for he held a view of ‘worship’ that prevented him from doing so . . . Worship involves the whole of one’s life, every word and action, and knows no special place or time ... Since all places and times have now become the venue for worship, Paul cannot speak of Christians assembling in church distinctively for this purpose.  They are already worshipping God, acceptably or unacceptably, in whatever they are doing.”2

What is radical about this teaching is that the new worship is not to supplement the old worship service—it is to replace it.  This is why the New Testament never prescribes a “worship service,” nor is there any example of such a service. The large meetings we read about (Solomon’s Portico in Acts 2; Schoolroom of Tyrannus in Acts 19) were for teaching believers and proclaiming the good news to seekers—not for corporate worship.  And the many house churches we read about are highly interactive meetings that focus on Bible study, group prayer, encouraging one another, and welcoming seeker guests to meet Jesus personally (cf. 1Cor.14:24-26).  Only later, when Rome became a “Christian empire” did the church return to the Old Testament style of worship—and this has had disastrous consequences...

Why is this so important?

Many people over the years have expressed to me that we’re making too big of a deal about this—that Christians like worship services, etc.  I hope that by now you understand that the main reason why we don’t have worship services is not because we’re rebellious and iconoclastic, but because this is what the Bible teaches.  But this is not only an important biblical issue; it also an important practical issue.  How we view worship and how we express our worship makes a huge difference in both our own spiritual lives and in our spiritual influence on other people.  Here are some of the issues at stake: 

First, worship services hinder many people from understanding the good news and coming to Christ.  Old Testament worship services were not designed to help non-Jews meet God.  In fact, they were a key part of building a separate cultural identity for God’s chosen people.  Non-Jews weren’t even allowed into the tabernacle, and all of the language and dress and rituals were designed to educate Jewish people about God.  This was part of God’s strategy to preserve the Jewish nation until the coming of Messiah. 

But now that the Messiah has come, all this has changed.  God’s chosen people are multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, and our main mission is make the good news of Jesus intelligible and attractive to people who don’t know him.  This means that the gatherings to which we invite our non-Christian friends should not require them to change cultures in order to understand the good news of God’s gift through Jesus.  And since church worship services are for Christians to worship God, they violate this principle!  Am I the only one here who was turned off to Jesus by this?  I had to get up early on the special day, wear special clothes, go to the special building with strange architecture, sing special songs (group singing, musical style I didn’t like and words I didn’t believe), and observe rituals I didn’t understand.  The message of God’s gift may have been presented, but I couldn’t “hear” it because of all the cultural “noise.”  And “contemporary worship services” are only a superficially different—they are still fundamentally for Christians and require unchurched people to change cultures to learn about Jesus.  This is one reason why almost all growth in American megachurches is transfer rather than convert growth.  If this was the only reason to drop worship services, it would be more than enough!  But there are other reasons...

Second, worship services inherently tend to promote formalism and nominalism.  “Formalism” means focusing on the outward forms of relating to God rather than on the heart attitude of humble trust in God’s love and servant love toward others.  The Old Testament worship services, because they were ritualistic (for symbolic reasons), were vulnerable to formalism.  “Nominalism” means doing as little as possible for God—keeping God in a holy box that is safely separated from the rest of your life.  This was a huge problem in Israel (cf. Isa.29:13; Amos 5:21-24), in part because the worship service (unintentionally) fostered it.  This is one of the reasons why God said this entire system was only a temporary and imperfect picture until the Messiah came to usher in the new worship.

But now that the Messiah has ushered in the new worship, which focuses on a lifestyle of internal gratitude and love, to have worship services is to needlessly re-erect the very structure that tended toward formalism and nominalism!  Am I the only one who learned from the priority of worship service attendance to keep God in the holy box?  If I had to go, the only good part about it was that I only had to go for one hour a week and that I could go on “autopilot” while I was there and think about the upcoming Brown’s game, etc.  Am I the only one who dreaded going to these, and quit as soon as I was able?  It wasn’t until I met friends who spoke excitedly about a personal relationship with Jesus and lived changed lives that I had any idea that Christianity was more than this shallow religious shell.  That’s when I met Jesus and discovered that relating to him and following him every day was the most exciting adventure I had ever experienced!

Third, worship services sap limited resources that should be invested in “mission critical” initiatives.  Churches have limited resources, and Christians have limited time.  If we say that the worship service attendance is the most important thing we do, then leaders are going to prioritize resources toward the worship service.  Money and manpower will have to be focused disproportionately for the special building and furniture and choirs and choir robes and music ministers, etc.  This is money and manpower that will not be available for things like solid teaching and coursework to educate members in the Bible, oversight of multiplying home groups as the heart of the church, developing many volunteer home group leaders, developing people who can plant new churches, etc.

Also, when we say to our people that attending the Sunday worship service is the most important thing, they are smart enough to know that involvement in things like home groups, reaching out to non-Christian friends, and mentoring younger Christians is not as important.  So we shouldn’t be surprised when worship service-centered churches have very few of their members involved in real community and vital daily ministry.  What would happen if most churches told their members that these things were more important than the worship service?  What kind of power and dynamism might be unleashed into their neighborhoods and cities if most Christians realized that true worship is this kind of outreach and discipleship in the context of real community?  What kind of redemptive impact would Christians have on our society if their churches told them and structured to help them worship God like 13:1-7 describes? 


NEXT WEEK, we’ll begin to unpack this new worship in more detail by taking a closer look at 13:1-4, which focuses on worshiping God through serving relationships.

I’m sure I have raised some questions, made some statements that need to be clarified, etc.

1 David Peterson, Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992), p. 243.

2 Robert Banks, Paul's Idea of Community (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), pp.88,89.