In a recent blog post Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, USA addressed the recent United States Supreme Court decision to legalise homosexual marriage. The title of his article was “Everything Has Changed and Nothing Has Changed.” This sounds like a contradiction, but it is a reality that applies in several areas, including to the situation faced by Hebrew Christians in the first century. In a very real sense the theme of Hebrews could be, “Everything Has Changed and Nothing Has Changed.”
The way that God saves sinners has been the same throughout history: by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. This is clearly how Scripture alone describes the redemption of sinners, to God’s glory alone. Of course, under the old covenant, sinners were saved by looking forward to the coming of Christ, while under the new covenant we look back to the incarnation of the first century.
In this sense, in the most fundamental sense, nothing has changed (see 1:1–2). And yet, of course, everything has changed. This is the point of Hebrews. And it was proving to be a costly point.
The writer has informed his readers that the Lord Jesus Christ, by virtue of His sacrificial work on the cross, had abolished all the old covenantal sacrificial requirements. And since He is High Priest, the old covenant levitical priesthood had gone. So, in this sense, everything indeed had changed.
Jews in the first century, for the most part, understood that, in some way, God saves sinners by His grace through the blood-shedding sacrifice of an offering. So, when the gospel came along, in a sense, nothing had changed. But the new covenant revealed that God saves sinners by His grace through the blood-shedding sacrifice of His Son. In that sense, yes, everything had changed. And with such a change has come some pressures. It was such pressures that led our brother to pen this epistle.
As we saw previously, to follow Christ is costly. It can be very costly. In fact, I hear almost every week of Christians who pay a dear price to put Jesus first. They go “out of their camp” to Jesus.
These Hebrew Christians were paying the price of scorn and relational isolation. Among the accusations was that they now were followers of an “empty” religion. After all, there were no altars, no sacrifices and no religious festivals. And, soon, there would be no religiously-identified building to call their own.
In the early days of Christianity, in fact, followers of Jesus Christ were accused of atheism. Because they had no idols and no visible religious paraphernalia, it was assumed that they did not believe in any god. Even in a pagan Roman culture, this was considered not only weird but actually a threat to society as a whole.
It might be helpful to appreciate that, in the days of the Roman Empire, a multitude of religions were permitted by the civil government. Those receiving official approval were designated religio licita (“legalised religion”). But a religion like Christianity eventually became viewed as religio illicita (“illegal religion”). But to the Judaistic Jew of the day, Christianity was precisely viewed with such contempt. And this passage (vv. 7–16) indicates why: Christianity did not have the accepted ritual practices of Judaism. In fact, the point of departure for Christianity was just here: The sacrifices had been annulled because Jesus Christ, the High Priest, abolished the old covenant priesthood through the sacrifice of Himself.
And with this came both contempt by non-believing Jews and confusion among Christ-believing Jews.
The former accused Hebrew Christians of apostasy since they no longer offered sacrifices. We saw the cost of this in our previous study. On the other hand, Hebrew Christians perhaps were wondering whether they had any obligations when it comes to worshipping God.
Yet, of course, when these Christians followed Christ outside the camp, they did so as worshippers. So, as they went “outside the gate” to worship God, what could they bring to Him? If acceptable worship requires sacrifices, what has God prescribed for Christians to sacrifice to Him? Perhaps we could put it this way: What is acceptable new covenant—Christian—worship? The author tells us in vv. 15–16.
The Sacrifice of Praise
The first element of new covenant sacrifice is praise: “Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name” (v. 15).
Perhaps the summary of this entire passage could best be titled, “Thank You, Lord, for Saving My Soul.” This is precisely what we are told to do. We are to praise God for His great sacrifice of His dear Son. And we best praise God when we openly confess Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour. For when we honour God’s Son, we honour our God. This is precisely what v. 15 tells us. And, as we will see later in v. 16, if we truly confess Jesus Christ with our tongue, then we will also confess Him with our things. As Westcott writes, “Spiritual sacrifice must find an outward expression. Praise to God is service to men.”1
In v. 15, we have the principle of new covenant worship/sacrifice put before us. If anyone questions whether or not the believer under the new covenant is responsible to bring a sacrifice to God, the answer is clearly and loudly, “Yes!” We are here exhorted to bring a “sacrifice of praise.” This sacrifice is further clarified as a sacrifice of “thanksgiving.” As Richard Phillips summarises, “The basic point is that we are to praise God and profess the Christian faith with our lips. This is not just about our gatherings for corporate worship, but encompasses our whole manner of speaking, all of which either confesses or denies his name.”2
The verse begins with the word “therefore,” indicating that this appeal is closely tied to the overall context of the passage. Contextually, since you have gone out to worship and serve God where He now is, you do have something to bring to Him: thanksgiving as open confession. Dods comments, “Going without the camp as believers in the virtue of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, and bearing His shame as those who seek to be identified with Him, we are brought near to God and are disposed to offer Him a sacrifice of praise.”3 Or as Lane puts it, “The confessional statement ‘we have an altar’ [v. 10] fully justifies the admonition to offer to God the sacrifices that please him.”4
This is so important for us to understand. Worship under the new covenant is not limited to a particular place in a particular geographic setting as it was, to a large degree, under the old covenant. Jesus said to the woman at the well, “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father…. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.” (John 4:21, 23).
Jesus was making the point that, soon (within a generation), there would no longer be one locale for the acceptable worship of God. Rather, as people believed Him, they would be able to worship wherever they were. They would no longer need to go to a physical temple with their gifts in order to express their worship of God. They would no longer need to be dependent upon a priesthood or high priest to be accepted before the Lord. Rather, with the Lord Jesus Christ as their High Priest, they would be enabled and empowered to acceptably worship God where He is, which is “outside the camp.”
The Means of Acceptable Sacrifice
We offer the sacrifice of praise “by Him.” Worship that is acceptable to God is so, not because of anything that we bring to God or because of anything that we do, but because of the person and redemptive work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The words “by Him” (or “through Him”) are emphatic. Jesus is the emphasis. It is because of His sacrifice, and because of His High Priestly work, that we are able to worship God acceptably. It is because Jesus Christ is acceptable that we and our worship are acceptable. As Calvin comments, “For it is he alone who sanctifies our lips, which otherwise are unclean, to sing the praises of God; and it is he who opens a way for our prayers, who in short performs the office of a priest, presenting himself before God in our name.”5
This is precisely why we emphasise Christ-centred, gospel-informed worship.
Our sacrifice is “the sacrifice of praise.” The word translated “praise” means “thank offering,” and this is its only occurrence in the New Testament (though its use in the Septuagint was frequent). The root of the word is found in places such as Acts 2:47; 3:8–9; Romans 15:11; and Revelation 19:5. The early church was filled with gratitude to God, and this was verbalised.
We have every one (and more) of the same reasons for which to bring our thank offerings to God. In other words, we should be using our words to worship God.
Words are powerful things, for good and for bad; for edification and for destruction; for worship or for blasphemy. This brings us to an important observation.
An Enduring Occasion
“Let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God.” Those under the old covenant were required at certain times to bring prescribed sacrifices to offer to the Lord. They were also given the opportunity to bring freewill (voluntary) offerings to the Lord. These were sometimes referred to as “thank offerings” (see Leviticus 7:12–15). They could bring grain (“meal”) offerings or the offering of an animal to express worshipful gratitude to God. But, practically speaking, these would be few and far between. One’s distance from the place where offerings were made, as well as the cost of such sacrifices, would be prohibitive on a continual basis. However, under the new covenant, we are told that we can continually offer such sacrifices. We can continually offer to God sacrifices of praise and of thanksgiving. We are blessed in that “that which was an exceptional service under the Old Dispensation is the normal service under the New.”6
Lane helpfully observes, “A continuing offering of praise must have an enduring occasion.”7 And, of course, this occasion is the never-ending intercessory High Priestly ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ at the right hand of the Father.
In All Circumstances
Under the new covenant, every piece of earth becomes hallowed ground on which we can offer sacrifices to God. And under the new covenant, we can more clearly see the world so that in everything we can give thanks to God (1 Thessalonians 5:18). As has been noted, “In systems like Judaism sacrifices were offered at set times, but for Christians praise goes up all the time. Since a loving God is working out his purposes all the time, there are no circumstances in which praise should not be offered.”8 Everywhere, and in and for everything, we can offer sacrifices of praise to God. If you have life (in Christ), and if you have lips, then you qualify to worship.
We should evaluate how we use our tongues and the words that flow from it. Are they constructive or destructive? Are they characterised by complaint and grumbling, or do they rather give off the godly aroma of contentment and gladness in God? Of course, in this context, this was very important. As followers of Christ, the authenticity of their worship would be displayed by the joy expressed in their conversation as they endured the contempt of their surrounding culture.
Paul and Silas sang praises to God in the Philippian jail, giving us a great example of offering continual praise to God.
So with us. We are to continually, not merely on Sundays, to be acknowledging the grace of God in Christ. Our worship is to be 24/7, as they say: worship in all of life, not only corporately on the Lord’s Day. This is the power of the new covenant.
There are many who argue that, since we are to worship God all the time in all of life, there is nothing special about the Lord’s Day. That is like saying that, since I am to love my wife all the time, I can easily dismiss our anniversary. To quote the vernacular, don’t try that at home!
It remains true that our corporate gatherings are to be an expression of such thankfulness. As Andrews points out, “It is one thing to express one’s indebtedness to God; it is quite another to allow other people to know how much he means to us. In a spiritually ignorant society, like our own, regular attendance at Christian worship presents the Christian with an opportunity to witness.”9
Bible interpreters have misinterpreted passages such as Colossians 2:16–17 to conclude that no day is special. They are wrong. The Lord’s Day and its holy observance is vital for the Christian. How a culture treats the Lord’s Day is indicative of whether or not they are truly worshipping God the rest of the week. And so, don’t be like a pendulum. Yes, we are to “continually” worship God with thanksgiving on our lips and we are to do so corporately and regularly according to God’s calendar as well.
The Costly Confession of His Name
The words “giving thanks” can be translated as “confessing,” which carries the idea of confessing to God’s name. The idea of acknowledgment with submission is inherent in the word. Literally, it means “to say the same thing.” The idea is that of openly confessing Christ. And to do that in that particularly hostile culture was not for the fainthearted; and neither, at least for long, would it be for the false professors. This is important for us who worship God quite freely and without threat of overt persecution.
When you think of the word “sacrifice,” the idea of cost of course enters. This is inherent in the word. The words “sacrifice” and “offering” speak of giving up something. So the “sacrifice of praise,” it would seem, carries this idea.
What is the cost of praise, the cost of giving thanks to God? The price of sacrifice includes the willingness to be scorned. When you publicly testify to God and His grace, you are placing yourself in a positon to be held in contempt by an unbelieving world. You may face ostracism.
I can recall my time at university after God got my attention and I turned to him. I thought everyone would be as excited as I was. I soon found out this was not the case. I asked people for their forgiveness for mistreating them,mans they viewed me with scorn. I recall overhearing running teammates talking about me in the locker room, assuming I was not there. They were not talking in a flattering manner, and it stung to heard what they said. I wish I could say that I responded with thanksgiving, but that wasn’t always the case.
Politicians and sporting figures often face public shame when they identify with Christ, and we can expect the same in our own lives. But we can respond with thanksgiving, thankful that we are counted worthy to suffer scorn for the name.
I understand the need for prudence here. But when it is sincerely scriptural, there is a price to be paid. When you continually offer to God thank offerings of praise, then you pay the price personally in the sense of dying to self. After all, when you fall off a roof and break your leg, it will require some real effort to praise God in the midst of that!
Or, as in the case of most of these Hebrew Christians, when you lose relationships, position, provision and/or popularity because you are following Jesus Christ, it will require death to self to offer praise and thanksgiving to God. Like Job, there is an emotional and volitional cost to say, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).
So we can conclude that the sacrifice of thanksgiving is public and has a price. But it is prescribed and nonnegotiable. It is also done in partnership. That is why he says, “Let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God.” We offer this acceptable sacrifice with those who, like ourselves, have been saved by the grace of God.
Let us help one another to do this. Learn to speak truth into one another’s life. When we do, we will see that, regardless of what we are experiencing, we have reason to offer to God the sacrifice of praise.
Perhaps we can summarise with this pastoral insight from Raymond Brown: “Vocal praise is a testimony to the world, a scourge to our adversaries, and an encouragement to our fellow believers.” So let us offer this sacrifice of praise.
From the Heart—the Key
The verse closes, “that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name.”
Most see this as a quotation from Hosea 14:2. The prophet writes about God’s desire that His people will cry out to Him, “Take away all iniquity; receive us graciously, for we will offer the sacrifices of our lips.” The literal translation of “sacrifices” is “bull calves.” The point is that the words of praise to God are what is at the heart of the sacrifice of “bull calves.” As Guthrie puts it, “What proceeds from the lips is regarded as ‘fruit,’ which reveals the character of its source, as the fruit of a tree reveals the nature of the tree.”10
The Septuagint translates “fruit” instead of “sacrifices.” Pulling this all together, the point is clear: The sacrifices offered were not merely to be perfunctory and external, but rather they were to be personal and internally-driven. Yes, the external is important. In our case, we are to declare publically and privately our praise to God, but such expressions of thankfulness must be genuine; they must be, to use an overly used term, authentic. The praise is to be the fruit of a heart that is worshipping God.
Jesus taught us in Matthew 12:34, for instance, that it is “out of the abundance of the heart [that] the mouth speaks.” No doubt, it is possible to give the praise of a hypocrite. The point remains, however, that eventually the words on our lips will reveal what is going on in our hearts.
I believe the writer is exhorting these Hebrew Christians to not fall into the same trap as their forefathers. They are to have hearts that are near to God and this will be revealed in words that are truly worshipful.
Let me conclude this point by emphasising that the heart that produces the fruit of thankfulness is a heart whose trust is in the Lord Jesus Christ. And such a heart belongs to a person who has gone forth unto Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach (v. 13).
You and I will never be filled with passionate and worshipful praise if we choose to play it safe. But when we openly identify with Jesus Christ, we learn what is truly important. Paying the price to receive what is most valuable will do amazing things to our lips. Paul expressed a proper value system when he wrote that his ultimate desire was to “know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10–11).
Or consider the effect on the lips of the lame man whom Peter and John healed: “So he, leaping up, stood and walked and entered the temple with them—walking, leaping, and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God” (Acts 3:8–9).
When the apostles were arrested and beaten for their gospel preaching, “they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41).
John Calvin summarises well: “We hence see that it is the highest worship of God, justly preferred to all other exercises, when we acknowledge God’s goodness by thanksgiving; yea, this is the ceremony of sacrificing which God commends to us now.”11
The Sacrifices of Provision
Verse 16 addresses the sacrifice of provision: “But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.”
If v. 15 provides the principle of new covenant acceptable worship, then v. 16 provides the practical side of it. In the words of John, “Let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18). In deed, indeed!
The word “but” indicates a contrast, if not a caution. In other words, in the midst of your confessing the name of Christ, do not forget your practical duties.
The Christian is converted to confess the name of Christ (v. 15), but this confession has a hugely practical dimension. In fact, the mentioning twice in this chapter of the Christian’s responsibility to sacrifice our material goods for others indicates just how important a matter this is (v. 2). It practically matters—a whole lot!
We say that talk is cheap. Verse 16 makes v. 15 rather expensive and protects it from becoming merely empty chatter.
“Do not forget” means the same thing here as it did in v. 2. There is always the danger of neglecting the needs of others, especially when things are difficult for us. We therefore need such exhortations to remember the difficult circumstances that others face as well. The sadly painful irony is that we can forget about loving others even while standing next to them singing and praising and expressing our thankfulness to God—the God who is our Father!
Perhaps the writer was concerned that the Hebrew Christians may assume that, since they no longer belonged to a continuing city, and since they were free from the ceremonial aspects of the law, they were now also free from their obligations to one another. After all, under the old covenant, some of the sacrificial meat was designated for widows and orphans. But now, since there were no longer any prescribed animal sacrifices, perhaps there was no obligation to help the needy. The writer sets such wrongful thinking right.
On the other hand, it is also possible that the writer mentions this in the light of the impending disaster that would clearly prove that here they had no continuing city. In other words, things were getting worse and they would get much worse before they got better. Therefore, they needed to be sensitive to the needs of those around them and to practically meet those needs.
Good to All? Why Not?
I am not prepared to argue that this is an exhortation to help only those who are believers. But the word “share” (koinonia) is a word in the New Testament uniquely applied to the partnership or sharing together between believers. So, in Paul’s words, we might say that we are to “do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10).
We are then told that, in doing so, we are, in fact, offering “sacrifices” to God with which He is “well pleased.” If we would view such sharing of our goods as worship to God, I suppose that our giving would improve. But, of course, we need to be careful here, for the so-called prosperity gospel (which is actually better called the poverty gospel, since it is destitute of truth, therefore impoverishing its adherents in many ways) abuses this principle.
In 11:6, we were told that there is only one way in which we can please God, and that is by faith. And here we are informed that sharing our possessions with others pleases the Lord. Is there a contradiction? Hardly. The point is that we are to give (“share”) by faith.
Those who are being called upon to share their material things with those who are in need are the very ones who have demonstrated their faith by following the Lord outside the camp. It is because they have been saved by faith that they are now in a position to share by faith.
We need to keep before us that we are only well pleasing because God has made us so. And so it is on this basis that we can offer a well pleasing sacrifice. In other words, if our sacrifice carries the aroma of Jesus, then it is acceptable precisely because He is well-pleasing.
Think about it: Saving faith is giving faith. God so loved the world that He gave His Son for it. And as we believe on Him, we will then follow Him as our Lord. By following Hi, we will follow His example and His exhortations. And, of course, He exemplified sacrificial giving.
There are notable examples of liberal Christian giving in the New Testament. Consider, for example, Acts 11:26–30, where the Antioch church sacrificed to meet the needs of suffering believers in Jerusalem.
This matter of sacrificial giving as an act of acceptable worship to God is seen elsewhere in the New Testament as well. In Philippians 4, Paul commends the Philippian church for their sacrificial giving in order to meet his needs. He calls this “a sweet smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well pleasing to God” (4:18). It is interesting that the only other place where the phrase “sweet smelling aroma” is used in the New Testament is Ephesians 5:2, where it refers to Christ, who has “given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.”
The point to grasp is that the believer under the new covenant is not covenantally impoverished when it comes to making thank offerings to God. We have the privilege to do so as we give to meet the needs of others.
New Covenant Opportunities/Privilege
It is interesting how this matter of worshipful giving plays out in the new covenant. Consider one example:
But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work. As it is written:
“He has dispersed abroad, He has given to the poor; His righteousness endures forever.”
Now may He who supplies seed to the sower, and bread for food, supply and multiply the seed you have sown and increase the fruits of your righteousness, while you are enriched in everything for all liberality, which causes thanksgiving through us to God. For the administration of this service not only supplies the needs of the saints, but also is abounding through many thanksgivings to God, while, through the proof of this ministry, they glorify God for the obedience of your confession to the gospel of Christ, and for your liberal sharing with them and all men, and by their prayer for you, who long for you because of the exceeding grace of God in you. Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!
(2 Corinthians 9:6–15)
In discussing the offering that he was collecting for the impoverished saints in Jerusalem, Paul mentions “thanksgiving” three times in this passage (vv. 11, 12, 15). If you read the section, it is quite clear that Paul expected Christians to give, motivated by thanksgiving (v. 7); and he expected that, when the recipients of this gift received it, they would respond with thanksgiving (v. 12); and this is all because of God’s “indescribable gift,” for which Paul expressed thanksgiving (v. 15).
Here’s the point: When we give worshipfully, it is surrounded by the aroma of thanksgiving. Thanksgiving drives our giving and its goal is to produce thanksgiving to God. This is well pleasing to Him.
Perhaps I could put it this way: When we sacrifice by faith in God to God, it reminds God of His Son. That would seem to be Paul’s point in Philippians 4, and it is corroborated in 2 Corinthians 9.
So, in conclusion, what can we say about this passage practically?
First, Let us be a sacrificial people because we are a thankful people. Bruce writes, “Christianity is sacrificial through and through; it is founded on the one self-offering of Christ, and the offering of His people’s praise and property, of their service and their lives, is caught up into the perfection of His acceptable sacrifice, and is accepted in Him.”12
Second, let us be a sensitive people to the needs of those around us. Consider your cost and then be empathetic towards others.
Third, let us be a spiritually minded people, knowing that we can worship God anywhere and at any time.
Finally, let us be a submissive people because of our Saviour’s love. In other words, let us selflessly serve our Saviour, obeying Him as Lord. And let us do so with praise on our lips, as we express with our lives, “Thank you, Lord, for saving my soul.”
- B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The Greek Text with Notes and Essays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 444. ↩
- Richard D. Phillips, Hebrews: Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2006), 613. ↩
- Marcus Dods, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 4:378. ↩
- William L. Lane, Hebrews: Word Biblical Commentary, 2 vols. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 2:548. ↩
- John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 22 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 22:350. ↩
- Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 443. ↩
- Lane, Hebrews, 2:550. ↩
- Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12:151. ↩
- Edgar Andrews, A Glorious High Throne: Hebrews Simply Explained (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2003), 261. ↩
- Donald Guthrie, Hebrews: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983), 276. ↩
- Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 22:350. ↩
- F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 407. ↩