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Three Ways Jesus Helps Us (That We Desperately Need)

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Jul 30, 2017

Hebrews 4:14-16

If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Hebrews chapter 4. We’re going to be looking at verses 14 to 16 this morning. Before we read God’s Word, let me take a moment of personal privilege to thank my pastor, David Strain, and the elders of this church for the privilege of coming back to preach. I cannot believe it’s been three-and-a-half years. It’s a little strange for me, I must admit, to look down on the page and see “guest minister” next to my name because this feels like home, and it always will. And so I don’t take this privilege lightly. I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time and I’m really, really appreciative of the opportunity.

The second thing to do is just to bring you greetings and thanks from your friends at Reformed Theological Seminary. Reformed Theological Seminary does not exist without First Presbyterian Church. Reformed Theological Seminary is the creation of First Presbyterian Church. Reformed Theological Seminary has never had a chairman of the board that wasn’t an elder at First Presbyterian Church. I’m not even sure we have had a vice-chairman of the board that wasn’t an elder or a deacon at First Presbyterian Church. And you probably, most of you, don’t know how much First Presbyterian Church means to RTS. Fifty years ago, on a horse farm in west Jackson, fourteen students gathered in what we call the white house, which is a little farm house on that horse farm, and started Reformed Theological Seminary’s first semester – fall of 1966. And fifty years later, RTS is the largest reformed evangelical seminary in the world with campuses in nine cities, in eight states; students in eight countries on every continent; programs in Brazil and Indonesia – talking to China right now. A global program with students from all over the world. Sixteen hundred students taking courses at any given time. I mean nobody could have done this but God. But First Presbyterian Church has been at the heart of this for fifty years. And I know a lot of you haven’t even ever been out to west Jackson to our campus, but we’re there. And though we’re in nine cities now, RTS Jackson is still our second largest campus, right behind Orlando, where we’ve been for about twenty-five or twenty-six years now.

So thank you. That’s all I can say. We’re grateful to First Presbyterian Church and we want to extend the ministry of First Presbyterian Church. And Jackson is a very special place for us. You may not know this, but the city of Jackson, Mississippi has more Presbyterian church internships than any city on the planet. Right here in Jackson! Not Orlando, not Charlotte, not New York City, not Dallas – Jackson, Mississippi! And so we love students because we think students need a local church and a good seminary to prepare them for a lifetime of Gospel ministry. And so there’s no better place than right here. So thank you.

Now what you brought me here for is not to talk about – I could bore you to tears telling you about RTS. If you want to be bored to tears, call me up! I will bore you to tears telling you about RTS! You brought me here to preach the Word! So let’s look at the passage and let me tell you why I’m here. About a month ago, Mike Glodo, who many of you will know – he’s one of our professors in Orlando – wanted to provide a series of summer devotionals for all the visiting students on campus. And so he said, “We’re going to do the theme of the ascension.” And there were five of us that were going to preach – Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday – and he picked out about eleven texts in the New Testament about the ascension of Christ into heaven. And he said, “You all pick from these and each of us will take one of these texts and we’ll preach on the ascension all week long.” Well, I picked Hebrews 4:14. And what happens when a preacher looks at a passage – and I focused on one phrase – you’ll see the phrase in verse 14, “He passed through the heavens.” That’s a reference to Jesus ascending into the heavens to sit at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. The priests passed through the curtains of the holy of holies once a year into the symbolic presence of God, but Jesus passed through the heavens into the real presence of God. And so I camped on that phrase and sort of worked that over in that morning devotion.

And what happens for a preacher is, Scripture is like catnip. You see all these other things that you want to learn yourself and you want to teach the people of God about. And I saw all these things that I didn't have time to preach in that short, morning devotional. And then I went back and I looked at my notes, and I preached on this passage at First Presbyterian Church nineteen years ago on a Wednesday night. I can't believe I picked this passage for a Wednesday night! This is a Sunday morning passage! And so I have really been looking forward to opening up this passage. And I want you to see, as we read it, I want you to be on the lookout for one thing in each of the verses because in this passage the author of Hebrews is going to show you three things that Jesus does for you, three ways that He helps you, that you really, really need; and you're going to see one of them in each of the verses.

Verse 14 speaks of the ascension of Christ. And you really need what Jesus does for you out of the ascension. Verse 15 speaks of the session of Christ. You know, we have, at First Presbyterian Church when the elders meet they are called “the session.” Why? “Session” is from the little Latin word, “sessio,” which means, “to sit.” It’s a description of what happens when leaders or governors or elders do. When they come together they sit to deliberate things and discuss things and to make decisions. Well when Jesus ascended into heaven, what did He do? He sat at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. It’s called the heavenly session. And that session is really important for you. And then in verse 16, we’ll see Jesus’ provision. He provides exactly what you need. So we’re going to look at His ascension, verse 14, His session, verse 15, and His provision in verse 16. But before we read God’s Word and hear it proclaimed, let’s look to Him in prayer and ask for His help and blessing.

Our heavenly Father, we do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. The grass withers and the flowers fade and fall, but the Word of our God stands forever. You speak no falling words. Your words are truth. Your Word is truth. Sanctify us by truth. All Scripture is given by inspiration and is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, training in righteousness that we may be equipped for every good work. So speak, Lord, Your servants listen. This we ask in Jesus’ name, amen.

This is the Word of God. Hear it, in 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. 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.”

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

This congregation that received this letter – and really, the letter sounds almost like a sermon. If you’ve ever heard people quote sections of the book of Hebrews, it sounds like a sermon. It has that sermonic role. Remember how Derek, he’d start off slow, you know, and then he’d build up speed and it was just like a freight train moving down! This book has that feel to it! Like a preacher who’s really getting going. But this congregation was struggling with the temptation to think that there was something out there better than Jesus. Their particular temptation is different from your and my temptation today. The way the world is tempting us today out there is different from the specific temptation that they were experiencing, probably from fellow ethnic Jews who were basically saying to them, “You know, you can have everything that you think you get in Jesus and in Christianity in our kind of Judaism if you’ll just turn your back on Jesus and come back to your heritage. You’d be able to have everything you want without turning your back on your people and on your heritage.” That’s the kind of temptation they were facing.

Now the temptations we are facing are different, but they are also the same in that the world and our own hearts are constantly tempting us to think that there’s something better than Jesus. That we can live a fuller life apart from Jesus. That there’s ultimate satisfaction that’s better than Jesus. And so we really need to hear what the author of Hebrews is saying to us today. And so he puts before our eyes three things that Jesus does that nobody else can do that you desperately need.

The Ascension of Jesus

And the first one has to do with Jesus' ascension. Look again at verse 14. "Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens." Notice the contrast. Our high priest didn't just pass through the curtains of an earthly holy of holies that represented the symbolic presence of God. Our High Priest passed through the heavens into the immediate presence of God! "Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession." In other words, the author of Hebrews is saying this – Jesus knows how to get you to God. Why are we here today? We are here today because we want to get to God. And the author of Hebrews is saying Jesus didn't just symbolically go into a room that represents communion with God, presence with God. He went into the presence of God in His ascension. He is there; He knows how to get you there. This is – don't we all want to go home? We all want to go home. And our home is with God. Jesus knows how to get you there.

Jesus Brings Us to God

It reminds me of John 14 a little bit, doesn’t it? Remember, Jesus is talking to His disciples and He’s explaining to them that He’s getting ready to leave them and they’re upset. They said, “Jesus, we don’t want You to go!” And He says, “Let not your hearts be troubled. The place I am going, you know, and the way that I am going, you know. And in fact, I am going to prepare a place for you so that I can come again and take you there to be with Me.” And remember what happens? One of the disciples goes, “Wait a second Jesus! I don’t understand any of this! I don’t know where You’re going! I don’t know how You’re getting there!” And Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by Me.” You hear what He’s saying? “I can get you to God. I can get you home and no one else can get you home.”

It’s like the author of Hebrews is just piling that truth of John 14 right on top of you. And my friends, how many funerals have we heard that truth spoken at, right here in this congregation? Leon Lewis, Bob Cannada, Michael Slater, Missye Rhee Breazeale. You can go down the list. How many times have we gone to John 14 to remember that it’s only Jesus who can get us home, it’s only Jesus who can get us to God? And here’s the author of Hebrews saying Jesus can get you to God and nobody else can. We sing about this. Take your hymnals out and look at the last lines of each of the first four stanzas of number 172. You know the hymn, “Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder”? It’s a great John Newton song. And look at each of the last lines of the first four stanzas. “He has washed us with His blood. He has brought us nigh to God.” “He has washed us with His blood. He presents our souls to God.” “He who has washed us with His blood, soon will bring us home to God.” “He who washed us with His blood, has secured our way to God.” It’s this same thought. Jesus brings you to God! And you need that, desperately.

The Session of Jesus

And then he points us to the session of Jesus Christ. Every time we do the Apostles Creed we do this. “On the third day, He arose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven” – there’s the ascension, verse 14 – “and sitteth” – I like the old version! – “sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” That’s the session. He sits down for the session at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. But that session is really important for you. He is not just sitting down taking a rest. He is at work for you. In fact, go ahead and take a peek. Look forward at Hebrews 7:25. You know what He’s doing there? “He ever lives to intercede.” Jesus is praying for you! He’s interceding for you at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.

He Intercedes

And one of my favorite scenes in the Bible is when Stephen is giving his life for Jesus. And he’s surrounded by people who think they are doing God a favor by killing him and he is all alone. And he looks up, and there is the scene of Jesus in His heavenly session. But if you look at Acts chapter 7 it’s a little weird because Jesus is not sitting down. He looks up and he sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God! What is that about? What is the major posture for prayer in the Bible? Standing up with arms outstretched to God! Remember when Moses is interceding for the people of God as they fight their enemies? He’s standing up, interceding for them! And there’s Stephen looking up at his Savior who is interceding for him as he gives his life for him! You need Jesus to intercede for you! And He ever lives to intercede. We sing about that when we sing, “Arise, My Soul, Arise!” He ever lives to intercede. That’s what Jesus is doing.

He Understands Us

But it’s not only that. He says, “Let me tell you something. Jesus, who is the Son of God” – and look at the end of verse 15 – “and is without sin, is not only in the heavenly session to intercede for you, He understands your weakness.” Look at verse 15, “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.” Wait a second! In verse 14 you just told me Jesus is God. In verse 15 you just told me that He’s without sin. And at the same time, you told me that He understands me. Help me! God in the flesh, completely without sin, understands my weakness, my temptation? Yes, He does. Just sit back and take this in. Your God knows what it is like to live in your bones. He knows what it is like. He knows your weaknesses experientially because He took on your nature. It is mind-boggling that this can be said, but what an incredible help. The one to whom you are crying out in your time of need, actually understands you. He understands your weaknesses.

I don’t want to offend anybody. You know how it is when you’re a little bit pudgy? You’re getting ready to tuck into your BBQ sandwich with cole slaw, collards, and then the big old sliced potato wedges. And then that person who you’ve known for a long time who’s thin, fit, eats healthy, and exercises, do you ever think to yourself, “Man, he understands me”? No! You don’t think that! Or, you know, you’re not the best student at school and there’s that one person in class and she always makes an “A,” usually a “plus.” And you’re kind of duffing along at “B-“ level. Do you ever think, “Man, she understands how it is to be me”? No! You don’t think that! But the author of Hebrews is saying that the sinless Son of God gets you. He understands what it’s like to live where you are. Now you’ve got to, with me, say, “Can that be? That makes no sense!” He is not saying, he is not saying that Jesus has experienced every discrete kind of temptation that you have ever experienced. Jesus has never been a pregnant woman. I have never been a pregnant woman. Thank God! I have no idea what it’s like to be a pregnant woman. I am sure that there are unique temptations attached to being a pregnant woman! He’s not saying that Jesus has had every discrete, distinct type of temptation that any of us have ever had. Jesus was never married. He never knew what it was like to have to put up with a spouse.

He Takes on Our Weaknesses

But, first, Jesus came here, Isaiah 53 says it and Jesus says it in Matthew 8, He came here to take on our weaknesses. He came here to do that. You understand that? He came here to do that – to take on our weaknesses. Second, Jesus has experienced temptations that you can’t understand. Greater temptations than you’ve ever experienced. The question is not, you can never say, “Jesus, You really don’t know what it’s like to be me” because He can counter, “Well you know actually, you don’t know what it’s like to be Me.” Because Jesus has experienced things that no person in the world knows what it’s like to experience. And that has given Him a tremendous sympathy for His people. But it’s even more than that. At the heart of every temptation is the desire to not have something that you have that you don’t want to have or to have something that you don’t have that you want to have. And Satan uses that hook in every one of us to just cart us off in the wrong direction. And Jesus understands both of those things.

 A couple of weeks ago, I was in Nashville and I heard Russ Moore preaching on the Lord's Prayer. And he expounded this marvelously. He took us to the scene in Matthew 4 when Jesus is being tempted in the wilderness. And you remember how Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, will say to the disciples, "Look, pray to God. He'll give you good gifts. Each of you, as a father, if your child asked you for a piece of bread you wouldn't give him a stone. You'd give him a piece of bread! Why? Because you love your child. So also, your heavenly Father, if you ask Him for bread He's not going to give you a stone!" But in the wilderness when Jesus is being tempted, what happens? He's standing there and there is nothing but stones around. And Satan says, "You know, I notice that there are only stones around here. I'm sure You're pretty hungry having fasted for the last forty days. Seeing as how God, Your Father, hasn't provided bread for you, I've got a suggestion. You provide bread for You." See, Jesus, there was something that He wanted that He didn't have and here is Satan saying, "You can get it apart from God. You don't need to trust your heavenly Father. You don't need to trust His provision for You. You can do this Yourself."

And here's what Russ said. "You see what Satan's doing? Satan is not just trying to tempt Jesus; he is trying to adopt him. He's trying to get Jesus to turn His back on His Father's provision and look to Satan." My friends, that's in every temptation. Or, maybe you've got something that you don't want to have. About a year or so ago I was talking to one of my favorite human beings. He is a Bible-believing, reformed evangelical Church of England vicar. And he's same-sex attracted. He's attracted to men. And because he is committed to the Bible's teaching, he is committed to being personally chaste and never being married. And he doesn't want that attraction. And he knows he's going to live with it for the rest of his life. Now how could Jesus possibly understand a person like that? Well, I seem to remember this day where Jesus was sweating as with drops of blood saying, "Father, if it is possible, take this cup from Me." The answer was, "No." And His follow up was, "Nevertheless, not My will but Your will be done." You think Jesus can understand my friend? He understands my friend like my friend doesn't understand my friend.

The author of Hebrews is saying, “The One who is interceding for you, gets you. He knows what it is like to live inside your weakness. He knows what it is like to inhabit your frail flesh. He knows what it is like to be tempted.” He understands you! You know how you’re looking for that person who gets you, and even though they get you they still like you? You’re looking for that person in life! The author of Hebrews is saying the One who ever lives to intercede for you, the One to whom you lift up your prayers, He gets you. He knows what it’s like to be you and He loves you with an everlasting love. My friends, you need that! You desperately need that! And the author of Hebrews is saying nobody but Jesus can give that to you. Nobody but the sinless Son of God can give that to you.

The Provision of Jesus

And then one more thing. Look at verse 16. Not only does He get you, but He knows how to give us what we need most at the time we need it. Look at how the author of Hebrews puts it. “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.” Would you turn with me to another hymn? Turn with me to 554. I hope that’s the right number; it is! 554 – look at the fifth stanza. It’s at the top of the page; next side. This is the end of Martin Luther’s rendering of Psalm 130. “Though great our sins and sore our woes His grace much more aboundeth. His helping love” – isn’t that a beautiful phrase? “His helping love no limit knows. Our utmost need it soundeth.” When you are in your greatest extremity of need, His helping love reaches to the bottom of it. It sounds it out to the bottom. “Our Shepherd good and true is He, who will at last His Israel free from” – what? “From all our sins and sorrows.” That’s what I need. That’s exactly what I need. And the author of Hebrews is saying Jesus will provide that. He will provide for you exactly what you need in your utmost need.

He is Always on Time

I love the saying that comes from the black church. I think I first heard it from Ronnie Cruddup. And it goes something like this. “He may not come when you want Him, but He’s always on time.” Man, that’s some reformed theology right there! “He may not come when you want Him, but He’s always on time.” You know, He’s not your bellhop. “God, get snappy on this.” And sometimes you think He has left you hanging by your very last thread and then He shows up and it’s just what you need, just how you need it, just when you need it. The author of Hebrews is saying Jesus knows how to do that. Jesus is ready to give you the grace and the mercy and to give you help and free you from your sins and sorrows.

Hold Fast

And all of this is designed to lead to two things. Notice that in each of the three verses there’s one thing that Jesus does that you desperately need and then cocooned inside are two things that are our response. Look at verse 14. “Let us hold fast our confession.” Because we have a great High Priest, because He sympathizes with us, “let us hold fast our confession.” I’ll never forget, in Biblical Theology class in seminary when Palmer Robertson, who grew up in this congregation, was reading that passage and he said, “Let us hold fast our confession.” And then he said, “Westminster Confession implied.” Every Presbyterian has to love that! But you see, the point here is don’t stop believing. There’s enormous pressure for us to give up on faith, to give up on believing, to stop trusting. The world is not helping you continue to believe.

When I was a young pastor here at First Pres, over where Char is now, it used to be Shoney’s back then. How that for an upgrade? From Shoney’s to Char! I was with a bunch of RUF campus ministers who were here at Belhaven and Bebo was getting ready to do campus minister training and they said to me, “Well as a pastor, what’s your philosophy of ministry?” And I said, “Well I don’t know! What is it that I do as a pastor?” And I sort of started fumbling through my answer to that question. Well interestingly enough, about six months after I became chancellor, somebody said to me, “Well I mean, what’s your philosophy of being a chancellor? What is it exactly what you’re trying to do?” And I started thinking, “Well I don’t know!” But the first thing that came to me was that my first job is to wake up in the morning and believe. Why do I say that? Because we’re preparing people for ministry in a world that’s going to slaughter them. That world is not going to help them keep believing the faith once delivered to the saints. And if I don’t really believe this stuff, I’m not helping them to be prepared to keep believing this at the end and cross the finish line fighting the good fight of faith. So the first thing I need to do is get up in the morning and believe this stuff that we’re teaching.

It was interesting. I was met by a missionary from North Africa at the door after the first service who said, “I’m one of those people who got slaughtered and I needed to hold fast my confession and I needed to see my great High Priest who helps me keep believing.” The world is toxic to faith. Your great High Priest can keep you believing.

Depend on Him

And then the second thing, it's in verse 16, isn't it? "Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace." What's he saying? "Pray! Depend on Me! Believe that your prayers are heard! You know, dependence and waiting are underrated aspects of the Christian life. We like to talk about the great exploits of the faith. Well here's a great exploit. "I waited for the Lord and He inclined His ear unto me." There's a great exploit of faith. Waiting for the Lord is hard, and the author of Hebrews is saying your High Priest understands what it's like to live in your skin, He knows exactly what you need, how to give it to you and when you need it. Pray! Come to Him with confidence. The world's not helping you do those things or believe those things but your Savior is and you desperately need what He does for you.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, help us to believe and to pray because of what Jesus has done. We ask it in His name, amen.

© 2017 First Presbyterian Church.

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