The overwhelming holiness of God’s Presence was revealed to Israel time and again in the Old Testament and finds its fullest expression in the Tabernacle, the Levitical priesthood, the sacrificial system and the Day of Atonement. Together they made it clear that Israel’s sin made them unholy and separated them from the highest holiness that was Yahweh. Only by the shedding of blood could they be cleansed so His Presence might dwell among them, there between the Cherubim above the mercy-seat of the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies. But only the high priest was allowed entrance into the Presence, and that only once a year while the rest of the people remained outside the Presence.
The Book of Hebrews argues that the Tabernacle, the priesthood and sacrifices were shadows, copies of things in heaven and that Jesus Christ is the Reality of which they spoke. He is both Sacrifice and High Priest of the New Covenant. It is His blood He presents to God, shed for the sins of the whole world, as a complete, never-to-be-repeated event by which propitiation is made and mercy available to all who humbly seek it as did the Publican we read about in Luke 18:13.
So now, based upon all this, we are admonished twice in Hebrews (Heb.4:16 and Heb.10:22) to come into the Presence, to approach God’s throne. Entering the Presence is the most profound of all privileges we enjoy as Christians. And, unlike Israel, everyone who believes is invited for we all have been made priests and kings by His redemption.
It is also the most terrifying because in the Presence we are enveloped by holiness, by an unimaginable purity and by Light in which nothing, absolutely nothing remains hidden.
In both verses, the Greek verb translated “draw near” is the same and in the present tense meaning a continuous action accompanied by intention; i.e. I purpose, consciously decide with full awareness to draw near all the time. Furthermore, each invitation is a conclusion to an argument the writer is presenting.
Heb.4:16 (and continuing on in chapter 5 forward) show that Jesus is superior to angels, Moses and Joshua. Jesus is our Great High Priest and so we must enter the ‘rest’ God has provided through Him. Heb.10:22 concludes that the New Covenant takes precedence over the Old, again based on the superiority of Christ’s redemptive work and, again, because He is our High Priest and so we must ‘hold fast to the confession of our faith’. Entering His rest and holding fast to our confession, then, are possible because of His great mercy embodied in the High Priestly ministry of Jesus and the reasons for ‘drawing near’.
We dare not measure ourselves, our successes, our blessings, our churches against any other standard than the holiness of God. And when we are properly measured, we find ourselves weak, always tempted, ignorant, misguided (Heb. 2:16-18; 5:2) and in desperate need of our High Priest. But of all these, weakness stands out, at least to me because it is in such stark contrast to the prideful, arrogant, self-sufficient, independent and merciless ideals the world holds forth. To know our weakness is a deeply moving insight. It is the true condition of human existence, this frailty, fragility and tenuous life that is only a breath, a heartbeat away from ending. Most importantly, it is something Jesus knows about us because He, too, lived as a human being.
Our greatest weakness is failure to live according to the righteousness and holiness of God; it is a moral weakness brought about and increased by every act of sin. Because we are weak in this regard, we need rest, a rest from striving to do what is impossible, namely to be holy and accepted by God through our own efforts. Such was the lesson of the Law, the Levites and the Incarnation; we cannot keep the Law and we need blood sacrifices to secure God’s mercy. Having the final and complete sacrifice of Jesus, Christians can now rest in His merciful grace.
We must “labor to enter into that rest” not by trying to please God by our own efforts but to resist any temptation to please Him except by grace and faith. And so Heb. 4:16 tells us to draw near in times of need because Jesus “sympathizes with our weaknesses” (Heb. 4:15). What is remarkable about this word ‘sympathy’ is it means not just having knowledge of human weakness but actually feeling that weakness because the one sympathizing has experienced the same. And, what’s more, one of the primary meanings of ‘mercy’ is to have sympathy towards someone who deserves otherwise.
The writer of Hebrews tells us we are to “come boldly to the throne of grace” (NKJV) so we can receive “mercy and find grace in time of need.” Boldly doesn’t mean frivolously, irreverently, arrogantly, or because of something we think worthy in ourselves; such boldness is based solely upon the Great High Priest and what He has done and continues to do for us. We can be bold (or ‘confident’ NASB) because He is at the right hand of the Father, a propitiation for us, an Advocate (as we learned last time), and Intercessor, One who feels what we feel, a merciful High Priest indeed.
When do we have need? All the time, dear Christian and in every conceivable part of our lives. This is why the verb “come” is in the present tense. We are to come always because we always need. It is pride that tells us otherwise, that we can ‘handle it on our own’ or at the other extreme, a sense of unworthiness, that we’ve visited His Presence too many times already. In both cases, and all others that we might dream up, pride is revealed by the “I” that can handle it or the “I” that is unworthy or the “I” that is of concern in any circumstance. If we are genuinely convinced of what we are apart from Him, then we dare not hesitate for a moment to enter the Presence where He, our Great High Priest, lives to make intercession for us.
Here grace and mercy join together and we are forgiven our many sins and find compassion, pity, sympathy, not condemnation or rejection. The sinful self that deserves the full weight of God’s judgment is now transformed into the image of His Son, until as C.S. Lewis says “we finally have faces”, and our true person, our true ‘humanity’ as a son or daughter of God, is revealed.
I think for many Christians, including myself, the sheer magnitude of this invitation to “draw near…” (NASB) the Presence, or being in the Presence, escapes us. A question worth considering is this: what, exactly, do we draw near to during the course of a common day filled with common needs? Is it God or some kind of substitute, even a religious one, like a church, a pastor, or a doctrine? Or worse, is it a worldly preoccupation we hope will deliver us, like money, power, celebrity, or possessions?
Israel enjoyed the Presence in their personal and national experience yet, over and over, they pursued other gods, ones they could ‘see’, that appealed to their senses and sensuality, ones that appeared more real than the Presence hidden in the Holiest of All. The Hebrew Christians to whom this book was written were suffering social and economic rejection by their peers, and were tempted to ‘go back’ instead of ‘drawing near’, to return to the shadows instead of remaining in the Light and so the encouragement to“…draw near”.
However we answer this question know this: there is no mercy to be found except at the mercy-seat where the blood of our Sacrifice and High Priest makes clear the path to the Presence. It is up to us to ‘draw near’ with confidence and know our weakness is no longer a barrier but the way to experience His power (2 Cor.12:9).