In contemporary Christian culture, we hear much talk about having a “personal relationship” with Jesus. Though not the only way to speak of it, this is a reasonable way to describe the covenant our triune God makes with us. Yet, it is important to understand how that relationship is manifested. I have a relationship with my wife that is emotional, intellectual, familial, physical and spiritual. I also have a close relationship with my firstborn, my son, and also with my daughters. All these relationships are close, but different in quality and kind.
None of these relationships, however, happens in a vacuum. All of them depend upon time spent and discussions had and meals eaten and letters written and experiences shared. Our relationship with God is no different. The Gospel in our lives has brought us into relation with God, and that relation is built by the same types of experiences—time spent with God, discussions had in prayer and in silent stillness, waiting upon God, meals eaten together at the Table of our Lord, letters written by God and for God at his inspiration. We share experiences with God as we suffer as Christ suffered; we rejoice with Christ as He rejoiced and rejoices still in the truth, beauty and goodness of His creation.
Notice that the most obvious, concrete expression of our relationship with God is actually in formal worship and in our prayer life. Prayer, praise, thanksgiving, communing—these are relational activities. So what and how does the Gospel actually change our lives by changing our relationship with God?
The Gospel in our lives takes us from outside the Church to inside the Church. The Gospel action in our lives is the action of the Holy Ghost bequeathed to us in our baptism and incorporating us into the Body of Christ, His Church. To be in the Church is to have the privilege of participation. We are allowed to participate in the fullness of the life of the Church in Word and Sacrament. Thus, we ascend the Holy Hill to worship God, and we find that we are not climbing Mt. Sinai, nor any other hill on earth, but Mount Zion. We come “to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the…church of the firstborn…” (Heb. 12:18-24).
This is amazing. Never in the history of the world before Christ was man allowed to come into the very heart of the city of God. Never before was man able to enter into the Holy of Holies, except as represented by the High Priest once a year. In fact, the Holy of Holies in the movable tabernacle days had a curtain around it that contained images of Cherubim, a reminder that the angel still stood at the gates of paradise with a sword. “None shall pass” wasn’t a joke to the Israelites.
Now, however, Christ has made a way for all of us. The Gospel in our lives means that we have access to the Holy of Holies, and it’s not a man-made Holy of Holies. It’s the heavenly Holy of Holies. Jesus is the anchor of our soul, and we are held secure to Him even as He enters the holy place. He makes a way through the veil because His flesh is the veil, and it was torn for us (Heb. 6:19, 10:20).
When we get to the Holy of Holies in the heavenlies, we find that our high priest is a man. Not just any man, of course, but the God-man Jesus Christ who at once sits at the right hand of the father ruling His kingdom, and at the same time is the Great High Priest in the order of Melchizedek, performing a greater liturgy than the liturgy of the Old Covenant (Heb. 8:6). “We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man” (Heb. 8:1-2). This is what the Gospel means for us. This is what it means to have a relationship with Jesus.
The writer to the Hebrews says that Christ’s liturgy is fundamentally greater than the Old Covenant liturgy in two obvious ways. Firstly, our High Priest is offering the best sacrifice ever offered (Heb. 7:27, 9:11-14, 26b-28,). It is a once for all sacrifice continually offered in the Holy of Holies on our behalf (Heb. 7:27, 9:12, 10:10, 7:25, cf. Rom. 8:34); it is, of course, Christ’s self-oblation—offering himself in worship to God for us. It is a sin offering, a whole burnt offering and a peace offering—again, all for us and on our behalf. This is by far a greater act of worship than anything the Old Covenant liturgy had to offer (Heb. 8:6).
The second way Christ’s heavenly liturgy is better than the Old Covenant liturgy is the practical benefit for the people of God. The relationship we have with Jesus ends up being a closer relationship than was available in the Old Covenant. We get to participate in this worship not at a distance, but up close and personal (Heb. 12:18-24). We don’t have to stand at the bottom of Mt. Sinai, like the Old Covenant worshipers, but we participate in this worship on the top of Mt. Zion, in heaven itself. In the liturgy we plead Christ’s sacrifice as our sin offering and we receive forgiveness. Our oblation of ourselves is received because it is offered in and through Christ’s sacrifice as our whole burnt offering. Christ is our peace offering, as well; we find ourselves no longer at enmity with God, and we have peace with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
None of this is possible without the Gospel—the actual historical incarnation, ministry, death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The effects of that Gospel in our lives, the realities behind our words of “relationship with God” point us to heavenly worship—not ethereal or ghostly in the sense that our bodies are not participating, but real worship acted out in our bodies on earth and taking place simultaneously in heaven, where the liturgy of the Church is founded.
This is the greatness of the Gospel of Christ in our lives and in the relationship with Jesus that the Gospel brings about in our lives. We are called to tell others of the great effects of this relationship with Jesus, i.e. we are to call many to the worship of God, to bow the knee in the greater liturgy in which the Messiah, our High Priest, is leading us—not a liturgy just happening on earth, but more importantly, in the Holy of Holies in the Heavenlies.