The grace in which we stand is, that we are sons of God, and priests to God. The true worshippers, as we are taught by our Lord in the fourth chapter of St. John, are those who in the spirit of sonship worship the Father. But there is another relation, besides that of sons, in which we stand to God — an official relation as being his constituted worshippers; taking up the place which Israel once occupied as the only worshipping people in the whole earth, but after an entirely different order. We could not indeed be priests unto God unless we were sons. To be sons of God is our real proper dignity, because we have thereby relationship with God in the highest sense; but this does not hinder our having an official standing before him; and it is this which we would now consider. The common standing of all saints is to be once purged worshippers before God.
The peculiar privilege of Israel was nearness unto God: "Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself." (Exodus 19:4.) This placed Israel, comparatively with all the nations around them, in a priestly standing before God. Hence it is said, "And came and preached peace to you which were afar off [the Gentiles], and to them that were nigh." (Eph. 2:17.) In the time of Israel's declension, when they had become as the nations around them, both in their government and their worship, instead of standing in their original separateness, — the Lord says to them, "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me: seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children." (Hosea 4:6.)
The grace of God had brought Israel unto himself, having led them all the way from Egypt to Sinai. But there they undertook to stand on their own obedience and, on condition of doing so, were to be unto God "a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation." (Ex. 19:5, 6.) They, however, failed immediately in obedience and although relatively, as a nation, they still had nearness to God yet immediately on their failure under the law, a certain number are taken from among the nation to stand in peculiar nearness to God, and the people themselves were consequently thrown at a distance. Thus it was ordered of the Lord unto Moses: "And take thou unto thee Aaron thy brother, and his sons with him, from among the children, of Israel, that he may minister unto me in the priest's office, even Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron's sons." (Ex. 28:1.) They were to "come near unto the altar to minister in the holy place." (v. 43.) It was the privilege of one only to come nearer still, and that was the high priest, to go within the veil. But after the sin of Nadab and Abihu, this privilege was curtailed so far as the frequency of entering it was concerned. "And the Lord spake unto Moses, after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they offered before the Lord and died and the Lord said unto Moses, Speak unto Aaron thy brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the veil, before the mercy-seat, which is upon the ark."
To Israel indeed pertained the service of God (worship), but it was a worship of relative nearness to God. The high priest the nearest, the priests next — these were inside worshippers; the Levites next to them — they were attendants on the priests, and employed about the tabernacle; and then the people, who were outside worshippers, as it is said, "the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense." (Luke 1:10.) But even there, even in the outer court, no Gentile could approach. (Acts 21:28.)
Sacrifice and priesthood are essential prerequisites to worship. How fully was this taught to Jews under the law. They were habitually reminded that there was no acceptable worship but on the ground of the accepted sacrifice; and that they needed the intervention of the priest authoratively to pronounce them cleansed for worship. Hence a Jew under the law rightly connected justification with worship. He could not worship, because guilt attached to him which needed the expiation, or uncleanness which needed the intervention of the priest. The great act, however, which put Israel in the place of a worshipping people, was the sacrifice of the great day of atonement. This was an annual solemnity. "On that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that ye may be clean from all your sins before the Lord. This shall be an everlasting statute unto you, to make an atonement for the children of Israel for all their sins once a year." (Lev. 16:30, 34.) Israel then stood on that day as the worshipping people of the Lord. But they stood not with a purged conscience. That was what their sacrifices never could give; for it is impossible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins. It required other blood to do that, the blood of him who is presented to us in the epistle to the Hebrews as the Son.
But here comes in the great contrast between worship then and now. We need sacrifice and priesthood in order to worship as much as Israel of old; but though worshipping thus on the same ground as they, our worship is of an entirely different order. I say different in its order, as well as essentially different in the dignity both of the sacrifice and the priest.
Of this most important contrast between the worship of Israel under the law, and that of the Church now, we are not left to conjecture or inference. Blessed for us, we have the comment of the Holy Ghost in the tenth chapter of Hebrews, on the remarkable solemnity of the great day of atonement, given for the express purpose of showing that the standing of the true worshipper now is the very reverse of that of Israel under the law. Let us meditate awhile on it.
First, the sacrifices offered under the law never could put those who came to them in the place of constant worshippers (for so "perfect" clearly means in this passage); and this not only because of their intrinsic inefficiency, but also because of their repetition; for had they effected this, they need not be yearly offered, "because the worshippers once purged should have no more conscience of sins." Now mark, to be perfected as a worshipper is to have no more conscience of sins. This is, according to the aspect in which we are now considering worship, to be a true worshipper. Surely this exalts worship very highly. Because thus it is not in any wise the means of our justification, but that for which we are already justified. And how blessedly does the apostle show here, by way of contrast, that the comers unto Christ are made perfect: "By one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified." Israel were perfected for a moment on the day of atonement; but even then not "as pertaining to the conscience;" the blood of their sacrifice could not touch that. (Heb. 9:9.) Their worship, therefore, must have been in "the spirit of bondage unto fear." (Rom. 8:15.) There could have been no boldness (liberty), as we have by the blood of Jesus. (Heb. 10:19.) The unceasing repetition of the sacrifice had only the effect of as unceasingly bringing sin to remembrance. But Christ, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God — not as one expecting to offer sacrifice again, but waiting for his enemies to be made his footstool. And to this we have to add the blessed testimony of the Holy Ghost, in the special promise of the New Covenant — "their sins and iniquities will I remember no more." And therefore there needs no more sacrifice for sin.
The one finished and accepted sacrifice of Christ is therefore of permanent efficacy. There is in it remission of sins to every one that believeth; and he that believeth has not to look for any further sacrifice for sin (v. 17); for if he had, it would bring sin to remembrance, and charge the conscience with guilt. And this is always the case where there is not simple repose of soul on the one finished sacrifice of Christ. Faith sees that the one thing has been done in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, "to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness." And hence, the moment a Jew believed in "the precious blood of Christ," he was in a condition to assert that these were his privileges; as it is written, "Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of Him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light." (1 Peter 2:9.) Thus praise, the highest part of worship, can now be entered on: "I will extol thee, my God, O king, and I will bless thy name for ever and ever. Every day will I bless thee, and I will praise thy name for ever and ever." (Ps. 145.)
While praise is silent for God in Zion, the mouth of the sinner, redeemed to God through the precious blood of the Lamb, is opened to show forth his praises. God himself has created the fruit of the lips, speaking peace to him that is far off, and to him that is nigh.
But to return to our chapter. Liberty of conscience is the very essence of true worship. Not what men call liberty of conscience, but the ability to approach God without any sense of guilt upon the conscience. This, be it observed, is not presuming on innocence neither is it the profession of unconsciousness of sin — for if "I know nothing by myself, yet am I not hereby justified," — but it is the fullest consciousness of and acknowledgment of sin, with the profession (let us hold it fast) that it has been for ever put away by the one sacrifice of Christ offered once for all.
All the gifts and sacrifices offered by a worshipper under the law "could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience." (Heb. 9:9.) He might have approached God strictly according to the ritual prescribed, but it must have been a burdened conscience. No conscience can be at ease before God where any thing depends on what the person himself is doing or has to do. Yea, I would say, not if it had now to depend on what Christ has to do, instead of resting on that which he has already done. The worshipper must be once and for ever purged, or he must have conscience of sin. But only let him by faith follow Christ through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building, by which he hath entered into the holy place: only let him see that it is "not by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood, that he hath entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption;" and where can be the conscience of sin? Christ has not to enter in again, he has no more sacrifice for sin to offer — no other blood to carry in; for where could any be found of like preciousness? All is done once, and once for all; hence the worshipper once purged, and purged by such blood (Heb. 9:14), has no more conscience of sin. He can serve the living God. Nothing now depends on what the worshipper has to do; all hangs on the accomplished sacrifice, the precious blood and permanent priesthood of the Lord Jesus Christ.
But again. When God had to do with Israel, even before he could speak to them to bring them under the covenant, the injunction to Moses was, "Go unto the people, and sanctify them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their clothes: and Moses went down from the mount unto the people, and sanctified the people; and Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God." (Ex. 19.) The people must be sanctified in order to meet God, and sanctified in his own way; as God said when those came near to offer strange fire before him, "I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me." (Lev. 10:3.) Who, after that dread example, would dare to approach God, if he was not sanctified in the way of God's appointment, so that God might be sanctified in him?
Now what do we learn concerning the true worshipper's sanctification now? What concerning God's appointment now for the once purged worshipper's approach to him? "It is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins. Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me: in burnt-offerings and offerings for sin thou hast had no pleasure. Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me) to do thy will, O God. . . . . By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." Thus it is by God's own ordinance that we are sanctified. God's own will in this matter has been done; and therefore are we able to meet him as once purged and sanctified worshippers, put in the place of the holy nation. Those alone who by faith rest in the one accepted, and never to be repeated, offering of the body of Jesus Christ, are constituted God's worshipping people. This unchangeable place of blessing is given them by the express will of God.
Once more to look at the priest. How busy was Aaron! He had not only the yearly sacrifices on the great day of atonement, but he had likewise much to do even daily, that the constituted worshippers might engage in worship. He had the morning and evening sacrifices, besides those which were occasional. He might be called on at any time to offer a trespass-offering, so that he never could have sat down as one who had finished his work, and could look on it with satisfaction.
But what a blessed contrast is here. "Every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins but this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God." This is the position of one who had finished his work, and could look on it with satisfaction, and could present it before God continually. Not like Aaron, expecting to be called on to offer another sacrifice; but, that having been done once for all, "expecting till his enemies be made his footstool: for by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified."
Lastly. The new covenant not only promises the same high privileges as the old, but it secures the attainment of them by the grace of God, when it had been proved they could not be attained by the obedience of the people. "If ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people; for all the earth is mine: and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and an holy nation." This was the tenor of the old covenant — its promises being conditional on their obedience. But "the better covenant," based upon "better promises," speaks thus: "This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them." Here all is done by God himself — and therefore the promises necessarily follow — they become a kingdom of priests and an holy nation. And there is added to that above, "Their sins and iniquities will I remember no more." Thus, therefore, we have the testimony of the Holy Ghost to the truth, that "by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified;" because, "where remission of sin is, there is no more offering for sin."
What amazing knowledge immediately results from the recognition of the one completed sacrifice of Christ; the dignity of his person giving to it its amazing value. Our blessed standing is as a spiritual house, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people, privileged in this, to the exclusion of all others, to be the worshipping people of God on the earth. The place in which God by his own will, Christ by his own work, and the Holy Ghost by his distinct testimony, have set us, is that of worshippers once and for ever purged. Without any conscience of sin; able to approach the very God who can read our hearts without any suspicious fear, lest any thing of guilt should yet be found on us, — any charge of sin not thoroughly purged away. "Blessed indeed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile."
Could an Israelite, coming to God according to the law, be without guile before him? I judge not. Lurking suspicion that God saw in him deeper sin than his offering could atone for, or that he himself might have neglected some prescribed duty, would make him anything but guileless. One, indeed, who came to God by faith, not in the ordered place, but under a fig-tree, might be found in holy confidence with God — an Israelite indeed in whom was no guile. Such was Nathanael, under the divine teaching, immediately recognizing Jesus as Son of God and King of Israel. Surely he is a sample of Israel by and by, under the covenant, taking the place of nearness to God, as a kingdom of priests and an holy nation, by their recognition of Jesus as the Son — the sacrifice and the priest.
The worshipper once purged is a guileless worshipper. Be it known as our portion now, as it will be in glory. Amen.