Lesson 20: Acceptable Worship

At the close of chapter the 12 the author of Hebrews encouraged his readers that since they received “a kingdom which cannot be shaken” they should “show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe” (vs. 28). The word translated as “offer…service” in the NASB95 is translated as “worship” in both the ESV and NIV. In fact, it’s translated as “worship” in the NASB elsewhere in Hebrews (see 9.9; 10.2). The term describes those who offer religious service and rites, i.e. worshippers. However, the Christian’s worship/service isn’t relegated to what one does at a worship service, but makes up his/her entire life.

On the surface, chapter 13 might seem to contain several unrelated exhortations. However, these exhortations describe different ways which God’s true people can offer Him acceptable service on a daily basis.

Brotherly love (Hebrews 13.1-6)

The first 6 verses contain varied exhortations, but they all relate back to the opening admonition: “let love of the brethren continue.” Brotherly love is not only commanded by Jesus, this affection for each other should be one of the traits which causes others to see that we belong to Christ. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13.34-35, NASB95) And such brotherly love did in fact stand out, as the 2nd century satirist Lucian noted: “Moreover, their original lawgiver persuaded them that they should be like brothers to one another.… Therefore, they despise all things equally, and view them as common property, accepting such teachings by tradition and without any precise belief (Peregrinus 13).” 

Brotherly love would dictate how the saints treated their brethren in challenging circumstances, such as strangers in need of hospitality and those who were in prison (vss. 2-3, note the parallel to Matthew 25.35-36). An added exhortation to show hospitality was the fact that men of faith had unwittingly hosted angelic guests (Abraham in Genesis 18, Lot in Genesis 19). The author had previously mentioned their service to their imprisoned brethren (Hebrews 10.32-34) and brotherly love for those in the body would prompt them to continue remembering their persecuted brethren.

On the surface, the exhortation to honor marriage in vs. 4 would seem to be unrelated to brotherly love. However, the Christian’s sexual morality is related to love for others elsewhere in Scripture (see Romans 13.9). “Regard for marriage is an essential expression of the quality of love that binds the community together as brothers and sisters who share a common confession. As a community they must respect marriage as the gift of God and support those who share the marriage relationship with empathy and affection.” (William Lane, Word Biblical Commentary).

Finally, these saints are urged to not let their brotherly love be replaced with the love for money. Earlier persecution had resulted in the loss of property (see Hebrews 10.34), so the author encourages them continue to keep material possessions in the proper perspective. Furthermore, the author gives the key to contentment: the saint has God with him, and He will never forsake His people (see Deuteronomy 31.6,8; Joshua 1.5; Psalm 118.6). 

Follow Your Leaders (Hebrews 13.7-17)

We come to another section where various appeals are made, but the fact that the author bookends the section with appeals “remember” and “obey” leaders gives us the common thread in the passage. The leaders are not defined as elders, preachers, etc., but their leadership was defined by 1) their speaking the word of God and 2) faithful conduct. Vs. 7 speaks of their former leaders while vs. 17 addresses their relationship to the current leaders in the church. The need to obey church leaders, to heed God’s word spoken through them and to emulate their example, is further shown in vs. 9: varied and strange teachings abounded, but godly leaders were watching over their souls (vs. 17).

Vs. 8 is key to the section: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” The everlasting nature of Jesus has been brought up before in the letter, with particular reference to His role as High Priest (Hebrews 1.12; 7.24-25). It was Jesus that their leaders had proclaimed (vs. 7), but the varied and strange teachings would take them away from the grace that He mediates in the new covenant. His unchanging character means that we can be saved forever (Hebrews 5.9), but only by obeying Him. Christians must not be duped by false teachings, because Jesus and His will have not changed!

It is apparent that these particular false teachings encouraged these Hebrew Christians to place their trust in aspects of the old covenant. Based on the verses that follow, it would seem that they were being told that if they kept the old covenant festivals (associated with food) they could secure God’s grace. But God’s grace is found in Jesus, not in food! Thus, the author reminds his audience that “we have an alter from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat” (vs. 10). Exactly what he means by this is clarified in vs. 11 where procedures for the Day of Atonement are specified (see Leviticus 16.27). The animals sacrificed on that day, whose blood was used for atonement, were taken out of the camp and burned. And so Jesus, whose blood secures our atonement, also “suffered outside the gate” (vs. 12). “The declaration that the adherents of the old cultus have no right to eat from the altar asserts that they have no share in the sacrifice of Christ on Golgotha and are excluded from its benefits. Participation in the efficacy of Jesus’ sacrifice is limited to those who recognize in the cross-event the source of the grace by which the heart is strengthened.” (William Lane, Word Biblical Commentary). 

Since Jesus “suffered outside the gate”, His followers are called to “go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach”. There may be a possible allusion to Exodus 33.7-10 where Moses would meet God outside the camp following Israel making the golden calf. When Jesus was crucified God was once again rejected; His followers must once again go outside the camp to Him. Practically speaking, these Hebrew Christians would have to leave what was familiar and comfortable (i.e. Judaism) and suffer with their Lord. But bearing His reproach is worth the sacrifice, “for here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come” (see Hebrews 11.10,16; 12.22-24,28). And since He was sacrificed for us, we now offer appropriate sacrifices in gratitude: the praise of our lips (vs. 15) and charity (vs. 16). 

Final Exhortations and Benediction (Hebrews 13.18-25)

The author ends with some of the only personal remarks found in the letter. He requests their prayers on the behalf of him and his coworkers (vss. 18-19) and expresses the hope that he and Timothy would come to them soon given that the latter was recently released from prison (vs. 23). But such future plans were uncertain; what was certain was that God would continue to provide for and take care of His people. Thus, the author offers this benediction: “Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord, equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” (vss. 20-21) The benediction borrows from Isaiah 63.11-14 and Zechariah 9.11 and expresses confidence that God has provided all they need: Jesus is now their great Shepherd and He has equipped them “in every good thing to do His will”. God’s grace would indeed be with them… and with us.

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