Holy Fire: Hebrews 12:28-13:19 and Unacceptable Worship

Jan 5, 2024 by

By Dave Doveton.


“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 will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven….

…let us offer God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:25, 28b, 29)

The passage from Hebrews is laden with references to the Lord’s appearance at Mount Sinai, where his glory was described as a ‘devouring fire’ (Exodus 24:17) and Moses’ warnings to the Israelites in Deuteronomy about idolatrous and false worship (Deut. 9:19). The quotation from Deuteronomy 4:24 highlights the fact that worship can be dangerous. Acceptable worship is that which reverences God’s holy nature and his position as judge. As early as the Jerusalem Church, false disciples were severely dealt with by God, as Ananias and Sapphira found out to their cost. Hebrews Chapter 13 continues with an outline of what this entails, as this theme continues through to verse 15. Thus, the author emphasizes mutual love, hospitality, freedom from the love of money, but also reminds his hearers that God judges the sexually immoral (13:4) – a repeat of the warning in 12:16 where he mentions the ‘ungodly Esau’.

This echoes the warnings in 1 Corinthians –

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord …. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgement on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill and some have died.”

The danger of unacceptable worship, especially regarding the eucharist, is thus clearly articulated in the New Testament and has precedent in the Old. As we have seen, Deuteronomy lays out what God regards as acceptable.

In the period of the two kingdoms, prophets such as Amos and Isaiah spoke vehemently against the manner in which people were worshipping God and proclaimed it unacceptable.  Isaiah renders the Lord’s clear and unambiguous verdict on Judah’s worship:

“When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good…” (Isaiah 1:15,16)

This excoriating sentence on the people of Judah is introduced by Isaiah by an address to the spiritual leaders which would have been even more shocking and offensive in their eyes.

“Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!” (Isaiah 1:10)

He equates the spiritual leaders with the rulers of the most depraved pagan cities of ancient times and models of a terrifying judgement that is used throughout the Old Testament as an apocalyptic sign describing the destiny of rebellious humanity.

Amos in similar manner denounced the people of the Northern Kingdom – especially the priests and leaders, for their lack of concern for the poor and other social justice issues; he also warned about the dangers of unacceptable worship.

“Come to Bethel and transgress; to Gilgal, and multiply transgression; bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three days; offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving of that which is leavened, and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them; for so you love to do, O people of Israel!” declares the Lord God.  (Amos 4:4,5)

The prophet denounces with stinging sarcasm the worship life of people living in disobedience to God. Their worship activity, their sacrificial offerings, far from procuring forgiveness for their sins effectively engaged them in more transgression.

The Israelites were going about their worshipping duties and services as usual. The externals were properly observed, but they were not living lives of genuine repentance and godliness. This is an offence to God, and it is despicable in his eyes.

He further admonishes them and pleads with them to turn before judgement comes,

“Seek me and live; but do not seek Bethel and do not enter Gilgal or cross over to Beersheba; for Gilgal shall go into exile and Bethel shall come to nothing. Seek the Lord and live, lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and it devour with none to quench it for Bethel…” (Amos 5:21-23)

He repeats the warning that worship at Bethel would not quench the fire of God’s anger but would add fuel to it. The prophet excoriates the pagan forms of worship at these centres because they corrupted Israelite worship from being the worship of the creator and turned it into the worship of creation. Thus, whenever culture transforms the church, the results are:

  1. Godly behaviour and the pursuit of sanctification as an essential part of personal devotion and worship disappear.
  2. The importance of God’s purposes in creation are lost.

These traits (among others) are clear to see in those churches that are apostatising. Firstly, the acceptance of same sex unions, the decision by church authorities and synods to bless such unions – even amongst the clergy.

Secondly the acceptance of gender ideologies which deny the purpose of the creator in his design for human flourishing, which is the creation of male and female and the union of one man and one woman in marriage.

This is the thrust of Paul’s argument in the first chapter of Romans. Dishonouring God leads to outcomes – namely judgements in which God gives people over to impure sexual desires, a blindness to the truth and a proclivity to become captive to false ideologies (believing a lie), among other consequences.

We should not be surprised that those who follow revisionist teachings on human sexuality show no signs of changing their minds and seem ever more adamant in their adherence to heresy, and in the case of leaders, encouraging those in their pastoral care to continue in a lifestyle that has repeatedly and clearly been revealed as highly offensive to almighty God.

The call by bishops to prioritise the unity of the institution above all else[1] – including ethical and doctrinal fidelity – can be regarded as an encouragement to a misplaced trust in the institution. Jeremiah faced similar calls which he labelled as deceptive. “Do not trust in these deceptive words, ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’”,he warned. Trust in deceptive words has its consequences. Jeremiah told the temple worshippers that they trusted in deceptive words to no avail[2]. They were living lives in open defiance of the covenant yet came to stand before the Lord in worship, believing he would hear their prayer and deliver them[3]. Yet the security of the institutional structures represented by the temple meant nothing. Without sincere repentance leading to amendment of life and behaviour, they would be cast out of their land[4] – in Judah’s case by invading Babylonians. Some six centuries later, Jesus was to use Jeremiah’s description of the temple as a ‘den of robbers’, openly rejecting the temple worship leaders and the religious leaders in general. He then pronounced the same warning of a coming judgement to the worshippers of his day.

Both Jeremiah and Jesus were ignored, which precipitated cataclysmic judgements. History seems to be repeating itself in our present situation – or to put it a more theological way – God is not mocked.


[1] For example, the Bishop of Liverpool’s letter of December 13, 2023 states, “This remains a time when we must continue to be kind to one another as the Church of England takes this step. For through this what is most important is the unity of our purpose at this Christmas time reaching the communities we serve with the Good News of Jesus’ birth”.  https://liverpool.anglican.org/house-of-bishop-commends-prayers-of-love-and-faith.php

Also, one of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s many appeals:  https://www.christiantoday.com/article/archbishop-of-canterbury-appeals-for-unity-at-the-start-of-synod/134208.htm

[2] Jeremiah 7:4,8.

[3] Jeremiah 7:9,10

[4] Jeremiah 7:15


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