Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Worship and Hebrews

This has been lingering in my mind on and off for a while now, so I thought I’ll just commit some of it to paper (or screen) to help me see where I’m going with this.

For me, the so-called “worship wars” have been a bit of a dead horse for a while now, in that it hasn’t been a matter of controversy. In truth, the “worship wars” on one level misses the fundamental question, since worship should transcend the debate over how we should sing songs. I think most of us are aware of this, and we understand, at least in theory, that worship encompasses all of life. It can reasonably be said that every act we perform is an act of worship, although perhaps it isn’t always directed to God, but to self, or to money, or to status etc. However, in this post, I will actually be using “worship” more narrowly to mean either the act of singing or the songs we sing, as well as to mean the time when we gather corporately as a church (what we might normally mean when we say “service” as in the morning service).

So what about the second part of the title? When I read parts of the book of Hebrews a while back – this was quite long ago now – I remembered thinking to myself that there’s actually quite a lot of stuff here which speaks to the issue of worship, especially in offering some correctives to some conceptions and practices in contemporary worship today. So what follows are just some half-formed thoughts and I’ll let someone else run with it. If it doesn’t exist already, somebody should write a monograph on “Worship and Hebrews”, methinks. Anyway, here goes.

1. Christ needs to be accorded the highest place in our worship.

This is apparent in the book of Hebrews right from the start. By the time we hit verse 4 of chapter one, a picture of Jesus as sustainer of the whole universe and purifier of our sins has been painted; he is far superior than even the angels. In fact, even our worship owes something to him, the only reason we can sing to him now is because God first "[spoke] to us by His Son". (1:2) The rest of chapter 1 demonstrates this, as the writer lays the foundation for his claim by building a cumulative chain of Old Testament passages, all of which demonstrates his exalted status above even the angels. In 2:1-4, the writer seeks to tell us what our appropriate response should be. "We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away". (2:1)

Jesus really permeates the whole of Hebrews, and we learn different things about him. We learn about Jesus as our brother (2:11), as our apostle and high priest (3:1), as the Son of God (4:14), as high priest (5:5-6), as mediator (8:6-13), as judge (10:37-38), and so on. He is the one we’re encouraged to fix our eyes upon. The historical context of Hebrews is one of persecution, and followers of Jesus were certainly tempted to compromise to gain an easier life. For the writer of Hebrews, his pastoral response is to look back to Jesus.

So far I guess it might seem as if I’m belabouring an obvious point. Yet I’m not so sure this always comes out in some of the songs we sing. I still remember going to a concert by a popular Christian band two years ago, partly out of curiosity, and I remember one song which encouraged us to “jump in the house for God” (which also reminded me of my early teenage days of a similar song). I don’t doubt the sincerity and enthusiasm of the band, nor do I doubt one can sing this song out of genuine love for the Lord, but it had minimal biblical content.

We need songs too that tell us about the person of Jesus in its entirety, as the writer of Hebrews does. I like Matt Redman’s O Sacred King and Jarrod Cooper’s King of Kings, Majesty which do a really good job of this. In doing so we truly exalt Jesus. People have heard the “Jesus is my girlfriend” critique plenty of times, but I think one aspect of that critique which is missed isn’t just because such songs can be banal, but that it actually robs Jesus of his glory, for we unwittingly might not be giving Jesus the rightful role he plays in our lives as say, judge, for example.

2. Christ is the great High Priest and once-for-all-sacrifice.

The recipients of Hebrews were likely Jewish, and it seemed as if one of their temptations was to go back to the old Jewish system of sacrifice, priests, the works. Priests are the mediator between God and his people. They bring people before God. In 9:1-8 we get a summary of how worship under the old covenant takes place. Basically, the temple had plenty of walls erected between outer and inner places, and inner places and even more inner places, if you see what I mean. Lots of doors to pass through, showing the separateness of God from his people. Jesus changes all that. He becomes our representative (5:1), and a perfect one at that (9:10-15). It is once-for-all, and he now supersedes the temple and the old system of sacrifices and priesthood. "The point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by men." (8:1-2)

Unfortunately, I think we sometimes unwittingly make the same mistake, mainly due to the imprecision of our language. How many of us have often heard our “worship leader” say something along the lines of “Oh God, we welcome you into this place” or “Oh Spirit of God, fall upon us”? What happens when we say this? Without realising it, the “worship leader” functions as a priest who mediates between God and us. And so we take Jesus' place without realising it. We make the same mistake as the Hebrews in wanting to hark back to the old system when Jesus has already fulfilled it.

I don’t deny that there are times when the feeling that God is among us is particularly palpable, and that God could certainly make his presence felt in such a way. The problem arises when we don’t feel it, and we automatically think that God’s presence is not among us. But it is clear from Hebrews that we can "approach the throne of grace with confidence", regardless of our feelings. “Worship leaders”, a term that I find increasingly hard to use because it implies a higher priesthood, as it were, need to be more cautious about their use of language.

Nor am I wholly comfortable with the language of, for instance, “clap offerings”. Again, I think it’s more due to our imprecision that a matter of being unbiblical. Sometimes this is communicated in such a way that it puts the focus back on what we’re doing. I have no problem if someone says “let’s clap in response to the great truths of what we’ve just sung” (OK, that’s a little wordy). But it’s so important because I think many people imbibe certain wrong beliefs from our words during our singing.

3. Worship should be tinged with hope for the future of the people of God.

As I’ve already said, the Hebrews were living during a time of persecution. In light of this, it’s quite striking how much the writer urges them to look forward to a better day. Indeed, the language of perseverance, such as in 12:2-3, presupposes an end goal, a destination. Or take for example the writer’s words in chapter 4, where he talks about finally entering the rest of God, he isn’t merely talking about chilling out on Sunday, but looking forward to a day when salvation-rest is complete. Even 10:23-25, which some of you may recognise as a well-known text about not giving up meeting together but to keep encouraging each other, tells us to do so "all the more as you see the Day approaching".

In other words, I believe that an important facet of worship today is to act as a focal point of hope. One way we do this, of course, is by celebrating the Lord’s Supper, since in doing so we remember not only Jesus’ sacrifice for us, but we remember it in light of the fact that he is coming again. Sometimes some of our songs have an overly triumphalistic tone to it, as if we have it all now. This strikes me as being a heavy burden on those who might be struggling at that moment. It is also precisely because we are awaiting the new creation that we don’t need to subscribe to models of a special time where our singing will particularly invoke God’s presence. (For a good song that focuses particularly on the future, try Keith Getty’s There is a higher throne. Also, I remember thinking that Brian Doerksen’s Hope of the Nations was pretty good, although I can’t remember offhand its lyrics or melody.)

4. Worship is communal.

This will just be a brief point, but I wonder if when we sing, we are singing not only to God, but to one another. 10:23-25, already mentioned, gives us a basis to worship together, and in chapter 13 the writer urges us to love our brother. That’s why I think words are so important to a song, because they can express truths which will uplift our fellow brothers and sisters. Just a couple of Sundays ago, I was not having a good day and was singing with less enthusiasm than usual. At the end of the service though, a middle-aged lady in front of me turned to me and thanked me for my singing because it encouraged her back to Jesus. I have to say that was the last thing I expected to hear!

Also, I think that if we imagine worship this way, we wouldn’t be so hung up over “worship wars”. Instead, we’ll seek to serve those of us who prefer hymns as well as those of us who prefer modern choruses.

That’s it. I hope I didn’t come across as being critical because that is not my intention at all! I hope you can see how Hebrews can shape our reflections on worship and that someone else will pick this up eventually because I’ve reached the limit of my thinking!

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Anonymous Ryan Siah said...

I sorta just stumbled on your blog and read this worship post. I really enjoyed your insight and biblically based points about worship. It really should be a time of corporate fellowship. Interesting point about how lyrics should look towards a future time. I have recently been weary of songs that focus squarely on only the good things to come and sometimes ignore the 'stuff' we are and will be going through. but you convinced me that songs of hope are important in worship.

12:01 am  
Blogger BK said...

Hey Ryan,

Glad you thought it was of help. I think my point wasn't that all songs should be exclusively future-oriented, but that it needs to recognise there is a better future ahead, or as I heard someone put it recently, "there is a better song to sing". Or to put it another way, we live in tension between two worlds (hence the name of my blog!).

Have a look at the flow of thought in the older hymns. They often start by looking back at the past, the historical event of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, and end with an emphasis of our future hope, whether it be expressed in the coming King, the end of suffering etc. Eg. Amazing Grace - 1st stanza:"I once was lost but now am found". Last stanza: "When we've been there ten thousand years". And what this does is lend us hope in the now, especially when we're struggling: "Through many dangers, toils and snares..." Our modern songs will do well to recapture the big picture of the Christian story. And what a great way to encourage others as well, because when we sing, others here us sing (and vice versa), and so we worship God not just by the act of singing, but also by loving our brothers and sisters by the edifying words that come from our mouths!

Btw, I only know one Ryan Siah, and you are he, are you not? :-D

7:05 pm  
Blogger Tim said...

im not sure if my following observation/query/statement is covered in your blog entry, but anyway, here goes...

so i used to be really caught up about worship lyrics too (and im still rather picky about them, to a certain extent hehe). this may be the Charismatic/Pentecostal side of me coming out, but do you think there's the danger of going to the other extreme and missing the "moment" so to speak because of our annoyance with supposed "simplistic" lyrics?

point in case. i used to get really ticked off when those "jesus is my boyfriend/girlfriend" songs came around at worship time... but then God started dealing with the fact that it was more an issue to do with my own "humility", as opposed to anything theologically incorrect with what the song-writer was trying to communicate through his/her lyrics...

the moral of the story being that im trying to get to the point in my own worship experience (both corporately and in my personal quiet times) where im open to encountering God through a simple, four chord chorus as well as through an epic hymn-like musical masterpiece (think.. Saviour King...hehe). what do you think?

im not sure where im heading with this.. perhaps this is something i shouldnt be spamming on your blog haha. oh well, might do abit more reflecting on my own blog :)

6:12 pm  

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