This Sunday morning we have the opportunity to do something unique, life-changing, vitally important to every facet of our life, and also mysterious: We can draw near to God. James 4:8 says, "draw near to God, and he will draw near to you." The author of Hebrews calls us to "draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith" (10:22).
But in that phrase, "draw near to God," is also a bit of a riddle, isn't there? How can you "draw near" to an omnipresent God? It's like telling someone to "draw near" to the air. How can you do that? It's all around you. It's impossible not to be near it.
Yet, when the Bible says that we are to draw near to God, it doesn't mean to go from being far away from something to being close to it. That's how I draw near to the ocean: I drive two hours, park the car, walk across the beach, and then I can dip my toes in the ocean.
The phrase in the Bible is a very physical phrase with a very spiritual meaning. It is really a metaphor for something profound and mysterious, but to get at that meaning we have to go back to the Old Testament for a second.
The phrase is rooted in the old covenant tabernacle where there were curtains to separate the normal places of life and the normal places of worship. There was an outer court that you would step into to make your offerings, but at a certain point you would hand your offering to a priest who would then place it on the altar on your behalf. There was an even holier place inside a second set of curtains and barriers. Inside this holy place a few priests could go to make even more special offerings. But the holiest of all places was called "the most holy place" (Ex. 26:34). Inside this holiest of places was the ark of the covenant with the cherubim above it. And it was inside here that God's presence remained with the people of God: "Let them make a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst" (Ex. 25:8).
This holiest of all places was also the most restricted of all places. Only the high priest could enter here—and he could only enter once per year on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16). He went on behalf of the people of God.
Everything changed with the cross of Christ, however. When Jesus died on the cross the very curtain that separates the world from the holiest of all places was torn in two: "And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom" (Matt. 27:51). This is why the author of Hebrews exhorts us to boldly enter into the most holy place:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 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. Heb. 10:19-22
So, no longer do we draw near by going to a physical place with a physical "most holy place." Now we draw near "by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh." We draw near by going through faith in Jesus Christ.
This is vital to see. There is no traveling from far away to near. We are there—because of Jesus. There is no earning or deserving or working to gain access. We are there—because of Jesus. There is no purifying ourselves to get clean so we can approach God. We are there—because of Jesus. Jesus has done all that is required for us to draw near. He has removed every obstacle for us.
But the phrase is far from an empty one. It points to a vital action that we must do whenever we "draw near to God." It is not drawing near physically, but it is to draw near in awareness. We draw near in active faith. We draw near with hearts and feelings and minds fully engaged with God and centered on him.
It's like standing before a masterpiece at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. This summer our family went and I stood before the actual brush strokes that Monet and Renoir and Andrew Wyeth made on their canvases. Now the point in going to such a gallery is not to physically stand in front of the masterpieces—you know stand right in front of it but to be checking your smartphone the whole time. The point is just to really see them. To be aware of them. To feel the sheer power of the artists' rendition of what they were seeing, and to feel that emotion.
We can also think of the drawing near that we do when we go out to dinner with someone we love. The point in the end is not to be four feet away from the person. Everyone knows you can be four feet away from the physical presence of someone and yet a million miles away in your hearts. The point is to truly draw near to them. To be aware of their presence. To have your mind and heart engaged by them. That's why we go on such dates with people.
So this Sunday we gather to draw near to God. We do it as a family of believers united together in Christ. But we also do it as individual Christians whom God is calling to draw near in a special and personal way. He wants our hearts and minds and attention to be fully centered on him. And when we do that he will do something amazing: "He will draw near to you" (James 4:8).