Everett A. Henes
It doesn’t take much time reading the Old and New Testaments to notice some significant differences between them when it comes to corporate worship. The differences are clearly seen when considering the three primary elements of Old Testament worship: the place, the priest, and the sacrifice.
In the Old Testament, there was a specific place where the people would gather for worship. Often it would be the place of God’s very own presence. This begins in Exodus 24, with the gathering of the people of God at Mount Sinai. God appeared at the top of the mountain and, from there, he called certain people to approach him (vv. 1–2). Not just anyone could approach God!
Then sacrifices were offered. These were not sacrifices for sin, but rather had to do with the covenant that God would make with the people. At the heart of their worship was the covenant, as expressed when Moses places the blood upon the people and they vowed obedience to God’s commands: “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” (v. 7). This is a reminder to us that God will be approached on his terms, and his people are to live before him according to his commands.
Following this blood-vow, select individuals ascended the mountain, and there “they beheld God, and they ate and drank” (v. 11). In a sense, they shared a meal with God. God does not eat, but their eating in his presence, safely, was evidence of peace with God.
When Israel was preparing to leave Mount Sinai and travel to the Promised Land, Moses was given instructions for building the tabernacle—the structure in which the Levitical priests would offer sacrifices to God as the people wandered through the wilderness. In this tabernacle was the altar for sacrifices, the table for the bread of the presence, and the golden lampstand, along with many other items.
As the priests went about their work in the outer courts and holy place of the tabernacle, they would come to the Holy of Holies. This was where the presence of God would descend. Incense would be offered up, and once a year the blood of the atonement would be placed upon the mercy seat.
This was Old Testament worship. It was offered by a priest, centered on the sacrifices, and repeated year after year. The Israelites were to be led by the Levitical priests, with the High Priest performing the central tasks. The tabernacle takes center stage, the altar continually sizzling with the sound and smell of the sacrifices. The sin of Nadab and Abihu, who offered unauthorized worship to the Lord (Lev. 10:1–3), reminds us that the people were called to offer worship according to God’s commands in reverence and awe.
The book of Leviticus gives an overview of the work and worship that the people of God were to participate in. Some have wondered whether there is a New Testament counterpart to Leviticus. We find comparatively sparse instructions when it comes to worship in the New Testament. In Acts, we see how the people of God worshiped. We read of abuses of worship in Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians. Although these books and passages have a bearing on worship, they don’t provide the counterpart to Leviticus that we need. That counterpart is found in the book of Hebrews.
I believe that Hebrews was written prior to 70 AD, so the temple was still standing, the high priest was still working, and the sacrifices were still being offered up. The New Testament Christians worshiping in this environment were tempted to return to the worship of the Old Testament. One can understand this draw. After all, the temple stood in all its beauty with the priest in his robes and the ongoing sacrifices that were part of one’s tradition and upbringing. What did the Christians have? They met in homes, engaged in lengthy studies of Scripture, sang songs, and partook of the Lord’s Supper together. By comparison, it looked not just simple but weak.
In our day, we are not drawn to temple worship (although there are some Christians who move back to the types and shadows by celebrating Old Testament feasts). The temptation currently has far more to do with the external show of churches like the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, or even the big-production Evangelical churches. The root of the issue is the same: desiring the external over what God has given.
This is where it is helpful to remember the words of Westminster Confession 7.6, which concludes a consideration of the difference between the Old and New Testaments ordinances this way: “Though fewer in number [in the N.T.], and administered with more simplicity and less outward glory, yet in them it is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy.” This, it seems, is the argument of the book of Hebrews. Why should Christians not move backwards into the types and shadows of the external? Because those were but shadows, and the reality has come.
Several passages in the book of Hebrews bear this truth out. Regarding the high priest, Hebrews clearly shows that Christ is a greater High Priest than the Old Testament line! He is able to sympathize with us but is without sin (Heb. 4:14–16). Thus, he does not need to offer sacrifices for his own sins (7:27). He is a priest, forever, as opposed to the others who could only serve until their death (7:23–25).
Christ is not only the greater High Priest, but he is also the greater sacrifice. The entire Old Testament pointed toward this greater sacrifice. In the Old Testament, the one who offered the sacrifice could not himself be the sacrifice. The sacrifices had to be spotless and without blemish. None of the priests could claim that. However, Jesus could. He was born without sin and lived a perfect life according to the Law of God. Where Adam and Israel had failed, Christ did not.
The author of Hebrews makes clear to us the difference between the types and shadows and the reality.
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. (Heb. 10:1)
The sacrifices of the Old Testament were only efficacious because they pointed forward to Christ’s one perfect and final sacrifice. Hebrews makes clear, then, that the sacrifice of Christ is not just a better sacrifice, but the only sacrifice that secures salvation for God’s people.
What about the place for worship? The temple was such an integral part of the Jewish understanding. The idea that believers would no longer have a specific place to gather would have been very difficult for New Testament Christians to accept. The author of Hebrews acknowledges the special place: “Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness” (Heb. 9:1). He goes on to describe the tabernacle that was built exactly according to the pattern Moses saw on the mountain. The tabernacle, and later the temple, was a replica of heaven, the place where God dwelt. When the saints of the Old Testament gathered for worship, they were coming to a replica of heaven.
What, then, did Christians have? Hebrews 12:18–29 tells us the glorious truth: New Testament Christians gather at heavenly Mount Zion! They may have been meeting in homes, or later in the catacombs, or today in buildings; but, wherever they are, heaven breaks in. We no longer need replicas of heaven because, by faith, we worship there every week. Meredith Kline expressed this well:
This earthly gathering is not a mere symbol of the Mount Zion above and the assembly there of the Lord and his angels and the spirits of just men made perfect (Heb. 12:22–24). It is an actual earthly extension of that heavenly reality. (God, Heaven, and Har Magedon , 196)
This understanding of spiritual—and far more efficacious—worship not only helped the early Christians to avoid the pull back into Judaism, but later would also help the Reformers in their discussions of worship. By looking at passages from Leviticus and Hebrews (among many others), they understood that the worship of God was to be regulated according to the Scriptures. God’s people were to approach him as he had instructed them.
The Reformers saw the movement back to the outward and visual worship as akin to returning to Judaism. Indeed, once we have the glories of approaching God in heaven through the one Mediator and perfect sacrifice for sins, why would we be tempted to replace that reality with the types and shadows? It’s a question that continues to be pressing in our day; the pull to overvalue the external is still strong. Yet we have received a kingdom that cannot be shaken. Our response must be to offer acceptable worship to our God, with reverence and awe.
The author is the pastor of Hillsdale OPC in Hillsdale, Michigan. New Horizons, January 2018.