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 cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need. For every high priest taken from among men is appointed on behalf of men in things pertaining to God, in order to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins; he can deal gently with the ignorant and misguided, since he himself also is beset with weakness; and because of it he is obligated to offer sacrifices for sins, as for the people, so also for himself.
Why Did God Wait So Long to Send Jesus?
Have you ever asked why God planned such a long history with Israel before sending his Son into the world to die for our sins? It would be a big mistake to answer this by thinking that history runs on its own power and that God has been trying to get it to do what he wants it to do for centuries, but just couldn’t bring it off, and so that’s why it was two thousand years between his choosing Abraham in Genesis 12 and the coming of Christ in the book of Matthew.
That would be a mistake for two reasons. One is that the whole Old Testament pictures God as ruling history, not frustrated by history. For example the prophet Daniel says, “Let the name of God be blessed forever and ever, for wisdom and power belong to him. And it is he who changes the times and the epochs; he removes kings and establishes kings” (Daniel 2:20–21). So kings don’t rise and fall on their own. And times and epochs of history don’t change on their own. God governs all this. King Nebuchadnezzar had to learn this the hard way. But after he was driven crazy with pride, he praised the true God and said,
His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation. And . . . he does according to his will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, “What have You done?” (Daniel 4:34–34)
“God was guiding the history of Israel as a backdrop to help make sense out of the coming of Jesus.”
So it would be a mistake to think that history was running its own course and God was just waiting for something to happen that would allow him to get Jesus into the picture at an optimal time. The other reason this would be a big mistake is that God had planned for Jesus to come and die and give us the grace of forgiveness even before there was a history to govern. For example, in 2 Timothy 1:9, Paul says,
[God] has saved us, and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity.
God planned the grace of our forgiveness in Christ before creation. So we know two things: one is that from eternity God planned the death of Jesus for our sins, and the other is that God rules history and so accomplishes his plans without difficulty. So why, then, is there a two-thousand-year history of dealings with Israel before sending Jesus into the world? God could have planned to send Jesus in Noah’s day or just after the Tower of Babel or in the days of the bondage in Egypt. Why the long delay?
We Needed Categories to Help Us Understand Jesus
One answer is that when the Son of God comes into the world, there needs to be some categories in place that make sense out of who he is and what he is coming to do. There needs to be a context for the Son of God, which interprets why he is here and what he is doing. That is one of the reasons for the history of Israel and the record of the Old Testament. It gives us the context and the categories for understanding who Jesus is and why he came.
This is why the missions and evangelistic strategy called Firm Foundations is so significant. It takes a person or a tribe of people (as shown in the New Tribes Mission video EE-Taow) through weeks or even months of exposure to the Old Testament stories in order to give a context for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Imagine going into a village that had never heard that God created the world, and that the world fell into sin, and that God gave a law for us to obey, and that there were priests and sacrifices and prophets and kings in the people of God. How would they ever make sense of Christ and why he came?
If you try to skip the Old Testament and interpret Jesus within your own context first without the biblical-historical context and categories, you may make him a coach or a therapist or a good example or a guru or a mentor or a hero or a trailblazer. And there may be some truth in each of these. But they will not be as true and deep and authoritative and helpful as the categories that the Bible itself uses.
One Category: He Is Our High Priest
In our text today we have one of those Old Testament categories for understanding who Jesus is and what he came to do, namely, the category of “high priest.” Hebrews 4:14:
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 there are no high priests around today. So this is a category for understanding Jesus that is foreign to us. But God planned centuries of history with Israel, recorded in the Old Testament, so that we would have a context for understanding this category. That means he thinks it is really important. We would impoverish ourselves and swerve from the truth if we said, “Well, that’s too old-fashioned and irrelevant for today. Nobody knows what a high priest is; so let’s just translate Jesus into one of our familiar categories, say, defense attorney.”
Instead what we need to do before we jump to contemporary analogies is to go back to God’s context, God’s history and God’s book, and learn some deep and wonderful things that we might otherwise miss — even to our peril — because high priest does not equal defense attorney or any other analogy in our society. Our history is simply too limited to interpret Jesus. We need God’s history. Our culture, our society, our era in time are way too provincial to give the needed categories for grasping who Jesus is and what he came to do.
So I thank God for the book of Hebrews. It is tough sledding at times. But oh the riches of seeing Jesus the way God planned to show him as he designed the history and the religion of the Old Testament. It was all for Jesus. Jesus said in John 5:39,
You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of me.
One way or another it is all about Jesus. God was guiding the history of Israel as a backdrop to help make sense out of the coming of Jesus. The Old Testament is crucial background for going deep with the work of Jesus.
Hebrews 5:1–3 gives us a little glimpse of who high priests were in the Old Testament religious life. Verse 1 says that high priests came from among men and were appointed on behalf of the people to offer gifts and sacrifices to God for sins. A whole world of meaning is opened up to us here. There is a God. There is sin. This sin has created a barrier between God and the people. But God has made a provision for being reconciled to the people. He has ordained that there be human priests who would be a go-between; and that these priests would offer sacrifices. There would be the shedding of blood — a kind of animal substitute for the sinner. God would look upon this and turn his anger away from the people’s sins.
But built into this priestly system were some inadequacies. The one we see here in Hebrews 5:3 is that the high priest was himself a sinner and had to offer sacrifices for his own sins as well as the sins of the people. This meant not only that his sympathy would be imperfect and his presence in the holy place with God limited; it also meant that he would die and have to be replaced. He could never guarantee an ongoing presence with God to intervene for the people. All the inadequacies of the old priesthood will be clear as we go forward in the book of Hebrews.
But that’s the point of the whole history of Israel — it is imperfect, inadequate, and incomplete. It all points forward to something greater, to Someone perfect and complete. It points to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our ultimate and perfect High Priest. In fact, even the sacrifices that the high priest offers (Hebrews 5:3) point to Jesus, because Jesus is such a perfect and complete fulfillment of the priesthood that he is not only the High Priest, but he is also the sacrifice that the High Priest gives (Hebrews 9:12, 25–26; 13:12).
So let’s look at what Hebrews 4:14–16 tell us about our perfect, final High Priest and what difference he makes in our 20th-century lives.
Jesus, the Son of God, Is Alive and with God
Verse 14 tells us three crucial things: 1. Jesus is alive; 2. he is with God above the heavens; and 3. he is the Son of God.
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God. . . .”
1. Jesus Is Alive
“We have a priest and he is alive.”
Unlike all the other high priests that ever lived and died, Jesus lived and died and rose from the dead never to die again. This is why the whole Old Testament system of the priesthood is over. Jesus is the final priest between man and God because he will never die. He has his priesthood by an indestructible life (Hebrews 7:16). We have a priest and he is alive.
2. He Is with God Above the Heavens
He is also with God above the heavens. That he “passed through the heavens” calls to mind the ascension as Jesus rose through the clouds and through the sky into another realm, namely, the presence of God himself. Before Christ, the holiest place of the tabernacle or temple was entered once a year by the high priest. But that was just a shadow of the true Holy Place in heaven where God dwells. This is where our High Priest lives today. He has immediate access to God in heaven day and night. Hebrews 7:25 says, “He always lives to make intercession for [us].”
3. He Is the Son of God
He was not merely a human exalted to this priestly place. He is the divine Son of God who created the earth and the heavens (Hebrews 1:8–10). This gives his sacrifice its infinite worth. Jesus does not take the blood of bulls and goats into the heavenly temple. Nor does he even take the blood of a mere human. He takes his own precious blood, the blood of the Son of God (Hebrews 9:12). And when God the Father sees this sacrifice for my sin, he says, “That is enough. The debt has been paid. My righteousness is vindicated. My glory is exalted.” And he overlooks my punished transgression and counts me as his loved and innocent child.
So our High Priest is alive forevermore; he is with God above the heavens in the holiest place in the universe; and he is the very Son of God pleading my case by his own blood.
Jesus Never Gave In
Then in verse 15, we learn that, in spite of how lofty our High Priest is (alive forever, in the presence of God, as the Son of God), nevertheless three other truths about him still stand:
- he was tempted in all the kinds of ways we are; 2.he never gave in and sinned;
- and he is therefore sympathetic with us in our weaknesses.
“For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.”
Fifty years ago, C.S. Lewis imagined someone objecting here: “If Jesus never sinned, then he doesn’t know what temptation is like. He lived a sheltered life and is out of touch with how strong temptation can be.” Here is what Lewis wrote in response to that objection:
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 . . . 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 . . . 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 — the only complete realist.
Jesus can sympathize with us in our pain and our dying, because he experienced excruciating pain and entered all the way into death. And he can sympathize with us in our allurements to sin, because he was tempted —
to lie (to save his life)
and to steal (to help his poor mother when his father died)
and to covet (all the nice things that Zacchaeus owned)
and to dishonor his parents (when they were more strict than others)
and to take revenge (when he was wrongly accused)
and to lust (when Mary wiped his feet with her hair)
and to pout with self-pity (when his disciples fell asleep in his last hour of trial)
and to murmur at God (when John the Baptist died at the whim of a dancing girl)
and to gloat over his accusers (when they couldn’t answer his questions)
Jesus knows the battle. He fought it all the way to the end. And he defeated the monster every time. So he was tested like we are and the Bible says he is a sympathetic High Priest. He does not roll his eyes at your pain or cluck his tongue at your struggle with sin.
Hold Fast to Your Hope, and Draw Near to God
Which all leads to this great, practical, relevant twentieth-century conclusion. Because he is alive, and in the presence of God with the sacrifice of the blood of the Son of God, and full of sympathy for his people, therefore two things:
- Verse 14b: “Let us hold fast our confession.”
- Verse 16: “Let us come draw near with confidence to the throne of grace.”
The confession is simply our unshakable hope (Hebrews 10:23) that God is for us and will work to bring us into his final rest and joy. Hold fast to that because you have a great High Priest. That’s the first conclusion. For weeks we have been seeing the call to hold fast and to be diligent and to take heed. Here we see it again. Only here the writer is spreading out powerful reasons not only for why you should hold fast to your confession, but also why you can! God is for you. You have a great High Priest. He is alive. He is in the presence of God. He is the Son of God. He is sympathetic. So hold fast to your hope. But what practically do you do with your hope? That’s the last point, namely, verse 16:
“Jesus knows the battle. He fought it all the way to the end. And he defeated the monster every time.”
Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need.
Now listen carefully as we close, because this is incredibly important. Every one of us needs help. We are not God. We have needs. We have weaknesses. We have confusion. We have limitations of all kinds. We need help.
But every one of us has something else: sin. And therefore at the bottom of our hearts we know that we do not deserve the help we need. And so we feel trapped. I need help to live my life and to handle death and to cope with eternity — help with my family, my spouse, my children, my loneliness, my job, my health, my finances. I need help. But I don’t deserve the help I need.
So what can I do? I can try to deny it all and be a superman who doesn’t need any help. Or I can try to drown it all and throw my life into a pool of sensual pleasures. Or I can simply give way to the paralysis of despair. But God declares over this hopeless conclusion: Jesus Christ became a High Priest to shatter that despair with hope and to humble that superman or superwoman and to rescue that drowning wretch. Yes, we all need help. Yes, none of us deserves the help we need. But no to despair and pride and lechery. Look at what God says. Because we have a great High Priest, the throne of God is a throne of grace. And the help we get at that throne is mercy and grace to help in time of need. Grace to help! Not deserved help — gracious help. This is the whole point of the Old and New Testaments. God planned for a High Priest, a Savior, a Redeemer, a gracious Helper.
You are not trapped. Say no to that lie. We need help. We don’t deserve it. But we can have it. You can have it right now and forever. If you will receive and trust in your High Priest, Jesus the Son of God, and draw near to God through him. Amen.