Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings; for it is well that the heart be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited their adherents. We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp, and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of the lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
Two years ago I preached a series of messages in which I said that Bethlehem is a vision of God, and that we exist to savor that vision and strengthen that vision and spread that vision. In other words we are who we are because God has revealed himself to us. When Peter said to Jesus, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God," Jesus said to him, "Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven." If you know God today, if you have seen his glory in the face of Jesus Christ, it is because God revealed himself to you. God opened the eyes of your heart. We exist as a church because we have caught a glimpse of the infinite greatness and majesty and holiness and justice and wisdom and power and truth and goodness and mercy and love of God. We have sung and it is coming true,
Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart,
Nought be all else to me save that Thou art—
Thou my best thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.
We Exist for Three Purposes
Bethlehem is a vision of God. And therefore we exist for three purposes.
1. To Savor Our Vision of God in Worship
To savor that vision in worship. A banquet may strengthen the knights and ladies of the court, but if it is not savored, relished, enjoyed, neither the cuisine nor the cook is honored. We exist to savor the God we have seen. And that precedes all work and labor and toil and service. If wonder doesn't precede work, work will become wearisome. But God does not mean to weary his people: the joy of the Lord is your strength. Savoring comes before serving.
2. To Strengthen Our Vision of God in Each Other
Second, we exist to strengthen the vision of God in each other. This is the purpose of the Bethlehem Institute and Training Center. It's the purpose of Sunday School. It's the purpose of all kinds of spontaneous get-togethers. Fellowship is for strengthening our grasp on the vision of God—for deepening, for clarifying, for enlarging, for rooting the vision of God in each other's lives.
3. To Spread Our Vision of God
Third, we exist to spread the vision to those who have not yet seen the glory of God in the face of Christ. This is evangelism and world missions. This is what we pray is happening through all of us in hundreds of work places and neighborhoods around the city. It's what we hope many of our small groups will strategize for. It's what we hope happens in these services. It's why the nurture program and apprenticeship program exist to multiply ministers and missionaries beyond Bethlehem.
The Same Three Priorities in Hebrews 13
Well, that is what I tried to say two years ago. This past summer I believe the Lord led me to the 13th chapter of Hebrews and showed me these same three priorities, but in a very different imagery. Let me show them to you in summary fashion and then we will step back, look at the context, and take one of these priorities each week for three weeks.
In verse 12 it says, "So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood." Then follow three exhortations for how we should respond.
- Verse 13, "Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp, and bear the abuse he endured." This is the priority of getting outside the safety of our camp and being inconvenienced, and perhaps even suffering, to make Christ known.
- Verse 15, "Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name." This is the priority of praise, or worship.
- Verse 16, "Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God." This is the priority of generosity and sharing and ministering to each other.
The new imagery for these familiar three priorities is the imagery of sacrifice. Verse 15: "Sacrifice of praise." Verse 16: "Such sacrifices are pleasing to God." In verse 13 the word is not used, but the idea is very clearly there: Since Jesus suffered outside the camp, that is, since he sacrificed his life outside Jerusalem, therefore let us go out to him and bear the same reproach. Let's be willing to sacrifice our lives the same way he did.
So I have chosen to title these three messages "The Sacrifice of Praise" (verse 15), "The Sacrifice of a Shared Life" (verse 16), and "The Sacrifice of Suffering" (verses 13–14)—beginning this morning with "The Sacrifice of Praise." Our aim is to sharpen our focus, to clarify why we exist as a church, to bring us together with fresh, new zeal for what God is calling us to in the months and years to come.
Before we zero in on verse 15, we need to see the context.
Verse 8 says that "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and for ever." So there is a stability in Christ that should keep us from being led away (as verse 9 says) by diverse and strange teachings. Jesus is not strange. He is the same. If you know him and his salvation, you will not be swept away by newfangled fads.
Then in the second half of verse 9 a special kind of strange teaching comes into view: "It is well that the heart be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited their adherents." So someone was teaching that significant spiritual experiences to strengthen the heart could be found through eating certain kinds of foods. (Amazingly relevant today in view of religious food fads that come and go.)
Verse 9 probably also refers to Jewish claims that Christians who don't follow the dietary laws and don't participate in the sacrifices have cut themselves off from God. Verse 10 seems to be a response to that kind of criticism. It says, "We [Christians] have an altar from which those who serve the tent [i.e., the priests who handle the sacrificial animals] have no right to eat." They may say we have been cut off from the altar of God; they may say we have no access to the sacrificial food that strengthens the heart; but the truth is the very opposite. We have an altar that they are cut off from, by their own unbelief.
Verses 11-12 explain. According to Leviticus 16:27 when the blood of a sacrifice was taken into the holy place of the tabernacle to make atonement for the priests and the people, the body of the slain animal could not be eaten by the priests (as the animals usually were) but had to be burned outside the camp. This points to Jesus as our atoning sacrifice, the writer says. Verse 11: "For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. (12) So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood."
So the priests may well say that we Christians have cut ourselves off from the altar and the sacrificial foods and the true worship of the temple. But we answer: the opposite is the case. The true Messiah has come, Jesus. He has given himself as the final atoning sacrifice for sin on the cross outside the camp. He is our spiritual food to strengthen our hearts. And he is the same yesterday, today, and forever. You may say that we have left the true faith, but we answer, "In refusing Christ, you cut yourself off from the true altar, and the true bread and the true worship of the living God."
The whole point of this book, Hebrews, is that the old form of Judaism has been fulfilled and replaced by Jesus Christ. Those who insist on staying behind with the old ways, the old sacrifices, the old temple, the old foods, will have no right to eat from the Christian altar, the cross of Jesus Christ. But for any who come to him, and trust in him, there is a new way of life, a new way of worship. And that is what is described in verse 13–16.
If the old way was built around sacrifices in the tabernacle and temple, the new way too is built around sacrifices, but of a very different kind—the sacrifice of suffering (vv. 13–14), the sacrifice of praise (v. 15), and the sacrifice of a shared life (v. 16). This is the Christian life. You might say, this is the new religion that came into being when Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament pattern of sacrifices. What does it mean to be a Christian church today? What should our aims and priorities be. Here they are: the sacrifice of suffering with Christ outside the camp; the sacrifice of praise; and the sacrifice of a shared life.
The New Worship of the Christian Church
Let's look today at the new worship—the "sacrifice of praise." Verse 15: "Through him [i.e., through Christ] then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name."
I want to impress upon you as powerfully as I can this morning that this is your sacred duty and joy—to praise God continually with your lips.
The Cultivation of Hearts Standing in Awe of God
Priority Number One at Bethlehem is the cultivation of hearts that stand in awe of God. We believe in missions. We believe in evangelism. We believe in nurture and education. But we know that this is all a weariness of the flesh if it is not preceded and carried by a sense of wonder at the glory of God. If your
- heart is not amazed by the grace of God,
- and your mind is not gripped by the truth of God,
- and your sense of right and wrong is not permeated by the justice of God,
- and your faith is not resting in the power of God,
- and your imagination is not guided by the beauty of God,
- and your life is not steadied by the sovereignty of God,
- and your hope is not filled with the glory of God,
then the service of God will be what Paul calls works of the law, and not the fruit of the Spirit. Work for God that is not sustained by wonder at God is a weariness of the flesh. Priority Number One is the cultivation of hearts that stand in awe of God.
Someone may say, "Why do you say that the Number One Priority at Bethlehem is the cultivation of a heart of praise, when this verse 15 emphasizes lips that praise?" My answer is that the word "fruit" demands the priority of the heart. God calls us in this verse to offer a sacrifice of praise which is the "fruit of lips." Fruit is something that grows naturally when the sap is flowing within. Jesus said in Matthew 15:8, "This people honors me with their lips but their heart is far from me." That is not what Hebrews 13:15 is commanding. That is the work of the lips, not the fruit of the lips. The "fruit" of lips is the natural outgrowth of the heart. And therefore Priority Number One is the cultivation of a heart that stands in awe of God.
Continual Praise from Our Lips
But it does say "lips." Not just heart, not just thoughts, but lips. God wants from us lips of praise. Lips that speak and sing the praises of his name. Real sounds. Real words. And the verse says he wants them "continually." "Let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips . . . " One of the reasons that so many Christians lead such weak and unhappy and ineffective lives is that this exhortation is disobeyed most of the time. Ask yourself, does the praise of God grow out like fruit on your lips continually?
Most of us would have to say, No. Do you see what a great need there is in our lives for revival, for a great awakening of heart-felt love for the glory of God? Most of us live at a level of praise that is pathetically beneath this text. But God would not have called us to this experience of continual verbal praise if it were bad for us or impossible for us. If you want it, you may have it. And not to want it is to disobey Scripture—to disobey God.
It doesn't mean of course that every sentence should have a "Praise the Lord" attached to it. (Though we are not now in danger of overdoing it!) But it does mean, at least, that we should weave worship into all the parts of our lives. Not just silent worship of the heart, but verbal worship of the lips. We should weave explicit worship into all our board meetings and committee meetings and business meetings and small groups. Not the same in every group, of course, but somehow the praise of God's greatness and goodness finding verbal expression in all our gatherings.
The Importance of Sunday Morning Worship
For us at Bethlehem this also means that Sunday morning worship is utterly crucial in the life of the church. It means we should be radically God-centered in our worship. Why? Because the verse says that our praises are a "sacrifice offered to God." We gather here not merely to be with each other. Not merely to speak and sing to each other. We come to meet God. That's why we encourage you to pray silently during the prelude instead of talking with each other. We are preparing to enter the holy of holies and lay our sacrifices before God. The hymns are a sacrifice of the lips to God. The choir's anthem is a sacrifice of the lips to God. The sermon is a sacrifice of the lips to God. Our whole orientation as we gather together should be that this building is transformed into a tabernacle where God comes near to receive the sacrifice of the praise of his people.
Excel Still More
I got a letter this week from Bob Ricker, the president of the BGC, who preached here while I was on vacation. His last two sentences were, "There is a great difference between churches . . . It seems as though a visiting preacher can pretty well tell whether or not the people are expecting a word from the Lord."
He could read off of you a sense of expectancy—that you expected to meet God and hear God in worship. He could sense that something very important was at stake. I praise God for that in you. I want to see the life and expectancy and joy and earnestness and authenticity of our worship grow and grow.
One of the things Jack Hayford said to us pastors at Lausanne II was, "Help your people keep on growing as a choir." The choir behind me is not there to replace you as a choir, but to help you. To inspire you. To lead you. To sustain you and interact with you. If we keep growing together, our singing is going to become more and more real in its expression of the heart, and more and more powerful in its spiritual effect.
A Closing Word of Encouragement and Invitation
Let me close with word of encouragement and invitation. Notice the words at the beginning of verse 15: "THROUGH HIM [Jesus] let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God." All Christian worship is worship THROUGH JESUS. Why is this crucial? Because we are sinners. And we have no access in ourselves to God. But personal, heart-felt praise can't be sustained if you feel that God is against you and not for you. A heart of praise is sustained by the smile of God, not by his frown.
How then shall sinners like you and me offer in the presence of a holy God a continual sacrifice of praise? The answer is THROUGH HIM—through Jesus. It's all there in verse 12: "Jesus suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood." Sanctified for what? For entering the presence of God. "Christ died for sins once for all the righteous for the unrighteous that he might bring us to God" (1 Peter 3:18). "There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1). "Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus who died . . . " (Romans 8:33f.).
Jesus IS the smile of God. He invites you to come to God through him this morning for salvation and from then on to offer a sacrifice of praise, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.