Astonishingly, near the end of Hebrews, the writer makes a contrast between the obsolete, inferior worship at the Tabernacle and compares this to the worship of God that takes places in heaven itself.
Therefore, he urges us to “offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe” (Heb 12:28 ESV).
Now, the natural human tendency is to interpret “worship,” “reverence,” and “awe” based on our own culture and experiences. Therefore, where I grew up, this was speaking of being quiet in the church auditorium while awaiting the beginning of the service. And sometimes it referred to teenagers not whispering during church.
But a good exegete begins with context and grammar. For example, “worship” translates latreuo (not the same word we studied a couple of posts ago: latreia). Latreuo is sometimes translated “service,” but not in the sense of “I serve you” but in the sense of “do not serve idols” — one of the most common uses of the word. Thus, “serve” has the sense of giving your loyalty to a deity.
(Deu 5:8-9a ESV) 8 “‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 9You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God … .”
The word can also take on the sense of obedience, even slavery —
(Deu 28:47-48 ESV) 47 Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, 48 therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything. And he will put a yoke of iron on your neck until he has destroyed you.
Therefore, latreuo can take on the sense of “servitude.” Thus, Paul declares,
(Rom 6:19 ESV) 19 I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.
What latreuo doesn’t refer to is the Sunday morning assembly. Rather, it’s about whom you honor, whom you obey, and to whom you are loyal. To “serve” God is to submit to him, which, of course, is not just a Sunday morning thing.
And we’re commanded to do this “acceptably.” The same root word appears only one other time in Hebrews —
(Heb 13:20-21 ESV) 20 Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, 21 equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
To be “pleasing” or “acceptable” (euarestos) we need to be equipped “with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight.” That is, God should change our hearts (the new covenant!) so that we act as he wishes.
Therefore, to serve acceptably is to serve with a transformed heart. Thus, there’s no surprise that we find the same word in —
(Rom 12:1-2 ESV) I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship [latreia]. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Do you notice the parallels with Hebrews 13:21? Both are about God working within is, by his Spirit, in fulfillment of the new covenant, to be submissive to his will. It’s about having our hearts transformed. It’s about having circumcised hearts.
Now, it only makes sense that the two parallel passages in Hebrews, 12:28-29 and 13:20-21 should bracket an explanation of what it means to be serve God acceptably —
(Heb 13:1-19 ESV) Let brotherly love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. 3 Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.
4 Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. 5 Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” 6 So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”
7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. 9 Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them.
Up to this point, the author is offering a series of examples from everyday Christian living — but often in the context of living in community. After all, the theme sentence is “Let brotherly love continue,” which is the theme of Romans 12!
Beginning in verse 10, the author begins to use language borrowed from the Tabernacle service to express how we live as Christians every day —
10 We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. 11 For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. 12 So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. 13 Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.
“The camp” is language borrowed from the Torah. The unclean and even criminals were sent outside the camp, that is, literally outside wherever Israel was encamped. They were sent to fend for themselves in the desert. More importantly, because God dwelled and walked among Israel in the camp, they were expelled from the special presence of God.
(Deu 23:14 ESV) 14 Because the LORD your God walks in the midst of your camp, to deliver you and to give up your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy, so that he may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you.
But Jesus was crucified outside the city walls of Jerusalem — in a place of shame, hung on a tree as a curse, suffering horrible ignominy for the sake of the church. And the Hebrews author urges us to join him there.
Notice the perfect irony. During the exodus, honor and God’s presence were found inside the camp. Shame and punishment were found outside. Under Christ, because Jesus himself leads us outside the camp to the place of shame and humiliation, we should follow him there.
God’s special presence is now found outside the camp, away from honor, away from safety, away from family, even away from God’s own Tabernacle — because God doesn’t live in the Tabernacle anymore. He lives among the lepers and the criminals.
(Heb 13:14 ESV) 14 For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.
To the Hebrews, Jerusalem (where the Temple was) was a lasting city and the place of true worship and service to God. The writer says that those days are past. Now there is no “Jerusalem” on earth, no Holy Place, no Most Holy Place, no place uniquely qualified for God’s service.
Rather, true service is outside the camp — among the shamed, the diseased, and the criminals — until Jesus returns and we can enter the true heavenly Jerusalem.
15 Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.
“Praise” is not specifically singing, although we can certainly praise God in song. We assume he is speaking of singing because, for many of us, the only time we utter words of praise to God is during our weekly song service. But that just proves how badly we disobey this command. The command is to praise God “continually,” not for one hour per week.
How do we do that? Well, by speaking highly of God to our friends and neighbors. Through prayer to God. But most importantly, by acknowledging his name (the sense is confession) when persecuted.
“Acknowledge” is the same word found in —
(Mat 10:32 ESV) So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven … .
The author next speaks of “sacrifice,” another word borrowed from the Tabernacle service —
16 Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
The sacrifices God wants are in doing good for others and sharing. Sacrifice and offering are not focused on a weekly ritual.
The writer then returns to life in Christian community —
17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. 18 Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. 19 I urge you the more earnestly to do this in order that I may be restored to you the sooner.
And then he summarizes his conclusions regarding acceptable service in verses 20-21 (considered above).
What does it mean to worship/serve God acceptably in light of the greatness of our salvation and the overwhelming superiority of Christ to the old covenant? To let God transform your heart by the Spirit, to do good, to pursue the Christian virtues, to honor your leaders within the church, and to confess the name of Jesus before your friends and neighbors and, most especially, your persecutors.
What is the pattern that we should follow? Well, the writer’s essential point is that we can’t replicate the Tabernacle, nor should want to. The Tabernacle is inside the camp, and we need to go outside the camp. The “pattern” is Jesus, and we go outside the camp to be with him.
When we enter the assembly, we are in a holy place because holy people are there, filled with the Holy Spirit. But this is not the Most Holy Place. Until heaven and earth are joined and the New Jerusalem descends to earth, the closest we can be to a Most Holy Place — and place where we enter the very special, intense, powerful presence of Jesus — is among the lepers and criminals, the unclean and unworthy. Because that’s where Jesus is.