The late Scottish theologian James B. Torrance often recounted his conversation with a man who had lost his faith and was facing his wife’s imminent death to cancer. “I’ve been trying to pray, but I can’t,” lamented the man, broken and ashamed.
“I can’t tell you ‘how’ to pray, friend. But I can point you to the ‘who’ of prayer,” was the effect of Torrance’s reply. Torrance reminded the man that Jesus promised Peter he would pray for him even through Peter’s denial (Luke 22:31). In fact, Jesus returned from the dead to restore their relationship (John 21:15-24). Paul the apostle, Torrance explained, acknowledged that we don’t know how to pray, which is precisely why the Father set his risen Son at his own right hand to intercede for us, and placed his Holy Spirit within us to do the same (Rom. 8:26,34). Jesus, even now, said Torrance, “is praying for you … and with you and in you.”
Soon after that conversation, Torrance had the opportunity to introduce both the man and his wife to what he calls the Trinity’s “grammar of grace”: Our “Father … has given us Christ and the Spirit to draw us to himself in prayer.” At the heart of that grammar is the priesthood of Jesus Christ: “our great high priest, touched with a feeling of our infirmities, interceding (to the Father) for us, opening our hearts by the Spirit” (J. B. Torrance, Worship, Community & the Triune God of Grace, p. 45).
As with prayer, so with worship: the “how” is not as important as the “who.” Torrance challenged a generation of theology students to repent of “Unitarian” worship and embrace “Trinitarian” worship. According to Torrance, you know your worship is Unitarian (even if you label it Christian) if your worship is about various techniques of experiencing God on your own. You know your worship is Trinitarian if your worship is about Jesus, your elder brother and great high priest, drawing you into the eternal communion of love that has always characterized God’s own life as Loving Father, Beloved Son, and Holy Spirit, who is love itself.
I’ve led worship long enough to know the lure of technique-obsessed, Unitarian worship. I’ve seen it practiced over and over again. Along the way, I have learned to look for a different way, and to know the surprise and delight of the Trinity’s “grammar of grace,” where Jesus is our true worship leader.
We are not the first generation to have to figure out how to move from Unitarian to Trinitarian worship. The anonymous writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews helped a first-century Jewish congregation see how monumental the shift is from an old way of worship to a new, where the Son is worthy of worship alongside the Father (Heb. 1:3,8,10-12; 13:8), as is the Holy Spirit (Heb. 6:4; 10:29).
Of particular concern to the writer to the Hebrews, though, is the special nature of Jesus’s role as priest in representing us to the Father and the Father to us. Jesus is the unique God-Man priest “in the order of Melchizedek,” whose priesthood is eternal and whose once-for-all self-offering brought a redemption and forgiveness that is complete and needs no augmentation. Jesus is a priest whose work is done, in one sense. He sits at the right hand of the Father because he does not have to make any further offerings. By his sacrifice, Jesus has assured God’s satisfaction in us, and has cleansed our consciences. We don’t have to worry about guilt or death any longer.
But in another sense, Jesus’s priesthood goes into overdrive when his sacrificial work is completed. Now he serves as “Liturgist (Gk: leitourgos) in the sanctuary and the true tent which is set up not by man but by the Lord” (Heb. 8:2).
Throughout his brilliant letter, the writer carefully unpacks different elements of Jesus’s ongoing liturgical leadership. They couldn’t be more relevant to what we do when we worship.
Perhaps the first thing to notice about Jesus’s work as the church’s prime worship leader is what the writer says just before calling Jesus heaven’s Liturgist. “He holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:24-25).
On his breastplate Israel’s high priest bore the names of the tribes of Israel, those whom Yahweh had redeemed and called into relationship with himself (Exod. 28:29). What’s different about Jesus’s priestly ministry of prayer is that our names aren’t carved on some sort of accessory. As Isaiah put it so tantalizingly: “I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (Isa 49:16). Our names are written into Jesus’s flesh, into the very scars he bears for eternity in his side, his hands, his feet, and his brow.
The writer to the Hebrews sums Jesus’s life up as one long series of “prayers and supplication, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him out of (note: the Greek is not “from” but “out of”) death, and he was heard for his godly fear” (Heb. 5:7). His life was one long lesson in obedient prayer, even in that dark moment when he implored that perhaps there was another way, “Let this cup pass.” Happily, in the Garden the Father said, “No!” to his Son in order that now in heaven the Father can say, “Yes!” to his Son in our behalf.
I remember the first time I experienced incense in worship. Immediately, I recalled the word picture in Revelation: the prayers of the saints and the incense mixing and rising into God’s presence (Rev. 8:3-4). The sweetness of the smell brought to mind Christ’s “fragrant offering and sacrifice” that qualifies us to stand righteous and pure before God’s throne (Eph. 5:2). I imagined Christ bringing those incense-laced prayers into the heavenly courts and mingling them there with the Glory Cloud, the depiction of God’s presence in the Old Testament. What a profound picture of our union with God by the Spirit through Christ’s prayer with, for, and in us!
Hours later, I was driving one of my kids to an event on the other side of town, and I kept sensing a certain smell. It was vaguely familiar but maddeningly elusive. Suddenly, I remembered that I had not changed clothes after church. The smell of the incense had penetrated my shirt and pants, clinging to me long after the service was over. Heaven smells of us, because Jesus is there bringing our needs and burdens always before the Father. None of us, I realized, makes it through a moment of this life by virtue of our looks, our brains, our skills, or our likability. We make it because we have a friend in a high place, who “always lives to make intercession.”
On the one hand, as our worship leader Jesus goes to the Father in our name. On the other, he comes to us in the Father’s name. The complement to what the writer to the Hebrews says about Jesus remembering us to the Father is what he says earlier, in chapter 2. There, the Risen Jesus shouts to his Father: “I will declare your name to my brothers” (v. 12a).
While Israel’s high priest wore God’s people’s name on his chest, he bore the personal name of the Redeemer God, Yahweh, on his forehead: “Holy is Yahweh” (Exod. 28:36-38). In Numbers 6:26-27, Moses summarizes what the high priest is to do with Yahweh’s name: declare it in blessing. Three times the priest pronounces Yahweh’s name, calling upon him to bless, keep, make his face shine upon, be gracious to, lift up his countenance upon, and give peace to his people.
But Israel’s Yahweh had never been just hers, and her blessings had never been just for herself. Already back in Genesis 14, the mysterious figure Melchizedek had appeared out of nowhere. He is king of Salem (the city that is eventually to be Jerusalem) and priest of El-Elyon, that is “God Most High” — a pagan designation of the God above all gods. Representing all the nations then, Melchizedek blesses Abram: “Blessed be Abram of El-Elyon, Creator of heaven and earth” (Gen. 14:19). Melchizedek declares that the God who had just given Abram victory over his kin’s captors is not a local, petty tribal deity, but Lord of the whole earth. Melchizedek confirms to Abram Yahweh’s promise that all the nations of the earth will be blessed through Abram (Gen. 12:3; see 14:22).
Jesus comes to declare God’s name to us in blessing — exactly as he said he was doing in the so-called “High Priestly Prayer” in John 17: “I have made your name known to them, and I will make it known” (v. 26). As “mediator of a new covenant” Jesus shows God to be a Father who desires his children’s presence (Heb. 9:15; 12:24). As “merciful and faithful high priest” and as victor over death and the devil, Jesus proves God to be a Father who will tolerate no bondage for his children (Heb. 2:14-17). As “pioneer and perfecter of our faith” Jesus shows God to be “the Father of spirits” who lovingly shapes his children to bear his character (12:1-11). As “apostle and high priest of our confession” Jesus shows the intent of “the God of all” to fill the cosmos with a “festal gathering” of “the just made perfect” (3:1-2; 12:18-24).
One of the great preachers of the 19th century was Boston’s Phillips Brooks. In our day, his hymn text “O Little Town of Bethlehem” keeps his memory alive. In his day, he was known for his preaching, as commemorated in a statue just outside the church he served in Boston, Trinity Church. The statue depicts Brooks standing next to a lectern that holds an open Bible, his hand lifted in blessing. Behind the lectern stands Jesus, his arm on Brooks’s shoulder.
The statue reminds us that our job is to bless God’s people by declaring the Father’s name. When we do, we may, by the Holy Spirit, feel his Son’s kind, empowering hand on our shoulder. When we declare somebody else’s name — our own, our favorite team’s, our preferred political party’s — we may well feel a bit of a squeeze.
As our worship leader, Jesus prays and he declares. He also sings. “In the midst of the congregation I will sing a hymn to you,” concludes Heb. 2:12b. The same one who declares God’s name in blessing also leads the congregation in song.
The writer is actually quoting Psalm 22:22, one in which David is recounting God’s miraculously delivering him from enemies who nearly killed him. The psalm starts out as a lament of abandonment, one of the darkest in all the Bible: “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” At the point of rescue, the psalm pivots and becomes a victory chant, celebrating among Jew and Gentile, poor and rich, already dead and not yet born, the righteous rule of God.
It’s an extraordinary thing that the mightiest warrior of the Bible is also its most celebrated musician. He whose “hands are trained for war and fingers for battle” offers a new song to God: “Upon a harp of ten strings I will sing praises to you” (Ps 144:1,9). In his youth, David soothes Saul’s soul with his melodies. In his maturity, with harp in hand he confesses his sin, protests his innocence, humbles himself under God’s discipline, calls for help, composes “new songs” commemorating God’s fresh acts of deliverance.
David passes on his legacy of song to members of the Levitical priestly line, to the likes of Chenaniah and Asaph (1 Chron. 15:22; 16:5). It is descendants of these Levites who would oversee Israel’s musical worship (see 2 Chron. 23:18; 35:15), even, at times, going before Israel’s army into battle (2 Chron. 20:14-25).
But there is only one priestly order that could establish a permanently “new song,” only one director who could incorporate into a single choir people of every race and nation, tribe and tongue, bandwidth and skill-level, only one singer who could lead that menagerie into the fray against the powers and principalities: he who went all the way into the silence of sin-forsakenness and rose in victory to be God-incarnate singing over his people with love (Zeph. 3:17).
The glory of song in worship is that we get to join our voices to his. His is the voice that counts, not ours.
In Christ Our King Catholic Church in Mt. Pleasant, SC, there is a beautifully colored stained glass depiction of a man who is obviously from the biblical era. The picture includes a number of clues as to the figure’s identity: he bears a crown on his head and priestly vestments on his shoulders; he stands behind scales of justice and an olive branch of peace. What gives him away, though, is the cup and loaf he holds in his hands. It’s Melchizedek. The stained glass picks up on a detail in Genesis 14’s portrayal of Melchizedek that is easy to pass over, until you’ve really “seen” it. Melchizedek brings to Abram, according to Genesis 14:18, “bread and wine.”
This verse is the first convergence of “bread and wine” in the Bible. Accordingly, ancient commentators and Christian artists through the centuries have found in that detail an irresistible invitation to ponder the Eucharist, the gift of bread and wine the New Testament’s greater Melchizedek provides his brothers and sisters.
The entire redemptive project envisions, as Robert Stamps’ lovely hymn puts it, “God and man at table are sat down.” As a foretaste of Israel’s ultimate journey, seventy of her elders “eat and drink” in God’s presence on Mt. Sinai (Exod. 24:11). The Bible virtually ends with a wedding feast shared by Christ the Bridegroom and his church, the bride (Rev. 19:5-10).
In the meantime, as the writer to the Hebrews puts it, “we have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat” (13:10), but from which we do have the right to eat. Every time Jesus’s people gather he is there, and one of his delights is to set the Table and feed us: “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven. The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.”
One of Jesus’s most shocking statements is also one that most vividly portrays the genius of Trinitarian worship. Jesus says that the master who returns to find his servants laboring “will gird himself and have them sit at table, and he will come and serve them” (Luke 12:38). Of course, in one sense, the master has yet to return, and will do so only at the end of time. But in another, he has already returned, having already defeated death and sin and Satan. He is among us to serve us at Table.
When we receive “bread and wine” from the greater Melchizedek, worship gets transformed. It takes on that mysterious “grammar of grace” to which Torrance referred. Recall that after giving bread and wine and after blessing Abram, Melchizedek received from Abram a tithe (Gen 14:20; Heb. 7:4-10). Accordingly, after indicating we have the right to food from a better altar, the writer to the Hebrews says “through Jesus” we can offer better offerings — not mere tithes, but “a sacrifice of praise to God, that is the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name,” and the doing of good and the sharing of what we have, “for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (13:15-16).
Our task as worship leaders? Simple, if not easy. Give the platform to the real worship leader. Let him pray effectual prayers. Let him declare the Father’s blessing. Let him sing over his people in love. Let him set the most lavish of tables.
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