What is meant by serving God “acceptably with reverence and fear” (Heb. 12: 28)?
The context of the verse is a comparison between the inauguration of the old covenant, and what has been set on through Christ, the “mediator of a new covenant” (v24). The former was delivered by God to Moses at Sinai, and the fact that the mountain was then “all on fire” (v18) gave a clear warning to the children of Israel of the danger of trifling with God (see Deut. 4: 24, 33). Though the new covenant is of quite a different character to its predecessor, the writer of the Hebrew epistle does not shrink from associating it with the words “For also our God [is] a consuming fire” (Heb. 12: 29). It is against this background that we have the injunction to serve God acceptably with reverence and fear.
Any Jew reading Hebrews would associate ‘serving God’ with the thought of approaching God in His house, and the reference to God being a “consuming fire” would immediately take his mind back to Leviticus 10, and the death of Nadab and Abihu. There we see that instead of Jehovah’s fire consuming the sacrifice, it devoured the offerers (see Lev. 9: 24; 10: 2—the same Hebrew word is used in both verses). So why did God kill the sons of Aaron? Because they presented “strange fire before Jehovah, which he had not commanded them” (Lev. 10: 1, my emphasis). Here we have a salutary lesson concerning worship: what is offered must be what is commanded—it must have a Scriptural basis. It is not a question of what I think, or what anyone else thinks, but of what God has commanded. That is the only way to serve God “acceptably”. A lot of unnecessary speculation has been expended on the exact nature of the “strange fire”, but it is perfectly clear that it is placed in contrast to the fire that went out from Jehovah to consume the burnt offering (see Lev. 9: 24). The one type of fire had its origin in heaven, the other had an earthly source. That the strange fire was made all the more illustrious in that it was offered by the sons of the high priest made no difference: God had not commanded it. To presume to innovate in the worship of God is to act without reverence and fear.
One of the great chapters on worship in the New Testament is John 4. There we learn the simple but profound truth that those who worship God “must worship [him] in spirit and truth” (v24, my emphasis). Worship “in truth” is worship according to what God has commanded, and worship “in spirit” is that same worship according to what God has commanded offered in the power of the Holy Spirit. “Truth” and “spirit” are bound with indivisible ties.
There is no need to detain ourselves by examining what passes for worship in Christendom: our focus must ever be on the Word of God and what is set out there. The ritualistic worship of the old covenant is no longer acceptable, and the Christian is to be one who is to “worship by [the] Spirit of God” (Phil. 3: 3), having “boldness for entering into the [holy of] holies by the blood of Jesus, the new and living way which he has dedicated for us through the veil” (Heb. 10: 19, 20). He has boldness and full assurance of faith (see v22), because he has confidence in what Christ has done on His behalf, but he also has reverence and fear (see Heb. 12: 28) because He is conscious of who God is. Man will forever remain a creature, and God His creator.
Everything that Moses made in relation to the tabernacle of the old covenant was to be “according to their pattern, which hath been shewn to thee in the mountain” (Exod. 25: 40). Similarly, the Mosaic Law itself was marked by minute precision and incredible detail. Nothing, it seems, was left to the strange fire of man’s imagination. What we learn from this is that God will only be worshipped in the way that He has prescribed. That the worship He now seeks is spiritual rather than ritualistic makes no difference—the Holy Spirit acts within the parameters of the very Word that He has inspired. No one would think of approaching a sovereign or head of state without following the accepted protocol—and if they did do so, they would be regarded as having no respect for the dignity of the one approached. Thus an acceptable worship will address God in the terms which He Himself has prescribed. The apostles’ doctrine and practice is in our hands, and it would be both arrogant and foolhardy to step outside what has been recorded for our benefit. To serve God acceptably implies that we provide what God will accept. Thus God “looked upon Abel, and on his offering; and upon Cain, and on his offering, he did not look” (Gen. 4: 5). Both sought to approach God, but while the offering of the one was accepted, the other was rejected.