Hebrews 12:25–29 (NKJV)
25 See that you do not refuse Him who speaks. For if they did not escape who refused Him who spoke on earth, much more shall we not escape if we turn away from Him who speaks from heaven, 26 whose voice then shook the earth; but now He has promised, saying, “Yet once more I shake not only the earth, but also heaven.” 27 Now this, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. 29 For our God is a consuming fire.
This advent we have introduced a number of changes to our Sunday worship, to our liturgy. At such times it is good and right to take note of why we do what we do – and so I have been spending the last couple weeks meditating on this passage from Hebrews.
Paul reminds us that as Christians we have received the unshakeable kingdom. The temporary kingdom of the Jews has given way to the eternal kingdom of the Messiah. And the consequence of this change is not lesser accountability – as many wrongly believe, “we are not under law but under grace” – but greater accountability. Therefore, we stand in constant need of the grace of God to enable us to do that which is pleasing in His sight, including to worship the Lord faithfully week in and week out as His covenant people.
And it is this precise application which Paul makes in our passage today. He writes, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.” Since we are members of the Messianic Age, let us be diligent to possess the grace of God and in that grace to serve God acceptably with reverence and awe.
First, note that Paul wants us, in the grace of God, to “serve” God. The word that is translated “serve”doesn’t mean service in the sense of labor on behalf of another. Frequently we are called upon to serve the Lord in that sense, but that is not what is being mentioned here. Instead Paul uses the Greek word latreuw which means “to perform religious rites as a part of worship—‘to perform religious rites, to worship, to venerate.’” In other words, Paul is explicitly addressing the nature of corporate worship, the religious rituals that we use to approach our God. Even as the old covenant community, priests and people alike, served God by worshiping Him in accordance with His Word, so the new covenant community is to serve God by worshiping Him in accordance with His Word. By grace we are to worship God.
Second, note that Paul immediately gives parameters to describe what this worship should look like. He says that we are to worship God acceptably; we are to worship God in a way that pleases Him. This implies, of course, that there are ways of worshiping God that do not please Him, ways of worshiping Him that are unacceptable. You will recall that at the beginning of the old covenant era God struck down Nadab and Abihu for offering strange fire to the Lord – their worship was not pleasing to the Lord.
Why not? First and foremost, Paul is implying here, because they did not worship God in the grace of God. “…let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably…” It is only by grace that we can worship in a way that pleases God. We cannot approach God acceptably on the basis of our own merits; we cannot approach God acceptably on the basis of our righteousness; we cannot approach God acceptably on the basis of our wisdom. It is only by grace that we can serve Him acceptably. And this is what Nadab and Abihu fundamentally missed. They did not worship God mindful of the One to whom all their religious rites pointed – Jesus Christ. Nadab and Abihu thought they could tweak the religious rites because they were just conventions of men and any way of worship is acceptable as long as it is sincere. But God had explicitly designed these rites to point to the One and Only Sacrifice through whom human beings can approach God – Jesus.
As we come to worship today, therefore, the message that God delivers to us is that we must approach him acceptably by resting upon His grace in Christ. We must come to worship clothed in the white robes that only He can give. And the only way to worship God acceptably in this fashion is to kneel and confess our sins to God, beseeching mercy through Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
So let us kneel and seek the forgiving grace of our God.