By Justin Clemente
Hebrews is strange. And by that, I simply mean it is unfamiliar to most of us. For many Christians, perhaps Hebrews gets lost in our New Testament – somewhere after Paul’s writings and before Revelation, we might think. When we do come to Hebrews, we find a jungle of phrases and concepts which need careful thought and attention.
In his book Following Jesus, N.T. Wright says of Hebrews, “[Hebrews] seems to ramble about and discuss a lot of themes which have never made it into the ‘top ten’ of Christian discussion topics. It begins with a complex discussion of angels, continues with a treatment of what Psalm 95 really meant in talking about ‘entering God’s rest’; moves on to Melchizedek; lists the furniture in the Tabernacle; and ends with an exhortation to ‘go outside the camp’. Well, you see what I mean; were I a betting man, I would lay good odds that none of my readers have found themselves discussing these things over the breakfast table within the last month or two. Small wonder that most people don’t get very far with Hebrews, or let it get very far with them.”
But the sad part of all this is that Hebrews is crucial. In fact, it is the fullest treatment of Christian worship that we have. What other books of the New Testament mention in passing, Hebrews makes central to its message. And what is its message? Simply this: that everything we need to rightly worship God is found in Jesus. More specifically, the author (whoever it was), is urging Jewish Christians not to mistake the shadows for the substance. The author takes each aspect of Jewish worship: The Temple, the priesthood, the sacrifices, and shows them all as fulfilled and brought to completion in Christ. That is the message and power of Hebrews.
The above is no less true of our epistle reading for this fifth Sunday in Lent. The passage, particularly verses 9-10 (And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek), presents us with several questions regarding our worship and Christian life. The questions that come to mind are, what does this passage add to what Hebrews teaches about Christian worship? What does it specifically say about Jesus that is unique and important? How should it change us and the way we think about worship?
What is Christian Worship?
Apart from the Scriptures, if I could get you to read one book on Christian worship, I’ve decided it would be James Torrance’s little 125 page gem called Worship, Community & the Triune God of Grace. In the book, Torrance draws a very strict line between two ways of approaching worship. The first view he calls the Unitarian view and the second one he calls the Trinitarian view. What does he say about this Unitarian view?
He says this: “Probably the most common and widespread view is that worship is something we, religious people, do – mainly in church on Sunday. We go to church, we sing our psalms and hymns to God, we intercede for the world, we listen to the sermon, we offer our money, time and talents to God. No doubt we need God’s grace to help us to do it. We do it because Jesus taught us to do it and left us an example of how to do it. But [still] worship is what we do[or offer] before God.”
Okay, so there you have it, that’s the Unitarian view.
Here’s what he says about the Trinitarian view: “The second view of worship is that it is the gift of participating through the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father. It means participating in union with Christ, in what he has done for us once and for all, in his self-offering to the Father, in his life and death on the cross. It also means participating in what he is continuing to do for us in the presence of the Father and in his mission from the Father to the world. There is only one true Priest through whom and with whom we draw near to God our Father. There is only one Mediator between God and humanity. There is only one offering which is truly acceptable to God, and it is not ours.”
Those are two very different ways of thinking about worship, and the question I want to ask you this Lent is, are you weary? Are you weary of worship? Does it feel like a chore? Is your Christian life drudgery? Something which requires you to pull yourself up using your own bootstraps? If so, perhaps you are operating in the Unitarian frame of mind. And with that first bit of application, perhaps you see its consequences, too.
Well, make no mistake about, the Trinitarian view is the biblical view, and it’s part of what our passage has to say to us today. The whole point of the beginning of chapter five is that Jesus is our true and forever high priest. He’s the one that now and ever intercedes for us before God’s throne, praying for us now and always. He is the one true worship leader. In fact, he’s the only one qualified to do so. That is the fuel of Christian worship, that is the passion that matters, and it is what will inspire our hearts onto new heights in our worship and lives.
The great message of Hebrews, and this passage with it, is that not only is Jesus the object of Christian worship, he also the means. This is good news. Listen to Hebrews 4:
“We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16).
In Lent, we’re brought directly back in front of the cross, so that we might cast all we are upon Christ and believe that he is enough. What this passage challenges us with, is whether or not we cast ourselves upon the present ministry of Christ, and whether we really believe it is enough to empower our worship and our Christian lives.
Related to all this is the unique expression we find in verse 9 that Christ was “made perfect” through what he suffered. How so? It can’t mean that Jesus somehow “got better” and eventually became holy enough to be acceptable to God, because the author of Hebrews stresses again and again that it was the perfection and sinlessness of Jesus which made him an acceptable sacrifice in the first place. No, what the expression means is something like “He was made fit.” He was made perfectly fit through the downward ascent of his incarnation and suffering, so that he could be our perfect high priest. In fact, that’s the only way he could be made fit for the job. In his day-by-day obedience to the Father, and supremely in his cross, he was made perfect and became the source of an eternal, rock solid, unchangeable salvation to all who obey him.
Listen to John Stott’s powerful words from The Cross of Christ:
“I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross.’ In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in Godforsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us…. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross that symbolizes divine suffering.”
In his poem Jesus of the Scars, Edward Schillito says much the same:
The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds speak;
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
Only Christ, our man in heaven, can empower our worship and lives as he sits at God’s right hand, and only Christ was made perfect through suffering, able to receive all who come to him by faith in his promises.