Let Us Draw Near to God

Palm Sunday

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 

A Zeal for God, but Lost

One of the passages of scripture from my own personal meditations that has had the greatest impact on me in recent weeks is Romans 10:1-2 where Paul says about his kinsmen, the Jewish people: My heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For, I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but it is not according to knowledge.

What struck me here is that it is possible to have a zeal for God and be lost. A zeal for God and lost - perishing! "My heart's desire is that they be saved," he says. So they are not saved. Why? They have zeal for God. They are, in fact, part of the chosen Jewish people. But he prays that they would be saved. What's wrong? What's wrong with their zeal? And Paul answers: It is not according to knowledge. True knowledge is necessary for salvation. They have zeal. But it is not rooted in knowledge.

Now zeal - the passion of the heart for God - is important. Jesus said to love God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind (Matthew 22:37). He said that lukewarm people will be spewed out of his mouth (Revelation 3:16). And just two chapters later, in Romans 12:11, Paul will say, "Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord." Literally: "Boil in the spirit." Zeal is important.

Draw Near!

But without knowledge it does not lead to salvation. Now here is the relevance of this thought when we come to this passage in Hebrews 10:19-22. In these verses there is one main, straightforward command, namely, "Draw near!" That is what this writer wants you to do. Draw near. Look at these verses: there is only one exhortation, once you pull away all the defining and qualifying phrases and clauses. Since therefore, brethren, we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our body washed with pure water.

He has one simple, deep, high, holy, happy, seemingly impossible goal for us, his readers. Draw near. To what? Well, it is not hard to find out, since this is a favorite word for this writer. Take just three of its seven occurrences:

Hebrews 4:16 - Let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need.

Hebrews 7:25 - He is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.

Hebrews 11:6 - Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who draws near to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.

The great passion of this writer is that we draw near to God. That we come to his throne to find all the help we need. That we come to him confident that he will reward us with all that he is for us in Jesus. And this is clearly what he means here in Hebrews 10:22, because verse 19 says that we have confidence "to enter the holy place," that is, the new heavenly "holy of holies" like that inner room in the old tabernacle of the Old Testament where the high priest met with God once a year, and where his glory descended on the ark of the covenant.

So the one command, the one exhortation, that we are given in Hebrews 10:19-22 is to draw near to God. The great aim of this writer is that we get near God, that we have fellowship with him, that we not settle for a Christian life at a distance from God, that God not be a distant thought, but a near and present reality, that we experience what the old Puritans called communion with God.

This drawing near is not a physical act. It's not building a tower of Babel, by your achievements, to get to heaven. It's not necessarily going to a church building. Or walking to an altar at the front. It is an invisible act of the heart. You can do it while standing absolutely still, or while lying in a hospital bed, or while sitting in a pew listening to a sermon.

Drawing near is not moving from one place to another. It is a directing of the heart into the presence of God who is as distant as the holy of holies in heaven, and yet as near as the door of faith. He is commanding us to come. To approach him. To draw near to him.

The Center of the Gospel

In fact, this is the very heart of the entire New Testament gospel, isn't it? That Christ came into the world to make a way for us to come to God without being consumed in our sin by his holiness.

1 Peter 3:18 - For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God.

Ephesians 2:18 - [Through Christ] we . . . have our access in one Spirit to the Father.

Romans 5:11 - We exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.

This is the center of the gospel - this is what the Garden of Gethsemane and Good Friday are all about - that God has done astonishing and costly things to draw us near. He has sent his Son to suffer and to die so that through him we might draw near. It's all so that we might draw near. And all of this is for our joy and for his glory. He does not need us. If we stay away he is not impoverished. He does not need us in order to be happy in the fellowship of the Trinity. But he magnifies his mercy by giving us free access through his Son, in spite of our sin, to the one Reality that can satisfy us completely and forever, namely, himself. "In thy presence is fullness of joy, at thy right hand are pleasures forever more" (Psalm 16:11).

That is God's will for you, even as I preach - that you will draw near to God. That you will speak like the psalmist in Psalm 42:2, "My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; when shall I come and appear before God?" Answer that question like this: "Now. I will come now, while John is preaching. I am praying. Father, I come, I come. I draw near."

But we must go back and pick up the thread of thought. I was trying to show you the relevance of Romans 10: 2 for this passage: there is a zeal that is not according to knowledge, and there is a zeal that is according to knowledge. This zeal is important. Most fundamentally this is a zeal to draw near to God. To be right with God. To enjoy a relationship with God. In other words, the central point of this text is that we have a zeal for nearness to God. That we have a zeal for drawing near to God. We should not draw near lukewarmly, or indifferently. Even when we feel dull and lifeless, we should say, "O God, I am dull and lifeless, and there is only one hope for me, nearness to you. I come. Have mercy on me and touch me with your flame and set me on fire again. Give me life in your presence. Open my eyes to your glory and make me live again." This text is calling for zeal - a zeal for nearness to God.

Zeal With Knowledge

Now if that is true, look how the text illustrates Romans 10:2, that a zeal without knowledge is worthless and leads to destruction. Everything in these verses (Hebrews 10:19-22) is meant to help us draw near to God by giving us knowledge. You could say that it is all written so that your drawing near to God will be "according to knowledge." So that it will not be said, "This people zealously tries to draw near to God, but their coming is not according to knowledge." These verses are packed with knowledge about drawing near to God. They are like hot coals packed around the exhortation, "Let us draw near to God," to keep it warm and earnest. They are also rock-hard coals with a shape that holds the exhortation in place and keep it straight.

That's what knowledge is for: it is for life and warmth of zeal and firmness of conviction. It's to keep the heart burning with true zeal. "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?" (Luke 24:32). While he packed our hearts with the coals of knowledge!

We don't have time to look at each of these coals but let me show you at least how they are packed. And my hope is that you will see the importance of taking the coals of truth in God's word and packing them around the prayers and purposes of your life to draw near to God. And, O, may they make your pursuit of God burn with true zeal.

First notice the word "therefore" at the beginning of verse 19. "Therefore . . . let us draw near to God." This directs our minds back to truth that has gone before. Verse 14 has said, "[God] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified." Therefore draw near. In Christ, you who are being sanctified by the Spirit, day by day, you are now, already, before God perfected. Therefore, because of this truth, draw near to God! Let your zeal for drawing near accord with this truth.

Then he quotes the new covenant promise from Jeremiah 31:33-34. Verse 17: "I will remember their lawless deeds no more." Therefore, draw near to God. Are you staying away because of sins in your past? He says, "I will not call them to mind against you ever. I virtually forget them as far as punitive effects are concerned. They are gone. Therefore, because of this truth draw near." So the "therefore" in verse 19 points to coals of knowledge and truth packed behind this zeal for drawing near to God.

Then, in verse 19, the main exhortation, "Let us draw near," is preceded by two other clauses that begin with "since." Since this is true . . . therefore, draw near to God. So the command to draw near is being packed as densely as possible, it seems, with coals of truth. The first "since" clause (verses 19-20) says, "Since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, his flesh" . . . since things are true (and you have this knowledge) therefore draw near! You are entering a holy place when you draw near to God. That is a truth. So don't come carelessly or flippantly.

But here is another truth: the blood of Jesus, the Son of God has been shed for you, so that your sins are forgiven and the holiness of God will not consume you but thrill you. And here is another truth: the way to God is new: it is not the old covenant way with dead animals and priests who die and have to be replaced. It is a living way, with one sacrifice and one priest: Jesus. And he is alive and he intercedes for you. Since this is true, draw near to God. In fact. it says in verse 21 - this is the second "since clause" - he is a great high priest over the house of God. He has made a way for you by the spilling of his blood and the tearing of his flesh - like the curtain in the temple - and he is alive as your priest today who will always cover you and advocate for you and be your mediator in the presence of God. Since this is true, draw near. Draw near according to this knowledge.

Draw Near with a Sincere Heart

Then comes the command itself in verse 22: "Let us draw near to God." But he is not finished packing coals of truth around this exhortation. He says to do it "with a sincere heart, in full assurance of faith." This is the zeal he wants us to have: as we come to God, come with full assurance of faith, or, as verse 19 says, come with "confidence" or "boldness." But the heart wavers. It begins to grow cold. It trembles with uncertainty and a sense of utter inadequacy. And so he packs in this last truth at the end of verse 22; your heart is sprinkled clean from an evil conscience, and your baptism was the sign of it. "Having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our body washed with pure water . . ." The blood of Christ so completely covers our sin and removes our guilt that the conscience can rest at peace - not because we are sinless, and not because the conscience doesn't sometimes accuse us, but because when it does, we by faith speak to it and say, "I know I have sinned. It grieves me. I hate my sin. But I have a Savior, Jesus Christ, who shed his priceless blood for me, to bear my sins and cover my transgressions. Therefore be silent, O conscience. Be at peace in Jesus." And because that is true, let us draw near. This is a zeal for nearness to God that is according to truth.

The Example of John Owen, a Puritan

I mentioned earlier that the old Puritans called this drawing near "communion with God." We need to learn from them. J.I. Packer says that the Puritans differ from evangelicals today because, with them, communion with God was a great thing; to evangelicals today it is a comparatively small thing. The Puritans were concerned about communion with God in a way we are not. The measure of our unconcern is the little that we say about it. When Christians meet, they talk to each other about their Christian work and Christian interests, their Christian acquaintances, the state of the churches, and the problems of theology - but rarely of their daily experience of God.

According to Packer the greatest of the Puritans was John Owen. Owen's experience of communion with God is a great example for us. God saw to it that Owen and the suffering Puritans of his day lived closer to God and sought after communion with God more earnestly than we. Writing a letter during an illness in 1674 he said to a friend, "Christ is our best friend, and ere long will be our only friend. I pray God with all my heart that I may be weary of everything else but converse and communion with Him." God used illness and all the other pressures of Owen's life to drive him into communion with God and not away from it.

But Owen was also very intentional about his communion with God. He said, "Friendship is most maintained and kept up by visits; and these, the more free and less occasioned by urgent business . . ." In other words, in the midst of all his academic and political and ecclesiastical labors, he made many visits to God.

And when he went, he did not just go with petitions for things or even for deliverance in his many hardships. He went to see his glorious friend and to contemplate his greatness. The last book he wrote - he was finishing it as he died - is called Meditations on the Glory of Christ. That says a great deal about the focus and outcome of Owen's life. In it he said, The revelation . . . of Christ . . . deserves the severest of our thoughts, the best of our meditations and our utmost diligence in them. . . . What better preparation can there be for [our future enjoyment of the glory of Christ] than in a constant previous contemplation of that glory in the revelation that is made in the Gospel.

The contemplation Owen has in mind is made up of at least two things: on the one hand there is what he called his "severest thoughts" and "best meditations" or in another place "assiduous meditations," and on the other hand relentless prayer. The two are illustrated in his work on Hebrews. One of his greatest achievements was his seven-volume commentary on Hebrews. When he finished it near the end of his life, he said, "Now my work is done: it is time for me to die." How did he do it? We get a glimpse from the preface:

I must now say, that, after all my searching and reading, prayer and assiduous meditation have been my only resort, and by far the most useful means of light and assistance. By these have my thoughts been freed from many an entanglement."

Thus Owen drew near to God by prayer and assiduous meditation and found light and freedom. In this way his was a zeal to draw near that accords with knowledge. This is the kind of zeal that we want. This is the sweet personal knowledge that keeps the zeal in bounds and makes it burn the more brightly. With this knowledge and zeal let us draw near day by day and hour by hour.