The following is a lightly edited transcript
If you have a Bible, or want to reach for one, I’m going to look for just a few minutes before we eat together at Hebrews 4:14–16. I’m coming to this text for several reasons. It’s a text in my mind that has a firm backward glance at something God has done for us and a very powerful forward glance. I’m going to look at the backward glance now, and in about half an hour, when we’re done here and break and go to the commons to begin our night of prayer, I’m going to continue with the forward glance.
Looking Back with Gratitude, Looking Forward with Faith
This has been much on my mind because of where we are in the close of the century and the millennium. I wrote in the Star Tribune this week. Some of you may have gotten it already. The article was titled called Endings Are for Thanks and Beginnings Are for Faith. I thought about that and it really hit me in a fresh way. That’s not a new thought. Nobody is surprised by that observation. But think about the fact that thanksgiving is one of the humblest affections because it’s an emotional acknowledgment that you’re a dependent person. Ungrateful people are proud people. Humble people are always conscious of the fact that they’re receiving, even in hard times. And so, they’re not much given to self pity and complaining. They’re given to thanksgiving. The humblest of all people are the thankful people. And faith is one of the most confident and bold affections.
So the point where we live, between the ending of our past and the beginning of our future, is a point where the humblest and most bold affections meet each other. I love the thought of Bethlehem becoming a very humble and a very bold people. We often don’t think of those together, but they’re not contradictory. They’re not. If the past you look at is a past that you feel blessed by because others, especially God, have graced you, and the future is not a place where you’re going to show off, but where God’s going to show up and work for you, then it’s the best of all ways to live. If you look back, you feel humbly grateful, and if you look forward, you feel humbly dependent and confident. So my prayer as we enter the new year is that Bethlehem will become the kind of people who are deeply humble.
I was reading Jonathan Edwards this evening about how pride is the first sin and the hardest to root out of the human heart. We need to make extra efforts in prayer to get it out. So I wrote that Star Tribune article about how endings are for gratitude and beginnings are for faith. Then, it was Noël’s birthday on the 27th, and I wrote a poem to try to put in verse the same thing and called it A Conversation Between Gratitude and Faith.
Maybe I’ll put it in a Star Tribune article someday, or put it on the website so you can read it. It was a theological effort to have thanks and faith conversing with each other about the service they render to each other. Then I talked about my 31 years of marriage with Noël, and looked back over it and thought how thankful I am and how humble I ought to be that God graced me with such a wife. And as I look forward to, who knows, one, ten, twenty, or thirty more years of marriage with Noël before one of us has taken to be with Jesus, I only want to believe and have faith. And so, I want to be a humble husband. I want to be a confident and bold and strong husband. I tried to put that in a poem, and now, here I am standing about 15 minutes away from the year 2000, on the brink of another before and after, and I want to be faithful to the past in gratitude and faithful to the future in faith.
Jesus, the Great High Priest
Let’s read these verses from Hebrews 4:14–16. It says:
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.
Now, there are two exhortations in this text — only two imperatives or commands. The first is to hold fast to our confession. Do you see it there at the end of verse Hebrews 4:14? It says:
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.
And the second one is in Hebrews 4:16, which says:
Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace.
I’m going to talk about Hebrews 4:16 in the other room. We’re going to draw near all night long in prayer about seeking God in times of need for well-timed help in the year 2000. There are going to be lots of needs in the year 2000 — big ones and little ones — because we are one needy, helpless people. But here at the Lord’s table, I want us to just think about holding fast to our confession and how he encourages us to get ready to draw near by the tremendous confidence that we ought to have in holding fast to our confession. I see five reasons here to hold fast to our confession.
1. We Have a High Priest
I see that we have a high priest. Now, what does a high priest do for us? Hebrews 2:17 says that our high priest made propitiation for our sins, which means by an offering — a sacrifice — he appeased the wrath of God so that the wrath of God, because of this propitiation, is taken away. So here we come tonight, thinking back over a thousand sins that we committed in 1999, and if we only thought about those sins, we would come into the year 2000 so guilt-laden there would be no boldness in us, and there would be no joy or hope in us. And therefore he says, “You have a high priest, and he has made propitiation for your sins.”
The second thing we know about this sacrifice is that it was himself. The first insight was Hebrews 2:17, this one is Hebrews 7:26, where it says that our high priest offered up himself. This is a very strange high priest. The Old Testament high priests offered lambs and pigeons and goats and bulls; our high priest laid himself on the altar, because no bull or goat or pigeon would do to cover the sins of all the people in Christ. But he laid himself down and he became both high priest and sacrifice.
That’s the meaning of having a high priest, and that’s what this meal here is all about — the body that was laid down as the sacrifice to cover our sin. So you don’t need to look back on those sins and feel hopeless. You can look back on those sins with a measure of repentance and grief and sorrow, and then take heart. They are covered. You can give glory to your savior by being confident in him and holding fast to your confession of hope in him.
I see the word great. We have a great high priest, and I see that word unfolded for us in the words Jesus, the son of God, there at the end of Hebrews 4:14. Last Sunday, we saw that in chapter one, the son of God is God, and therefore the greatness of this high priest is a greatness of which there is no other. He’s as great as he can possibly be. Nothing greater than Jesus can be conceived. You cannot conceive of a greatness greater than Jesus. And it took that kind of greatness to lay itself on a cross so that our sins would be utterly and totally forgiven — that God’s infinite wrath would be utterly and totally removed. So don’t contemplate just any high priest; contemplate tonight a great high priest — Jesus, the son of God.
3. Passed Through the Heavens
I see that this great high priest passed through the heavens. What does that mean? Why did he insert that in Hebrews 4:14? He passed through the heavens. It means two things. First, if he passed through the heavens, he’s not dead anymore; he’s alive. This great high priest is alive. He is so alive that he’s more alive than anybody in this room right now. Our living right now is so fragile, so contingent. But his is, as Hebrews 7:16 says, indestructible. He has his priesthood by virtue of an indestructible life. He passed through the heavens.
And the second implication is that he’s now with God. He’s not in the heavens. That is, he’s not in the clouds. He’s not in the galaxies. He’s above the heavens where God dwells, and he is with God interceding for us with his great sacrifice and his great propitiation and his priestly role.
So right now, if you are trusting Jesus, you have a perfect advocate, a perfect sacrifice, and a perfect high priest. He is greater than anything which can be conceived. So take heart. The whole point of this text is for us to be bold. It says we should come boldly in the all night prayer meeting. Let us come boldly. Let us enter the year 2000, not with a whimper, but with a bang for the glory of God.
I see the word sympathetic. Hebrews 4:15 says:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.
So if all that greatness causes you to feel a little bit overpowered, you not only need a sense of the greatness of God, but a sense of intimacy in God. And we do need both. If God is only great and trumpets resound, and there’s no soft violin or piccolo in the orchestra of our lives, and no sweet, tender, kind, gentle, drawing-near hand on the shoulder, then we will not have the greatness of Christ. His greatness is the combination of things that seem opposite to us. And so, he is both magnificent — he’s God and above the heavens, above the galaxies, creating them, holding them in being — and he’s right where you are in every pain and every temptation, sympathizing. He had similar kinds of emotions, such that he can draw near and know what you’re going through in a way that he couldn’t have had he not become human and been tempted in all points like we are.
I see that he is sinless. This causes some people to say, “Well then, he doesn’t really struggle like I’ve struggled.” C.S Lewis has a good remark on that, and you know what it is if you’ve read him. He says that we all give in to sin before it’s reached its full force. But Jesus, in never giving in, experienced the full force of every temptation. If temptation is like something that builds and grows as it goes and gets harder and harder and harder, then as soon as you cave in, you give way to it before it reaches its consummation. Jesus never gave in, and therefore, every temptation reached its consummation with Jesus, and he endured it to its fullest effort to bring him down. It never brought him down, because he endured it to the end and never gave in. And so it’s not as though he hasn’t tasted the temptations — even the temptations of the guilt and sin that were poured on him on the cross. As he tasted guilt though, he never sinned.
So, be encouraged that whichever way you look tonight trying to escape encouragement, God’s going to cut you off and see to it that you get encouraged tonight because he wants you to enter this year, in 10 minutes or so while we’re eating communion, with boldness, so that we can move to a time of prayer forgiven and clean in communion with Jesus.
Coming to the Table
So here’s the way we’re going to do it. We’ve done it this way for several years and we’ll do it again. Let me invite the couples that are going to help me to come up here. One couple will stand over there with both the cup and the bread, Noël and I will stand here in the middle with the cup and the bread, and the Crabtrees will stand over there in the same way. So we have three aisles, three accesses.
When I’m done praying, and while Tim is playing, as you feel led, come, take it, and go back to your seat or anywhere, you can get together in little groups or in couples or families or by yourself. However you want to do it. We’ll just be silent until everybody who wants to come has had a chance to do so. Then we’ll draw things to a close with a song. That’s the choreography of the moment.
As far as you being a guest with us, our practice is to welcome all Christians, believers in Jesus, to the table. You don’t have to be a member of Bethlehem, but do take this seriously. This is not to be done lightly. If you’re not trusting Christ tonight for his forgiveness, his propitiation, his sacrifice, and his promises, but are doubtful about Jesus, then deal with him there.
Maybe you’ll get ready while you’re sitting there in the pew, dealing with Jesus, and he will assure you of his love to you and you’ll rest in him. Then maybe by the time we’re done, you’ll have the confidence as a sinner, forgiven by grace, to come and commune with him. That’s what this is. We call it communion because as you eat this emblem of his body and drink this emblem of his blood, there is a spiritual feeding, and there’s a spiritual communion between you and the Lord Jesus on the basis of all the truth that we’ve just seen. That is very precious to him, and I hope, is very precious to you.
So let me pray over the cup and the bread, and then we’ll go to our positions. While we’re there, you just come when you’re ready. And sometime during that, we’ll enter into the new year and it’ll be good that we have crossed that line in communion with the Lord.