This evening I would like to invite you to consider your place in the throne room of God. In today’s western democracy we don’t think much about thrones, or at least I don’t, but Hebrews was written in a world where throne rooms really were the seat of power. They were the places of council, of judgement, of leadership, of service, of seeking the King’s favour, of the court, the throne room was the centre of the Kingdom or Empire. It seems to me that one of the themes of Hebrews is a description of the throne room of heaven.
This theme is particularly visible here at the end of chapter 4 and into chapter 5. Verse 14 is a link verse between the theme that the writer has been expounding in the earlier part of the chapter and the one that is about to come into view. Since the beginning of chapter 3 the writer has been warning against the consequences of disobedience to God and falling away from the faith. In verse 13 the judgement that is to be faced before God is very clear:
“And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account”.
What is important to remember is that this is not a theoretical issue for the first readers and hearers of this teaching. We do not know exactly who they were, but it is most likely that they were second generation Christians who were facing significant persecution. The difficulties that they were facing in continuing in their faith were real, present, and serious. Hebrews is not a theological exercise in contingency planning, it is a urgent call to a persevering faith to a church that is under threat.
This urgent call continues throughout Hebrews, at times warning of the dangers of falling away from the faith, and at other times encouraging by pointing out the resources that are available to those who keep the faith. At the beginning of our reading this evening we are at the point of the pendulum swinging from one to the other. We have just had the warning of what awaits those who are disobedient, and we are about to hear the encouragement for those who continue obediently in the faith that they have received. In the last section we heard read the pendulum starts swinging back towards warning, but for this evening we’re going to stay focussed on the encouragement in the middle.
The central encouragement here is that we are able to approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and grace in time of need.
I’d like to take a moment to stop and think about the throne of grace, looking at two Old Testament passages. It is clear from reading Hebrews that the first hearers were familiar with the Old Testament and its religious rituals and writings. The writer doesn’t have to explain them, they are just referred to and taken as read. For us, however, they might be a little less familiar, so it may be worth fleshing them out a bit.
So, firstly, let us go back to Exodus 25 to have a look at the mercy-seat. Having given instructions for the making of the Ark of the Covenant, God says this to Moses:
“Then you shall make a mercy-seat of pure gold; two cubits and a half shall be it’s length, and a cubit and a half its width” God goes on to give some more details of the construction and then says, “There I will meet you, and from above the mercy-seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the covenant, I will deliver to you all my commands for the Israelites”
Now the best translation for the Hebrew word here translated as “mercy seat” is a matter for some debate. What is clear, however, is that this part of the ark is going to be a focus of God’s presence, and through the worshipping life of the people of God it becomes apparent that this focus of God’s presence is a place where God’s kingdom is expressed in terms of laws, judgement, and forgiveness.
In Leviticus 16, the people are given the instructions for what is to happen on the Day of Atonement, the day every year when a sacrifice is made in order for God’s forgiveness to be given to the people of God for the sins of the year. This is the day when the at – one – ness of God and God’s people is affirmed and renewed. At the centre of this affirmation and renewal is the blood of the sacrifice on and before the mercy-seat, the throne of God among God’s people.
However, the mercy-seat was not something that could be approached easily. Aaron was warned that he could not just come in, as we have heard from the Hebrews reading, he first had to make sacrifices to cover his own sin before he could go to the mercy-seat on behalf of the people.
For our second view of a throne we move forward, past the wandering of the people in the desert, past the arrival in the Promised Land, past the time of the Judges and King David, who brought the ark and mercy-seat to Jerusalem, past his son Solomon who built a temple to house the ark and mercy-seat, all the way to the year that King Uzziah died, and the vision that came to the prophet, Isaiah:
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on the throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.”
Isaiah is struck by huge gulf between God’s holiness and his own unholiness, and the unholiness of the people and starts to lament. One of the angels brings holy fire to cleanse him, to take away his guilt, and to commission him to go and take God’s word to God’s people.
In this vision the throne of God is again the place of God’s focussed presence. It is the place of judgement and, once again, of forgiveness and cleansing. It is also the place of commissioning, the place from which God’s servant is sent out.
The throne of grace is God’s throne, it is the focus of God’s kingly, majestic presence. It is the centre of God’s kingdom, the seat of holy power. In chapter 3 of Hebrews the writer has been warning of the judgement that is found there, and we have seen from the Old Testament that throne of God is an awful place, one that was approached with trembling.
And yet, the writer says, “let us approach the throne of grace with boldness”.
How can this be?
This can be because of Jesus. As the writer keeps saying, Jesus has now taken his place in the throne room of God, at the right-hand of the the throne. This has not changed God’s nature, but it has changed our relationship with God. It is not that Jesus can now have a quiet word in God’s ear and calm God down a bit to make God less scary. God has not changed, but because of Jesus we longer have anything to be afraid of, because we have been forgiven and adopted as children into God’s family. We have been saved.
So, how did this happen?
Verse 9 tells us that, “having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him”.
We can be saved, and so approach God’s throne boldly, because Jesus is the source of eternal salvation, if we obey him.
But hold on, we’re talking about Jesus here, what does it mean, “having been made perfect”? How can Jesus be “made perfect”? This question is similar to one that is thrown up by the preceding verse, “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” Wait a minute – Jesus learned obedience, what does that mean?
These aren’t just red-herring questions, diverting us from the main thrust of the teaching, or at least I hope they’re not. The answers to them I think can be really helpful in opening up the depths of God’s love and mercy to us.
We start in the same place as the writer of Hebrews, which is that Jesus is the Son of God. This means that he shares the characteristics of God – Jesus is perfect, holy, good, loving, everything that God is.
So, what about learning obedience. The word used for learning here has the same root of the word that is used for being a disciple – it is all to do with the active learning of doing. It is not the word for classroom learning of the theory. Jesus, as the perfect Son, already knew about obedience, and was already perfectly obedient. What he learnt was what it felt like to be obedient when every fibre of your being is screaming at you to disobey. He learnt this the only way you can, by living it as a human, through the suffering that tempts us to find a way out. It is not that Jesus’ obedience was previously imperfect, but that it became more perfect as it found fulfilment and expression in his suffering.
A similar answer emerges as we think about Jesus being made perfect as a source of salvation.
His perfect love led him to set aside his place in heaven, empty himself of all but love and come to live among us on earth. His perfect obedience meant that he lived as a perfect man, without sin. That perfection meant that he was the perfect sacrifice who could take on himself our imperfection and sin and die with it, once and for all. Because he was perfect, death had no hold on him and he was raised to life, and ascended to the glorious place he now occupies, the perfect human on the right hand of the throne of God, the source of our salvation.
Because Jesus was perfect, he was made the perfect sacrifice, and thus became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.
Because of Jesus’ perfection our imperfections and sins are dealt with, they are forgiven, and we can approach the throne of grace with boldness to receive mercy and grace to help us in our time of need. We are invited into God’s presence, into God’s throne room, and to refuse to go in, or to go in fearfully is to deny the reality of what Jesus has done for us. To be sure, there is a place for reverence and wonder in the presence of the most Holy God, but there is also a place for confidence, not in ourselves but in the perfection and promise of Jesus.
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not enter the Kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it”. I believe that part of what Jesus meant when he said that was to do with the uncomplicated trust of a child in a parent. We are invited to enter the throne room of God as a child of the royal household, with all the confidence that implies. When I began speaking I invited you to consider your place in the throne room of God. As I come towards a finish I want to renew that invitation. I’d like you to close your eyes. Imagine yourself as a young child. Go through the palace until you reach the throne room. See the glory of God shining around and know yourself to be at home. Your heavenly Father, your Abba Father, is sitting on the throne. Go up to the throne and climb into your Father’s lap. Lean in, hear the heartbeat. Share what’s on your heart, maybe your need, maybe the need of someone else, or a situation in the world. Receive God’s mercy and grace for that need.