Profitable Doctrine and Pleasing Worship

Sermon preached on Hebrews 13:8-16 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 3/24/2019 in Novato, CA.

Sermon manuscript

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Hebrews 13:8-16

Profitable Doctrine and Pleasing Worship

Christians should certainly be concerned with both right doctrine and right worship.  Hebrews here says we should be concerned about that.  It is for our good and it is to God’s glory. There is a lot here in this passage that brings this out.  In order to be able to do justice to all that’s in here, we are going to look at the outer verses today of this passage, verse 9 and verses 15-16.  They bracket and frame what is in the middle verses.  We’ll look more closely at those middle verses next week.

Beginning then with verse 9, our first point will be to consider this prohibition against “various and strange doctrines”.  Christians need to be on guard against both false teachers and false religions.  Remember the context here is what we studied last week about our leaders. We need to hold fast to the teaching of those leaders, past and present, who preach Christ and his gospel to us, because Christ and his gospel do not change.  The contrast here is given as “various and strange doctrines”. We must not be carried away by such.

The word “various” here in the Greek, is just what it sounds like.  There are lots of different kinds of teachings that may come at us.  But not all doctrine is to be embraced.  What a prophetic message to our culture today.  Our culture increasingly wants to assert religious pluralism.  Religious pluralism embraces “various” doctrines.  Sometimes this come in a pragmatic way: people say just find a religion that works for you.  Other times this comes in a syncretistic way: they say that various religions each bring complementary insights into our knowledge of the divine.  But Christianity denies such thinking.  Right here we are told to not go after various doctrines.

Why?  Because of how it further defines this when it refers to these various doctrines as “strange” doctrines.  This is not “strange” in the sense of “weird” or “abnormal.”  This is the Greek Word for a “foreigner”.  So, this is “strange” like in the foreigner and alien sort of sense.  These various other doctrines, if they are not the doctrines of Christ, they are foreign doctrines – religiously speaking.  In other words, they aren’t Christian, they are another religion.  Let me run with this analogy a little further. When it comes to ”immigration” in terms of the kingdom of God, God allows immigration of people but not of other doctrines.  We can immigrate people into Christ’s kingdom if they assimilate to the one true doctrine.  We can bring such outsiders into the church and make them insiders as they come to Jesus in faith.  But we must not try to immigrate foreign doctrines into Christ’s kingdom.  Nor, should we leave Christ’s kingdom so we can embrace these foreign doctrines that aren’t allowed in the church.  That would be foolish.

And so, when verse 9 describes these various and strange doctrines, it ultimately is saying there are teachings that are outside the Christian faith and religion.  Such teachings are not Christian.  They can’t save you.  They aren’t to be allowed in the church.  They are ultimately another religion – a false religion.  So then, realize in context where Hebrews is going with this.  As we keep reading, we see that the various and strange doctrines he especially has in mind are the doctrines and worship of Jews who do not trust in Jesus Christ.  That’s the context here.  Hebrews goes on in the rest of this passage to compare the doctrine and worship of Christians with the doctrine and worship of Jews that don’t follow Christ.  If we stop and think about that, it’s almost shocking.  Jews who are currently looking to follow the Word of God as given in the Old Testament – if they look to only follow that in disregard of acknowledging its fulfillment in Jesus Christ – then that’s false religion.  That’s “foreign” doctrine. Of course, if you take these Old Testament scriptures and see them in their fulfillment of Jesus, they aren’t “foreign” doctrine – they are our doctrine.  The book of Hebrews shows that more than any New Testament book.  And so, this is point one. Don’t be carried away by any foreign doctrines: either Judaism without Jesus or any other religion or cult.  

Our second point is to consider one of these specific doctrines in question according to verse 9.  It is the doctrine of how one’s heart is strengthened.  Is it by food or by grace?  That’s verse 9.  Now for starters, let lay my cards on the table here.  When it talks about food here and about people who haven’t profited by those who have been occupied with them, I am convinced this refers to Jewish concerns regarding food.  Some, taking this verse in isolation from both this passage and the entire book have thought it refers to various cultish or pagan doctrines on food.  Though there are many such pagan and cultish false doctrines concerning food, and we are to avoid those as well, this verse surely is addressing the Jewish teachings on this matter, based on context.

Hebrews in fact already addressed this briefly back in chapter 9.  There, it spoke of the many Old Testament regulations concerning food, and drink, and various washings.  It said that these were “fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation” when Christ came and offered himself as the sacrifice to end all sacrifices for sin, Hebrews 9:10-11.  And so, Hebrews confronts that incorrect way the Jews who didn’t believe in Christ understood the Old Testament teachings concerning food.  He especially confront them in terms of food consumed as part of religious worship. Verse 9 here shows they promoted a doctrine of food that establishes, or strengthens, the heart.  That was their slogan: eat food that strengthens the heart.  

Remember, how fanatical yet in error the Pharisees were about what went into the mouth.  In addition to their traditions, they rooted their doctrines by a faulty interpretation of the Old Testament Scriptures.  To be fair, we might be a little sympathetic toward them for a moment by thinking about the Old Testament teaching on this.  First, in general, we find a concern in the Bible about what is eaten.  Psalm 104:15 literally says how bread strengthens or establishes man’s heart – which was used as a prayer by Jews before meals.  Surely Psalm 104 is referring primarily to the physical benefit of how eating sustains our bodies, so we have strength to function.  Yet, you could imagine how that could get misconstrued by some.  And based on what we see here in verse 9, apparently it was misconstrued by many, as if food somehow ministered spiritually to someone’s soul.  

And then furthermore, remember all the kosher food laws in the Old Testament that promoted cleanliness in food.  Certain foods would preserve your ceremonial cleanliness, others were unclean and would make you unclean.  Such uncleanness would bar you from religious worship in the tabernacle until you were cleansed.  For that matter, there were references that connected such kosher food laws with holiness.  For example, in Leviticus 11:44, after describing various unclean foods that weren’t to be eaten, it says this: “You shall therefore consecrate yourselves, and you shall be holy; for I am holy.”  So, again, we could appreciate why some might have concluded that their spiritual good was closely connected with what they ate.

And so, if this was true for food in general, remember that the old covenant sacrificial system also included some foods that the offerors got to eat some of the offering.  The Passover lamb is one good example.  Another example, probably especially in mind here, is the peace offering.  These sacrifices were offered as an act of religious worship and those worshippers were allowed to share in the eating of the food.  Since these offerings were being sacrificed to God in worship, they had become consecrated and holy unto the LORD.  By being able to eat some of those offerings they were literally eating holy food and sharing in the holy things of God.

We could understand why Jews could misunderstand and think that right doctrine and true worship was a lot about foods.  The Old Testament had these regulations concerning food and they were obviously interacting with those passages.  The Jews should have religiously followed these provisions under the old covenant – that wasn’t the problem.  I would even go as far to say that these foods connected with the worship were intended to be a means of grace for them.  Eating the Passover Lamb, partaking in the peace offerings, participating in the Feast of Unleavened Bread, et cetera; all these were good means under the old covenant that were in fact graciously given by God to build them up in holiness and comfort, through faith.  So then, what was the problem? Well, I think the simple answer is to point to the problem the Jews had in general with all the old covenant laws and regulations.  Paul tells us their problem in Romans 9:27.  He says they didn’t pursue these things by faith, but by works.  In other words, if you take a means of grace and treat it as a work to earn some spiritual benefit, then you’ve perverted the whole thing.  As soon as you turn a means of grace into a work, then you’ve removed the grace idea from it.  Grace isn’t something you work to earn, it’s a gift you receive in faith.  Of course, when Jesus came in his earthly ministry to the Jews, he explained this to them.  Sadly, many of the Jews rejected that correction by Jesus; they stumbled over Jesus and his teachings.  Jesus exposed their wrong approach to the law and many of them wouldn’t accept that.

We can see this, specifically, in the case of food.  Jesus taught what the people were supposed to ultimately see in these laws concerning food.  God’s concern for outward, physical cleanliness, was to get the people to be concerned about inward, spiritual cleanliness.  There was typology inherent to these food laws that the people were supposed to recognize in faith.  That’s where the Pharisees made the mistake. They thought the right sort of foods could inherently promote inner holiness.  By thinking the food, in itself, inherently cleansed the heart, meant they turned the eating of the food into a work.  But Jesus said they misunderstood the point. In Mark 7, Jesus said that inner defilement wasn’t a result of what goes into a man – and thus he declared all foods clean, Mark 7:19.  Rather, Jesus said that man’s problem is that their hearts are already defiled.  He said it’s the evil that flows out of a man that makes a person defiled.  In other words, the real issue is how to get cleansed hearts.  All the regulations about food in the Old Testament should have pointed them to the need for this.  As they in faith ate the foods under the law, and enjoyed physical benefits from that food, they should have in faith looked to the grace of God to bring the spiritual cleansing of the heart.  That’s what Jesus ultimately brought: the cleansing of man’s soul.  Jesus was the substance of what was held out typologically in those food ordinances.  Jesus is the living bread that we need to consume to be clean and to live forever (see John 6).  That’s of course a spiritual truth to deal with the matter of the heart.  We need to come to Jesus to make us truly clean.  We need to look to him and trust in his sacrifice on the cross and in his sanctifying spirit in our hearts.

Of course, what I’m talking about here with Jesus could be summarized in one word: grace.  That’s the word used in verse 9.  Jesus’ work of purifying hearts is a work of God’s grace – it’s a gift we receive not a work we do to earn something.  We need grace not foods to strengthen and establish our hearts.  Holiness of heart will come by grace received through faith in Jesus, not by mere external keeping of kosher food laws or by eating a peace offering at the tabernacle.  And so, we go back to what we quoted from before in Hebrews 9: all these old covenant regulations about foods and cleanliness and the whole sacrificial system – they had their time and place.  They were things that ministered in physical ways to point to man’s spiritual needs.  When they were rightly used, they even served to direct the people to God’s grace.  Ultimately, they should have pointed to the Christ to come who would solve those needs.  Jesus is the Passover lamb whose blood causes God to pass us by on the day when he comes in judgment.  Jesus is the once and for all Day of Atonement sacrifice that has purged all our sins away.  Jesus’ sacrifice is the reason we have peace and fellowship with God as the consecrated people of God.  None of this is earned.  It’s not about what we do, as if we make ourselves holy by the mere external act of washing our hands a certain way or by eating one thing or another.  Our holiness has never fundamentally been about what we do. It’s always been about grace – a gift of God who provides a way of atonement for his people.  As Abraham told Isaac all the way back in Genesis: God would provide the sacrifice.

Does this then mean there are no sacrifices of any sort for God’s people?  In terms of atonement of sin, no.  But we come now to the last two verses, verses 15-16 and see that there are yet sacrifices we are to be about.  Sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, verse 16.  Sacrifices of good works and sharing, verse 16.  These of course, aren’t sacrifices in the same sense as in the old covenant, where the blood of bulls and goats where shed.  Yet, this is saying that under the new covenant, this is the kind of worship that pleases God.  Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list of the acts of worship that God’s people do now under the new covenant.  But it is nonetheless an important part of our worship of God.

I love how these last two verses bring this passage full circle.  The reference at the start of this passage to the mistaken idea that food might bring holiness reminded us of the different old covenant practices concerning food.  I mentioned especially the peace offering, sometimes referred to as a fellowship offering.  Well, the description of the sacrifices in verses 15-16 seems to bring to mind that peace offering again, in the context of Christian worship (Lev 19:5-6; 22:29-30).

You see, under the old covenant, if you wanted to offer praise and thanksgiving, you could go and bring a peace offering to the Lord at the tabernacle.  Leviticus 7 specifically describes that as a certain kind of peace offering: a peace offering as a sacrifice of thanksgiving.  And this was an offering that when you offered it, you got to eat some of it with the priests and Levites and all your house including your servants.  It symbolized fellowship with the Lord and also fellowship with your other Israelites.  It might include you publicly declaring your thanksgiving before everyone, like we see Hannah doing in 1 Samuel 1 when she presents such an offering.  This was an important type of sacrifice under the old covenant.

Well, here, we see the concept is maintained in verses 16-17, just without the food portion.  There’s no animal offered.  Instead, the substance of what would have been there is offered: praise and thanksgiving along with goodness and sharing with others.  Verse 15 includes another Old Testament reference to make this point: Hosea 14:1. Hosea 14:1 speaks of a sacrifice by the fruit of our lips that coincides with someone coming to the Lord. So, even in the Old Testament, they saw how this idea that a sacrifice and offering to God was ultimately something more than about an animal being killed or about certain foods being eaten.  Rather, sacrifices and offerings are much more about an expression of the heart. As God first ministers to your heart, that’s when the praise and thanksgiving will flow forth from our mouths.  That’s when the brotherly love mentioned in Hebrews 13:1 and described here in verse 16 will manifest itself.  These new covenant acts of worship remind us to look beyond the typology to what was behind all the old covenant doctrine and worship.  We are to see the grace of God that we have in Jesus that changes hearts.  In return we praise God, we thank God, and we show love and Christian fellowship to our fellow believers.

Of course, the implication in all of this, is that we don’t keep all these old covenant provisions and worship concerning food anymore.  There are some aspects of worship that have undergone a transition between the old covenant and new covenant.  This transition has helped us see what the old covenant was all about all along.  I would add the side note that under the new covenant we do have an ordinance involving food: the Lord’s Supper.  That’s to be for us a profitable means of grace, but we’re reminded today to not turn a means of grace into a work.

Let us then be about such worship that it says here is pleasing to God.  Regarding the praise and thanksgiving described in verse 15, that’s natural for us to think about that as an act of worship.  That’s a big part of our formal worship assemblies. We all are to come and participate in the worship with hearts thankful and eager to praise God.  We then proclaim our praise and thanksgiving, we pray it, and we sing it, during our worship.  May this also extend into our daily lives.  That we would go around praising and thanking God before others, all week long.

And we also have the pleasing worship described in verse 16 of doing of good and sharing.  Such worship typically involves a lot less words and a lot more action.  We can show such acts of kindness and love to others all week long.  There will be people needing our mercies and compassion in different ways throughout our week.  Yet, don’t miss how our corporate assemblies are also an opportunity for this.  The diaconal offering is a very direct expression of doing good and sharing.  This can be expressed in other forms as well in corporate assembly.  In fact, the very word for “sharing” here is the word elsewhere translated as “fellowship”.  We share and fellowship together by doing our worship together as a body.  We can and should share our lives together in our fellowship time, sharing both our burdens and joys, and looking to do good to each other, blessing and building each other up in such fellowship.  This is a good reminder to be intentional in our fellowship, to really let others know what is truly going on in your life, so they can be a support to you, and vice-versa.

In conclusion, brothers and sisters, I again point you to Jesus Christ who yesterday and today is the same, and into eternity.  The right faith under the Old Testament saw this Christ in advance and worshipped Christ in advance.  Such saints of old looked to Christ and even used foods accordingly as a good means of grace, until the time of Christ’s arrival and earthly ministry.  And so, what those saints of old looked toward, we now have begun to receive in substance with Christ’s first coming.  Let us then continue in Christ!  May we be growing in grace via such profitable doctrine!  And in response to this grace, may we give him pleasing worship in sacrifices of praise, thanksgiving, and in sharing and good deeds shown toward one another.  Amen.

Copyright © 2019 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.