Hebrews 4:16 – Boldly, Before the Throne of Grace

The writer of Hebrews makes an inference from his assertion that Jesus is a High Priest: “Since we have a great high priest….let us approach the throne of grace with confidence” (4:16). The “throne of grace” in this verse is a reference to the presence of God. This may be a synonym for the Mercy Seat, the cover to the Ark of the Covenant that was in the Holy of Holies (Exod 25:17). While the word throne is sometimes used for an ornate chair and the words mercy and grace can both reflect the Hebrew word hesed, there is no other example of the Ark of the Covenant being called the “throne of grace.” Since the point of the passage is that the believer can enter into God’s presence, the analogy of the High Priest entering into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement seems to almost require the reader to understand the Mercy Seat Ark as the “throne of grace.” But like most things in Hebrews, the writer might evoke the Ark of the Covenant or the Day of Atonement, but he has in mind the ultimate presence of God in Heaven, the “real throne of grace.”

Within the world of the metaphor, no Second Temple period Jewish person would even think of entering the Holy of Holies! Only a Jewish priest could enter the Temple, but only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies within the Temple. Even then, the High Priest entered only once a year and only after elaborate preparations. Even then, the High Priest did not approach the Mercy Seat with confidence; he was likely in fear for his life while preforming the functions of his office, knowing that he was as close to the presence of God as he could be in this life.  If he was found unworthy or if he was erred in his job he might be struck dead.

Yet the writer of Hebrews tells his readers that they can enter this most holy place with confidence. In the context of temple worship, this is a remarkable statement since every high priest did his duty on the Day of Atonement with a great deal of fear and trembling! To “enter with confidence” is not disrespect. The believer is not to treat God as a human or flippantly address God. The noun παρρησία (parrasia) can be translated “boldness,” as it is in the early parts of Acts when the Apostles “speak with boldness” about who Jesus was (Acts 2:29, 4:13, 14:19).

In this context confidence refers to the believer’s position in Christ that gives us a kind of “permission to speak freely” to God.  Since we have Jesus as our High Priest, we have a new relationship with God that allows us to be fully open and honest with God (cf. Eph 3:12). For example, in the military a commander might have certain people who are his close advisors. These people have the freedom to speak openly to their superior officer in a way that would not be acceptable coming from a private.

If we are in Christ, we can walk into God’s presence and speak to him what is on our hearts. The best example of this boldness is the prayers of the Psalms. Some Psalms question if God really listens to the prayers, others are boldly claiming promises made. Others frank expressions a depth of anguish and pain that is almost embarrassing. The writers of the Psalms do speak with God with confidence. This confidence and boldness is based on the fact that Jesus is our Great High Priest and he has done something as the High Priest that allows his followers his new access.

What are the implications of the boldness in the context of the original readers? How can we “bridge the gap” to apply this “boldness” to contemporary spirituality?

15 thoughts on “Hebrews 4:16 – Boldly, Before the Throne of Grace

  1. The original readers of this text would have read this and maybe have been shocked. In this day people did not go before the throne of God. That was the Priests job. And this job was to be taken very seriously. Now because of what Jesus has done on the cross believers are to approach God’s throne with all confidence. This would have been extremely intimidating if you think about it… approaching the throne that many people died at because their sins were not covered… I would have thought twice about it. Now that Jesus has come and Jesus is now the priest that intercedes for us Christians can live bold in their relationship with God. There is no middle man (priest) that goes before God. Now putting this into a contemporary to today and our spirituality. Christians have a priest that is always interceding for them…(Hebrews 7:25). We can accept Jesus’ work on the cross to give us confidence that Jesus has satisfied God’s righteous demand for the spilling of blood for the remission of sins (Hebrews 9:22). Now we can live to spread the word of what Jesus accomplished on the cross.

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  2. I can’t even imagine how the first people to hear this message must have felt, they must have felt a mixture of confusion, fear, shock, and maybe even insulted. They may have thought that the author was saying that the honor of doing something such as entering the holy of holies was no longer so important, when in fact the author is saying that mankind has just been elevated so that all can have a personal relationship with the Lord. But I also feel that God may have wanted them to feel all of these things, especially shock. This statement changed their entire concept on a relationship with God, this is so important because this is why Jesus came to Earth, to bring change and revolution.

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  3. I, honestly, have never even thought about the implications of this verse in the context of Jewish Christians. It seems a lot like the way Jesus, and Paul, would teach things that would intentionally shake up the way people thought about God to help them realize that what God had done, and is doing, through Christ is entirely different from anything he’d done before. I do really like the way that you related our new position to that of military advisors, because it let us relate to the whole “speak freely” concept while still maintaining a healthy fear. I think, just because of the way my brain works, in a more medieval context of an advisor to the king, where, though he had given you permission to say what was on your heart (or mind); you were still aware that he could order you killed if he so desired. I think that this is a great way to picture the mercy of God, in that, while He allows us to speak freely and say what we feel, He knows that we are traitorous and deserve to die, and yet He continuously allows us to approach Him knowing that He will not cast that verdict on us. He has shown us mercy and therefore, we have permission to approach Him in His throne room, and make requests without fear of judgment, and that, to me, displays the beauty of our relationship with Him perfectly. It is almost a picture of Esther’s approach to her king the husband, because even though it was a terrifying situation, she knew of his love for her, and in that was able to confidently approach his throne and make a request of him.

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  4. Zac makes a good point that although we are ‘traitorous’, God continually allows us to speak freely and approach him. I think that in context of the original readers, this was something they needed to hear. According to Karen Jobes, the original readers were struggling with, ‘in the face of persecution, a more troubled state of mind may have developed over time because of temptation that pressured them to abandon the Christian faith and to return to the solace of the Jewish purification rites’ (108). This suggestion is supported by verses such as Hebrews 2:18, which says, “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” It seems the believers were struggling under the pressure and were having a hard time believing in that confidence that Jesus, as High Priest, has atoned for sins once and for all.
    I think that for them, they were struggling because they didn’t feel as though they were doing anything to be saved. Accompanied with that was the persecution that discouraged them even more. I think they might have been arriving at a point in which they saw their lives in danger, yet struggled with the confidence of salvation, which made them want to resort back to Jewish purification rites. If they did those, they could physically feel saved, and thus be confident in the persecution. I think that 1000’s of years later we struggle with the same thing. Although we may not feel persecuted, we struggle with the thought that we cannot do anything to make us saved, but only trust in Jesus’ sacrifice that atoned for our sins. Grace is not an easy concept to digest, although we may understand it, we don’t always feel it. We want to be able to do something, just like the original readers wanted, but we need to trust and have confidence in our Savior.

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  5. Throughout the Old Testament, God’s glory is most prominently displayed by fire (Mt. Sinai, Solomon’s dedication of the Temple, pillar of fire in the wilderness, etc.). To tell a Jew that they have confidence to approach this God, this Yahweh, is like suggesting that they walk into a bonfire with nothing but shorts and a T-shirt on. Isaiah got just a glimpse of God’s glory and fell on his face, considering himself dead. Even the rare occasion and exclusiveness of entering into the Holy of Holies once a year adds to this picture. A reminder of the sheer power of God’s presence will keep us humbly thankful of His mercy and grace. He already knows our thoughts and desires, so this call to “speak freely” shows His desire for connection and openness. On another note, Dr. Long, it’s interesting that you mentioned the Psalms to demonstrate what confidence in approaching God looks like through heartfelt prayer. For the writers of the Psalms, who lived way before Christ came on the scene, wouldn’t it be strange to their contemporaries that they speak about God in such an intimate way? For us today it’s not unimaginable to want closeness with God – just look at all the great worship hymns written throughout church history. But we live on this side of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. How were the Psalmists so bold?

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  6. In addition to the comments already made, and in the spirit of what this might have meant for the original addressees, I think we have to at least leave room for the possibility that “approaching the throne” refers to mystical ascent akin to the experiences narrated in the ancient Jewish apocalypses (e.g. 1, 2 (and 3) Enoch, Testament of Levi, 3 Baruch, Ascension of Isaiah, Revelation) and related literature (e.g. Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, Thanksgiving Hymns), which of course have their roots in the Prophets (e.g. Isaiah 6; Ezekiel 1). After all, this is what it seems to have meant for “our forerunner” (Heb 6:20) who “passed through the heavens” (4:14), by way of the heavenly tabernacle (9:11), beyond the veil (6:19–20), into the Holy of Holies (9:12, 24), so perhaps something similar is envisaged for his followers at 4:16 (and elsewhere)? The throne to which the author encourages his audience to approach is the heavenly throne to which Jesus has ascended. For Jesus, approaching the throne meant ascending to the highest heaven, why should it mean anything different for his followers? According to Hebrews, the heavens are open.

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  7. What do you mean by “contemporary spirituality”? I doubt that you are making a distinction between the way we seek God today and the way we have sought God in the past (like traditional spirituality), but that is what it sounds like. Although cultures change, the primary way to understand how to seek God is to understand the Bible, especially with concern for the original culture into which it was written. I am firmly convicted that the way we approach God will not change with the ages. The only way into the presence of God is by righteousness. If we are not righteous, we cannot enter God’s presence. With Christ acting as our eternal intercessor (great High Priest), those who have inherited the righteousness of Christ can now stand before God and have fellowship with Him in a way they never were able to before. If you mean modern Christianity, then I will have to say that the way this verse can be applied today is by recognizing the righteousness of Christ. One thing that made the high priest so terrified when entering the Holy of Holies was because he knew that if he was not purified, the Lord would strike him down. Today, we must understand that in the past our impurities and sin kept us from the presence of God, but in Christ, we do not need to be afraid of the Father’s righteous judgement or of approaching His presence, since all He chooses to see is the righteousness of Christ.

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  8. To me, the book of Hebrews seems to be all about the “new” reality of having a Savior who died for our sins, rose from the dead, and gave us a chance to receive salvation. The writer of Hebrews talks a lot about how things are different because of Jesus. One of these things is the fact that we now have someone that lived life among us, whom we can relate to. We have someone
    who isn’t just God, but is a friend, in Jesus. This is why the writer spoke of the ability of believers to go “boldly before the Throne of Grace, or God. I think there are many implications of this. One is that the early believers could
    realize that they could talk to God wherever, whenever. It’s not that they couldn’t before, but Christ’s life, death, and resurrection was a symbol of God’s desire to be close to his people. This also meant that the unnecessary rituals, such as offerings, no longer needed to get in the way of oneness with God. I think that the same implications go for us today as well. We don’t have to worry about temples, offerings, and anything else that gets in the way of an intimate relationship with God. As far as worship is concerned, I think that we can boldly go before God in the ways that we worship him, whether it be with an organ in a church or with a band in a garage.

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  9. It seems clear to me that your description of our access being to the real heavenly Mercy Seat is the author’s intention. This is consistent with the overall message of Hebrews, Jesus is superior to all that belonged to the Old covenant not because the old covenant didn’t have real value, but instead because all of the old covenant to include access to the mercy seat by the high priest was intended to be fulfilled in Jesus. The original hearers must have been struck with the same wonder and amazement that I am, the God who spoke and the universe leapt into existence at His Word, now hears me!

    Tim

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  10. In the Old Testament, the Holy of Holies was reserved only for the High priest to enter into annually. When the topic comes up in Hebrews, the original readers must have been confused. The place where they knew was forbidden to enter save the priest, is now available to go into in a spiritual sense. Jobes says that the original atoning sacrifice in the Holy of Holies was symbolic of the presence of God being with the people of Israel. (Pg. 95) Once the new covenant was in place, people could not only speak to God through Christ’s intercession (Heb. 7:25) but they could “approach the throne” in the sense that they could ask and expect mercy and grace to be shown to them in their time of need. (Heb. 4:16) Since Jesus is the High Priest of the Order of Melchizedek, He had to be blameless and holy to offer a constant connection to God and His infinite grace. Also, after Jesus sacrificed himself, Hebrews says that he sat down at God’s right hand. (Heb. 10:12) Jobes says that this signified Christ “having completed the act of atonement for the sins of humankind.” (Pg. 99)

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  11. This is one of the most profound statements in the Bible. like mentioned, it is an unimaginable statement to make and something even harder for the people at that time wrap their minds around. The writer of Hebrews was probably looked at with the crazy eye when they read that verse. To go into the Holy of Holies, confident that you are accepted and qualified to be there says a lot to the Jews and even for us as long as we understand the cultural background. It’s pretty clear that God wanted the people of Israel to approach God with a astounding sense of respect and awe. God knew what kind of emphasis and significance that would place on his son Jesus, knowing that Jesus made it possible for anyone, anyone, to enter into the Holy of Holies and speak freely to God. This verse alone tells of the amazing power of the blood of Jesus Christ and the power of the Gospel. Jesus was the final high priest and he completed the Job when he sat down at the right hand of God (Jobes, 88).

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