Hearing God’s Word – Part 2

“All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Note: While this article was written from a Roman Catholic perspective, the material can be beneficial for Christians from other traditions as well. – editor

Old Covenant and New Covenant Worship

There was a time not very long ago when Christians of all kinds – Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant alike – understood their response to God the same way. They knew that the commandments were to be kept, God’s word attended to with reverence, worship to be performed with solemnity and care. Now a casualness often enters into people’s interactions with God. Obedience has been forgotten. God’s approachability is stressed in an unqualified way.

Behind such attitudes is often a loss of respect for the Old Testament. According to some, the God of fear, the distant God, is the God of the Old Testament. Jesus has come and changed all that. For all practical purposes, he has cancelled the Old Testament. Yet, according to a passage we have already looked at, “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). “Scripture” here must refer to the Old Testament writings, because the New Testament had not yet been completed and put into a book.

In Hebrews 12:18-29 we have a New Testament commentary on the Exodus passage about the Sinai assembly that we have looked at. The commentary gives us a summary of the relationship between the old covenant and the new covenant and helps us to see that reverence is appropriate to both:

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers entreat that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned” [Exodus 19:12-13). Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.

See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less shall we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. His voice then shook the earth; but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven” [Haggai 2:6]. This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of what is shaken, as of what has been made, in order that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire [Deuteronomy 4:24].

Perhaps the most common word in the New Testament for the relationship between the old covenant and the new covenant is “fulfillment.” The new covenant replaces the old covenant not by simply cancelling it, much less rejecting it, but by fulfilling it. This seems to mean that the new covenant brings about the intended purpose of the old covenant, but in a fuller or more perfect way.

The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of the relationship in a different way. According to Hebrews, the new covenant takes old covenant realities and makes them better (Hebrews 8:6). The change does not involve destroying something bad, like idol worship, but taking something good and making it better, that is, spiritually more effective (Hebrews 7:19; Hebrews 10:1). That, of course, means that certain externals, like the temple sacrifices, are not retained, but what replaces them accomplishes the same fundamental purpose in a better way and could be seen as a continuation or development of the old.

The focus in the Book of Hebrews is on worship. The worship of the old covenant is replaced by a better worship, one that establishes a better relationship with God. The passage in Hebrews 12:18-29 begins with a contrast. It says Christians have not come to “what may be touched.” Then follows a description of the appearance of God on Mount Sinai that we already looked at. It is clear that Hebrews sees that event as an instance of “’what may be touched,” because it was an appearance of God on earth, in a location in the Middle East.

In the new covenant, however, we come to the heavenly Jerusalem. It is heavenly and not earthly. That potentially could be understood in an unhelpful way. “Heaven” could be seen as something that is even farther away from us. At least we can travel to the earthly Jerusalem in order to come close to God, even if we could only manage to do so once in our lives. But the Book of Hebrews is making the point that we have a better relationship with God because we can come to heaven itself every day of our lives. Paradoxical as it may seem, through the new covenant we have direct access to the place of God’s presence in heaven and therefore can join with all the angels and saints in the worship of God at any time.

We can come to heaven because of what our Lord Jesus Christ has done. He has offered the true sacrifice which replaces all the old covenant ones. He has “sprinkled us with his blood” in a rite of purification that allows us to be received by God because it merits the grace of God. As a result, we have a new covenant, a new atonement, and consequently a new access to God’s presence.

The old covenant knew what faith was. When the New Testament teaches about faith in passages like Hebrews 11 or Romans 4, the teaching is based on Old Testament passages. But faith has a new importance in the new covenant because we come into a new relationship with God through what Christ has done for us. That we receive by accepting the gospel in faith. New covenant relationship to God and new covenant worship, then, are most fundamentally based upon faith, specifically faith in Christ and in what comes to us through his priestly mediation.

There is an interior change that goes along with our new relationship with God in Christ. Quoting the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:31-34), the Book of Hebrews tells us that the law of God will be put inside of us, in our minds and hearts (8:8-13; 10:15-18). Hebrews here is speaking about the same reality that other New Testament books describe as the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. As a result of this change we know God more directly (8:11) and can hear him when he speaks.

According to the passage we have been looking at (Hebrews 12: 18-29), faith in Christ should produce in us not less but greater reverence for God and his word. Precisely because we have been spoken to by the Son of God himself who came from heaven and is now seated at the right hand of God the Father on the throne of God (Hebrews 1:1-4), we should listen with even greater reverence (12:25). Precisely because we have been given a more secure inheritance, a kingdom that will remain when all that is earthly, including the old covenant order, will be taken away, we should hear what has been said to us with greater earnestness (12:26-28) lest we lose that inheritance. Precisely because we have been brought into a closer relationship with God as his sons and daughters, we should approach our heavenly Father with even greater respect (12:9).

As a result, we should worship God with reverence and awe (12:28). Faith in Christ does not eliminate the need for reverence in worship; it increases it. We are now standing in the heavenly presence of the God who manifested himself as a fire on Mount Sinai because he is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24). We therefore have to offer worship to him in the way that is acceptable to him. The new covenant should bring greater conviction, greater thankfulness, but also greater obedience and greater reverence.

Liturgy of the Word

Liturgy and Word

The Lord told Pharaoh through Moses to let the Israelites leave Egypt “that they may serve me” (Exodus 8:1). The commandment against idolatry, as we have seen, forbids worshiping and serving idols and therefore, by implication, commands worshiping and serving God. Jewish teaching speaks of idolatry as “the service of idols,”9 and when it wishes to refer to honoring the true God speaks about “the service of God.” Servicethen, is a word that can be a synonym of “worship” and that can be used for honoring a god as divine and therefore for honoring the one true God. It can refer to all the ceremonies that honor God as God, and especially to sacrifice.

Liturgy is a Greek word brought into English. The Greek word was used in the Greek Bible to translate the Hebrew word for service. It commonly referred to the ceremonies performed in the temple to honor God as God. The Book of Hebrews tells us that Christ “did liturgy” in his ministry as a priest (Hebrews 10:11-13). “Liturgy” then is service of God, a way of honoring God as God.10 In the Catholic Church, it is common to speak about the Liturgy of the Word to refer to the first part of the Eucharistic celebration. That phrase emphasizes that we take part in order to serve God, to worship him. We are present, in other words, to honor him as God, and central to that is hearing his Word reverently. 11

The clearest description of a “Liturgy of the Word” in the Scriptures occurs in the eighth chapter of the Book of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 7:53-8:18). After the people of lsrael returned from exile, they had a struggle to re-establish their life. Some of that struggle was physical and was partly overcome by rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem to avoid being at the mercy of hostile neighbors. The more important struggle was spiritual and was partly overcome by rebuilding the temple.

God could be worshiped in the rebuilt temple. External worship, however, would only be pleasing to God if it came out of a life of obedience and if it were done in the way God wanted, a way that was acceptable to him. By the time of Nehemiah 8, the people who had returned to the land of Israel had rebuilt the temple, but they apparently did not have much knowledge of God’s commandments about worshiping him. Those who knew those things, those, as we might put it, educated in theology, were still living in Babylon.

One of them, perhaps the most important one, was Ezra, “a scribe skilled in the law of Moses which the Lord the God of Israel had given” (Ezra 7:6). Realizing the need in the land of Israel, he “went up” from Babylonia to Jerusalem with a party of priests and Levites. Sometime after his arrival, he held an assembly of all the Israelites living in Palestine to read and explain the law to them, so that they might carry it out.

By the time of Ezra there was a written text of the Law of God. The exiles believed it had been “given by God” through Moses. In other words, during the assembly they listened to “Holy Scriptures.” They were, therefore, attending a Liturgy of the Word, a worship service centering upon the reading of the written Word of God.

The beginning of the assembly is described this way:

And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had given to Israel. And Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.

And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden pulpit which they had made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, [and others]. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people; and when he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God; and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands; and they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, Bani, [and others], the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. And they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

Nehemiah 8:1-8

A group of God’s people were here assembled or gathered for the purpose of hearing the Word of God. They were to respond in a united way in the assembly, but even more importantly that response was to change their life as a people thereafter. Since the people came together so that God could speak to them “as one,” as a people, a corporate body, they were assembled before God solemnly, in a way that showed that they were one people (“one man”). They were therefore drawn up in order, with the priests and Levites, the ministers or religious officials of the body, on a raised platform and the people below.

They began with a time of praise and worship. The people stood. Ezra praised God on their behalf, blessing him for his goodness. A summary of the kind of prayer he prayed can be found later on in this section of the Book of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 9:5):

Blessed be your glorious name which is exalted above all blessing and praise.

The people answered Ezra’s prayer, “Amen, amen,” while lifting their hands toward heaven. In this context Amenthe Hebrew word we still use, means, “It is so; it is true; we too make this prayer.” Responding to the prayer with “Amen” indicates accepting what has been said as something we too pray. 12 They then bowed down and worshiped the Lord in humility, ready for what he would say through the reading of the Scriptures.

The text of the Scripture was then read. The text was read as the Word of God, something the people should obey as soon as they understood it. The people listened and after, [as we can see in the last chapter of the book, Catholics and the Eucharist: A Scriptural Introduction], received an interpretation of what had been said, not only a translation of the words but also instruction in their meaning. Judging from what happened some days later, they then concluded with a petition for God’s mercy and help and with a pledge to “keep the covenant” (Nehemiah 9:38ff).

The outline of the meeting Ezra led has the same elements as our Liturgy of the Word. It includes an initial worship of God, a time of solemnly listening to his written Word, some kind of interpretation, and a response. In this case the response was a pledge of repentance, but often it could be simply a prayer that what was read about be fulfilled. These four elements have normally been present in Jewish and Christian worship services from that time until now.

The service described in Nehemiah is similar to what happened on Mount Sinai, although at Sinai there was no written text. Important for our topic, the service was also much the same as what the Jews did every Sabbath in their synagogue services at the time of Christ and the apostles. We find a description of such synagogue liturgies in the New Testament. We can read, for instance, in Luke 4:16-22 about Jesus attending synagogue at his hometown, reading a selection from the prophet Isaiah and then commenting upon it afterwards. We can also read in Acts 13:14-15 of Paul and his companions visiting a synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia, where the law and the prophets were read, and of how they were invited to give the “word of exhortation” (the homily) afterwards.

The early Christians, who were at first all Jews, continued to have such services. In the Letter of James we read of Christians, possibly Jewish Christians, having “synagogue services” (RSV: assemblies). We have already looked at one such service that occurred during Pau’’s visit to Troas in Acts 20:7-12. Later on we will look at the pattern the Christians followed right after Pentecost (Acts 2:42, 46). We will also look at Jesus’ appearance to the disciples at Emmaus, which seems to take the pattern of a Christian worship service beginning with a Liturgy of the Word (Lk 24:13-35). As we shall also see, there is even some possibility that the opening vision of the unfolding of God’s plan in Revelation describes a heavenly “liturgy of the word,” with the scroll containing a “reading” from God (Revelation 4-5). There are, in addition, many other references to the assembly of Christians that show the same elements [see Appendix 1 in the book, Catholics and the Eucharist: A Scriptural Introduction].

Our phrase Liturgy of the Word refers to a service of this pattern. When we use it, we refer to a service centered upon hearing God’s word through the reading of the Scriptures and the explanation of them. Such a service is, however, conducted as a liturgy, not as a lecture or a discussion or a “Bible study.” It is conducted as an act of prayer and worship, usually with worship preceding the readings and prayer following. A liturgy of the word is done, in other words, in a manner that honors God and expresses the fact that those who are listening to his word are people who live for his glory and seek to express appropriate honor to him. It is also done as a corporate ceremony, a gathering of some body of God’s people who are listening to his word together and honoring him in common as their God.

This article is a two part series: See Hearing God’s Word –  Part 1

This article is excerpted from Catholics and the Eucharist: A Scriptural Introduction, 2000 by © Stephen B. Clark, published in 2000 by Charis Books, an imprint of Servant Publications, Ann Arbor, Michigan USA.

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