Relate to God?
As I mentioned to you last week, let’s think about the concept of priesthood. Why? Because the issue is about how to relate to God. It may be that you do not believe in God and I’m glad that you are here. I’d like to know you better and know your history. However, today we’ll assume that God exists. And we notice that in most religions there is some form of priesthood. That is, we suppose that we cannot approach God on our own, most of all in the concepts of God that believe that God is more than a force in the universe. On what basis can we approach a God who can be known? Throughout human history we have thought that it is not a good idea to approach in an inappropriate way. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews shows us that there is a way that is sure and certain.
The Christian context
To make more sense of the answer we have here in Hebrews, I’ll give you the general context of approaching God in the Bible. The Bible gives us a perspective on the subject that covers from the beginning to the end.
In the beginning there was no priesthood. Adam and Eve relate to God, without an intermediary. In fact, the language in the Genesis 2 history is priestly. Verse 15: The Lord God put man in the garden of Eden to cultivate and care for it. The words to cultivate and care are words that in the Jewish world evoke the work of priests. That is to say, in the beginning we did not need an intermediary to approach God.
The images of the end do not mention a special priesthood either. Again the whole people of God does not lack an intermediary. 1 Peter 2.5: you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Revelation 21.22: I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And we are in your presence without an intermediary.
In Christianity the priesthood is a temporary thing. It’s for now. Something has happened that strongly interrupts the relationship between God and us. The explanation is in Genesis chapter 3 where we choose not to trust God and his word. The Bible calls it sin. And it is what breaks all relationships. When we do not trust each other’s words, we break the relationship. And it turns out that the relationship needs an intermediary to avoid further damage.
That’s why we have the priesthood. The system in the Old Testament was a gift from God so that his people could maintain a living relationship with him. It stressed that there was a problem that needed an intermediary and that despite the problem, God wanted to relate to us. And God chose the way to do it, according to 5:4: And no one takes this honour on himself, but he receives it when called by God, just as Aaron was.
The problem is that this system does not fix the problem. Verses 2-3: The priest is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people.
God does not want us to be at a distance forever. He wants to close the gap. If you think that God wants to keep you out of reach, you are very wrong, or you do not understand the good news Jesus announces that the kingdom of God is near. The difficulty is how to close the gap. Well, we forgive him and that’s it, right? Do you really believe it? Forgiveness always costs, in proportion to what will be forgiven.
If I bump into you on the street, forgiveness is not very expensive, but it costs. The cost is I’m not going to push you in response. It’s much more expensive if the damage is greater, including with words. For the injured person to say, “I forgive,” you is expensive. That’s why we have ways to compensate. It may be I’m not going to talk to you for a while. But the adequate compensation is difficult. The family of a murder victim never sees the compensation of money for loss life as sufficient.
So the only way to restore the relationship between people is when someone takes responsibility. If the gap is between us and God, then the scale of the problem is enormous. Turning your back on God is worth death.
So, we are in trouble. An intermediary that can solve this conflict would be very special. Can we correct the situation with good behaviour and good deeds? It is absurd to think that I fix the breach of relating to God by helping a lady cross the street.
We need a priest who can restore the relationship on the same scale as the universe. That is, his power penetrates everything. This is the affirmation of Jesus. We read in 4.14: 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.
The concept of heaven means that which is more than the material world. In other words, it is not limited by time and space.
Also 5.6: And he says in another place,
‘You are a priest for ever,
in the order of Melchizedek.’
The story of Melchizedek is found in Genesis 14 and is very interesting. In short, it raises the idea that God wants to relate to us at all times and in all places. A temple acts as a concrete portal. But God does not want to limit your relationship like this. And this idea raised in the first chapters of the Bible is fulfilled in Jesus. He fulfils it because he was resurrected. That is, at any time, any place he can intercede for us. That’s the kind of priesthood we want, right? To overcome the gap in the relationship we need a response as large as the universe.
But can such a great priest understand my struggles, my weaknesses, why I struggle to relate to God? We read in 4.15: For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin.
Then in 5.7-8: During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered.
When the writer explains that Jesus was tempted in every way, he does not mean that Jesus knew exactly the trials of marriage, or work in the industrial age, or the struggles against consumerism. But Jesus did know the same temptations that we face in all those situations and more, that is, the temptation to doubt and despair that God really wants me to follow this path that seems to hurt me. The temptation of disobedience, lack of love as the primary motive, and concern more for oneself than others is, do I really have to obey God?
The deepest temptation is not to trust the relationship. PLAY A TRUST GAME.
We struggle to trust. And it makes sense because our experience with people leaves us with doubts. That’s why we do not deepen many of our relationships; we fear the risk. Jesus knows this challenge. And for us it turns out that we treat the same the relationship with our creator. But Jesus did not do it. He trusted to the point of death and revealed a hitherto unknown mystery, that God is more powerful than death.
We see Jesus in the middle of this temptation on the night before He was crucified. Let’s read it from this version
‘But there was something else, something even more horrible. When people ran away from God, they lost God – it was what happened when they ran away. Not being closed to God was like a punishment. Jesus was going to take that punishment.
Jesus knew what that meant. He was going to lose his Father – and that, Jesus knew, would break his heart in two.
Violent sobs shook Jesus’ whole body.
Then Jesus was quiet. Like a lamb. “I just you Papa,” he said. “Whatever you say I will do.”’
(page 296 JSSB).
Jesus was the most tempted person because he did not give up, do you see? This great priest knows our temptation to surrender, knows what we suffer to trust.
But we have left the central question about the cost of forgiveness. It may be that Jesus can mediate in the greater universe and with true knowledge of our being, but without forgiveness he is not worth more than another priest.
Let’s read in 4.16: 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.
Then in 5.7-9: During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.
But how can it be? This idea is barbaric. Well, if it was a third party that took the blame, yes. But in Jesus we find the intermediary that represents God and us. That is, he is not a third party. The only way to restore the relationship between two people is when one of them takes responsibility. And that’s what Jesus did, not as a third party, but as us and as God.
It’s as if we went to the doctor. We don’t feel well and we realise that the paracetamol and herbal remedies are not working. This doctor turns out to be the most understanding doctor you’ve ever met, he listens to you and understands you. After listening to you, the doctor makes a clear diagnosis and seems to be preparing to give you some type of medication. The doctor gives you a glass of water. You wait for the pill, but he does not give it to you. You ask for one, but the doctor replies: “Actually, you need to swallow me.”
Relationships are restored by people, not by things or actions.
Between us and God this sacrifice had to be made once, it was only necessary once. If you follow this mediator and his action on your part, which is what it means to obey, you’ll find yourself restored in relationship with God where grace and mercy flow.
In fact, the way to know if you obey, you accept and follow this remedy, is your prayer life. This is what verse 16 means: 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.
That I can approach God, be so close, is the sign that I accept the invitation of Jesus to mediate for me. And the experience is mercy and grace.
Being prayer-less is surely the worst form of practical atheism. That is, we believe in God, but we can live without relating to him.
The way to grow a restored relationship is to talk. Do you do it with the freedom that this intermediary gives you, in all places, with all understanding and with all the weight taken away? Do you feel the mercy and grace of God? Do not settle for less, let Jesus be your intermediary, your only priest.