I’ve lost count of how many films I’ve seen in which the tension has been ratcheted up to “climax point extreme,” and the lawyer/spy/police officer has to get into the filing room, secured by some kind of fingerprint/retina scanner/triple vault swirly dial thing, to gain access to the crucial evidence that will save the day/hero/world. Cue percussive music, beads of sweat, unconscious lip biting, and then…access denied. And again…access denied. And once more…
Access Denied. When we see it on the big screen, it’s very entertaining, but when we are faced with such messages in real life, it’s very frustrating. Forgotten your password to get onto a shopping site you used months ago? Access denied. You’re going to have to type those personal details and fill in all those address lines all over again. Left your library card on the kitchen table? Access denied. Forgot to bring your football season ticket? Nothing is getting you through those security turnstiles. Access Denied.
I wonder what Adam and Eve felt when they were driven out of the Garden of Eden, the garden where they had disobeyed their Creator. When they turned and saw the cherubim with the flaming sword turning in all directions to guard the way to the Tree of Life, there could hardly have been a more dramatic image. Access Denied. From flaming sword to flaming bush, Moses was in the wilderness when God spoke to Him through the bush that was aflame—God said “Do not come near” (Exodus 3:5). Holy ground. Access Denied. And when the people of Israel were rescued from slavery in Egypt and met at Mount Sinai where God promised to be their God and they promised to obey His law, they were not allowed to approach the mountain where God descended in fire. Limits were set; they were not to break through; they were not even to touch the edge of the mountain or they would perish (Exodus 19). Access Denied.
Sin. Our therapeutic culture rarely mentions the word, but if there is a vestige of its meaning still about, it is likely concerned with what one person has done to another, man’s inhumanity to man. It might deny you access to your kids, or access to your house, or access to your liberty, but we can still have access to all of these things and lack the access that has eternal significance: access to the One in whose image we are made.
The covenant that God made with Moses and the people of Israel at Mt Sinai included laws to deal with sin. Blood sacrifices had to be made; sin had to be atoned for so the people could be made right with God. On one day especially, the Day of Atonement, the High Priest was to enter the Most Holy Place, the part of the tabernacle and later (after Israel had made it through the desert and settled in the Promised Land) the part of the temple where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. The ark symbolized God’s holy presence among His people, so it was to be approached with reverence and awe. The Most Holy Place was only to be entered once a year and then only by the High Priest. The High Priest had to bathe, put on holy garments, and offer the blood of a bull on the mercy seat, which covered the top of the Ark of the Covenant, to atone for his own sin. Only then could he sprinkle the blood of the goat on the mercy seat to make atonement for the people. This was done once a year, every year. There was a curtain that separated the Most Holy Place from the Holy Place. Only the High Priest could enter through the curtain. Only the High Priest could approach the ark, which symbolized the presence of the Holy God. To everyone else, access was denied.
And then Christ came. If we have grown up hearing about “being saved” or “making Jesus your special friend,” we can miss a whole chunk of understanding about what Jesus Christ has done for us. When we look back to the Old Covenant made at Sinai, we’ll notice that the writer of the book of Hebrews tells us that the sacrifices offered could not truly take away sin: they were visible symbols that showed sin had to be atoned for, that access to the perfect, Almighty God could only be gained by the shedding of blood. But the blood of bulls and goats was not enough and could never be enough. It was the shedding of Christ’s blood that was necessary for mankind to be able to stand once more in the presence of God, as Adam and Eve had done in the Garden of Eden. Only a perfect sacrifice and only One in the likeness of the one who brought sin into the world could restore our access to our Creator and Sustainer.
The gospels tell us of the curtain in the temple being torn in two from top to bottom as Jesus died on the cross (Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45). His sacrifice was sufficient; He has fulfilled the role of the perfect High Priest and the perfect sacrifice once for all. Access is no longer denied; in contrast, we now have the confidence to approach our heavenly Father through the curtain of Christ’s flesh (Hebrews 10:19-22). Through faith in Christ’s sufficient law keeping and sufficient sacrifice for our law-breaking, our access to our Creator has been restored. We did not have access to Mount Sinai. But praise God, because of His love, because of Christ’s curtain splitting sufficiency, because of His gracious gift of faith, we have access to the city of the living God, to the heavenly Jerusalem - access to Mount Zion (Hebrews 12:18-24).
It can sometimes be overwhelming when we think of how America's religious landscape has changed in a relatively short period of time.