Believers from the earliest years of Christianity—especially those coming out of Judaism—struggled with how to understand the relationship between Israel’s worship, Christian worship, and the real worship of heaven. In fact, the confusion escalated to such a point that some apostatized from Christianity in favor of returning to the worship of their Jewish heritage.
The book of Hebrews functions as the New Testament’s supreme answer to this fundamental problem, which was written specifically to warn those Christian converts tempted to return to Jewish worship. And in particular, what the book of Hebrews reveals is that the proper relationship between worship as it was in the beginning and worship as it is now is found in our present relationship to the worship of world without end.
The climax of the author’s argument is found at the end of chapter 12:
For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. 25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.)
Notice the presence of three worship emphases in this climatic text. The author begins with as it was in the beginning, what may be touched—the physical forms of Old Testament worship as represented by Mt. Sinai. Then he moves into as it is now in verse 22 when he says, “But you”—present Christians—“have come to Mt. Zion.” And yet, his description of this mount to which they have come points directly to the world without end: “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” This is the heavenly temple Isaiah and John envisioned, the place where God himself dwells, surrounded by joyful angels, “the assembly of the firstborn,” and “the spirits of the righteous made perfect.” To this heavenly city where God dwells Christian worshipers come to him rather than he coming down to them as in the Sinai experience and his presence in the tabernacle and temple.
The author of Hebrews contrasts these locations of worship in a number of ways throughout the book. He distinguishes between “the true tent that the Lord set up” and the one set up by man (8:1–2). This heavenly tent is “greater and more perfect” since it is “not made with hands, that is, not of this creation” (9:11). He calls the earthly places of worship and all that they entail “copies of the heavenly things” (9:23) and “copies of the true things” (9:24). The Law in general is “a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (10:1).
In other words, the author of Hebrews is explicitly correcting those who define the essence of worship by the Old Testament shadows rather than understanding what those shadows represent—the true worship of heaven.
But you have come, the author of Hebrews tells Christians, to the reality—to the true worship of heaven itself. Paul describes this reality for Christians in Ephesians 2:6 when he states that God has “raised us up with [Christ] and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” Christ is seated in heaven, and since we are in him, we are with him there. And he tells us how just a few few verses down in Ephesians 2:18: “For through [Christ] we . . . have access in one Spirit to the Father.” We have access to the Father because in one Spirit through Christ, we are actually there, in the presence of God, in heaven. This is why we give glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, for each person of the Tri-unity of God plays an active roll in what makes worship in God’s presence possible for Christians.
This is the central message of the gospel—we sinners who were far off now have access to the presence of God in one Spirit by grace through faith in the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ. This is the gospel, but don’t miss the essential connection between this gospel message and Christian worship. Paul explicitly makes this connection in Ephesians 2 by alluding to the shadows of Old Testament worship in his explanation of our present reality as Christians. We sinners were far off, we were unable to draw near to the sanctuary of God’s presence. But now, in the Spirit, through Christ, we have access—we can draw near.
“So then,” verse 19, “you are no longer strangers and aliens [those prohibited from entering the sanctuary of God’s presence], but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” That’s a phrase that alludes to the OT temple, and notice how Paul continues to build this imagery of the NT temple, the church: “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
This reveals the essential connection between the gospel and the theologic of heavenly worship—through Christ in the Spirit we have access to the presence of God. The goal of the gospel is to enable us to draw near to the presence of God, in his house, in his heavenly temple, where we are then able to commune with him. In other words, we Christians no longer come to the shadows, in and through Christ, by the Spirit, we now come to the reality of the worship of the world without end. The problem with much of medieval worship, and a danger even for worship today, is if we chase after shadows rather than the truth form of reality.
But we must also be careful to avoid a second error. On the one hand, we no longer worship by means of the shadows, we recognize that we are joining in the real worship of the world without end. But on the other hand, although this is a very real reality, we must also recognize that it is not yet a physical reality. Our bodies are still here on earth, while we really are seated with Christ in the heavenly places. What this reveals is the important spiritual essence of our participation in the heavenly worship of God through Christ. As Paul says in Ephesians 2, we have access in one Spirit. The Spirit of God is the agent who makes this possible because it is a spiritual reality. The church is God’s temple, the place of his dwelling, but this temple is not a physical location or literal building, but rather a spiritual reality. And it’s not even that the physical gatherings of the church are God’s temple; rather, the true temple is in heaven, and we are spiritual part of that real temple.
The problem is that physical human beings naturally tend toward defining the essence of our communion with God in physical terms. This is one reason Christians have often gravitated toward the external forms of Old Testament worship—they “feel” more real. And this is why Christians often gravitate toward an experiential focus in worship where we define the presence of God in physical, sensual terms. We know that the Bible teaches that we are seated in the heavens with Christ, we know that we are God’s temple, we know that we have access to the presence of God through Christ in the Spirit, but we want physical proof of these spiritual realities. We want to be able to “feel” God’s presence; we want to tangibly experience communion with God. And so, when we’re asked the question, how do you know that you’ve worshiped, we want to be able to say something like “I felt God.” I experienced his presence.
But here’s what we need to remember: while we truly are in God’s presence through Christ, it is in the Spirit, and it is not yet a physical reality. It will one day be a physical reality. Paul says in Colossians 3:4, “When Christ who is your life appears [bodily], then you also will appear [bodily] with him in glory.” But that time has not yet come. We are already there spiritually, but not yet bodily.
This is why faith is necessary for communion with God in this already/not yet relationship between worship as it is now and worship of the world without end. Hebrews 10:22 says, “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” Faith is the means by which we are able to draw near to communion with God through Christ in the heavenly temple, though we do not yet experience that communion in physical ways. The author of Hebrews defines faith in chapter 11 as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” He says in verse 6 that without faith, “it is impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”
We need faith as we draw near to communion with God because even though we know we have access to the presence of God in the real temple of heaven, we cannot see it; we cannot see God or feel God or experience God with any of our physical senses. Our communion with God is at its essence spiritual. And so, we come with assurance and conviction that when we draw near through Christ, we are actually in the presence of God in heaven even though we have no tangible, physical proof. When we’re asked the question, how do you know you’ve worshiped, we ought to answer: I know I’ve worshiped, because I drew near to God, through Christ, with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith.
Our worship now is a spiritual participation of heavenly worship meant to form us to live now in light of the true form of reality. Worship now should embody the theological pattern of true worship as foreshadowed in the rituals of OT worship and revealed in the biblical visions of heavenly worship. From creation to consummation, the corporate worship of God’s people is a memorial—a reenactment—of the “theo-logic” of true worship: God’s call for his people to commune with him through the sacrifice of atonement that he has provided, listening to his Word, responding with praise and obedience, and culminating with a beautiful picture of perfect communion with God in the form of a feast. This reenactment in a corporate worship service of God’s work for us is what will progressively form into us the theologic of heavenly worship.
This is why historic worship services, intentionally structured on the basis of this theological pattern, have always followed a standard order: Worshipers begin with God’s call for them to worship him, followed by adoration and praise. They then confess their sins to him and receive assurance of pardon in Christ. They thank him for their salvation, they hear his Word preached, and they respond with dedication. And the climax of all historic Christian worship has always been expression of communion with God through celebrating the Lord’s Table. To eat at Christ’s Table is the most powerful expression that Christians are accepted by him, memorially reenacting Christ’s death until he comes again. All of the Scripture readings, prayers, and songs in this order are carefully chosen for their appropriateness in a particular function within the service structure shaped by the true reality of worship in the world without end.
Worship now that is shaped by the true spiritual realities of heavenly worship is what God has designed to sanctify us to live by faith in light of those realities, just like the saints of old. Paul says in Titus 2:12, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people,”—so he’s talking about the gospel that brings salvation, but then notice what else he says the gospel does: “training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” In other words, the gospel that saved us is also the gospel that sanctifies us—the gospel that reconciled us to God, that brought us near to him, is the gospel that will continue to grow our relationship with him. We don’t just believe the gospel for salvation and then leave it behind; even as believers, we must continually renew ourselves in the gospel so that it continues to train us and cultivate our relationship with God.
And notice what Paul says next: “Waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” Worship in this life that is shaped by our covenant relationship with God through the gospel, the spiritual realities of heavenly worship, sanctifies us into people who live in light of that relationship as we wait for our blessed hope. By reenacting what we are in Christ, Christian worshipers become what we are.
We come now by faith and not by sight since we are not yet there physically; but one day faith will be sight. Now, we gather around Christ’s table to remember the hope of glory, and we are with him spiritually, though we cannot see him with physical eyes. One day we will sit at his table in our physical, glorified bodies, clothed in fine linen, bright and pure, and we will see Christ bodily with our physical eyes. And we will join our physical voices with “the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory.’”
We will eternally sing praise to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (12:27–29).