At the end of Hebrews 12 we find a very instructive passage that describes New Testament worship. But in order to understand the point of this passage, we need to first understand the broader context in which it is found.
The purpose of the book of Hebrews is to warn Jewish Christians against leaving Christianity in favor of their old Jewish religion. Apparently at this time many Jewish Christians were being tempted to apostatize from the Christian faith and go back to Judaism, and the author of Hebrews is warning them against that. Toward that end, the author argues through the book that Christ is absolutely supreme over all things, particularly over those things that Jews hold in high regard. He is superior to the prophets, he is superior to the angels, he is superior to Moses. And the implication is that life in Christ is superior to life under Jewish Law, the Jewish religion.
Interspersed through these arguments about Christ’s superiority are five warning passages, and the section we’re looking at falls at the end of the fifth warning passage. Really, what we’re looking at ends the argument of the book — it is the climactic argument given to convince the readers not to go back into Judaism. Chapter 13 contains some final remarks and admonitions.
Here in verses 18-29 the author provides a final argument of why it would be foolish for these Hebrew Christians to go back to Judaism, and his explanation is to express the essential difference between Old Testament worship and New Testament worship — the essential difference between these two ways of approaching God, the one they’re tempted to go back into, and the one they’re tempted to leave.
He begins by describing Old Testament worship, and then he compares it to New Testament worship.
Old Testament Worship
18You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 19to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words . . .
The author uses Mt. Sinai as a representative example of the essence of Old Testament worship. Notice how the author describes Old Testament worship: it is physical — it can be touched; there are visual sensations — burning fire and darkness and gloom and storm; it has aural sensations — the sound of a trumpet blast and actual words spoken from God Himself. In other words, Old Testament worship was very sensory. This is what we naturally think of when we consider Old Testament worship. There was a beautiful tabernacle that you could see and then a Temple that shone brightly in Jerusalem. There was incense and burnt offerings — you could smell this worship. There were elaborate priestly adornments and gold and fine linens — you could see this worship. You actually had to lay your hand on the animal as it was being slaughtered, and then you’d be given meat from that animal to eat — you could feel this worship; you could taste this worship. It was all very physical and sensory. It created an experience of the senses that permeated the whole being.
You may be wondering why in the world someone would be tempted to leave Christianity and go back to Judaism, but this is exactly why. We can recognize how this would be attractive in our desire to know God. We cannot see Him, so we naturally desire for Him to manifest Himself in ways that are tangible. I mean, how often have you wished that God would just speak directly to you from heaven? That’s the kind of attractiveness this kind of physical, sensory worship has.
I can resonate this this. In October of 2008 I spoke at a few churches in Florida. When I was in the Orlando area, a pastor took me to The Holy Land Experience. It was an amusement park kind of place, but it was all themed around Bible subjects. We saw a huge model of Israel, and walked through museum of Bible manuscripts, and one of the attractions was a life size replica of the tabernacle. We went into a building where they had this tabernacle built, and we got so see what it would have looked like, and then after they taught us a bit about what would have occurred in tabernacle worship, they did a live recreation of what the Day of Atonement would have been like, complete with thunder and lightning and all kinds of sounds and visual effects. It was very exciting; I got goosebumps. It felt “religious.” I can understand how something like that would have been very attractive for these Hebrew Christians. Even the elements that weren’t so spectacular — the lighting of the incense and the candles and all the rituals — were very stimulating. You could almost feel the presence of God in that kind of worship.
But notice what kind of response this kind of worship created:
18 You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 19to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, 20because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” 21The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
This kind of physical, sensory worship in the Old Testament created very physical reactions — they resisted it; they begged that God stop speaking — it was terrifying. There was severe judgment connected to this kind of worship — if you did something wrong, you would be killed (remember Ussah, who tried to steady the Ark so that it would not fall, and God struck him dead?). Even an animal who touched Mt. Sinai would be stoned. Moses himself trembled with fear when God revealed Himself in this way.
You see, whenever God enters the fabric of the physical universe in order to reveal Himself, it is always terrific — it produces terror. In the Old Testament, God had to come down to man because man did not measure up to God’s standard of perfection and could not approach God. And when He did, it was spectacular, and it caused great fear.
So why would these Hebrews be tempted to go back to this? Because it seems more real. It’s physical. It’s sensory. You can touch it. And it produces a very real sensation — even if the sensation is terror, we naturally gravitate toward experiences that move us physically.
This is why people like roller coasters or scary movies. People like to have their senses stimulated; they like to feel something. And the same is true for religion. People all over the world like to participate in religions that create feeling experiences, no matter how wacky the religion actually is. It’s just natural for us.
But the author here says that if you are a Christian, you have not come to that kind of worship.
New Testament Worship
22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, 24to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Again, the author uses a mountain to represent New Testament worship. This time it’s Mt. Zion. Now, as you know, Mt. Zion referred to the Mt. upon which the Temple in Jerusalem was built, but it also was used very often to refer to Heaven. This is the sense in which the author is using the phrase, which is made clear by the next phrase, “to the heavenly Jerusalem.”
So how does he describe New Testament worship? It is heavenly and spiritual, since we are not actually there yet. As Christians, we are actually participants of heavenly worship positionally, although not physically. In other words, we are not actually worshiping physically in heaven, but in Christ we are worshiping there positionally in a very real sense.
You see, with the New Testament, God no longer comes down to us and manifests Himself physically; we are now enabled to ascend to Him and participate in the Worship of Heaven. How is this possible?
24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
We are now enabled to ascend to God and worship Him in Heaven through Jesus Christ. Because of Christ, we now measure up to God’s standard! Do you recognize the real significance of this? You are a thoroughly sinful person — if you’re honest with yourself, you know this — but if you are a Christian, God does not see you that way. No matter what you do, no matter how awful you are, no matter how much you mess up and sin and do terrible things, if you have been clothed in the righteousness of Christ, that is all God sees. And so you can approach Him with full confidence in worship. God no longer has to condescend and enter the fabric of the physical universe to manifest Himself to us; He can now sit back on His throne and allow us to ascend into Heaven itself to worship Him.
But here’s the key: this kind of superior worship through Christ is not physical. We are not physically there yet. When we worship, we are positionally worshiping in Heaven with all the angels and saints, but we are doing so spiritually.
That is the essential difference between these two kinds of worship. Old Testament worship was physical; it was sensory. New Testament worship, however, is immaterial; it is spiritual.
So what was the author’s point in all of this? Was his point to say that Old Testament worship was fearsome, but New Testament worship is sweet? No; look at verses 25-27:
25 See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? 26At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.”[e] 27The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.
The author’s first point in comparing Old Testament worship to New Testament worship is to emphasize that
If God was one to be feared then, He is certainly one to be feared now . . .
. . . if you are not a Christian — if you fall away from the Christian faith. He’s saying, God was fearful in the Old Testament, but God will be just as fearful if you fall away. One day He will judge the world, and everything that is not part of the eternal Kingdom will be shaken — will be destroyed. So the first purpose of this comparison is a warning. God is still a consuming fire, as the author notes at the end of the chapter. He will judge those who do not believe.
Remember this is part of a warning, and in this case it is is a motivation not to do what Esau did.
16 See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. 17Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tears.
The author is warning the Hebrews not to be like Esau. What is it that Esau did? He gave up spiritual blessing for physical pleasure. Why? Because physical pleasure is immediate. He could see the food; he could smell the food; he could taste the food; he could touch the food. Something like a spiritual blessing was immaterial; it could not be touched. And that’s exactly the point the author is making. These Jewish Christians were being tempted to leave Christianity and fall back into Judaism — leave grace and go back to Law. Why? What was the draw? The draw was that Jewish worship was sensory; it was immediate; it was physical; it could be touched.
Don’t be tempted to trade true spiritual worship for worship that is physical.
So not only is the author describing both Old Testament and New Testament worship to emphasize that God is still to be feared if you do not listen to Him and submit to him, but he is also using urging these Hebrews not to be tempted to trade true spiritual worship for worship that is physical. Christian worship that is immaterial — that is spiritual — is far superior to physical, sensory, Old Testament worship.
Earlier in the book the author had explained why worship changed from physical to spiritual. Notice for instance, chapter 8:
5 They [that is, Jewish priest in the Temple] serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” 6But the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises.
In other words, there is a Temple in Heaven where worship takes place in the very presence of God. Since people in the Old Testament did not measure up to God’s standard, they could not participate in that worship. So God had Moses and then Solomon create a physical replica on earth of the worship that takes place in Heaven. And all of the rituals and ceremonies were merely shadows of things to come (cf. Hebrews 10:1).
Now that Jesus has atoned for sin, believers in Christ measure up to God’s standard and are enabled to participate in the heavenly worship in a spiritual sense. The physical locations and ceremonies and forms are no longer necessarily. They were merely teaching aids.
Let me illustrate it this way: children need physical stimulants in order to learn. An infant is almost entirely dependent upon the physical. He knows he needs food by a feeling in his stomach. He knows food is near by a smell. He knows mom and dad by sound. He needs touch; he needs feeling. Infants do not think abstractly at all. An infant doesn’t understand love or hate, he just wants things based on a physical need. They don’t even have a self-realization at this point.
By the time a child reaches the toddler stage, he begins to think abstractly and immaterially. He is beginning to understand the nature of right and wrong — things that you cannot see or feel or touch. He is beginning to understand that he cannot keep from sinning, and the job of parents is to teach him that judgment is inevitable. He is beginning to understand love. These are all things that he cannot see or touch. But he still very much depends upon physical stimulants to learn. Parents fill the lives of toddlers with learning tools, puzzles, games, books, toys.
But as we grow to adulthood, we have come to grasp abstract thinking. We can consider a concept like justice without a physical representation. In elementary school, the teacher needs to physically take away one apple from three to demonstrate that 3-1=2. Children need to count on their fingers. But adults can conceptualize math or other abstract ideas without the physical.
This is very similar to how worship has progressed in God’s plan. Old Testament Jews were like children. They needed the physical sensation to learn about God; they needed the sensory experience. But as New Testament Christians with the Word of God in our possession, we are no longer children; we no longer need the physical. We worship God now purely spiritually; purely immaterially. Now God has given us just a few physical teaching aids in the New Testament since we are not fully mature — baptism and the Lord’s Supper. But, worship today is not about the physical experience, it is not about what we can touch or smell or see. Worship is about worshiping God spiritually.
This is also the whole point behind the “Hall of Faith” in chapter 11. People in the Old Testament who revealed that they had true faith were those who were not dependent upon the physical. They believed in things even though they could not see them. That is the essence of faith according to verse 1:
1 Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. 2This is what the ancients were commended for.
Examples of faith in the Old Testament were people who trusted in God even though they could have no physical reason. We see two stark examples in verses 7-8:
7 By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.
8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
These two men and the others listed in this chapter did not rely on physical reasons to believe God. They believed even though they could not see. That is the nature of true, saving faith.
Now this temptation to leave Christianity for Judaism may seem a bit foreign to you. But let me try to explain to you why I think this comparison is so important for us in our understanding of New Testament, Christian worship in the Church today.
Throughout the history of the Church, Christians have always been tempted to follow after more physical, more sensory forms of worship. For instance, one of the factors that lead to the heretical developments of the early Roman Catholic Church was that they blurred the distinction between Israel and the Church. They thought that the Church was Israel and that Church worship should be like Jewish worship. And so they introduced an altar, and they established priests with beautiful robes and trappings. And they began to light candles and incense and have all sorts of ceremonies and rituals. And the sacrificial system became the Mass, and circumcision became infant baptism. Their problem was theological, but in essence it was the natural human desire for tangible, physical, sensory worship — worship you could touch, worship that created an experience of the senses.
Well, the Reformers came along and said, “No, worship is not supposed to be physical; worship is spiritual.” And so they got rid of all the pomp and rituals and candles and incense and priests and spectacle. Now, the Reformation happened gradually. The Lutherans and Anglicans made the fewest changes; they kept a lot of the physical aspects. The Presbyterians and Puritans removed even more. And then when the Baptists developed as English Separatists, they removed even more. This was all in effort to get back to purely spiritual, non-physical worship like we find here in Hebrews.
During Jonathan Edwards’ lifetime we find the beginning of another shift to define Christian worship as physical. The Awakening that occurred under his preaching was purely spiritual — it was clearly from God. But when people saw what was happening, many people began to define what was going on by some of the physical excesses. So by the time of Charles Finney, many Christians defined Christian experience by external, physical, sensory kinds of experiences. But now, instead of using rituals and incense and ceremonies to create physical, sensory experiences, Finney and others began to use certain kinds of music, and emotionalistic preaching and other exciting methods to create this kind of experience.
The Charismatic Movement is another example of desiring physical experience in worship instead of simple, spiritual, immaterial worship. Again, the problem with the Charismatic Movement is largely theological. Members of the especially Third Wave of the Charismatic Movement believe that we are in the Kingdom, and so they believe that we should experience all of the physical, sensory, supernatural phenomena that are promised for the Kingdom.
Over and over again throughout the history of the Church we see the same kind of temptation that these Hebrews were experiencing — a desire for worship that we can feel, worship we can experience, worship we can touch. This is only natural — we are physical beings, and we can’t see God, so we really want to experience Him physically.
And I really believe that this is the same kind of problem going on in many churches today. When people worship, they really want to feel something. They want to experience something. They want to “encounter” God. They want something physical. And so instead of rituals or incense or ceremonies, they use pop music and drama and humor and video and lights and smoke to create a physical experience of the senses.
And we need to be careful not to just point “out there” to “those charismatics” or “those evangelicals.” Many Fundamental Baptists have the same problem. Many of “us” want an experience in worship. But instead of using pop music and drama, we might use an old song that we have a sentimental attachment to, or we might really want a big choir and orchestra that will create an exciting atmosphere, or we might want to loosen things up a bit and have some humor in the service all so that we can feel like we’re worshiping, or we might choose music that is rousing and exciting so that we can shout a loud “Amen!” I mean, have you ever thought in your heart, “I just don’t feel like I’m worshiping,” or “I need that song or that ceremony or that element in a service in order to feel like I”m really worshiping”?
This is all the same root problem that these Hebrews were experiencing. We naturally want to be able to point to something, whether it is a mountain or a ceremony or a tradition or a ritual or a feeling, and say, “That’s worship.”
But the point in this passage is that Christian worship is not physical — it is spiritual. When we worship, we are joining in with heavenly worship, and since we are not actually there, we are worshiping spiritually. I am reminded of another discussion of worship in terms of two mountains. In John 4, the Samaritan woman asked Jesus if the proper way to worship was on Mt. Gerazim in Samaria or on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. And Jesus replied that with His coming, worship was no longer physical; worship is now in spirit and truth — it is immaterial.
When you desire some kind of physical experience in worship, you are desiring Law, not Grace. Law is physical; grace is spiritual. You are desiring the kind of worship that existed before people could actually approach God themselves.
But you have not come to that kind of worship if you are a Christian. You have come to the worship of Heaven — worship that is immaterial; worship that is spiritual; worship that is through Christ Himself! And that is why the author commands us in verse 28 to worship God in reverence and awe — these are not physical feelings; these are immaterial, internal, spiritual responses of the affections to God as we know more of Him.
Don’t define worship as some kind of physical experience of the senses, whatever that may be. In your mind it may be goosebumps or exhilaration. It may be a warm feeling or a rousing enthusiasm. But none of those things define worship. They may be present from time to time, but they do not define worship.
And then don’t desire extra elements in worship that are designed to create physical experience of the senses, whether it be a kind of music or a certain ceremony or ritual. You should be able to worship God with simply reading the Word, singing simple hymns, preaching, and prayer. If you would feel empty with a simple worship gathering like that, then you are likely defining worship in your own mind as some kind of sense experience. Worship is not about a certain kind of feeling or experience. God is Spirit, and He wants worshipers who will worship Him simply in spirit and truth.