The Queen of England is riding horses every day while quarantined at Windsor Castle.
In April she turned 94 years old, and I’m having a hard time processing both of these pieces of information. First, it’s incredibly impressive that a 94-year-old is riding horses. I’ve ridden a horse. Neither the horse nor I really enjoyed the experience. I can’t imagine riding a horse when I’m 94. Second, social distancing sounds pretty great when it involves castles and fox-hunts. Who needs people around when you have equestrian sports? I wonder if the queen even misses commoners. After all, she’s always had layers of protocol to keep her separated from regular people, long before quarantine.
For example, did you know that if you were to meet the queen you aren’t allowed to speak until she speaks? Or that you’re never supposed to ask about her family? Or that you can’t touch her, slurp your tea, or serve her any shellfish for dinner? The list of rules to separate you from the queen goes on and on, all designed to keep you away from royalty, quarantine or not.
How often we translate this idea of “royal-distancing” into our relationship with God! We sometimes behave as though He is a distant cosmic monarch who is vaguely disappointed in us. As if we need to keep an appropriate, respectful distance.
We sometimes behave as though He is a distant cosmic monarch who is vaguely disappointed in us. As if we need to keep an appropriate, respectful distance.
There are plenty of reasons to think that way actually. For example, when Moses finally led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt, he immediately took them to Mount Sinai, the place where he’d met God. But when they arrived at the mountain, God roared in thunder and flashed in lightning, terrifying the people. God instructed them not to set one foot on the mountain or they would die. Only Moses and Aaron were allowed to come close.
During David’s reign the Ark of the Covenant returned to Israel from the Philistines. But the cart on which the Ark rode bounced oddly and Uzzah, being anxious to get it home safely, reached out to steady it. God cut him down for disobedient familiarity.
Even the design of the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, emphasized the distance between people and God. Jews were allowed to walk closer to God’s presence than Gentiles. Men were allowed closer to God than women. Priests were allowed closer than men. And the high priest was the most privileged of all. Once a year he was allowed to stand in the same room as the Ark of the Covenant.
The Mosaic Covenant taught the reason for this “royal-distancing.” It wasn’t just because God was scrupulous on issues of etiquette like the Queen of England. Rather, the issue was sin, our rebellions big and small. The King of the Universe would tolerate no little usurpers trying to rule for him. So mankind was separated from God and could only come near him through the work of priests. The Levitical priests, especially the high priest, were like mediators in the middle of two warring parties, offering the sacrifices that would make it possible for a relationship to exist between God and humans, bridging the gap. And even then, the relationship was fragile, needing sacrifices for every new sin. The acute feeling of distance from God was undeniable.
A Strange Instruction
But in Hebrews 4:16 we are instructed to do something extraordinary. The writer said, “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace.”
That instruction sounds very strange compared to the Old Testament, even opposite. If distance is necessary because God is holy and we are sinful, why would Hebrews instruct us so differently? It sounds like kids being told it’s ok to play with fire! Even better, we’re told to come into God’s presence with confidence, boldness. No more distance. No more separation. No more priests.
Except, of course, the only High Priest who is God, the Sacrifice, and the Mediator all rolled into one: Jesus.
A Great High Priest
The writer of Hebrews doesn’t reverse everything the Old Testament says about reverent distance from God. Instead he explains just why it now makes sense that we should come into God’s presence with confidence. And each reason is about Jesus.
In Hebrews 4:14 Jesus is called a “great High Priest.” Unlike any high priest who has come before, Jesus has the right and the ability to go straight “through the heavens” and enter God’s presence as a mediator for mankind. The idea is that Jesus stands between us and God, just like any other priest. But unlike any other priest, as the Son of God He has unlimited access—which, of course, means we have unlimited access through Him!
By calling him a “great High Priest,” the author draws our attention to the sacrifices that the Jewish high priest made, particularly the annual sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. Each year on that day, the high priest would cleanse himself and make a sacrifice to atone for the sins of the community as a whole (Lev. 16). He entered the most holy part of the Temple where the Ark of the Covenant and God’s presence was, and he would sprinkle blood from an offering. After this he performed a ceremony where one goat was killed and another goat had the sins of the people symbolically laid on its head before it was released into the wilderness, thus removing people’s sins and renewing fellowship with God. It was the most solemn day on the Jewish calendar.
The writer of Hebrews is highlighting Jesus’ work replacing every part of this ceremony. He is a better High Priest who makes the sacrifice. He is the more effective blood of the sacrifice. He is the Lamb not chosen by men, but God. He is the only sinless One who can mediate between God and men. His work is effective forever, not just for a year. All this should give us confidence to run into God’s presence, knowing that we have every right to be there.
An Understanding High Priest
In Hebrews 4:15 the writer shares a second reason why Jesus gives us confidence to come close to God: Jesus is able to “sympathize with our weaknesses” because He was tempted just like we are. Jesus didn’t float through life in a divinely sanctified bubble. He felt the temptations we feel to sin, at least in some realistic way that is similar to our experience. He had moments where sin pulled at Him like it does us. But, of course, as Hebrews says, He never gave in to it. In a way, Jesus experienced the temptation to sin far beyond what any of us have because we give in to sin often. Jesus felt the full force of temptation each and every time about all the same types of things as us. The point is: He gets it. He understands us. He sympathizes with us, and because of that He is happy to mediate between us and God. It’s because of this enthusiastic work of Jesus on our behalf that we should not be timid about trying to get closer to God. Because Jesus gets what it’s like to suffer and fight sin, we don’t need to feel shame and “self-isolate” our sinful selves from a holy God.
He gets it. He understands us. He sympathizes with us, and because of that He is happy to mediate between us and God.
In fact, because of these two truths about Jesus, God is completely and enthusiastically accessible to us. He throws open the doors of the throne room of grace and urges us to rush in. There’s no guard at the door, and you don’t need a faulty priest with a slaughtered sheep—or any other kind of human priest for that matter. There is now nothing standing between you and God, except God Himself in the person of Jesus. This is the doctrine that theologians call the “priesthood of the believer.” You have direct access to God through Jesus’ work.
Six Feet of Separation
Since there’s nothing keeping us from boldly walking into God’s presence any moment of any day to seek Him and His help, we should do it! Whether we seek Him in prayer, Bible study, congregational or personal worship, or enjoying His creation, there’s no reason to hang back. The path has been cleared by Jesus, and all that’s left is for us to dance into His throne room, curl up in His lap and smile at our Abba, much like my two-year-old daughter greets me every morning. He invites us all to do the same without fear or shame.
For me, that’s the best part. I don’t need to feel shame anymore over my past sin. Jesus took care of it and felt the weight of it on the cross. If God’s no longer angry at me over my sin, then my shame is pointless. God invites us to come closer without any sense of vague disappointment—just joy.
The only necessary separation between you and the King of the Universe now is the “six feet of distance” between Jesus’ outstretched hands, welcoming you in. No royalty on Earth could ever offer such access. Only God, through our great High Priest. Praise God, there’s no such thing as “royal-distancing” with our Father in heaven. So let’s boldly run to the King today!