Who is the Angel with the Incense from the Altar of God? – Revelation 8:3-5

In Revelation 8, an angel takes the censer of incense and hurls it to the earth in anticipation of the judgments about to be revealed. What is thrown to the earth, the fire from the altar or the censer?  Grammatically, there are three verbs, the angel took the censer, filled it, and threw to the earth.  There is no explicit object to the verb threw.

The object of the verb “throw” could be the fire which is scooped up into the censer, or the fire itself. If the fire is the object thrown to the earth, then the background is the daily sacrifice. Exodus 30:8 indicates incense was burned at the evening sacrifice and Ezra 9:5-15 associated prayer with the burning of incense at the evening sacrifice.

In the first or second century AD text 4 Baruch (Paraleipomena Jeremiou, “Things omitted from Jeremiah”), Jeremiah concludes a ten-day series of sacrifices by calling out to God with a sacrifice and the “fragrant odor of incense.”  In his prayer he calls on Michael the Archangel to open the gates for the righteous. Revelation 8:4 says an angel took the incense and smoke from the hand of God. Although it is not clear from Revelation 8 who this angel is, both Jewish and Christian readers would identify Michael as the angel who stands before the Lord (Aune 2:515).

4 Baruch 9:1-4  And those who were with Jeremiah continued for nine days rejoicing and offering up sacrifices for the people. But on the tenth (day) Jeremiah alone offered up a sacrifice. And he prayed a prayer, saying, “Holy, holy, holy, incense of the living trees, true light that enlightens me until I am taken up to you; for your mercy I plead, for the sweet voice of the two seraphim I plead, for another fragrant odor of incense.

Throwing fire down to the earth may be an allusion to Ezekiel 10:2. In Ezekiel, a man dressed in linen takes coals from the altar and flings them over the city of Jerusalem as a sign of judgment. When this is done, a number of apocalyptic images appear, thunder lightning and an earthquake. All of these resonate with Revelation 8:3-5.

If it is the censer which is hurled to the earth, then the background for the image may be the daily worship in the temple. As far as I know, Massyngberde Ford was the first to suggest this (Revelation, 136), I encountered the suggestion through Jon Paulien (Decoding Revelation’s Trumpets, 314).

In the Mishnah tractate Tamid 5:4-6, when the censer was cast down, it made such a loud sound that it was a signal for three things to happen, the first two are worship, the third is that a priest go to the eastern gate to begin dealing with those who need to deal with personal uncleanliness.

Tamid 5:5-6. A. He who won [the right to the ashes with] the firepan took the silver firepan and went up to the top of the altar and cleared away the cinders in either side and scooped up [ashes with the firepan]. B. He came down and emptied them out into that [firepan] of gold. C. About a qab of cinders scattered from it, and he swept them out into the water channel. D. And on the Sabbath, he covered over them with a psykter. E. And a psykter was a large utensil, holding a letekh, and two chains were on it, one with which he pulled to lower it, and one with which it was held firm from above, so that it should not roll. F. And three purposes did it serve: (1) they turn it over on top of cinders; and (2) on a creeping thing on the Sabbath; and (3) they lower the ashes from on the altar with it. 5:6  A. [When] they reached the area between the porch and the altar, one man took the shovel and tosses it between the porch and the altar. B. No one in Jerusalem hears the voice of his fellow on account of the noise of the shovel. C. And three purposes did it serve: (1) a priest who hears its sound knows that his brethren the priests enter in to prostrate themselves, and he then runs and comes along; (2)  and a son of a Levite who hears its noise knows that his brethren, the Levites, enter to say their song, and he then runs and comes along; (3)  and the head of the priestly watch then had the unclean people stand at the eastern gate.

The censer caused catastrophic events to happen. These disturbances are often associated with a theophany, primarily when God reveals himself at Sinai. Richard Bauckham considers the section a conscious reference to the Exodus events, especially given the potential parallels between the plagues and the trumpets (Exod 19:16-18; Ps 68:8; Isa 64:3).

That these apocalyptic phenomenon are all associated with the theophany at Mount Sinai is perhaps a hint at the background for the seven trumpets with follow immediately after this in Revelation. The imagery used for the seven trumpets draw on the plagues on Egypt.

Who Are the Seven Angels in Revelation 8:2?

After the seventh seal is opened, John sees “the seven angels who stand before God.” “Standing before” someone is an idiomatic expression for serving, so this could be translated as “served” the Lord. According to Jewish tradition the angels must be standing because they did not have knees. This is based on Ezekiel 1:7 (cherubim with straight legs).

Who these seven angels? Revelation 9 does not identify them. Are these the “the seven archangels who occupy a very particular role in the angelic hierarchy,” as David Aune suggests? (2:509). On the other hand, Beale finds it “tempting to identify them with the seven guardian angels of the seven churches” (Beale 454). John may have intended these seven angels standing before God to be the seven spirits which were before the throne of God in Revelation 1:4 and 4:5.

Other Second Temple Period literature refer to seven archangels, Michael and Gabriel being among them. For example, in Tobit 12:15, the angel Raphael says, “I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels who present the prayers of the saints and enter into the presence of the glory of the Holy One” (RSV).

The tradition of seven archangels is present in the apocryphal book of Tobit. In Testament of Levi 8 Levi sees seven men clothed in white who prepare him to be a priest.

In 1 Enoch 20, the Greek text has seven angels: Uriel, Raphael, Raguel, Michael, Sariel, Gabriel, and Remeiel (missing in the Ethiopic text, see OTP 1:23–24).

  • Suruʾel, one of the holy angels—for (he is) of eternity and of trembling.
  • Raphael, one of the holy angels, for (he is) of the spirits of man.
  • Raguel, one of the holy angels who take vengeance for the world and for the luminaries.
  • Michael, one of the holy angels, for (he is) obedient in his benevolence over the people and the nations.
  • Saraqaʾel, one of the holy angels who are (set) over the spirits of mankind who sin in the spirit. 7
  • Gabriel, one of the holy angels who oversee the garden of Eden, and the serpents, and the cherubim.

3 Enoch 17 says “There are seven great, beautiful, wonderful, and honored princes who are in charge of the seven heavens. They are, Michael, Gabriel, Šatqiʾel, Šaḥaqiʾel, Baradiʾel, Baraqiʾel, and Sidriʾel.:

However, in Revelation 9 the angels are not named nor are them described as special in any way except they are given the honor of announcing the judgements by blowing on trumpets. There is another series of angels in Revelation 15-16 as the final seven bowl judgements are poured out on the earth.

Michael Heiser, The Unseen Realm (Faithlife Films, 2019)

Michael Heiser is well-known for his books on angels and the supernatural world as well as his Naked Bible podcast. He is a Scholar-in-Residence at Faithlife Corporation. This film is a companion to his book The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Lexham, 2015). Heiser’s PhD dissertation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was entitled “The Divine Council in Second Temple Literature” (2004) and he contributed articles on the Divine Council in the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry, and Writings (InterVarsity Press, 2008), Prophets (InterVarsity Press, 2011) and in the Lexham Bible Dictionary.

Actor Corbin Bernsen is the host of the film, but Heiser does most of the speaking. The video has a wide range of soundbites from other biblical scholars, including Eric Mason, Gary Yates, Darrell Bock and Ben Witherington III. The film runs about an hour and twelve minutes and is well-produced as far as documentaries go. The music is dramatic but not distracting and the general tone of the film inviting. Heiser and the other speakers do not present this material as some great secret suppressed by the church (as most biblical documentaries seem to do these days).

Heiser takes the ancient Near Eastern worldview of the Bible seriously. The imagery used in the Bible for the gods, angels and demons is drawn from the ancient world. There are many examples in the Old Testament where God sits at the head of a “heavenly council” (for example, Psalm 89:5-7, Daniel 7).

In the introduction to the book form of the Unseen Realm Heiser says “What you’ll learn is that a theology of the unseen world that derives exclusively from the text understood through the lens of the ancient, premodern worldview of the authors informs every Bible doctrine in significant ways.” Some of these are very helpful and it is important Bible readers hear the echoes of the ancient world rather than medieval paintings. For example, cherubim is a supernatural throne guardian similar to Assyrian and Babylonian throne guardians.

Heiser describes three supernatural rebellions explain the presence of evil in the world: The Fall in the Garden, the Nephilim, and the Tower of Babel. Although I agree each of these represents a rebellion against God, I am not sure the second two rebellions are on the same order as the Fall. Heiser thinks the sons of Anak were descendants of the Nephilim were the actual target of the Israelite conquest. There are more details on this in the book, but I remain unconvinced the “giants” in the land were the literal descendants of the Nephilim (who presumably survived the flood).

With respect to the New Testament, the demons recognize Jesus, but they are “duped into killing Jesus.” Caesarea Philippi (now called. Banias), in the area of Bashan. According to Heiser, Bashan was ground zero for the worship of demons. Heiser argues this location is the “gates of Hell,” which is why Jesus says the “gates of hell will not prevail” against the church Jesus will build “upon the rock” (Matthew 16:18-19).

Heiser points out Paul reflects the ancient worldview, although there is much more which could be said about the unseen realm in the Pauline letters. Two examples which need more development. First, there are far better descriptions of Paul’s view of the defeat of spiritual powers. For example, Timothy Gombis, The Drama of Ephesians (IVP Academic, 2010), Clint Arnold, The Colossian Syncretism, Power and Magic: The Concept of Power in Ephesians (both now reprinted by Wipf & Stock) and Powers of Darkness (IVP Academic, 1992). Second, the worldview of the Old Testament reflects the ancient near east and this is certainly part of the background for Jewish writers in the New Testament. But Heiser does not take fully take into account the Greco-Roman worldview for the Pauline mission to Gentiles. For residents of Ephesus, the Nephilim the Mesopotamian council of the gods would have been unknown. Readers of Paul’s letters and Revelation (written to Ephesus and Asia Minor) were immersed in the gods of Rome, Artemis and the Imperial Cult.

For some viewers, Heiser takes the ancient worldview far too seriously. I suspect some conservative viewers will be shocked to hear how angels and demons fit into the worldview of the ancient worldview. Like John Walton, Heiser recognizes that the Old Testament adopts and adapts the cosmic geography, divine council, and spiritual beings of the ancient world. But less-than-conservative viewers will find Heiser’s acceptance of these elements as “too literal.” Heiser may describe the worldview of the ancient world accurately, but he actually believes that worldview is an accurate depiction of reality. In fact, this film concludes with a clear presentation of the Gospel.

Much of what Heiser says in the film (and the book Unseen Realm) is accurate description of the worldview of the ancient world. I find his description of sacred space and cosmic geography very helpful and the parallels between Eden, Tabernacle and Temple are important (if not commonly accepted today). There are many details in the film which go too far, such as his view of the role of the giants in Canaan during the conquest, the implication Ezekiel 28 refers to Satan, and the background of Banias for understanding Jesus’s words in Matthew 16. Nevertheless, for many viewers, this film will be a good introduction to the discussion of a biblical theology of angels, demons, spiritual warfare, and the “unseen realm.” Along with Heiser’s book, The Unseen Realm, this film would be good for a small group Bible study or Sunday School class. The website is unclear on licensing (can the film be used for a small group?) and as far as I can see there are no workbooks or other curriculum available at this time. 

Here is the trailer for the film, View clips of the film at FaithlifeTV.

 

 

Books in Apocalyptic – Revelation 5

The metaphor of heavenly books is common in both the biblical and apocalyptic materials. This is a stock image drawn from a court room scene. In Dan 7:10, for example, thrones are set in place and the Ancient of Days takes his place at the head of the court. Once the court was seated, “the books were opened.” Based on the content of these books, the blasphemous “little horn” is thrown into blazing fire. So what is the content of an “apocalyptic book”?

Angel BooksSometimes these books record the names of the redeemed; or conversely, the names of the wicked are “blotted out” of the books. This is probably based on Exodus 32:32–33. In this non-apocalyptic text, the Lord says “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book.” The Psalmist asks God to blot out the names of his oppressors from “the book of the living” (Ps 69:28). Originally this meant a name carved in stone that would be obliterated if the named-person offended the king. Perhaps this was based on a citizenship roll or something of the sort, but the idea a text exists containing the names of those who are part of the kingdom. Isaiah 4:3 some people have been destined to survive in Jerusalem, “everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem.” In 2 Baruch 24:1, the opened books contain both the righteous deeds of the righteous and the wicked deeds of the wicked. These books are opened after a period of oppression, “When horror seizes the inhabitants of earth, and they fall into many tribulations and further, they fall into great torments” (2 Baruch 25:3) after which the messiah comes.

In other apocalyptic contexts books contain hidden secrets sealed up to be revealed at the appropriate time. In Daniel 12:9-10 there are secrets sealed up in a book “until the end of time.” In Rev 10:4 John was prepared to write down what the seven thunders said, but he is told to “seal it up” and not writer it down. The seven thunders are therefore some hidden secret not to be revealed at that time. There are examples of this phenomenon in other apocalyptic books as well. In 1 Enoch, the seer has a great deal more revealed to him that he is permitted to write at that time,.

1 Enoch 81:1-2 Then he said unto me, “Enoch, look at the tablet(s) of heaven; read what is written upon them and understand (each element on them) one by one. So I looked at the tablet(s) of heaven, read all the writing (on them), and came to understand everything. I read that book and all the deeds of humanity and all the children of the flesh upon the earth for all the generations of the world.

In an expansion on the biblical story. Jubilees 32.20–22, at Bethel Jacob is given seven tablets determining everything that would happen to his sons in the future.

Jubilees 32.20–22 And Jacob watched until he went up into heaven. And he saw in a vision of the night, and behold an angel was descending from heaven, and there were seven tablets in his hands. And he gave (them) to Jacob, and he read them, and he knew everything which was written in them, which would happen to him and to his sons during all the ages.”

But more commonly the books contain the sins of the person under judgment. In Jude 4 the judgment against the false teachers was written down (προγράφω) long before they secretly crept into the churches. In the Animal Apocalypse, the names of the good and bad shepherds are carefully recorded in books for future judgment (1 Enoch 89:62; 90:14-22). In 1 Enoch 104:7 sins are investigated and “written down every day.” In Jubilees 5:13-14 sins are carefully written down and judgments are “are ordained, written, and engraved.”  Describing the judgment awaiting the sins of Lot’s daughters, the writer of Jubilees says:

 Jubilees 16:9 “And behold it is commanded and it is engraved concerning all of his seed in the heavenly tablets so that he will remove them and uproot them and execute their judgment just like the judgment of Sodom and so that he will not leave seed of man for him on the earth in the day of judgment.”

Bringing this back to the throne room in Revelation 5, the scroll functions similarly the last category in that the opening of the scroll subjects the world to judgment. The final judgment is the coming of the Messiah to set up thrones and render justice (Rev 20:1-6). By taking the Hebrew Bible as the immediate background and tracing the development of a metaphor in the Second Temple Period apocalypses, we are more likely to understand the metaphor as John intended.

Who are the “Four Living Creatures” in Revelation 4?

Like the 24 elders, the four “living creatures” worship God at his throne (Rev 4:6b-8a). The NIV places these creatures “in the center, around the throne.” This reflects the difficulty of the syntax of this line in Greek. It could mean they are simply in the immediate vicinity of the throne, near the throne.

Most scholars think John’s vision draws on the throne room vision from Ezekiel 1-2. If this is true, then these creatures in Rev 4 are cherubim. In Ezekiel the four creatures are a part of the throne of God, more or less the “wheels” of the Throne-Chariot of God. There are, however, a number of differences between these creatures and Ezekiel 1-2. The four creatures are described as having similar other-worldly features. They are “full of eyes,” or “eyes all around.” This is similar to Ezekiel 1; the cherubim are “wheels within wheels, full of eyes.” But the description is also slightly different; the faces are not quite the same in Revelation.

Thirteenth century ivory carving of Christ surrounded by the four living creatures from the MusŽe national du Moyen-åge

Thirteenth century ivory carving of Christ surrounded by the four living creatures from the Muse national du Moyen-åge

It is possible the description in Revelation recalls something of Ezekiel, but also may have been influenced by other developments in Jewish thinking about angels. One possibility is that John intended to make a reference to archangels. In the Hebrew Bible, there are no archangels, although Gabriel (Dan 8:16, 9:21, Luke 1:18, 26) and Michael (Dan 12:1, Jude 9) are two specific, named angels given that distinction in later Jewish documents. “Archangel” does appear in Jewish literature, but it is perhaps not the right designation for these angels.

It is possible these many-eyed creatures are apocalyptic “watchers.” In some apocalypses written well before the first century, there is a category of angelic being who are designed by God to “witness” everything (1 Enoch 1:5, Jubilees 4:15; 8:3; 10:5). According to 1 Enoch 6-36, some of these angels came down to earth and taught humans sinful practices (like making war and sorcery, but also medicine and cosmetics, 1 Enoch 8). They also had relations with human women and created “the giants.” Michael and Gabriel (along with Surafel or Uriel, depending on the manuscript of 1 Enoch) “observed carefully from the sky” all of this wickedness and called out to the Most High to judge these angels and to destroy the wickedness they had caused (1 Enoch 9-10). The result, of course, is the flood (and a blockbuster Hollywood film).

The Targum on Ezekiel has an expanded description of the cherubim. In Tg. Ezek. 1:6 the angelic beings face four faces, each of which have four faces, sixteen to each creature, with sixty-four faces in all. This kind of elaboration is also found in 3 Enoch 21:1-3:

R. Ishmael said: The angel Metatron, Prince of the Divine Presence, said to me: There are four creatures facing the four winds. Each single creature would fill the whole world. Each of them has four faces and every single face looks like the sunrise. 2 Each creature has four wings and every single wing would cover the world. 3 Each one of them has faces within faces and wings within wings. The size of a face is 248 faces, and the size of a wing is 365 wings. 4 Each creature is crowned with 2,000 crowns and every crown is like the rainbow; its brightness is as the brightness of the sun’s orb and the rays which shine from each separate crown are as the brightness of the morning star in the east. (P. Alexander, OTP 1: 277)

Each of the four creatures has a different appearance. Only the third is said to have the “face” of a man, but based on Ezekiel 1 it may be that only the face is in mind. A major difference between these four creatures and Ezekiel 1 is that each creature has a different face, while Ezekiel 1 describes four creatures with four faces each. These creatures have wings like the Seraphim of Isaiah 6 and they worship God is a very similar manner as the Seraphim, but other characteristics (such as the faces and eyes, etc.) are similar to Ezekiel.

AliensMany attempts have been made to ferret out some meaning of the four faces, some more serious than others. The church fathers usually tried to find the four gospels in the faces, but never really agreed on which gospel was intended. It is probably best to agree with the majority of modern commentaries and see these faces as referring to the highest creature in four categories, wild animal, domestic animal, flying animal, and man.

We can know for certain these creatures lead worship in heaven (Rev 4:6-9; 5:8-9, 19:4) and they appear to be associated with the throne of God. In Rev 6:1-7 they will announce the coming of the four horsemen after each seal is opened, and in 15:7 one of these creatures gives the seven bowls of God’s wrath to the angels who pour them out on the earth (16:1).

 

Who are the 24 Elders in Revelation 4?

The 24 elders in Revelation 4-5 are a good test-case for methods of interpretation in this unusual book. What is important in this vision is the worship God receives from all of creation. Is the number 24 significant?

William Blake, Throne of GodThere are a few unusual views for the 24 elders we should probably set aside early on. For example, some have taken the number 24 as the 24 books of the Old Testament. (This is mentioned by Greg Beale, although he does not advocate for this view, Revelation, 326). The evidence for this view is The Gospel of Thomas 52. There Jesus says that there were 24 prophets who spoke to Israel, meaning the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible.  This means the “elders” are the book which the Lamb fulfills in his death and resurrection. Ford identified the 24 as the “great men of the faith” listed in Sirach 44-49, although few have been persuaded by her argument. Henry Morris argued the rather unique view that the 24 elders are the 24 ancestors of Christ, Adam to Pharez (The Revelation Record).

In most cases, the 24 elders are either angles or humans.  David Aune sorts commentators into these two categories. If they are humans, then there are several possibilities to identify who those humans might be.

The Elders are Angelic beings. No other human beings are present when John is called up to heaven.  Isaiah 24:33 may refer to angels as elders and  Psalm 89:7 describes God enthroned among his “council.” Colossians 1:16, Eph 3:10 and 6:12 refer to angelic hierarchy as “thrones. There are several places in Revelation in which the elders re-appear.  In each of these verses it seems unlikely that humans are in view (5:8, 7:13-14, etc.)

This is a tradition, beginning with Old Testament texts and extending into the apocalyptic literature, of God’s counsel as consisting of angels. That these are angels is consistent with the general apocalyptic images gathered together in this chapter.

Sepher ha-Razim 1.8  Within, three princes sit on their thrones; they and their raiment have an appearance like fire and the appearance of their thrones is like fire, fire that gleams like gold, for they rule over all the angels of fire. (Cited by Aune, 1:61)

The Apoc. Zeph. A  And a spirit took me and brought me up into the fifth heaven. And I saw angels who are called “lords”, and the diadem was set upon them in the Holy Spirit, and the throne of each of them was sevenfold more (brilliant) than the light of the rising sun. (And they were) dwelling in the temples of salvation and singing hymns to the ineffable most high God. (Cited by Aune, 1:61).

If the scene in heaven is a “heavenly temple,” then the 24 elders may be a reference to the 24 priests / Levites who lead  worship in Solomon’s temple.

The 24 elders are humans. In support of the 24 elders as humans, commentators usually note that angels are never called elders anywhere else in scripture (Isaiah 24:33 is a debated passage.)  In addition, the white clothing and crown are promised to the churches of Asia Minor if they “overcome.” There are three variations on this view. First, the Elders may represent the Church. The letters to the seven churches were all addressed to the “angel” of the church.  This is an indication that an angel might represent a church.  Here, these heavenly inhabitants represent the church of this age.  Several classic dispensationalists have held this view, including Ryrie (Revelation 36) and John F. Walvoord Revelation (107). In fact, Walvoord entitles chapter 4 “The Church in Heaven” because they are rapture before the time referred to by this chapter.

Second, the Elders may represent Israel. The 24 thrones are based on the 24 priest in David’s temple (1 Chron. 24:3-19 or the 24 Levites in 1 Chron5:6-31, cf. Josephus, Ant 7:363-367).

Qoh. Rab. 1.11 In the Hereafter, however, the Holy One, blessed be He, will number for Himself a band of righteous men of His own and seat them by Him in the Great Academy; as it is said, “Then the moon shall be confounded and the sun ashamed for the Lord of hosts will reign in mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and before His elders shall be glory” (Isa XXIV, 23). It is not written here “Before His angels, His troops, or His priests” but “before His elders shall be glory.”

Tanhuma, Shemot 29   The Holy One, blessed be He, will in the future cause the elders of Israel to stand as in a threshing floor, and He will sit at the head of them all as president and they will judge the nations of the world.

Third, the Elders may represent the Old Testament and New Testament Saints. For some, the 24 thrones are twelve for the 12 tribes of Israel and 12 for the 12 apostles. Occasionally this is expressed as “the church of all ages,” or as Swete thought, the elders represent “the church in its totality” (Revelation, 68-69). An a-millennial interpretation of Revelation would naturally see the Old and New Testament believers as the same church

One other possibility is that the elders are human, but the image is designed as a parody of the 24 lictors (bodyguards) who normally accompanied the Emperor Domitian. Suetonius described Domitian as follows:   “He presided at the competitions in half-boots, clad in a purple toga in the Greek fashion, and wearing upon his head a golden crown with figures of Jupiter ,Juno, and Minerva, while by his side sat the priest of Jupiter and the college of the Flaviales, similarly dressed, except that their crowns bore his image as well.” (Aune 1:292)

While it is probably better to avoid dogmatism on this point, my understanding of the 24 elders is that they are angels who worship God before his throne. This might overlap with the lictors in a Greco-Roman throne room scene. Since there is a distinction between the elders and the “saints” later in the book, this identification seems best. In this case the number 24 (12 and 12) might not be significant for interpreting the imagery.

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?