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Jesus: The Greater Hight Priest

Series: Hebrews

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Aug 12, 1998

Hebrews 4:14-16

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If you have your Bibles, I would invite you to turn with me to Hebrews 4 again as we continue with the study in this book.  We will look at a very short segment, but a rich segment.  It will be hard to do justice to all that are in these three sentences.  Hebrews 4 beginning in verse 14:  Hear God’s holy word:

Hebrews 4:14-16 

“Our Lord and our God, we ask that You would help us to look at this word with seeing yes and hearing hearts that we might see the truth of Your word, embrace it in our hearts, act upon it, and be transformed by it.  We ask that the Holy Spirit enlighten us to this end, that You would receive the praise and the glory.  We ask it in Jesus’ name.  Amen.”

You will remember as we studied Hebrews 1 and 2, we saw the theme of Christ’s superiority to the angels.  We looked at Hebrews 3.  We saw Christ’s superiority to Moses.  As we looked in Hebrews 4 in the midst of the warnings and exhortations, we saw Christ’s superiority to Joshua in the middle section of Hebrews 4; and now that we come to the end of Hebrews 4, we are entering into a section from Hebrews 4:14, where for a good while to come, the author of Hebrews is going to show Christ’s superiority to the Old Testament high priest and to the Levitical system. 

So we have seen Christ’s superiority to angels and Christ’s superiority to Moses and Christ’s superiority to Joshua and now we are going to see that Christ is superior to Aaron.  This section begins a long section in the book of Hebrews where the author compares Christ to the old covenant priesthood and he shows us how Christ is superior to that priesthood.  It is very interesting that in commenting on Hebrews 4:1-13, and what the author talks about there, remember that one of the things that we saw last time was a very, very severe warning to us to be careful that we did not fall away.  In talking about the contrast of those verses to Hebrews 4:14-16, Martin Luther said: “After terrifying us, the apostle now comforts us.”  And I think that’s a beautiful juxtaposition.  First he terrifies us of the prospect of falling away and then in verses 14-16, he comforts us and motivates us in a positive way to persevere.  How true those words of Luther are.

Now this short, but profound passage has two great focal points. The two focal points of this passage are these two exhortations.  The first one “Let us hold fast our confession,” and the second one, “Let us draw near the throne of grace.”  All the rest of the words and the phrases in Hebrews 4:14-16 are designed to buttress our understanding of those two exhortations and I would like to look at them with you tonight. 

I. Let us hold fast our confession.

 The first one again in verse 14: “Let us hold fast our confession, we learn in Hebrews 4:14 and 15 that the Lord God calls us to persevere in our loyalty to Christ because of the kind of priest He is.  And He says in light of that hold fast to your confession.  He is going to contrast for you here Christ and the Levitical priesthood.   

“Therefore since 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 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.” 

I want to note two very important motivations in that passage that the author gives us for holding fast our confession.  His point is for us to hold fast our confession and we will talk about what that means in a few moments.  But before he tells us that, he gives us two great motivations and the first is he points us to the exceeding greatness of Christ as our priest.  Our passage is going to zero in on three qualities of the Lord Jesus Christ as our priest and use them to bolster our trust in Him as our Great High Priest.  I want to say, by the way, that if you look at Hebrews 4:15 through Hebrews 5:10, you will actually find five arguments for Christ being a Great High Priest.  You will find in Hebrews 5:6 the idea that Christ is a priest according to the order of Melchizedek.  That’s an idea that the author of Hebrews will pick up on again in Hebrews 7.   

Here in Hebrews 4:14, you have the idea that Christ passed through the heavens.  That’s the second reason why Christ is a Great High Priest.  In Hebrews 4:14, the idea that Christ is the Son of God is going to be picked up on Hebrews 5:8 and explained as one of the reasons why Christ is a superior priest.  Again, in Hebrews 4:15, the idea that Christ’s obedience is perfect.  He was without sin the author tells us.  In Hebrews 5:7, we are told that He was actually heard because of His piety and next week we will get a chance to look at what that means.  I am telling you that for in order to see that the author of Hebrews is piling up reasons for you to have confidence in Christ’s priesthood on your behalf.  What he is trying to convince you of is that Christ’s priesthood needs no supplementation.  He doesn’t need your help and He doesn’t need a human priest’s help. Everything that He has done on your behalf is perfectly sufficient for your salvation and for your confidence and for your assurance.  And so your hope ought to be placed wholly and solely on Him.  That truth is being driven home over and over by the author of Hebrews. 

Now let’s look in our short passage at the three ways in which the author shows us the greatness of Christ as our priest.  First, look at the phrase, “since we have a great high priest.”  In that phrase, it is implied that our high priest is greater than any other high priest or any high priest that has gone before.  Now that idea again is going to be taken up for the next two chapters and expanded.  But the hint is already there.  To say He is a great high priest implies that there are some high priests who are not so great.  And we know that there were some high priests who were not go great in the time of our Lord Jesus Christ.  They tried Him, in fact, during those awful hours prior to the crucifixion. So the author of Hebrews is reminding us that Christ’s priesthood is superior.  That is the first thing that we see with regard to the greatness of Christ.  Again, look at the phrase, “Christ, who had passed through the heavens.”  As you know, one of the jobs of the high priest of Israel once a year was to pass through the veil into the Holy of Holies alone and then to come back out after the atonement had been sprinkled on the Mercy Seat.  The author of Hebrews is telling that our Lord Jesus Christ as a priest didn’t pass through an earthly veil into an earthly sanctuary into an earthly Holy of Holies. He actually passed through the heavens.  In other words, he is saying that Christ’s sacrifice is the real sacrifice.  He entered into the heavenly Holy of Holies.  He really did establish a restoration of fellowship between God and His people and that is why he uses this phrase, “He passed through the heavens.”  He may be here (and he does certainly later on) referring to Christ’s ascension, His passing through the heavens into the very presence of God and the point being no other high priest ever did that.  He, by His ascension, passed into the very presence of God.  He was bodily raised into the very presence of God, a sign again, of His unique position.

Then again, you notice these words, “Jesus, the Son of God.”  It is boldly affirmed here that our Lord Jesus Christ is a priest, is divine.  He is deity, He is the very Son of God.  We see first of all that He is greater than the other high priests, secondly that His priestly work actually took Him into the heavenly Holy of Holies, and finally we see that He is the Son of God.  For all three of those reasons, the author of Hebrews is showing us that we have reason to be confident in the exceeding greatness of Christ’s priesthood.

Having just talked about the greatness of this high priest, the author of Hebrews tells us another reason to be confident in Him, another reason that we ought to hold fast to our confession. And the amazing thing to me is how these two don’t seem at first to go together, because he tells us that this Christ, this great high priest is able to sympathize with us.  The same Jesus who is Son of God, the same Jesus who is the great high priest, the same Jesus who parted the heavens and went into the heavenly Holy of Holies is able to sympathize with you.  Now I don’t know how that strikes you when you first hear it or think about it.  It is hard to get your head around that.  He sympathizes with me.  He understands what I am going through.  How can that be?  How can it be that this great high priest who is sinless, can sympathize with me?  That is what the author is going to focus on in verse 15 and I want to think with you for a few minutes about that because it really is an amazing thing.

We see the amazing sympathy of Christ as our high priest talked about in verse 15.  The argument that we ought to hold fast our confession is buttressed by this appeal to Christ’s sympathy.  We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses.  Those are the words of the author of Hebrews.  Now that juxtaposition of Jesus’ greatness in divinity and His sympathy is jarring when we think about a divine being being sympathetic with us.  Who is this who sympathizes with our weaknesses?  Well, remember what Hebrews has already told you about Jesus.  He is the heir of all things.  He is the one through whom God made the world.  He is the radiance of God’s glory. He is the exact representation of His nature.  He is the upholder or all things by the word of His power.  He is  a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.  He passed through the heavens.  He has lived in sinless perfection beyond the holy angels.  He has endured suffering although He was a son.  That is the Jesus Christ who sympathizes with you.  Now does that surprise you? Perhaps that very jarring juxtaposition between Christ’s person and His sympathy is why this phrase is put in the form of a denial.  Notice how it is said:  “We do not have a priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses....”  As if we might have a suspicion that He wouldn’t be able to understand where we are coming from.

Let me translate that in a slightly different way.  The author is telling us there that our divine priest is not incapable of being sympathetic with our circumstances.  To break it down even further, he is saying that we don’t have a mediator who cannot understand our problems.  That’s a stunning thing, especially in light of what he has just said in verse 14.  And even more impressively, the author goes on to say there in verse 15 that the range of our Savior’s temptation is universal.  Listen to his words: “But one who has been tempted in all things as we are....”  Now that mind-blowing statement has troubled many; but it is meant to comfort us and so we need to stop and think about it for a few minutes.  The phrase, “tempted in all things as we are,” is meant to answer the question: “How can He be sympathetic with me?”  “How can this exalted, divine Savior be sympathetic with me in the struggles that I go through day to day?”  “How can it be that one so holy can sympathize with a poor, wretched sinner like me?”  How can Christ the glorious, obedient high priest sympathize with your weakness and my weakness, how can He know our struggles with sin and our stumbling?  Hebrews gives us this answer: because He was tempted in all things like we are.

That does not mean that Christ experienced every specific temptation that every particular believer in the world has ever experienced.  Nevertheless, now listen to this because it is going to sound like I am contradicting myself in the next sentence.  Nevertheless, even though He hasn’t experienced every experience, every particular temptation that every sinner in the history of the world has experienced, nevertheless, His experience of temptation is actually broader than yours and mine.  Do you hear what I am saying?  His experience of temptation is actually broader than our experiences.  Not just individually, but collectively. 

Now how can those two things be true at the same time if He has not experienced every temptation?  Well, we could enumerate many parallels between His experience and ours.  But the author of Hebrews wants us in particular to notice that the temptation which he is primarily thinking about is the temptation which Christ experienced in His suffering.  Let me prove that to you.  Look back to Hebrews 2:18; notice what he says there.  “He, Himself, was tempted in that which He suffered.”  Notice the connection between temptation and suffering.  Turn ahead to Hebrews 5:8. We are told that He learned obedience from the things which He suffered.  So this idea of temptation, obedience, and suffering is all connected in the mind of the author of Hebrews.  Our Lord’s obedience was not easy obedience.  His temptation and His obedience cost Him dear.  And so I want to think with you for just a few moments about this suffering. 

First, He has suffered with us.  We could think of the likeness of Jesus’ temptations and ours and there are so many points of contact.  He knew what it meant to be cold, He knew what it meant to be burning with heat, He knew what it meant to be hungry and thirsty, probably beyond that which most of us have experienced. He knew what it was to be without a place to lay His head.  He knew what it was to have anguish in His soul.  He knew what it was to feel emotions of fear and sorrow. He knew what it was to dread death to the point that He trembled.  And we may further think of the continuing escalating extremity of His temptations in this regard.  Think of it, from the very manger all the way to His ministry in Gethsemane, to Golgotha, to the darkness of the cross, His temptations get larger and larger.  They don’t get smaller and smaller.  The stress, the pressure — He was, indeed, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  Isaiah, under the inspiration of the Spirit could not have given a better description of our Lord. 

Nevertheless, some of us may be tempted to think Christ cannot understand our particular situation.  That, at least in my case, there is some discontinuity in my experience and His experience which makes it impossible for Him to understand and really sympathize with me.  For instance, we may be parents of a child.  We say, “Well, the Lord Jesus never had to deal with a two-year-old.” Or we might be a woman and say, “The Lord Jesus never knew what it was like to be treated by a husband like I have been.”  Or you can fill in the blanks.  There are so many things just like that we can say.  We can say, “How is it He can really sympathize with me where I am when I have had certain experiences in the human experience that He didn’t have?”  Well, I have an answer for you.

It is precisely at a point of discontinuity between His experience and your experience that establishes His ability to be sympathetic with you in every circumstance.  And so let’s move from thinking about how He suffered with us, that is that He has shared common suffering with us and think about how He has suffered for us.  You see, His suffering for us is the point of discontinuity between your experience and His experience.  Because you never ever have experienced what it is to suffer for the sins of all your people.  Parents sometimes know what it is to suffer on behalf of their children.  And mates sometimes know what it is to suffer on behalf of the one who is their spouse. 

There are things in our human experience where we relate to vicarious suffering.  But let’s think for a moment about Christ’s suffering for us. When we think of Christ’s work on the cross, sometimes we focus on His physical suffering as the point of extremity in His experience — the pain of being nailed to a cross.  The pain of trying to catch a breath and hoisting yourself on nailed arms in order to catch your breath.  And it is horrifying to think of  those things and I don’t want to downplay those for a moment.  But the horror of the cross is not at its peak in the are of the physical. The horror of the cross is that on the cross, Christ is accursed by His father.  His father is the one who is administering the curse to the Lord Jesus Christ.  The Son, the Lord of Glory, the Prince of Peace, He is the one who is bearing the punishment of His father.  The wrath of God is striking out at His beloved son.  He had always been a glorious son.  And the Father had manifested over and over His pleasure in the Lord.  At the baptism — “This is My beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”  At the transfiguration — “This is My beloved son, hear Him.”  In John 12 and the last week of the Lord Jesus’ life, Christ lifts up the prayer, “Father, glorify Yourself in Me.”  “I have heard You, My son, and I will glorify Myself in You.”  Over and over we see the Father’s pleasure in the Son and then suddenly on the cross (and we can hardly take it in), it is the Father who is pouring out His wrath on the Son.  And our catechism puts it this way:  “He felt and bore the weight of the wrath of God.” 

Now Paul focuses us on that point in these words in II Corinthians 5:21: “He made Him who knew no sin to become sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”  You see, it does no good to try and retranslate those words to soften their force.  For He was cast out, He was banished, He was cut off, He was excommunicated, He was cast outside that place where there is no light or love or life or peace or meaning or hope or assurance of ultimate victory.  He became a curse for us, cut off from His people, cut off from His God.  And all for us.  There was not a sin to His account.  He was without sin, the author of Hebrews  is going to tell us that.  And in our darkest hours and in our blackest nights and in our times when our sorrow and our tribulation seem to overwhelm us and we feel as if the Lord cannot hear our cries, none of us have a clue where He was.  Not a clue.  You have no idea.  You have no way of being sympathetic with Him, because You have no idea.  Thank God you have no idea what it was like that He experienced.

Sometimes we will go several days and suddenly realize that we haven’t been walking in fellowship with the Lord.  The saddest thing is it will be several days before we catch ourselves in that.  The Lord Jesus Christ had been going out and coming in with His Father from eternity and suddenly there comes this cry, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”  The isolation.  We have no idea what that was like.  No idea.  It is one of the amazing things that when we walk the streets of glory and we go from one end of the cosmos to the other, and we greet every brother and sister in Christ in glory, not one of them will know what it is like to be cut off from God.  Not one. Only our Lord knows what that is like.  That’s an unbelievable thing, and that is precisely the experience that you and I have no idea about that enables Him to be sympathetic with you in every circumstance, because that experience transcends any experience of temptation and suffering and pain and sorrow in this life that you and I will ever experience.  Because any time we experience suffering in this life, temptation in this life, Christ is always standing in between us and what we deserve.   And that day on the cross there was nothing, nothing standing in between Christ and the wrath that we deserve.  He took it full force and none of us know what that is like.  We have no idea what that is like. 

So it’s not just that Christ preceded us in suffering and shared with us in suffering and understands what it is like to be a human.  It is ultimately that He has endured a tribulation in our place that we can’t even understand.  We don’t even have an illustration for what He did for us.  That is why He is touched with the feelings of our infirmities.  He knows what it is like to be in a place that you and I grasp for words just to try and describe but which we cannot even begin to say that we can experience emotionally.  In light of this we are told to hold fast to our confession. 

We go on and see again here in these verses, Hebrews 4:14, 15, that we’re told to hold fast our confession because our Savior is sinless, He is without sin.  He is made for a little while lower than the angels, but His obedience is perfect beyond the perfection of the old covenant priests.  You remember in the old covenant, the priests not only offered sacrifices for the people, but they had to offer sacrifices for themselves.  Because they were sinners, mediating for the people.  Jesus Christ did not have to offer a sacrifice for Himself.  He was perfect.  He was the perfect sacrifice.  And so His perfection was beyond the old covenant priests. 

In light of that, the author is arguing for us to hold fast our confession.  What confession is he talking about?  Well, of course, it is Westminster.  No. Good answer, close answer, not quite.  This is the confession thatChrist is Lord.  What is the first vow of the Christian?  Jesus is Lord.  He is my Lord and Savior.  That is the first confession of the Christian.  The author of Hebrews is saying, “Look in light of that kind of priest, please, please, please, don’t forsake the confession that you have made that He is your Lord and Savior.  Please don’t leave that savior and try someone else.  Why in the world would you want to leave that kind of savior and add something to Him or put something in His place?  Can you imagine a greater savior than He is?”  The writer is piling up all these arguments just so we will continue believing in the Lord and trusting in the Lord.  The greatness of Christ and the sympathy of Christ is a motivation, he says, that we would hold fast our confession, no matter what circumstance we find ourselves. 

II. Let us draw near the throne of grace.

Now let’s look briefly at verse 16.  The second truth we find in this passage is that God calls us to boldly approach Him in prayer because of the kind of priest that Christ is.  Not only does He want us to continue believing because of the kind of priest that Christ is, but He wants us to do something that would have boggled the minds of the saints at Sinai. He wants us to boldly approach Him in prayer because of the kind of priest that Christ is.  In light of the foregoing, the author argues that we are invited to pray with freedom and boldness to God.  This is a massive change from the religion of the old covenant.  You remember the scene at Sinai:  “Moses, you and the elders come forward, but tell the people to keep away from the mountain , because if they or an animal of theirs touches the mountain, he will be struck down.  And you remember the command about the Ark?  No one touches the Ark and only the Levites, only the specified Levites, and they carry it with a pole, and if anyone touches the Ark, they will be struck down just like Uzza.  And now we are being told to boldly approach the throne.  What’s the change?  What’s the reason?  Look at the call here in verse 16.  “Let us draw near with confidence.”  There the old covenant people are told to “keep your distance.”  Now we are being called near.  Why?  Because of the kind of priest that Christ is.  His priesthood actually establishes a real fellowship between God and His people, whereas the old covenant priests could only shadow and foreshadow that fellowship.

Notice again the phrase, “Draw near with confidence.”  This phrase would probably be better translated “Draw near with freedom or with frankness.”  In other words, when a commoner or even when a great exalted citizen would go into the presence of the Caesar or of some great king, he would not simply slap him on the back and have a conversation like you would with a friend over a hot dog.  He would address him with great formality and deference.  But if that king were to say, “Speak freely.  I really want to hear what you are saying.  You speak freely to me.  You speak to me just what’s on your mind.”  That person would have been granted an incredible privilege to speak to the Caesar of the land with utter frankness, with utter openness, even with boldness.  And this is precisely the word, “paresia,” that is being used by the Apostle Paul.  He is saying that we, because of the kind of priest we have, we have that kind of freedom with the God of the universe.  We may speak our minds to Him in prayer.

Then again in verse 16 notice he says, “that we may come to Him in boldness to the throne of grace.”  We’re not just drawing near to the throne of a sovereign.  We are drawing near to the throne, which is the throne of grace.  We must never ever forget that.  We’re going to draw near to the Lord in a way never experienced before under the old covenant.  We’re going to draw near, freely we are going to be able to speak and lift up our petitions and we are going to be able to draw near to that throne which is now the throne of grace, because grace reigns.  And we are to draw near with the aim of receiving mercy and of finding grace.  And that is going to help us in our time of need.  It’s very interesting that the word for need is the same word that is used for a support or even for the word “rope.”  Do you see the picture?  Draw near.  When you need someone to throw out a rope to you and pull you up, you are already at the end of your rope and you have dropped off.  Draw near when you need someone to throw a rope.  Let’s look to Him in prayer.

“Our Heavenly Father, we thank you for the truth of Your word.  It is more reliable and it is more directly applicable to our lives than the very front pages of the newspaper today.  Not only because it is true, not only because it is infallible, not only because it never errs, but because it is Your word and it lives.  So by the Spirit, energize us, we pray, to have a zeal to enter the rest.  We ask these things in Jesus’ name.  Amen.”

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