Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace. (Hebrews 4:16)
Because Jesus sits at the right hand of his Father in heaven, repentant sinners can approach the throne of God with boldness, no matter how filthy we feel. We can come when we have nothing to show for ourselves. We can come when we have just awakened from the stupidity of sin. We can come when so much inside of us feels cold and dead. And we can do so because we do not come on our own merits, but rather on the merits of Jesus, heaven’s Great High Priest.
It was not always so. For centuries, God’s people could only wait outside the temple where God’s presence lay veiled, wondering how he would one day make a way.
Ninety Feet Away
If you were an Israelite living under the old covenant, and you did not belong to the tribe of Levi, ninety feet is as close as you would ever get to the presence of God in the Holy of Holies.
God had fulfilled his promise to dwell among his people (Leviticus 26:11–12), but his holiness demanded separation. He was near, yet guarded; present, yet veiled; inviting, yet intimidating. The mere presence of the temple revealed God’s desire to be near his people. But everything about the temple said, “You dare not approach me on your own.”
The cherubim that once flashed a flaming sword at the entrance to Eden now blocked the way to the Holy of Holies (Genesis 3:24; 1 Kings 6:31–32). Any who broke through the barrier would fall before the consuming fire of Sinai (Leviticus 16:2). Safer for a man to walk on the sun than a sinner to stand unshielded before God.
Every day, the temple preached a silent sermon to any who had ears to hear: You need a mediator to make atonement. You need an advocate to intercede. You need a priest to make a way.
Tribe of Levi
Ever since the wilderness of Sinai, Levi had served as Israel’s priestly tribe. Only the Levites showed zeal for God’s holiness as the rest of their brothers bowed down to a golden calf (Exodus 32:25–29). From then on, they would stand in the gap between God and the people (Numbers 3:5–10).
The days soon came, however, when Levi’s sons lost the zeal of their fathers. They stole food from the people, and preyed upon female assistants (1 Samuel 2:12–17, 22). They defiled the holy with the common, and the clean with the unclean (Ezekiel 22:26). They taught God’s word for a price, and cared nothing for his presence (Micah 3:11; Jeremiah 2:8).
But even apart from the Levites’ corruption, a perceptive Israelite could see that the problem of the priesthood went deeper, down to the very stones of the temple. The sons of Levi, even at their best, were still sons of Adam. The mediators needed a sacrifice for themselves. The intercessors eventually died. And the blood of the animals spilled on the altar could never take away sins.
The priest we need could not come from Levi — nor even from Adam. Our priest must be a branch from a different tree altogether. He must come from another line, just as that enigmatic figure in Genesis named Melchizedek.
Order of Melchizedek
In Psalm 110, King David listens as the Lord God speaks to David’s other “Lord”:
The Lord has sworn
and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest forever
after the order of Melchizedek.” (Psalm 110:4)
Our perfect priest — the second “Lord” in David’s psalm — finds his pattern not in Levi, but in Melchizedek, who drops into the story line of redemption as if from heaven (Genesis 14:18–20). It would take another Israelite, looking back centuries later, to spell out the implications of David’s prophecy.
The final priest, like Melchizedek, must be “king of righteousness” and “king of peace” (Hebrews 7:1–2). Just as Melchizedek, from the reader’s standpoint, is “without father or mother or genealogy,” so must our priest be (Hebrews 7:3). And, most surprising of all, he must continue as a priest forever, “having neither beginning of days nor end of life” (Hebrews 7:3). A perfect, eternal priest-king, at once David’s son and David’s Lord: he is the one we waited for.
The day would come when the sons of Levi could step aside to welcome this Priest of priests. Through his high-priestly work, the smoke of every altar would finally cease, the cherubim would finally sheathe their sword, and the doors to the Holy of Holies would finally open.
Priest of Priests
Some ten centuries after David penned his psalm, when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son. He came as a prophet to speak the words of God. He came as a king to establish the reign of God. And he came as a priest to open the way to God.
On Good Friday, the priest entered his sanctuary. Golgotha was his temple mount, the cross his altar, his own body the acceptable sacrifice. In a moment, all the murders, adulteries, blasphemies, slanders, selfishness, spite, and hatred of the world pressed upon his shoulders. The knife came down; the flames rose up. The Son fell slain into the consuming fire.
If Jesus were just another son of Levi, he would have lain forever in the ashes, another priest returned to the dust. But Jesus was not a son of Levi, but the Son of God: without beginning of days, without end of life. Having finished his work, he rose in “the power of an indestructible life” (Hebrews 7:16) and soon ascended to heaven and sat down at the right hand of his Father.
Wherever Christ Is
Jesus is the priest the Levites never could be. He is “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners” (Hebrews 7:26), and yet he sympathizes with his tempted brothers below (Hebrews 2:11–12; 4:15). He sits upon the highest place (Hebrews 10:12), and yet he lives to plead the sinner’s cause (Hebrews 7:25). Of all the men and women who ever walked upon the earth, he alone needed no sacrifice, and yet, in unthinkable love, “he offered up himself” (Hebrews 7:26–27).
If you are in Christ, let no sin, guilt, or shame keep you waiting in the temple courts, ninety feet from the presence of your God. Hear your God whisper from within, “Draw near” (Hebrews 10:22). Walk past the bronze altar and the washbasins, the bread of the Presence and the lampstand, and open the door to the Holy of Holies. The throne of majesty has become a throne of mercy, where Christ our high priest sits in victory (Hebrews 4:14–16). And wherever he is, we are welcome.