For such a small book, O. Palmer Robertson’s God’s People in the Wilderness: The Church in Hebrews has greatly colored my thoughts about the church. Again, the premise of the book is that “For the writer of the Hebrews, the church of today finds its most proper definition in terms of the historical experience of the old covenant people of God ‘in the wilderness’ during the days of Moses” (8).
Robertson spends some time on the cultic emphasis of Hebrews 10:19-25, and what that means for the Christian now:
The cultic emphasis in 10:19-25 is to present the ‘coming near’ of Christians to God as a priestly function. By his privilege of immediate access to God, every believer experiences in fullness that which was only tasted in imagery by the Israelite priesthood. The people of God function continually as a priesthood by their use and privilege of immediate access to God. (89)
We boldly enter God’s presence “through the curtain,” “sprinkled” and “washed,” which Robertson explains parallels the consecration of the Old Testament priesthood. This isn’t an individual approach, but a communal coming into God’s presence. Hebrews is most likely a sermon-letter, and in these verses you see the repeated exhortations “let us.”
Speaking of exhortation, this is an important role of the priesthood. Robertson teaches that not only is a priest to represent the people to God, but “they also had to represent God to the people, particularly by instructing them in the torah” (88). The Hebrews were encouraged to persevere by holding fast to their confession of hope as they drew near to God. The church is a confessing community, united in God’s Word. And with that union in Christ comes responsibility. We have access to the most holy place and we are obligated to instruct and admonish one another to promote each other’s holiness.
I think this is a reason why so many do not assemble together, or maybe choose to slip in and out of a large church body where it is easy to be unnoticed. It’s bad enough to hear pastoral exhortation, but hearing it from one another, well, that gets personal! And even worse is the thought of being the one giving exhortation to a fellow church member. We don’t want to appear self-righteous. We certainly don’t want to meddle. And yet, we have a responsibility to love one another. We share a confession of hope that we truly believe, right? Then we actually need to share that confession with one another, out loud.
This requires the work of a relationship, not just throwing Scripture to one another on our way out the church door. It requires time, regular fellowship, investment of our lives, suffering with one another, rejoicing together, openness with our own lives, and most of all, a mutual love of God’s Word and a mutual desire for holiness. It requires a love for Jesus, who is the focus of all the admonitions from the writer to the Hebrews. He models this exhortation and instruction to us so well.
And to begin with, it requires regular assembly with the confessing community of the church for worship. Robertson warns that “to forsake the worshipping community is virtually to deny one’s profession, which by the very nature of the case must be maintained in public. The united worship of God’s people is vital to the well-being of each of its members” (89). It is our great privilege to have such access to God under the new covenant. “Therefore, let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28,29).
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb. 10:19-25)
*Originally published on December 30, 2014.