Worship emerges in Hebrews as a major theme when on considers the overall structure of the book. Jones argues that two minor climaxes in the literary structure that lead to the climax of 12:18-29 reveal that the primary theme of the entire book is a call to “come near and worship.”1 The first climax is found in 4:16: “Let us then with confidence draw near [προσερχώμεθα] to the throne of grace,” and the second is found in 10:22: “Let us draw near [προσερχώμεθα] with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” The same concept in slightly different form appears in the final climax in 12:22: “But you have come [προσεληλύθατε] to Mount Zion.” Jones thus notes that “This imagistic portrayal of distinctive Christian worship enjoys a dramatic location in the epistle,”2 and the idea of “drawing near” is at the heart of the author’s concept of worship.
The key parallel verb in 12:18-29, προσέρχεςϴαι (“to come to”), stresses the discontinuity between approaching God in each covenant. Lane notes that the verb form of this term used in verse 18, προσεληλύϴατε, is more than simply a casual expression of “coming,” but rather “is used exclusively of an approach to God. The writer compares Israel’s approach to God in cultic ceremony to the Christian’s experience in worship.”3
The author of Hebrews uses this term several times in the sermon to describe approaching God in worship. Hebrews 4:16 highlights that the coming of Christians to God in worship is based upon grace, leading to a boldness that the Hebrews at Sinai could not express: “Let us then with confidence draw near (προσερχώμεθα) to the throne of grace.” Hebrews 7:25 emphasizes the fact that Christ’s High Priestly ministry of intercession makes such an approach possible: “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near (προσερχομένουϚ) to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” In 10:1, the author reveals the insufficiency of animal sacrifices to purify those who come to God in worship: “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near (προσερχομένουϚ).” In contrast, 10:22 proclaims that since believers in Christ have “a great high priest,” they may “draw near (προσερχώμεθα) with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with [their] hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and [their] bodies washed with pure water.” Hebrews 11:6 further emphasizes the need for faith in coming to God in worship (more below): “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near (προσερχόμενον) to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”
Drawing near to the presence of God is the fundamental experience of God’s people under both covenants, and it is the essence of worship (in both a personal or corporate sense). Descriptions of this approach with relation to the Old Covenant are always negative, however (10:1; 12:18), since those attempting to worship have not been purified; God is essentially unapproachable. In contrast, approach to God in the NT is indeed possible because it is mediated by Jesus Christ and is based upon his sacrifice; therefore, Christians can come with boldness and joy. This contrast of response in approaching God is best summarized by the descriptions in 12:18-24. The Hebrews at Sinai “could not endure” (οὐκ ἔφερον) the experience, yet Christians worshiping spiritually in the heavenly Temple enter a “festal gathering” (πανηγύρει).
Once again, the author distinguishes between the earthly copies and the heavenly realities. On earth, only the High Priest could enter the holy place of the Temple, and that only once a year; in the metaphysical Temple, every believer may have “confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh” (10:19-20).