This is a follow-up article to a piece I wrote yesterday: “Are You trembling Yet?” It is a supplement to that article, not a corrective. In that essay I spoke about the God with whom we have to do, and how a proper response is to tremble before his presence: billmuehlenberg.com/2016/12/17/23182/
While everything I said in that article is true, there needs to be more said to give us the whole picture of where things now stand because of the life and work of Jesus Christ. And this is big picture stuff: bridging the Testaments and seeing how the biblical storyline flows.
Simply put, there is continuity as well as discontinuity between the Testaments. Some things do not change, including the character of God and his eternal purposes. But how we can enter into and enjoy God’s presence does change somewhat.
For example, in the Old Testament only the high priest could enter into the holy of holies once a year on the Day of Atonement. But now in Christ we all have full and unhindered access to the Father because of his perfect and final atoning sacrifice.
This is a major theme of the book of Hebrews of course – a newer, better covenant has been brought about by the death and resurrection of Christ. As the Son of God, Jesus is greater than the prophets (Heb. 1:1-4), greater than the angels (1:5-14), greater than Moses (3:2), and greater than the high priests (5:1-10). He is greater or better than what has gone before.
Indeed, the word “better” is found around a dozen times in the book. For example, in Hebrews 8:6, 9:23 and 12:24 we read about things like the better ministry and better sacrifice of Jesus and the better promise of the new covenant. Hebrews 7 speaks of the priesthood, compares Jesus to Melchizedek, and goes on to say this in verses 18-28:
The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God. And it was not without an oath! Others became priests without any oath, but he became a priest with an oath when God said to him:
“The Lord has sworn
and will not change his mind:
‘You are a priest forever.’”
Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantor of a better covenant. Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.
Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests men in all their weakness; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.
Notice that nothing has changed concerning who God is – a holy, pure and righteous God who hates sin – but the way of access or approach to God is now fully open to all who come through Christ. The shed blood of Christ makes all this possible. Hebrews 9:11-15 puts it this way:
But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.
So now we can come boldly into God’s presence. As we read in Hebrews 10:19-23:
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.
Because Jesus is our great high priest we can approach God with confidence. As Hebrews 4:14-16 puts it:
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
And while we still rightly tremble before a majestic and awesome God, we can come humbly before him and enjoy fellowship with him because of what Jesus has done on our behalf. Thus the passages I quoted in yesterday’s article about the Israelites fearing to approach the mountain of God need now to be seen in the light of our bold access to God.
As Hebrews 12:18-24 states:
You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Again, it is not that God has changed. Nor have we. God is still holy and to be feared, and we are still sinful and under his wrath. But because of the finished work of Christ, those who come to God through Christ in faith and repentance can now have full access to God.
We still do not trifle with God or pretend that he is now our buddy. He is still God, but now we have been adopted into God’s family. While we are fully loved and accepted in God’s family, that does not mean we therefore can do as we please. God will discipline us when we get off track. As Hebrews 12:7-11 puts it:
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
So the same awe-inspiring and holy God of the old covenant is now someone we can have a personal relationship with, thanks to the new covenant brought about by Jesus Christ. And none of this is because we have somehow become better – it is because Jesus is the better priest and mediator. I like how Donald Guthrie puts it:
Both old and new covenants were provisions of God’s grace for those who could not make any provision for themselves. The recipients of the new covenant had no greater claims upon God than those of the old. The greater significance of the new did not rest in an agreement between God and a better people. It is superior entirely because it has a better mediator. It is based on a more effective removal of sins.
Because of Christ we can come to God and rejoice in his presence. But we also tremble at who he is. C. S. Lewis spoke about the biblical balance required here in his children’s books, The Chronicles of Narnia. Aslan the lion – the Christ figure in his seven-volume fiction series – is seen in this light.
Aslan is one to have a personal relationship with, yet one still to be properly feared. As Lewis put it in The Last Battle: “‘Do you think I keep him in my wallet, fools?’ said Tirian. ‘Who am I that I could make Aslan appear at my bidding? He’s not a tame lion’.”
Or as he put it in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:
“‘Is – is he a man?’ asked Lucy. ‘Aslan a man!’ said Mr. Beaver sternly. ‘Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion, the Lion, the great Lion.’ ‘Ooh,’ said Susan, ‘I thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.’ ‘That you will, dearie, and make no mistake,’ said Mrs. Beaver; ‘if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.’ ‘Then he isn’t safe?’ said Lucy. ‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king I tell you’.”
So I encourage you to read these two articles in tandem. God is someone who deserves our awe and reverence – we tremble in his presence. But because of what Christ accomplished in the new covenant, we can come boldly into the very presence of God. And that is a cause of great rejoicing.