Hebrews 10:19-25 is a text I return to fairly often, especially when I am preparing myself for corporate worship. My default mode is to read “enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus” and “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” from an individualistic perspective. I can read those words and think primarily about the great privilege I have to approach the Majesty on High (Hebrews 1:3) privately. But the writer of Hebrews is not so much thinking of believers approaching God privately as he is about believers approaching God corporately. Just consider the repetition of “let us” in these verses (vv. 22, 23-24). The writer is thinking primarily about believers drawing near to God together. Approaching the Majesty on High as a corporate body is the incomparable opportunity and privilege of the blood bought church.
What I find striking about these verses is that the writer says that we together have confidence to draw near to God. He writes, “We have confidence to enter the holy places” (Hebrews 10:19). He doesn’t say that some believers do and some don’t have confidence to enter based upon how they may or may not have lived the previous week. No, he just declares that believers have confidence, period.
I find this remarkable for two reasons. First, if I’m not vigilant, I tend to base my confidence in drawing near to God on how I have “measured up” the previous several days. If I think I’ve lived up to a particular list of standards, I have confidence. If I consider myself to have failed in living as I believe I should have, I don’t have confidence. But the writer doesn’t appear to be thinking in these categories at all. He just says, “Brothers, we have confidence.”
Second, if you read Old Testament accounts of Israel approaching God through the sacrificial system, the word confidence is not what immediately comes to mind. Rather, “fear and trembling” comes to mind (cf. Hebrews 12:18-24; Numbers 4:20; 17:13).
So what accounts for this confidence? How is it that people who sin in word and deed can be said to have objective confidence to enter the holy places, a confidence that doesn’t dissipate in the wake of personal sin and in the contemplation of the God who is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29)? The writer answers this question for us: “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” (Hebrews 10:19-20). Our confidence to enter is not based upon what we’ve done or not done but upon what Christ has done through the shedding of his own blood. Our confidence is based upon the work of Christ. It is Christ who “entered once for all time into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12).
The implications here are many. Let me highlight just one. The work of Christ frees us to gather not as those who have our lives together but as those who don’t. The fact that our confidence is based upon the work of someone else, namely, Christ, means that we gather corporately with the freedom to acknowledge our sin and not hide it from other believers. I have gathered with the saints with a plastic “I’m-doing-well-spiritually-this-week” smile upon my face too many times. This plastic smile is a sad attempt to feign confidence, to fake it, and it’s evidence that I’ve forgotten the gospel. Only when I gather with the saints knowing that I have objective confidence to enter by the blood of Jesus will I be free to acknowledge my sin before others. Only when I approach in the truth of the gospel will I not have to conceal my sin from myself or from the fellowship of believers. The gospel frees us to gather as we really are, namely, as people who are in need of drawing near to God by the blood of Jesus. Ultimately, the only alternative is to gather with the saints in loneliness, even though we are surrounded by people who are just like we are. Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood this very well.
He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone. It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their…service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break through to fellowship does not occur, because though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among them. So we remain alone with our sin, living lies and hypocrisy. The fact is we are sinners. But it is the grace of the Gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand, that it confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great desperate sinner; now come as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you … He does not want anything from you, a sacrifice, a work; He wants you alone. God has come to save the sinner (Life Together).
Bonhoeffer describes what happens to us when our confidence is based not upon the work of Christ but upon our own attempts to measure up. So, the writer of Hebrews says, “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” (Hebrews 10:19-21). The confidence that Hebrews 10:19 declares we have comes to us through the work of the Messiah. It is ours by the blood of Jesus. When the work of Christ is our confidence, we draw near to God with confidence.