Worship with Reverence and Awe

The Surprising Word on Worship from Hebrews

What would it look like to offer up worship with reverence and awe? Well, it may not be quite what you expect! It certainly wasn’t what I expected as I opened up Hebrews with a group of Christians some time ago. Don’t get me wrong; I knew the “golden verse” on why we do church at all was in there (“Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:24–25, NIV). That was no shocker, and I think most of us knew it practically by heart. Then it happened. We had pressed on through chapter 11, we’d seen great exhortations to faith, great encouragements in Christ, and we were filled with great certainty when we reached these words:

“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” (Hebrews 12:28–29, ESV).

This is a sudden change of topic, right? We’ve just gone from being exhorted to hear the summons of the gospel to being told about worship. Have we gone from being evangelized to being prepared for the praise band in fifteen words? What gives? I didn’t see it at first, but it actually makes more sense than a quick scan might reveal.

A Response of Gratitude

The passage starts off by building on what has gone before: “Therefore let us be grateful.” Whatever we are being taught to do here, it is all because of what we have in Jesus. A few verses earlier, we read that Jesus is “the mediator of a new covenant” and that his “sprinkled blood” speaks “a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24). That’s quite something to be thankful for! It is assuring for those who have come to Jesus that our standing before God is now secure—secured by a new covenant, made certain through the shed blood of Jesus for our salvation. Whereas Abel’s blood cried out for vengeance, the blood of Christ cries out that we are forgiven through his death in our place for our sins. Little wonder that Hebrews says, “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken”!

So how are we to show that gratefulness? That’s exactly what Hebrews tells us next: We show it by worshiping. We “offer to God acceptable worship”—that is, worship that pleases God—and we do it “with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” Earlier in the chapter we were reminded of how God appeared terrifyingly to his people on Mount Sinai, with “a blazing fire” (Hebrews 12:18) and a scene so terrifying even Moses said, “I tremble with fear” (Hebrews 12:21). Here, Hebrews reminds us that although we now come to God so confidently and gratefully by the blood of Jesus, it is that same terrifying God to whom we come. God has lost none of God’s holiness, none of God’s majesty, and none of God’s mighty power to judge the heavens and the earth. God is still a consuming fire. Little wonder we are told to offer acceptable worship, but with reverence and awe!

Rooted in Christian Love

But this isn’t so practical, is it? What does that kind of worship really look like? If we are to do this, we need some solid instruction! And that’s exactly what we get. Our passage isn’t done yet. Don’t let the chapter division someone added in the thirteenth century confuse you. Look at the very next verse, Hebrews 13:1. The first characteristic of acceptable worship with reverence and awe is to “keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters.” The starting point for true worship isn’t about the assembly at all, but about how we treat one another because of Christ. In fact, in the next verses we see more of the same emphasis—verses 2 through 5 exhort us to engage in acceptable, reverent, awe-filled, worship by showing hospitality to strangers, remembering those who are in prison or mistreated, holding the marriage bed and marriage itself in honor, and having a right approach to money.

Who but our blessed God would take things as mundane as being content with what we have or being hospitable and call them “acceptable worship with reverence and awe”? This is paradigm-changing stuff—at least it was for me!

The theme of worship continues throughout the rest of Hebrews. Particularly noteworthy are verses 15 and 16. In our worship, we offer up a variety of sacrifices—not Old Testament sacrifices for sin or guilt (Christ has done that fully and forever!), but a sacrifice of praise. Hebrews says that is “the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Hebrews 13:15). We also have the sacrifices of doing good and sharing what we have—“such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:16)!

Pleasing and Acceptable

This all gets summed up beautifully in verses 20 and 21, verses familiar to many of us from use as a closing prayer:

“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, 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” (Hebrews 13:20–21, ESV).

What is being said in these grace-soaked words? It turns out that it’s a prayer for right worship ending a section on worship. It is a prayer that God, who has given us by the blood of Christ a “kingdom that cannot be shaken,” will also give us all we need to “do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight.” Stunningly, the word the ESV translates as “pleasing” is the same word translated as “acceptable” in “let us offer to God acceptable worship” back in Hebrews 12:28. It’s a wonderful, mind-blowingly gospel-driven prayer all about acceptable worship with reverence and awe!

There is much else Scripture says about worship, including that very important part of worship that happens corporately in the assembly. However, let this heart-changing lesson from the end of Hebrews stick with you, as it has with me. I am confident that God’s Word will help you see how to respond with gratitude to the astounding grace of salvation by offering our God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, always and everywhere.

Vincent Murphy serves as pastor at St. Mary’s Cathedral (Anglican), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He is involved in preaching, teaching, pastoral care, and planning the four liturgical Sunday services.

Reformed Worship 130 © December 2018, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.