The Church's Worship

Introduction Would you please turn back to Hebrews 12.14-29. There should be a Bible in the pew near you which you can share if need be. Now we want to be clear where we are going this evening, so let's begin at the end. Would you take a look at v 28-29:

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.

Let me turn the spotlight on just one key phrase there: "worship God acceptably". The writer is urging his readers, and through them he is urging us, to get our worship right. "Let us ... worship God acceptably". Question: Is our worship acceptable to God? If it isn't, we are in big trouble. Because if not, then we are not acceptable. Do you remember what happened to Cain, the son of Eve, and his brother Abel? Genesis 4.2:

Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favour on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favour.

God accepted Abel's meat but rejected Cain's fruit. Why? Has Cain offended him by thinking that God must be vegetarian? We need to know because the consequence for Cain was catastrophic. Cain takes offence at God turning his nose up at his carefully prepared fruit salad. He loses his rag in a big way. God puts him on a caution. Cain takes it badly. He can't kill God so he goes and kills his brother. God curses him and casts him out from his presence. According to Hebrews 12.29, "our God is a consuming fire". Get our worship wrong and the consequence is obvious. So we need to know what worship is acceptable to God. How? Well it depends on what we think God is like and what he wants us to do. When you are wanting to please someone, you ask yourself what it is that pleases them, and then you do it. When you want something big from your mum and dad, you don't just blurt it out when they are obviously feeling tetchy. If you've got any sense, you tidy your room, tell them to go and put their feet up, do the washing up, make a cup of tea, ask if there is anything else they would like you to do for them, when they faint bring them round, smile sweetly, and then ask. You please God by doing what he wants. If you are serious about it, then there will be no lengths to which you will not go. So if your view of God is such that the best thing you could possibly do for him would be to get killed in the process of killing his enemies, then you strap Semtex around your waist and detonate it on a bus crowded with Israelis. That is your supreme act of worship. If you are your god then you will do whatever pleases you and you will be prepared ever so nicely to sacrifice anyone or anything that displeases you. By definition there is nothing that takes priority over pleasing your god. So what about us? If you are not a Christian, then you will know better than I what you think your god requires of you. But most of us here this evening are Christians. Our God is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. What does he require? It cannot be up to us to decide. And we do not have to guess. Because in the Bible God has told his people what he requires. It is not good enough to say that some worship activity is ancient or modern or beautiful or relevant or peaceful or exciting. It is not enough to say that it gives you a sense of eternity, or soothes your shattered nerves, or eases your guilty conscience and therefore must be right. There is only one criterion by which to judge whether our worship is acceptable to God: is it what God has said he requires? That is what counts. So what does the Bible say about what God requires? Well, the coming of Jesus changes everything, as Hebrews makes so clear. There is a major difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament, so I want to take this one stage at a time, and consider first , THE WORSHIP OF THE OLD COVENANT; then secondly, THE WORSHIP OF JESUS; and thirdly, THE WORSHIP OF THE NEW COVENANT. First, THE WORSHIP OF THE OLD COVENANT The Old Covenant was first spelled out by God in detail to Moses at Mount Sinai after God had rescued Israel from their terrible slavery in Egypt. That is why Mount Sinai becomes the symbol of the Old Covenant. And it is to Mount Sinai that Hebrews 12 refers in verses 18-21:

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm

What were the terms of this Covenant that made the encounter with God at Sinai so frightening? Put simply, God's message to the Israelites was this: "I have rescued you out of slavery and brought you here. Trust me with everything. Obey me totally. If you do, I will give you life. If you do not, you will die. Worship me in the wrong way, and you will die. Approach me only in the way that I command. Otherwise your worship will be totally unacceptable." So how were the Israelites to worship? They were to trust and obey in every area of their lives. And in particular, as one vital aspect of their obedience, there was a very specific pattern of rites and ceremonies that they had to observe in order to draw near to God. There are three central aspects of this Old Covenant pattern of worship that are crucial to understanding the difference that Jesus makes. The first is that the Israelites could only meet with God in one God-appointed place. It was not a place that contained God as if in a box, but God said his name would dwell there. Deuteronomy 12.11-13 :

Then to the place the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name - there you are to bring everything I command you And there rejoice before the LORD your God Be careful not to sacrifice your burnt offerings anywhere you please. Offer them only at the place the LORD will choose

This place was not only God-ordained it was God-designed. The blue-prints are there in the Law, down to the fabrics, curtains and furniture. This was the tabernacle, or the tent of meeting. At the heart of it was the sanctuary, the Holy of Holies where God could be encountered. In the early years it was literally a tent, which could be packed into a trailer and carted around. Under King David it got a permanent base in Jerusalem and then his Son Solomon replaced the tent with a temple. But, building materials apart, the situation remained the same. Only one man could enter the Holy of Holies, and only once a year. That man was the High Priest. And that is the second central feature of Old Covenant worship: for the God-appointed place there was a God-appointed priesthood. Such was the sinfulness of God's people that they could not approach him directly even at the tabernacle. The priesthood acted as the go-between. They had to be carefully clothed and consecrated just as the Lord laid down. One wrong move and even the priest would die. The Holy of Holies could be entered only once a year, only by the High Priest and only after the careful offering of the right sacrifices. Then the High Priest could enter the inner sanctuary with blood from the sacrifice and sprinkle it. So atonement was made. And that is the third central feature of Old Covenant worship. The Lord could only be approached through the offering of God-ordained sacrifices on the one God-appointed altar. Blood had to be spilled. The consequence of violating any of these commands was death. To violate these commands was to ignore what God said about the only way that sinful people could approach him. He was to be worshipped on his terms only, in the place he chose, through the priesthood he chose, and with the sacrifice he chose. That is an eternal and inviolable principle. The application of it is different for us, but the principle of one God-ordained place and priesthood and sacrifice remains exactly the same. What is more, obedience in these things was to reflect wholehearted trust and total obedience in every area of life. Only then would this worship be acceptable. If they did their stuff at the temple and then promptly went away and did as they pleased with no concern for God's will, they would bring down judgement on themselves. Which is exactly what happened. Isaiah 1.11 :

"The multitude of your sacrifices - what are they to me?" says the LORD. " I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right!"

The worship of the Old Covenant never did get to the root of the problem, which was the twisted and evil hearts of the people of God. But the truth is, it was never intended to. The truth is that the worship of the Old Covenant was prophetic. It pointed away from itself. What to? To the worship of Jesus. And that is my second heading: Secondly, THE WORSHIP OF JESUS Now that we have laid the ground work, we can pull things together. As we have seen, Hebrews 12.18 says, speaking to Christians:

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire

That is, Mount Sinai is not your mountain. The terms of the Old Covenant are not the terms on which you approach God. Everything has changed. Why? Because Jesus has come. And all those centuries of the flowing blood of bulls and lambs and goats were preparing the way for him. So, Hebrews 12.22 :

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, to 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, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

These glorious verses are the summary and climax of all that the writer to the Hebrews has been saying in the earlier chapters, contrasting the Old Covenant, established at Mount Sinai, with the gospel established by Jesus. Remember, the eternal principle: we can approach God only on his terms, in the place he has chosen, through the priesthood he has chosen, and with the sacrifice he has chosen. In Jesus, the imperfect worship of the Old Covenant gives way to perfect and acceptable worship once and for all. On behalf of God's people, as our Great High Priest, chosen and appointed by God his Father, Jesus offers to his Father the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. He offers his own life. Then having died outside the walls of the earthly Jerusalem, it is as if he carries the blood of that sacrifice into the inner sanctuary. But now the Holy of Holies is not a tent or a temple but the real thing, the eternal dwelling place of God: heaven itself. All that Jesus does is absolutely in line with his heavenly Father's will. This is God's plan: God-chosen; God-ordained; God-designed. So the one place where acceptable worship is offered to make God's people acceptable to him is in the heavenly Jerusalem, which touches earth at the cross and reaches right into the heavenly throne room of God. Hebrew 9.23 :

For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God's presence.

And the one High Priest who has entered into the presence of God on our behalf is Jesus. Hebrews 4.14 says

we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God

And the one sacrifice which is effective in dealing with all the sin of God's people once and for all is the death of Jesus on the cross for us. Hebrews 7.27 :

Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.

Acceptable worship has been offered on our behalf, once and for all, by Jesus. So what is the nature of the church's worship? How do we as Christians worship? This is my third and final heading: Thirdly, THE WORSHIP OF THE NEW COVENANT "Let us worship God acceptably." But how? Let me put it this way. God says to us: "What worship are you offering, that I should let you into my holy presence?" The Christian's answer is: "I have nothing to offer. But Jesus has offered acceptable worship for me. He has opened the way." And God says "Yes. That is sufficient. There is nothing more for you to give. Draw near. Come close." What is the church's worship? It is the worship that Jesus has offered. All sacred places for meeting with God are swept away, because by faith in Jesus we enter heaven itself, where-ever we are on earth. All priest-hoods are swept away because Jesus is our Great High Priest. And all sacrifices and ceremonies and rituals to deal with sin are swept away because Jesus has offered the one sacrifice that works. We do not need nor are we able to offer to God any worship that will make us acceptable to him. Jesus has done it. Through him we are joined with all believers dead or alive, and all the armies of angels, in the direct presence of God. "See to it" says Hebrews 12.25, "that you do not refuse him who speaks." If we scorn the worship of Jesus and attempt our own apart from him, we will be given short shrift. If we try any other means to gain access to God rather than Jesus, we will find the gate of heaven slammed in our face. God has told us what worship he finds acceptable. It is the worship of Jesus. In conclusion, let me say this. We cannot offer any worship to make ourselves acceptable to God. But what we can do is this. Now that, through Christ, we are acceptable to God, we can please him by being grateful and showing it. Verse 28 :

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe

How do we show our gratitude? That is exactly what the writer to the Hebrews spells out in chapter 13. Love one another. Be hospitable. "Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure". "Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have." Follow leaders who teach the Bible. Stick to the Biblical gospel. Don't be ashamed to let others know that Jesus is your Lord and master - in fact be ready to tell what great things he has done at any opportunity. Do good. Share what you have. Pray. All in all, live a life of trust in Christ and obedience to his Word. Not in order to be acceptable. But because through Jesus you are acceptable. Because you love him. Because you want to thank him. Because you want to please him. For, as 3.16 says, "with such sacrifices God is pleased."

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