Under the Canopy of Heaven 4. Heavenly Worship in Hebrews


Despite initial appearances, the dire situation of the recipients of Hebrews is strongly related to the spiritual crises of the Church today. In the thought world of Hebrews to “fall away from the living God(Heb 3:12 ESV) is to fall away from a “heavenly calling(Heb 3:1 ESV). A high calling expounded in this letter by its unique focus on Jesus the high priest ministering on our behalf in the holy places in heaven.

The expression “holy places” is the plural form for the entire temple complex (Lev 21:23 ESV; Ezek 7:24 ESV; Jer 51:51 ESV). Hebrews’ focus is on the holy of holies cf. Heb 9:3, 8 ESV; Heb 10:19 ESV; Heb 13:11 ESV .

Access to God is the spiritual concern of this epistle, and by repeatedly exhorting his readers to “draw near(Heb 4:16 ESV; Heb 7:19, 25 ESV; Heb 10:1, 22 ESV; Heb 11:6 ESV) the writer is confident that acceptable worship (Heb 12:28 ESV) can be offered in these “last days(Heb 1:2 ESV; Heb 10:25 ESV). But only through the new way God has provided in Christ (Heb 9:8; Heb 10:20).

To enter God’s presence is the chief end of human existence, and the means by which the worshipper is consecrated (Heb 2:11 ESV) and made fit for the service of God (Heb 9:14 ESV).


Hebrews is the book which sums up all of the benefits of salvation with the term “rest”. We are invited to enter into God’s own rest (Heb 3:11 ESV; Heb 4:1 ESV cf. Gen 2:2 ESV). Since this rest is God’s it can only be entered into through his ways in obedience to his Word (Heb 3:7, 15 ESV; Heb 4:7 ESV; Heb 12-13 ESV). This is the word of the cross, that Jesus has made purification for sins and has sat down in heaven (Heb 1:3 ESV). This is prophetically pointed to by the statement that the Day of Atonement is a day of “solemn rest(Lev 16:31 ESV).

Any other way of access to God involves works which are themselves “dead” or lead to the punishment of death as separation from God (Heb 4:10 ESV; Heb 6:1 ESV; Heb 9:14 ESV). These works may be the sins familiarly listed throughout the New Testament e.g. Gal 5:19-21 ESV, or works of the Law.

Central to Hebrews argument is the notion that to enjoy God’s rest means being where God is. In this letter this is a scene of a victory celebration in worshipful joy in the heavenly sanctuary.

The Old Testament has a theology of rest that understands it to flow out of God’s presence, concentred in the tabernacle/temple (Ex 33:14 ESV; Ps 95:11 ESV). Hebrews continues this tradition.

The rest of which Hebrews speaks so potently (Heb 3:7- 4:11 ESV) is not the final state of the believer in heaven (cf. 2 Thess 1:7 ESV; Rev 14:13 ESV)

but “a state of spiritual rest and deliverance from every thing that was grievous or burdensome unto the souls and consciences of believers”.

John Owen

A rest now entered into by faith (Heb 4:3 ESV) in Christ and the gospel.

Where the law and its worship brought bondage and servility we enter into God’s own rested glory in Christ.

The heavenly tabernacle/holy place is the epicenter of this rest.   

Rest is not blissful inactivity, but participation in Christ’s ever constructive activity in heaven.


Hebrews is dominated by an intense prophetic understanding of the Old Testament tabernacle and temple.

The tabernacle was of foundational importance for Israel; from the wilderness wandering until the construction of the temple of Solomon it served the purpose of providing access to God. Especially through the rituals of atonement. It was God’s dwelling in the tabernacle in the midst of Israel that made her holy.

God commanded Moses on Sinai to “vs. 8 make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midstvs.9 Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.(Ex 25:8-9 ESV cf. Ex 25: 40 ESV; Ex 26:30 ESV; Ex 27:8 ESV; Numbers 8:4 ESV; Acts 7:44 ESV).

Prophetically, Moses saw the reopening of the Edenic sanctuary, the way into heaven and the beginnings of the new creation filled with glory of God (Ex 40:34 ESV ff).

God’s dwelling in the earthly tabernacle made it a pattern that communicated the greater things which were to come in Christ. It was “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Heb 8:5 ESV) where Christ ministers as high priest “in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man” (Heb 8:2 ESV). The realities of “the greater and more perfect tabernacle” (Heb 9:11 ESV) in heaven now revealed through Christ made possible and gave power to the Old Testament rituals related to the temple.

Where the Jewish readers of Hebrews were attracted back to the physical structures of a temple, priesthood and sacrifices in this world they needed to understand that the real, eternal and unshakable sanctuary is in heaven. Where “Christ has entered… heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.(Heb 9:24 ESV).

They had failed to understand was that Jesus is the reason for the existence of both the earthly and the heavenly temple; “something greater than the temple is here(Matt 12:6 ESV). Everything that the tabernacle pointed to, i.e. the divine dwelling place, holiness and communication with God are fulfilled in Christ (John 1:14 ESV). Jesus has personally completed the heavenly world by his own personal presence there.

Since the present heavens and the earth will perish and everything that is of this creation shall be shaken out of its place (Heb 1:10-12 ESV; Heb 12:26-27 ESV) attachment to the forms of old covenant religion is useless. There’s no place for another physical temple. We look forward to possessing an unshakable kingdom which is the abode of God himself (Heb 12:25-28 ESV cf. Haggai 2:6 ESV; Rev 21:3 ESV).

The power of the heavenly tabernacle where Jesus resides is that through perfect self-offering and complete obedience (Heb 5:9-10 ESV) he has fulfilled the purposes of atonement that the Old Testament rituals could only point to.  

Unlike earthly priests Christ has gained access to the most intimate presence of God in heaven. He “entered once for all into the holy places… by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.(Heb 9:12 ESV; cf. Heb 10:19 ESV; Heb 12:24 ESV).

He remains in the holiest place in perfect communication with his Father on our behalf. As the true priest-king reigning and worshiping in the heavenly temple the ministry Jesus is currently conducting is the centre-point of Hebrews.

The themes of such a ministry run throughout scripture. Adam was a king in the sanctuary of Eden called to bring God’s tabernacling presence in Eden to the whole world (Gen 1:26-28 ESV; cf. Psalm 8 ESV).

The language of Genesis 2:15 ESV, “to tend and watch over”, is used elsewhere exclusively of priestly duties around the sanctuary (Num 3:7-8 ESV; Num 8:26 ESV; Num 18:5-6 ESV).

Worship meant mission.

Israel was called to be, “kingdom of priests and a holy nation(Ex 19:6 ESV) with a holy vocation to stand out as a light to the nations.

In using Old Testament language about kingship (Heb 2:6-9 ESV) and priesthood of Jesus (Heb 2:10-17 ESV) Hebrews teaches that Jesus fulfils everything Adam and Israel were called to be.

This vocation is later applied to the new people of God, the Church e.g. 1 Pet 2:5, 9 ESV; Rev 1:6 ESV; Rev 5:10 ESV; Rev 20:6 ESV


“Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, 2 a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man.” (8:1-2). Exalted to the right hand of God (4:14) Jesus serves his community on earth from a sphere where there is nothing partial, temporary, unreal or unclean. This text tells us that Jesus is a leitourgos, a word used in the Old Testament of the role of priests and Levites in the tabernacle on behalf of the people (Neh 10:39; Isa 61:6; Jer 33:21 cf. Ex 28:31, 39; 29:30; Num 16:9; 1 Chron 16:4, 6). Jesus is the worship leader of the present assembly of God’s people on earth, the Church.

So we read, “vs.11 For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, vs.12 saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” (Heb 2:11-13 ESV).

Congregation” is ekklesia, i.e. church.

These words are taken from Psalm 22, a psalm he spoke aloud from the cross (Mark 15:34 ESV). With a joy and victory achieved through great tribulation Christ is from heaven preaching the gospel in our midst and singing the praises of his Father. Paul’s language of “be filled with the Spirit” and “the Word of Christ(Eph 5:18 ESV f; Col 3:16 ESV f.) about worship express the same reality. The subject of Jesus’ preaching and singing to us is the delivering power of God that took him to the cross and raised him from the dead (5:7-8).

Such thoughts appear elsewhere in the New Testament. “Therefore I will praise youamong the Gentiles, and sing to your name.”” (Rom 15:8-9 ESV). The quotation is drawn from two near identical psalms (2 Samuel 22:50 ESV = Psalm 18:49 ESV).

These record David’s exalting in God after the death of his enemies and his successful military campaigns.

Ultimately, this is Christ singing his triumphs to the glory of God; “sing with a free and loving heart the praises of his Father and He would set apart many brethren who would join Him in the chorus.” (Bingham).

As our priest Jesus is preaching, singing and also praying for us. “vs.25 exalted above the heavens ….he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.(Heb 7:25, 26 ESV). Cf. Isa 53:12 ESV; Luke 22:32 ESV; John 17 ESV; Rom 8:33-34 ESV, for Jesus’ intercessory life.

In unity with the glory of God whatever Jesus asks of his Father will be granted (cf. John 11:41 ESV), for his enthroned triumphant life in heaven is his prayer (Swete).

Proclamation, praise and prayer should fill the Church because it is in union with Christ in the heavenly tabernacle.

The heavenly temple and the earthly temple, the Church, are distinguishable but inseparable (cf. Rev 13:6 ESV). 

This is a mystery, but one which is an outworking of our union with Christ.

As Paul says, “vs.2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. vs.3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.(Col 3:2-3 ESV).


Under the old covenant there was highly graduated access to worship in the sanctuary of God, from the outermost court being for Gentiles through to only the high priest entering into the holy of holies but once a year (9:7). Now through the full forgiveness of sins in Christ (8:8-13; 10:16-18) “we (all) have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh” (10:19-20).

Since the new age (1:1) of apocalyptic realities has arrived the Church is the new end-times temple of unfettered access to God (1 Cor 3:16; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21).

Our access to the heavenly realms is dramatically expressed, “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly/church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (12:22-23). This “coming” into heaven is a permanent condition (Greek perfect tense) by which God’s people enjoy communion with him in a continuous liturgy of proclamation, praise and prayer.                                                                                                                                   Robert Jenson refuses to separate Church and heaven. “Any picture of God ruling the hearts of believers from the church’s table, font and pulpit, and ruling the rest of creation from someplace else called heaven…is radically   inappropriate.”


The worship of the Church unites us with heaven where Christ is both our worship leader Heb 2:12 ESV; Heb 8:2 ESV and the worshipped One Heb 12:22-24 ESV.

We are priests and kings in him (Cf. 1 Pet 2:5, 9 ESV; Rev 1:6 ESV; Rev 5:10 ESV; Rev 20:6 ESV). “because of Christ’s ascension and because I am tethered to Him and He to me, my prayers are ascending into heaven and the presence of God…in the corporate worship…our singing goes into heaven itself.” (Bertolet).

We are one with the glad worship of the thronging angelic hosts in festal assembly(Heb 12: 22 ESV cf. Rev 7:9 ESV ff.).

A picture drawn from the festival gatherings of worshippers in great numbers at the feasts of Israel (Ezek 46:11 ESV; Hos 9:5 ESV; Amos 5:21 ESV). Here with fervour and exultation the people expectedly sought the face of God in his temple (Ps 27:4 ESV; Ps 42:4 ESV; Ps 122:1 ESV cf. Rev 21:2-4, 22-27 ESV).

As a cloud of incense shielded the entry of the high priest into the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement so that he did not die (Lev 16:12-13 ESV), through the blood of Christ in the holy place our prayers are united with his heavenly intercession forming a cloud of fragrant incense between heaven and earth. In unity with Christ who “loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God(Eph 5:2 ESV) we are called to “ offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe…. ii Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God… the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.(i Heb 12:28 ESV; ii Heb 13:15-16  [v.16 includes sacrificial sharing]). This is our priestly service in the likeness of Christ.

From the vantage point of heaven this is clearest in Revelation (Heb 5:8 ESV; Heb 8:3-5 ESV) where the “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” arise before the throne of God.

These prayers of the persecuted saints have a powerful impact on the actions of God against the wicked dwelling on earth (Rev 8:13 ESV; Rev 12:12 ESV).

Something of this reality is expressed by Paul when he describes the Christian presence; “vs.15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, vs.16 to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.(2 Cor 2:15-16 ESV).


There are signs all around us that the contemporary Church shares the problems warned about in Hebrews.

The plunge in the regularity of church attendance amongst committed Christians must ultimately be attributed not to the busyness of modern life (communion with God drowned out by “the babble of distractedness” (Bingham)) but by the inability of contemporary Christian communities to follow Jesus into the presence of God (Heb 9:24 ESV). If with Jesus we were consciously participating in the rich heavenly worship nothing could keep us away from gathering together (Heb 10:25 ESV).

Like the Israelites in the wilderness, and the intended recipients of Hebrews, we seem unable to hear our high priest constantly calling us to worship (Ps 66:1-2 ESV; Ps 81:1-3 ESV; Ps 95:1-2 ESV; Ps 100:1 ESV). We are struggling to share with him in the bursting joy of his having realised complete communion and unlimited access to the Father in heaven (Ps 12:2 ESV).

As a teaching priest Jesus preaches to us the gospel reasons why we should join with him in celebrating the victory of God (cf. Deut 15:2-11 ESV; Deut 27:9-10 ESV; Deut 31:9-13 ESV; 2 Chron 17:7-9 ESV; 2 Chron 20:13-17 ESV; Mal 2:7 ESV).

Hebrews focuses (Heb 3:7-11, 15 ESV; Heb 4:7 ESV) on one particular psalm where the priest exhorts the congregation to ecstatic delight:

Ps 95 “vs.1 Oh come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! vs.2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!”, which then gives a dire warning;  vs.7 Today, if you hear his voice, vs.8 do not harden your hearts(Ps 95:1-2, 7-8 ESV).

Any teaching that fails to teach grace alone (Heb 4:6 ESV) For example, many churches which would be considered dynamic worship assemblies teach “tithing”.

An old covenant principle nowhere found in the New Testament. will leave its worshippers with hard hearts (Heb 3:11 ESV; Heb 4:3, 5 ESVcf. Ps 95:11 ESV) making it impossible for them to enjoy the Sabbath rest for which Christ shed his blood and entered the holiest place on our behalf (Heb 6:20 ESV; Heb 9:24 ESV).

With unperfected consciences such worshippers cannot render to God the worth that is his due and will remain plagued by dead works (Heb 9:9, 14 ESV; Heb 10:22 ESV).

Performance based church meetings that offer spiritual principles to solve problems are contaminated with the professional of secular culture and cannot communicate heavenly things that lift us out of superficialities.

Hebrews also warns against various causes of defilement common today, e.g. division, bitterness, sexual immorality,  which being unholy dilute the potency of priestly service (Heb 12:14-15 ESV).

The exhortation to “vs. 28 be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, vs. 29 for our God is a consuming fire.(Heb 12:28-29 ESV) is a warning to turn away from a vision for prosperity in the visible world to the invisible (Heb 11:1-3, 27 ESV) unshakeable heavenly world. 

A vain covetous grasping of the things of this creation brings the judgement of God on his people (Heb 12:16 ESV).

Hence the various warning passages of Hebrews (Heb 2:1-4 ESV; Heb 3:7-4:13 ESV; Heb 5:11-6:12 ESV; Heb 10:19-39 ESV; Heb 12:14-29 ESV).

It is not too much to consider that the terrible moral state of Western society is a sign that judgement has been “going out from the household of God(1 Pet 4:17 ESV).

This would spiritually fulfil the vision of Ezekiel and God’s command to his destroying angel:

vs.3 Now the glory of the God of Israel had gone up from the cherub on which it rested to the threshold of the house….vs.5 Pass through the city after him, and kill…. vs.6 And begin at my sanctuary.”” (Ezek 9:3, 5-6 ESV).

If the Church fails to be salt and light (Matt 5:13-15 ESV) societal decay is a consequence of a divine handing over.

The New Testament knows nothing of a passive God, it expects he will actively judge his people lest they completely fall away e.g. Acts 5:1-11 ESV; 1 Cor 5:1-5 ESV; 11:27-32 ESV; 1 Tim 1:20 ESV; Rev 2: 6, 16, 22-23 ESV; 3:3, 16 ESV).

The discipline of the “Father of spirits” is designed not to destroy but to perfect the Church so that we might enjoy “the peaceable fruit of righteousness” in the heavenly sanctuary where Christ is interceding on our behalf (Heb 12:9, 11 ESV cf. James 3:18 ESV).

Let us therefore exhort one another to assemble with Jesus (Heb 10:24-25 ESV) pressing in to enter the sanctuary in heaven as priests offering “acceptable worship, with reverence and awe(Heb 12:28 ESV).

For A Regression To Old Testament Patterns Of Graded Worship.
See:  Structures of Shame in the Church Today (Posted on 23 April 2005 by  John Yates)

For A Prophetic Picture Of The Rest We Need.
See:   A Prophetic Picture for Perth (Posted on 30 July 2009 by  John Yates)

MESSAGE DELIVERED: 12th August, 2018 | Alive@5

Author: Dr. John Yates


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