Worship in the Letter to the Hebrews by John Paul Heil


Worship in the Letter to the Hebrews, by John Paul Heil. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011. 287 pp. $36.00.

Christians should not blindly worship God without a biblical understanding of why they should. In Worship in the Letter to the Hebrews, John Paul Heil analyzes the book of Hebrews with a focus on the theme of worship. Heil was ordained in 1974 as a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis and completed his studies at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, where he received his doctorate in Sacred Scripture in 1979. Currently, he is a professor of New Testament at Catholic University of America. Heil outlines two purposes for his book: (1) to deepen believers in regard to their liturgical worship in the church and outside the church, and (2) to examine Hebrews from a point of view that will enhance worship in the present day. Heil argues that the theme of worship is prominent throughout the book of Hebrews.

Heil’s book can be perceived as an extended exegesis on Hebrews. He divides his analysis into six parts: (1) Hebrews 1:1-2:18, (2) Hebrews 3:1-5:10, (3) Hebrews 5:11-7:28, (4) Hebrews 8:1-9:28, (5) Hebrews 10:1-11:19, and (6) Hebrews 11:20-13:35. In the first chapter, Heil highlights the significance of Jesus and how his act of obedience brought salvation to all mankind, which makes him worthy to be worshiped. In the second chapter, Heil examines the role of Jesus as a high priest who came into that position through the power of an indestructible life, which allows believers to worship him forever. The third chapter justifies the role of Jesus in heavenly worship, where he intercedes on behalf of all believers. In chapter four, Heil’s analysis encourages believers, by their eternal redemption through Jesus, to approach God’s throne of grace with boldness and to not only be motivated but also inspired to worship. Next, chapter five examines the perseverance of the patriarchs to inspire believers to worship God with a true heart in assurance of faith. Finally, Heil concludes his analysis with an affirmation to believers that the grace of God carries through for all eternity; hence, Jesus should be worshiped.

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Heil believes the theme of worship appears throughout Hebrews and supports his argument by examining the text and its “elevated” language. He explains:

At this point the audience not only have heard some of the ways God has spoken to us in a Son, but also have been drawn into a worshipful response by the aesthetically elevated and hymn-like language with its strikingly uncommon vocabulary in this first unit (1:1–4). In other words, the author’s awe-inspiring and poetically hymnic way of informing the audience of how God has spoken to us in a Son serves at the same time as an act of laudatory worship, leading his audience to join him in grateful praise and reverent awe of God and his divine Son. (21)

Heil suggests that the author’s choice of text and structure at the beginning of Hebrews points to worship. As well, the structural, “poetically hymnic way” the author preaches mirrors praise worship (21). This in turn not only establishes a foundation for the context of worship but also captures worship as the main subject throughout Hebrews.

Moreover, Heil traces the theme of worship using chiastic units that are based on linguistic parallels in Hebrews, which he describes as similar to “a closely interconnected and cohesive sequence” (8). For example, in Heil’s interpretation of Hebrews 11:7 on Noah’s faith in association with worship, he explains:

That the reverent Noah “furnished” an “ark” for the salvation of his “house” (11:7c) associates him with the things “furnished” for worship in the earthly tabernacles (9:6). The first tabernacle was “furnished” with various things for worship (9:2), and the second even included an ark—the “ark” of the covenant—as a furnishing for worship (9:4). As a model of faith, Noah further illustrates for the audience how greater honor than “the house” has the one who “furnishes” it for worship (3:3). (194)

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The chiastic units from Hebrews 3:3 and Hebrews 11:7 center on the words “furnished” and “house,” which associate Noah’s ark with the tabernacle. Although Noah built an ark for the salvation of his family from the flood, how he furnished the ark with animals reflects his worship of God by obeying God’s command. In addition, the ark parallels the tabernacle in a way that Heil argues accentuates the importance of its furnishing for worship. Heil’s example of the ark and its relation to the tabernacle is one among many chiastic units Heil uses to exemplify the theme of worship in Hebrews. In short, Heil defends his thesis well in articulating how the focus of worship can be traced throughout Hebrews.

Although Heil’s theology is rooted in Catholicism and this influence is apparent in some of the biblical passages he selects from the Catholic Bible to support his stance, Heil nonetheless keeps his interpretation of Hebrews faithful to Scripture. Worship in the Letter to the Hebrews serves as a wonderful resource for pastors, theologians, and lay-leaders seeking a thorough exegesis of the book of Hebrews. There is no other book in the Bible that precisely traces why Christians should worship God.


Jessica Wan

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Fort Worth, TX