Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 10, Number 17, April 20 to April 26 2008

Hebrews 4:14-16

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

Imagine that you are with a group of hikers making your way through a dense and dangerous jungle. It has been many days, your supplies are running low, some of your team has contracted some sort of strange fever and, to make matters worse, you are not really sure where you are or how to get out. Suddenly you come upon a huge ravine, maybe a mile across. On the other side, you can make out the outline of a small city. Looking to your left and right, you can see no way over to the other side. So, you begin to shout across the distance, not knowing if anyone can hear you and, if they could, not knowing whether they would even be able to understand you at all. You are quite sure that what you need could be found on the other side, but you have no way of getting across and no way of knowing whether your cries for help are being heard.

What you need is someone who, firstly, can get across this impossible gap and, secondly, who understands your situation and can communicate that clearly and effectively to those who have the power and authority to provide you with the help you require.

That is what you need. Whether you get it or not is another matter altogether!

We are continuing this morning in our study of the Letter to the Hebrews, picking up at verse 14 of chapter 4 and working through to verse 16 of the same chapter. If one was pressed to try and summarize what this letter is about in one word, that word would have to be "better." If you were allowed three words, then the summary would be "Christ is better." Because what the author of Hebrews is trying to do is demonstrate to his readers the uniqueness and superiority of Jesus. And the reason he is doing this is because the people to whom he is writing are under a great deal of pressure to abandon their Christian faith and, as part of that process, to change their minds about Jesus.

Now, judging from the contents of this letter, it would seem that the original recipients were either Jewish themselves — some of them even former priests —- or were at least familiar with the teachings of the Old Testament. Additionally, it would appear that some of them had been influenced not only by the Old Testament, but also by other writings and teachings that were going around in that day, particularly strange teachings about angels.

So, the particular shape of the abandonment to which these people were being tempted was most likely to leave behind Jesus and the Christian faith and either turn, or return to beliefs and practices which were shaped largely by the Old Covenant system of priests and temples and sacrifices — with some other extraneous ideas thrown into the mix.

So far, the approach that the writer has taken to stop people from drifting away into these things has been to show Jesus' superiority to anything his readers might be tempted to abandon Jesus for. Thus far, the writer has shown that, as the supreme revelation of God and as the exact likeness of God, Jesus has brought them a revelation that is fuller and clearer than anything they have received through the Old Testament prophets. Further, the writer has shown how Jesus is clearly not an angel and is superior to them in every way.

Finally, as we saw last week, the writer of Hebrews wants us to see that as great and godly and important as Moses was and has been, and continues to be, for the purposes of God, Jesus is superior to even one who was as faithful and greatly used of God as Moses.

In the section before us this morning, the Holy Spirit through the writer puts his energies into showing Jesus' superiority in yet another way — his superiority as high priest to any other high priest that has ever been - or could ever be. Now this argument, which begins here at 4:14, actually runs all the way through chapter 10, easily taking up the largest portion of this letter. So, just in terms of sheer volume then, it would seem that this is the point the writer is most concerned to get across. This area of Jesus' superiority is the one that he feels the greatest need to challenge his readers in. Why is this the case?

Well, obviously because the people to whom he was writing placed a huge significance on the person and work of the High Priest as outlined in the Book of Leviticus. One commentator puts it this way, part of the Mosaic economy had taken a stronger hold of the imaginations and affections of the Jews than the Aaronical High-priesthood, and that system of ritual worship over which its occupants presided. The gorgeous apparel, the solemn investiture, the mysterious sacredness of the high priest, the grandeur of the temple in which he ministered and the imposing splendour of the religious rites which he performed — all these operated like a charm in riveting the attachment of the Jews to the now over-dated economy, and in [inducing or] exciting powerful prejudices against that simple, spiritual, unostentatious system by which it had been superceded.....
So, the writer of Hebrews knew that of all the things in their former life and practices, the area where his readers would most be tempted to return and to doubt the superiority of Jesus would be in this area of the High Priest and his work with regard to the Temple and the Old Testament sacrificial system. Accordingly, the writer of Hebrews puts his greatest energies toward making his case here. And with that as an introduction, let us hear the passage and pray together:
Hebrews 4:14-16 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
In this brief passage, we are going to be looking at two things. Firstly, we are going to see a couple things about Jesus as high priest, as compared to an ordinary human high priest. Secondly, we are going to see what that means for his people in terms of what they should do and what they can expect.

For starters, then, let us turn our attention to what we can learn in these verses of Jesus' high priesthood as compared to that of other ordinary priests under the Old Testament system. Because we are thinking about this whole matter of the Old Testament and priesthood, it is perhaps helpful to make a couple background comments for those who might not be familiar with these things.

As you may or may not know, the plotline of the Bible begins in the Book of Genesis where God creates a world and all its inhabitants, including the people made in his image, and to whom he gave certain responsibilities to multiply his images and manage his creation on his behalf. These people, our ancestors, sadly, rebelled against God and, as humankind's representatives, plunged themselves and all who descended from them into a state of brokenness and sin. While this sinfulness had many effects, its greatest effect was to sever the relationship between humanity and God, turning them from being God's friends to being God's enemies.

Dealing with this problem is what the rest of the Bible's plotline is all about. God's ultimate solution to the problem of humankind's sin and rebellion was to send his Son, Jesus, to take on human flesh and so take upon himself, in a representative capacity, the penalty of sin and so reconcile people God's people back to himself.

However, God did not send his Son straightaway to deal with the problem. In his wisdom, and for reasons that we can never fully know or understand, God determined that he would send his Son only after the passage of a certain amount of time and only after He had prepared the way for his Son's coming. This is one way of summarizing what the Old Testament is about. It is the time of preparation for the coming of God's Son and, as such, is full of events and realities which always have a two-fold purpose. The first purpose was tied to the time and circumstances in which these realities occurred. The second purpose was to point beyond themselves to something that was to come, and of which they themselves were only a mere shadow.

And so, for example, as part of the preparation for his Son's coming, God instituted a system of priests, and a temple and sacrifices which served a purpose for the people to whom he gave them and yet which looked beyond themselves to things that God would more fully accomplish through the sending of his Son. As such, the Old Testament system was something that had a real purpose and meaning. It accomplished something for the people of God. The sacrifices that were made had a real effect with regard to God's rightful anger against sin.

At the same time, what they accomplished was at best partial and impermanent. How can we illustrate that? Well, imagine that you want to build a house. Now if you were going to build a house, and you were going to do it properly, then you are going to need some blueprints. The blueprints are not the house itself. You cannot move into a set of blueprints and set up your home. Indeed, if the project never moves beyond the blueprint stage, then, in the end, the blueprints do not accomplish anything, do they? Well, hopefully, your project does not get stuck in the blueprint stage but actually goes on to become a reality and so you hire a contractor and eventually a house begins to appear on a previously vacant block of land.

Now, in that situation, the blueprints are important. It matters that you have them. They point the way forward to the future reality. But they only really mean something when that future reality comes into view, when the project begins to take shape. Their value and worth is all tied up in that second phase of the project.

Now all analogies have flaws, and I am sure you can find them in this one. But the flaws notwithstanding, that analogy is a picture of something of how the Old Testament system of sacrifices relates to what God accomplished through Jesus. The Old Testament sacrificial system of priests and temples did accomplish something. It did address the penalty of our sin in a partial or symbolic and impermanent sort of way. However, left to itself, the Old Testament system would never be enough to fully deal with the consequences of human sin. For the consequences of sin to be FULLY dealt with would require something other than the blood of mere bulls and goats.

Enter Jesus. The Old Testament system was like the blueprint in our analogy: pointing us forward, paving the way ahead and showing what sort of thing was going to be required because of the reality of human sin. So the Old Testament system was like the blueprint, and Jesus is like the real construction that takes place and which makes that which the blueprint merely pointed to, a reality.

So, while we are getting a little ahead of ourselves here, I want you to see that the Old Testament storyline is one of preparation for the time of Jesus' coming. And this especially applies to the whole system of priests and temples and sacrifices. Through this system God was showing us some important things that had a significance for their own day, but which would have an even greater one later on. In particular, the Old Testament system, as Peter Adam points out, showed us that:

1) Although [sinful] people must not [and indeed cannot] directly approach the presence of God, God can provide a mediator to be their representative.

2) Forgiveness is costly; the use of a sacrificial animals is a reminder that the punishment for sin is death.

3) Acceptable sacrifices for sin can only be offered by a priest appointed by God.

4) If the right sacrifice has been offered, then the people are certainly forgiven, as God has promised.

5) Atonement, and the resulting forgiveness and fellowship, is external to the people and an objective reality.

All of these things, and more, God showed his people through the Old Testament revelation. However, as we have seen, these things were the shadow, and not the reality. They were the partiality, not the fullness of things to come. The problem for the people whom the writer of Hebrews is addressing is that they were being tempted to retreat from the one to whom the shadows were pointing - to move from the reality to embracing the shadows themselves. They were being tempted to abandon the fullness of what God was doing for that which was only ever meant to be temporary and partial. And thus the writer of Hebrews presses home some things about Jesus which demonstrate that his priesthood and work are greater and fuller than the shadows which point to them.

Chapter 4, verse 14, is the beginning of this extended argument that continues through chapter 10,

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.....
Now, on the surface, this may seem to be a pretty timid beginning to such an important argument. But you have to remember that the writer is talking to people that have some familiarity with the OT and so feels free to make his points without the sort of elaboration that might be more helpful to persons such as ourselves. So, let us unpack this a little bit.

To get the full impact of this statement about Jesus being the high priest that has "passed through the heavens" — to get the full impact of that you have to think again about the Old Testament context that lies behind it.

The Book of Leviticus describes the various activities and responsibilities of the High Priest. One of the main activities of the High Priest was to, once a year, go into the presence of God as the representative of the people and offer an atoning sacrifice for their sins. In doing this, the priest would pass through the various courts of the Temple until he came to the inner most court - the Holy of Holies - a place that remained unoccupied the other 364 days of the year. He only went on this one day, and only for a brief time, and then it was over.

Remember what I said about how the things of the Old Testament serving a purpose for the people in their own time but also pointing beyond themselves to greater realities? This applies to the Temple itself, which in a symbolic way, represented the dwelling place of God in the heavens. So, just as the temple had various courts including an inner one that was the most sacred and special of all, so too was there this conception of heaven as containing various "layers" or levels. As N.T. Wright reminds us, you see this sort of thinking reflected in place such as 1 Kings 8:27, in Solomon's prayer when he says,

But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built.
You also see it in Paul's statement in 2 Corinthians 12:2, where he writes,
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up in the third heaven - whether in the body or out of the body I do not know...
Other commentators suggest that, rather than speaking of levels or layers in heaven, these words are reflecting the sort of thinking that sees the sky above us as the first heaven, the universe and the stars beyond as the second heaven, and the dwelling place of God as the third heaven. Either one of those are exegetical possibilities. But we do not need to nail that point down in order to see what the writer of Hebrews is getting at. He is drawing a contrast between the movement of the high priests under the Old Testament system, and that of Jesus as our great high priest.

Whereas the high priests in the Old Testament system only passed through the courts of the Temple - which was only an earthly shadow of heavenly realities, Jesus passed through the heavens themselves - referring to his Resurrection and Ascension, and into the inner most courts of God in heaven. Further, while the Old Testament high priests only went before God's presence in the Holy of Holies for one day a year - and even then only for a brief time - Jesus has entered, permanently, into the very presence of God, in His Royal Throne Room. He is there today. He is there right now.

How much better served we are with Jesus as our High Priest? Could there be a better situation than that? That fact, all by itself, is enough to demonstrate the vastly superior nature of Jesus' high priesthood. But the writer of Hebrews gives us another reason in these short verses why Jesus' priesthood is superior,

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
Another reason that Jesus is superior to any high priest that has come before, is because while he took on our humanity, and faced the same sorts of temptations that you and I face, he nevertheless did so without sinning, without giving into them. Every high priest that had come before knew what it was like to be human and to deal with the things we deal with in this fallen world. Every high priest knew what it was like to be faced with various temptations to sin. Jesus knew these things too and thus, in those respects, was exactly the same as the priests who had come before him.

Now on this point some may feel a need to object, or at least ask a question: Is it true that Jesus actually experienced the same sorts of temptations as us and, if so, would not that mean that he was not completely holy nor completely free from sin? And the short answer to that is, NO, it would not mean those things at all. Moreover, it would be a huge problem if it did since it would mean that Jesus would need to make atonement for himself, just like every other high priest, and thus no better than any of them. But temptation to sin, is not sin itself. As one commentator has said,

...temptation itself is neutral. To be tempted indicates neither virtue nor sinfulness; for the proper connotation of temptation is testing, or proving, and virtue is in the resistance and overcoming of temptation whereas sin is in yielding and capitulation....
And as Peter Adam adds,
...Sin comes about when we indulge the temptation, court it, chase it, or give in to it. It is frustrating to be tempted, but temptation to sin is not itself sin...
So, yes, Jesus was tempted, in the same sorts of ways that we are - He was tempted to doubt his Father's goodness and wisdom. He was tempted to disobey his Father. He was tempted to abandon His Father's plans and purposes and build His own kingdom. He was tempted to selfishness and self-indulgence. He was tempted in all the ways that we are.

Nevertheless, it is not his being tempted that set him apart as a priest. Every priest was tempted. What sets Jesus apart as high priest was that he was tempted, yet without sin. He never gave into temptation. Not once. Not even for a moment. Not in his mind. Not with his body.

Now, again, someone might object at this point. Someone might say that since Jesus never sinned, then he could not really or fully understand what it is like for the rest of us as people who DO sin and fail and feel the shame and guilt of that. Someone might say that it is the priest that HAS sinned as we have sinned who can really relate to us and who can serve us better in that regard as our priest.

However, to objections such as that I would say I disagree. In the strongest possible terms I would disagree with that, for several reasons:

1) In saying that only one who has experiential knowledge of sin can understand what it is like, you are forgetting the perfect, boundless knowledge of the Creator, which Jesus in his divinity and as One with the Father and Spirit would share, and which, it seems to me, would circumvent such supposed limitations.

2) Secondly, and more importantly, sin does not make us better people. Sin does not make us more human. Quite the opposite. Sin hardens our hearts, makes us self-centered, careless of others. If, theoretically speaking, Jesus HAD sinned, it would not, in the end, have made him a more sympathetic high priest. It would not make him more capable but less capable. His capacity for love would not be increased but severely diminished. Sin would have the same corrupting effect that it has on us.

3) Thirdly, and more importantly, the fact that he never gave in is the very thing that causes him to understand sin and temptation better than any person who has ever lived. Why? C.S. Lewis has made this point far better than I ever could when he said,

...a silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means...
Now that is right, isn't it? So, Jesus, as we learn in these verses, is superior as high priest to any other that has come before. Firstly, because he has passed through and into the reality of God's presence in a way that no merely human priest ever did. And secondly, because he understands the reality of the human predicament with regard to temptation and sin better than any person ever has, or ever will.

Now, on the basis of just those two realities, the writer of Hebrews talks about certain things that we, as God's people, can do and expect. Notice in this that it is theology or doctrine that drives his practical applications. It is because of these theological truths about Jesus and his High Priesthood that the writer urges certain things upon his readers. Let us very quickly see what those things are:

1) Because of these truths about Jesus as High Priest, we can and must hold fast our confession as Lord and Savior. Remember the purpose of this letter? To stop the drift? The writer of Hebrews shows the superior nature of Jesus High Priesthood so that people will stop drifting away. Thinking of our opening illustration of the people and jungle and the impassable ravine, Jesus is the one who understands exactly what it is like to be one of us, because he was/is one of us in his humanity and because he was a better one of us than we have ever been. Not only that, but this one who so perfectly understands our need, has bridged a gap that we never could and has the permanent ear of His Father in heaven, sitting at his Right Hand.

2) But not only must we hold fast our confession, we can and must also draw near to God's throne of grace with confidence. This is the opposite of drifting away. Because of what Jesus has done as our High Priest, we can do what no one in biblical times would ever have dreamed of doing - we can draw near to the King of Heaven, we can march straight into the throne room, without fear of reprisal, without fear that we might bring upon ourselves God's wrath and anger.

Practically speaking, that means that when we come before God, we can do so with a confidence - not arrogance, mind you - but with a real confidence that it is our right and privilege to bring our concerns before God himself and to expect that he not only will hear us, but that his hearing means that we will indeed receive mercy and find help in our time of need.

To be sure, our confident approach to God does not mean that he is required to give us what we ask, or to do things in the way we hope or suggest. Nor does it mean that we will be free from or even delivered from every harm. But even in these providentially hard places, even when God allows us to walk through a particularly dark valley, there is still comfort to be found. As one writer puts it, and I close with this,

...the most remarkable thing is that in the full acceptance of these [difficult sorts of realities] Christians continue to believe in the mercy of Christ, continue to believe that their prayers have been heard, continue to draw consolation from the fact that they have a merciful high priest who has been touched with the feeling of our infirmities. I tell you, it is the great story of this world, how God's people draw comfort from Christ when the entire world is telling them it does not exist, when their own experiences remain sorrowful and painful to a great degree, when they cannot see, hear, or feel that Christ has heard their prayers and granted the relief that they have sought from him at the throne of grace. Great multitudes of the world's finest people have been absolutely sure that they have been the beneficiaries of Christ's sympathy even though their sorrows and difficulties have hardly been removed. This is the power and the life-preserving effect of true faith in Jesus Christ. This is the evidence of his working in our hearts and lives.

This is the proof that his promises are true and will never fail. Now hear me. I am not saying that the Lord does not often, wonderfully, surprisingly, magnificently, even immediately come to the rescue of his children in times of trouble and lift them up, provide for all their wants, grant them the desires of their hearts, annihilate their sorrows. He does. He often does.... But, what I am saying is that the greater proof of the truth of his love and sympathy lies here: when the outward circumstances do not change and the agonies continue and yet the believer knows that Christ is there; his love and sympathy surround him or her, and are underneath like everlasting arms.

Because we have a high priest who has passed through the heavens, who has been tempted as we are, yet without sin, because of those things we must hold fast our confession, not drift away and, indeed, draw near, with confidence to the throne of God, fully expecting that we will receive mercy and find help - in countless different ways - in our time of need.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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