Practice of Worship
Passage: Hebrews 13:15-16
We’ve been working through series “Foundations for Church Ministry,” and we’ve covered our purpose and our priorities. Over the final four weeks of the series, we will consider the principle practices of the church—worship, instruction, fellowship, and evangelism. It might help your memory to note that these words form the acrostic wife though wife doesn’t have anything to do with what we are talking about.
In 2007, Heidi and I purchased our first home in Allen Park, MI. The house needed quite a bit of work, but we got a good deal, and we were excited about the house’s potential. But not long after we moved into, we realized we had a problem. Every time we had a heavy rain, water would back up into our basement through the floor drain, and it wasn’t clean. It stunk. We didn’t realize it at the time, but the kitchen sink was hooked into the storm drainage system and was plugged. As a result, whenever we got a big rain, water would back up in our basement along with all of the crud from the kitchen. Since we didn’t know what the problem was, we tried several things over the course of a few months. I even had Roto-Rooter come out, but nothing seemed to work. One day after a big rain, I described my problem to my next-door neighbor. Brian is a very handy guy who had done a lot of work on his house, and he offered to take a look at my basement. We went down into our very stinky basement, and he told me that it looked like I needed to redo my sewer lines. He described what all ought to be done, and my heart sank as I thought about what it was going to cost. When he got done, I asked Brian if he had any recommendations for who could do the work. Brian immediately replied that if I got a couple of our teens at church to help dig out the backyard that he would help me redo the plumbing. I was floored. We had only talked a few times. He wasn’t a family member or a church member, and this wasn’t going to be a pleasant repair. It was a stinky and muddy job. But Brian insisted on helping and saved me a lot of money at a time when I didn’t have it. Throughout the entire project, I often wondered how I could every repay Brian for his kindness. I’m sure all of us have had those kinds of experiences where someone really goes out of their way to do something for us, and we are humbled and long for a way to express our thanks, but there’s no way we will ever be able.
On an infinitely greater scale, consider everything that God has graciously done for us. He gave us his Son, and Jesus suffered and died for us. And all three members of the Trinity continue to give us a multitude of gracious gifts. God hears our prayers, he forgives our sins, he comforts our hearts, and we could go on. What could we possibly give back to God? Psalm 50:10 says, “Every beast of the forest is Mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.” If God already owns everything, what can we possibly give him to express our deep appreciation for all he has done? If God demanded that we repay him in full for his gifts, we would be doomed. But he has not. The Scriptures note several ways that we are to respond to God’s gifts, but the primary response God desires is simply our worship. We see this in our text, Hebrews 13:15–16.
In these two verses, Paul provides us with a rich picture of the privilege of worship. It is a privilege we don’t deserve. The text begins by noting…
The Provision of Worship:
It does so by stating that the only reason we can worship the Father is because we come “by Him” speaking of Jesus. Maybe that strikes you as odd. Why do we need someone to provide us with the ability to worship? Can’t anyone worship God who wants to?
This text draws heavily on the OT sacrificial system in describing how we worship God. Both verses mention offering sacrifices. Even the idea that God is well pleased is an allusion to the OT sacrificial system. And to understand this text and why Christ is necessary to our worship, we need to understand some things about the OT sacrificial system. In particular, approaching God in worship required that you followed some clearly defined prescriptions. You couldn’t just build an altar in the backyard and offer a lamb when it was convenient for you. Your “average Joe” couldn’t walk into the temple and offer a sacrifice. God is holy; he is separate from sin. As a result, Israel could only approach God by the means he prescribed in the Law. For an Israelite to offer a sacrifice, he had to come to the temple and have a priest offer it to God. God dwelt in the temple, but the only people who could enter the temple were the priests. No one else was able to fully enter the presence of God. This wasn’t because God just likes rules but because he is holy and cannot be in the presence of sin. But Christ changed all of that when he died (10:11–14). When Jesus died, he did something that no human sacrifice could ever accomplish. He took away our sin, and he “perfected” us or cleansed us. Because of that, notice what we can do (10:19–22). When v. 22 commands us to “draw near,” it is alluding to the opportunity the priest had to approach God in the temple, and this verse commands all of us who are saved, not just a priest, to approach God. We can enjoy fellowship with God unlike anything that OT Israel ever experienced, and we don’t need to bring a sacrifice to do so.
Privilege of Worship:
Returning to our text, it reminds us that worship is not a right; it is only available through the sacrifice of Christ. When we gather as a church to worship God or when you pray to God in private, we must always remember that worship is a privilege. Hebrews pictures NT prayer and worship as us walking into the temple and right up to the mercy seat where God’s presence dwells and as talking with him. It’s very important that we keep this perspective in mind when we gather to worship because it is easy to come to worship with an irreverent attitude. We can show up at church distracted by life and not really focused on what we are doing. Sometimes, we even show up angry or with sinful thoughts brewing in our hearts. Sometimes, we are more focused on catching up with friends than on seeking God. But we need to remember that the worship of the church is a sacred event where we approach God together. Because of that, we need to be careful that we come with reverence and awe. As well, this simple phrase is a powerful reminder that we should always approach God with great gratitude in our hearts. I am a wicked sinner, and I fall short of God every day. I do not deserve the opportunity to worship, but because of Christ, I can boldly enter the throne room of grace and receive mercy (Heb 4:16). Every time we worship God together, we ought to humbly remember that we don’t deserve the opportunity, and we ought to praise Christ that he has made a way.
This simple phrase that we can worship “through Him” is great news, but it also implies that without Christ we cannot come. Hebrews is clear that only those who have put their faith in Christ for salvation have received the benefits of his death (10:38). According to this verse, if you have never put your faith in Christ for salvation, God has “no pleasure” in you. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love you, but it does mean that your sin stands between you and God. Because of that, you do not have a relationship with him. Hebrews is clear that no amount of good works will ever enable you to approach God on your own. But Jesus provided the answer (9:27–28). If you put your faith in Christ, you can have your guilt removed, you can have a relationship with God. And as these verses say, you don’t have to look forward to God’s judgment because you will stand in the work of Christ. Instead of looking forward to judgment, v. 28 says, you will be able to look forward to the return of Christ when he will take his people to be with him for all eternity. If you have never put your faith in Christ for salvation, I pray that you will be saved today “through Him.” Don’t just assume that you can worship; get it settled before God today.
The provision of worship is the sacrifice of Christ. How then do we worship? Our text follows by describing two…
The Means of Worship:
First, we worship God…
With Our Mouths:
This statement continues to describe NT worship in terms of the OT sacrificial system and to fully appreciate what is said, we have to understand the reference being made. In the OT Law, God prescribed five kinds of sacrifices. The burnt offering, sin offering, and trespass offering were all intended to remove sin. God also prescribed the grain offering, which was intended to express dedication to God. The fifth offering was quite distinct from the others. It was called the peace offering, and it was intended to celebrate peace with God. Since v. 15 mentions thanks, it seems that the author is thinking particularly of a certain type of peace offering called the “thank offering.” This offering, like all peace offerings, was never required. It was a voluntary offering that a worshipper could bring to God in response to his gracious gifts. Something else that made the peace offerings unique was that the worshipper got to eat some of the offering he brought. In fact, he could bring a large group of people, and they would enjoy a meal together to celebrate God’s goodness. It was a joyful time of thanksgiving to God. And God made it clear that this kind of thankfulness pleased him more than any amount of sacrifices ever could (Ps 50:7–15). This psalm states that God doesn’t need our stuff because he already owns it all. What he truly desires is a heart of thankfulness and dependence. This is what Israel expressed through the thank offering.
Our text uses this picture to call NT believers to worship God. He commands us to “offer the sacrifice of praise to God.” But unlike the OT thank offering, we are not asked to offer an animal; rather, the praise which God desires is clarified in the final statement. God wants us to praise or worship him with “the fruit of our lips giving thanks to His name.” This phrase indicates that the worship in view is a verbal expression praise and thanksgiving. When we praise God through expressing thanks to him, it is as if we are offering him a sacrifice. We are giving back to him what he desires from us above all else. What a beautiful picture of what we do when we worship God. Think back to my opening illustration. God has done far more for us than we could ever repay. But when we praise God with our lips, we are giving back what he desires. We just finished singing some incredible songs in which we praised God for his greatness and thanked him for all that he has done for us. When we sing those songs, we weren’t just doing what churches do, entertaining ourselves, warming our hearts, or pumping ourselves up for the preaching. We are offering a sacrifice of love and thankfulness to the God who gave us our lives. It’s vitally important that we maintain this focus as we worship. Worship is not primarily about me but about God. I’m not saying it’s just about God because the NT teaches that the gathering of the church is also about my own growth and about building one another. But first and foremost, it is about God. When we worship, we are entering God’s presence and expressing our love and appreciation for him. Because of that, he must be the focus of our worship, and we must come to him with sincere and thankful hearts. May God help us to do this as a body.
I also want to note that we can offer a sacrifice of praise anytime, not just at a church service. Our text says we can please God with this kind of worship “continually.” We can praise God, and we are commanded to praise God all of the time. You can offer a sacrifice to God anytime through prayer, through singing a song in your car, or through telling a friend about God’s gifts. What a blessing it is that we can praise God continually.
But that’s not the only way we worship God. We don’t just worship God with our mouths; we can also worship God…
With Our Actions:
Verse 16 mentions “doing good and sharing.” Both terms refer to acts of kindness and generosity, and they especially point to meeting physical and financial needs. The author of Hebrews notes several times that some members of his audience were facing tremendous hardship for their faith, and he challenges them to care for each other through these hardships (v. 3). Most likely, v. 16 is particularly concerned with helping these individuals. For us, that would mean that we are ready to give generously when fellow church members have a need. But the command also applies to anything we might do to express love and to serve each other. It might mean helping someone with housework or running errands while they are sick. It might mean driving someone to an appointment while their car is in the shop or doing yard work for someone who is disabled. It might mean praying for someone who is facing a trial or making him a meal. The possibilities for how we can obey this command are endless.
And what is fascinating about this verse is that it considers these good deeds to be acts of worship since it goes on to speak of them as sacrifices that please God. We don’t often think of these kinds of things as worship, and the author recognized that tendency. That’s why he says, “do not forget to do them.” But when we as believers live out the love that God has demonstrated to us, it is an act of worship because we are reflecting the love we have received. We are showing people what kind of God we serve and what he has done for us. They also declare to God our love for him and submission to his will. When we love and serve each other, we are not just serving a person; we are worshipping God by demonstrating his love and expressing our love for him.
What an awesome privilege! But this is also a great responsibility. How have you demonstrated love this week? Are you a generous person with your time and money, with compliments and expressions of love? Does your life reflect the love that God gave to you by sending his Son? Selfishness is natural to all of us. We all naturally think about what we want and desire, but we must build a heart of generous service, not just for the good of others but also because it glorifies God.
Our text notes two ways that we worship God. We worship him with our mouths and with our lives. It concludes with…
God’s Response to Our Worship
Our text concludes with the incredible statement that God is pleased with these kinds of sacrifices, referring to both verses and not just v. 16. The OT often speaks of God being pleased or not pleased with various sacrifices, and our text uses the word here intentionally to draw on this picture of God accepting a sacrifice. The idea in our text is that when we worship God sincerely with our mouths and with our actions, it pleases him. Our text began by noting that because of our sin, we can never approach God or worship him without help. Because of our sin, we ought to be shut out from the presence of God with no hope of receiving his favor and doomed for judgment. But through Christ, not only can we come before God and worship; we can actually please him. This is not a cause for arrogance. We can’t boast in our ability to please God because we can’t even worship apart from grace. Rather, we should be humbled and amazed to think that sinners like us could ever have the opportunity to do something that pleases a holy and infinite God.
When I read this statement, I can’t help but think of how I feel when my two-year old son does something kind for me. James really can’t give me anything I don’t already possess because he is completely dependent on me. But it makes me happy when he is eating grapes that I bought and offers me one. Because I love him, his expressions of love for me are very pleasing. What a blessing it is to know that God loves us like a father, and is pleased by our love and service to him even though we can’t give him anything that he needs.
The message of our text is that we worship God in this age by praising him and serving each other.
I’d like to conclude with three points of application regarding the significance of this text to our series and to our worship together as a church.
We must thank God for the opportunity to worship.
It’s very easy for us to take worship for granted because it’s easy for us to worship. We don’t have to bring a sacrifice, and we don’t have to make a pilgrimage to a temple. But our ability to worship was costly to God. It cost him the life of his Son. Jesus died so that we could be rightly related to God. Worship is a great privilege. Speaking of worship at the temple, Psalm 84:10 states, “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness. It is an incredible gift to be able to enter “draw near to God,” as Hebrews says several times. Every time we gather to worship, we ought to thank God for the opportunity and our hearts ought to be filled with joy as we come and as we worship God together.
We must approach worship with reverence.
Our text calls on us to view worship in light of the OT sacrificial system, and this picture ought to be sobering. In June we looked at the story of Nadab and Abihu, and we saw that God killed these men for worshipping irreverently. The Law is clear that God is holy and that he must be honored as holy. But because worship is so easy for us, we can easily lose sight of its significance. We may come to church harboring sin. We may sit on one side of the auditorium with a smile on our face because the guy we hate is on the other side of the auditorium. What is more likely is that we come to worship distracted. Our thoughts are focused on our afternoon plans, problems at work, or the fly on the chair in front of us, and we aren’t engaged in what we are doing. Every time we gather to worship God, we need to remind ourselves that this is more than a social gathering or a mere duty. We are approaching God, and we need to feel the weight of this fact. I’m not saying church should feel like we are in the principal’s office; it should be joyful as I said earlier. My point is that we need to be engaged fully and throughout the entire service. Focus on the text of the songs and listen as Pastor Kris explains their significance. Think about the truth of God as you listen to the offertory or a special number. Don’t zone out during the sermon, or move on mentally once you can tell it’s wrapping up. Approach worship recognizing what you are doing.
If we are going to do so…
We must prepare our hearts appropriately for worship.
Having a proper mindset in worship doesn’t happen accidentally. It’s ultimately the product of how you prepare before you come and really how you live all the time. I would encourage you to prepare yourself physically for worship. If you wouldn’t dream of letting your kids stay up until midnight on a school night because they won’t be able to focus, then why should Saturday night be different? Come to church rested. As well, be intentional about your Sunday morning routine. If you sleep as late as possible and then you run yourself and your family like mad men to get here 5 minutes late, you probably are going to have a hard time paying attention. Build a routine that will help you come focused and alert. If you have kids, teach them how to benefit from worship. Help them understand its significance and build in them a proper anticipation for meeting with God. Ultimately, live a life of worship so that Sundays are simply a continuation of your everyday life. Worship is a great privilege. Let’s take full advantage of this great gift.
In a moment, we will stand and close with #263 “Wonderful, Merciful Savior.” I hope that we will sing praise to our Triune God from hearts that are full and thankful.