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Physical vs. Metaphysical Worship

This entry is part 3 of 10 in the series

"Worship in Hebrews"

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Hebrews 12:18-29 provide an important summary of the book’s argument concerning worship. The author’s descriptions of these two contrasting mountains are instructive and important to his argument, highlighted by the emphatic position of the negative term οὐ (“not”) in verse 18 and the strongly negative term ἀλλά (“on the contrary”) in verse 22. Lane summarizes,

The foundational experiences of Christians have been qualitatively different from those of Israel at Sinai. The sharp contrast, brilliantly drawn in rhythmic, measured phrases and balanced conceptions, exhibits the fundamental differences between the old and new covenants and between Moses and Jesus, respectively, as mediators of the encounter with God.1

The essence of this distinction, therefore, is the primary thrust of his argument. This approach to God in the OT is physical—it can be touched (ψηλαφωμένῳ); it has visual sensations—burning fire (κεκαυμένῳ πυρὶ), darkness (γνόφῳ), gloom (ζόφῳ), and storm (θυέλλῃ); it has aural sensations—the sound of a trumpet blast (σάλπιγγος ἤχῳ) and actual words spoken from God Himself (φωνῇ ῥημάτων). In other words, this OT worship was decidedly sensory. This is what naturally comes to mind when considering OT worship; the Jews had a beautiful tabernacle and later a Temple that shone brightly in Jerusalem with elaborate priestly adornments, gold, and fine linens—they could see this worship. They had incense and burnt offerings—they could smell this worship. Worshipers actually had to lay their hands on the animal as it was being slaughtered, and then they would be given meat from that animal to eat—they could feel this worship; they could taste this worship. It was all very physical and sensory. It created an experience of the senses that permeated the whole being.

The author also describes the response this kind of approach to God created in those who were present. This physical, sensory worship in the OT created very physical reactions—they resisted it; they begged that God stop speaking (12:19)—it was terrifying. Severe judgment was connected to this worship—if they did something wrong, they would be killed. Even an animal that touched Mt. Sinai would be stoned (12:20). Moses himself trembled with fear when God revealed himself in this way (12:21). Lane notes that the term the author uses in verse 18 as the first description of the Sinai event, ψηλαφωμένῳ (“to what may be touched”), is not found in the OT account but rather was added by the author as a summary of what he considered “determinative for the developed contrast between Sinai and Zion.”2 In other words, the author means to specifically highlight the physical, tangible aspects of this worship.

In contrast, the author uses Mount Zion to represent NT worship. Christians are not actually worshiping physically in heaven yet, but in Christ they are worshiping there positionally in a very real sense. With the NT, God no longer has to condescend and enter the fabric of the physical universe to manifest Himself to his people; he can now allow his people to ascend into Heaven itself to worship him, which the author argues is superior to the former worship. This is possible because of Jesus’s mediation on the behalf of his people (12:24), and thus Christians can now approach God with full confidence in worship.

But here is the important point: this kind of superior worship through Christ is not physical in its essence. Living Christians are not physically in heaven yet. When they worship, they are positionally worshiping in heaven with all the angels and saints, but they are doing so metaphysically. That is the essential difference between these two kinds of worship. OT worship was physical; it was sensory; it happened on earth. NT worship, however, is immaterial; it is spiritual; it takes place in heaven.

The contrast between these two mountains is the same as what was explained with relation to Esau in vv 15-17, viz., an immediate, sense experience contrasted with a spiritual reality that cannot yet be experienced physically. The author recognizes the natural attractiveness of the former in favor of the latter, but he is exhorting his readers that as believers in Christ they no longer belong to the mountain of Law; in him they occupy a spiritual position among the host of heaven.

This contrast highlighted by the author of Hebrews at the end of his sermon reveals a fundamental distinction in his mind between the world of sense experience and the spiritual realm. As Thompson notes, “The Sinai event is evaluated and interpreted with assumptions which indicate the author’s metaphysical dualism.”3Through his contrast of Sinai and Zion as well as other comparisons between earthly and heavenly worship through the book, the author reveals an understanding of metaphysical dualism that is essential to his theology of worship and ultimately his argument of the superiority of NT worship over Judaism. Thompson explains: “The recurring categories in Hebrews point to a distinct set of metaphysical assumptions underlying the thought of the epistle.”4

It is important to note here that the use of categories of metaphysical dualism does not imply Platonism or Gnosticism. The author of Hebrews is not arguing that the physical is evil, just that it does not define the essence of Christian worship.5 This fact is exemplified by how the author of Hebrews portrays Jesus Christ. He is the God-man, the ultimate union of metaphysical and physical. The very reason the Hebrews at Sinai were so fearful of their encounter with God was the clash between the physical and metaphysical worlds. Yet as God, Christ transcended these boundaries when he was “made a little lower than the angels” (2:9)—he “partook of flesh and blood” (2:14) and was “made like his brother in every respect” (2:17)—and therefore his incarnation, atoning death, and resurrection “[brought] many sons [physical beings] to glory [metaphysical reality]” (2:10).

Thus the author of Hebrews is not condemning physical reality, nor is he necessarily condemning Hebrew worship as God had commanded it in the OT. Rather, he is insisting that the coming of Christ bridged the gap between the physical and the metaphysical, thus allowing for the true essence of worship—that is, metaphysical communion with God in heaven—to burst forth from out of its physical restraints. As Ross notes,

While we learn many important principles from the experiences of the ancient Israelites, we are reminded [in Hebrews 12:18-22] that as members of the new covenant we have gone beyond that and have a better relationship with God through Jesus the Messiah. Thus, our worship and service should be far greater now.6

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Lane, Hebrews, 456. []
  2. Ibid., 460. []
  3. James Thompson, “‘That Which Cannot Be Shaken’: Some Metaphysical Assumptions in Heb 12:27,” Journal of Biblical Literature 94, no. 4 (1975): 582. []
  4. Thompson, The Beginnings of Christian Philosophy, 13. []
  5. See Ibid., 7, 47. []
  6. Allen Ross, Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation (Grand Rapids: Kregal, 2006), 176. []