April 15, 2018
Easter was a couple weeks ago, April 1 this year. We saw that after His resurrection, Jesus appeared to many, first to Mary Magdalene, then to Peter, James, the Twelve several times, to the two on the road to Emmaus, and to five hundred at one time. There could no doubting nor denying, He was alive. For forty days, He appeared. But on that fortieth day – think of it as May 10 – forty days after April 1 – on that day, Jesus took His disciples to the Mount of Olives, just to the east of Jerusalem, up the hill from the Garden of Gethsemane. The disciples asked, is it time? Are you going to reveal Yourself to the world and set up Your kingdom? Is it time, Jesus? I get that question, don’t you? Haven’t you ever thought, you know, today would be a good day for You to come, Jesus. We live in such a broken world – can You come fix it?
You remember Jesus said, it’s not for you to know the time set by My Father. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes, and you’ll be My witnesses – here in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the earth. In Matthew, He said it this way – go, and make disciples of all nations – baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
And then, after He said that, Luke says He was lifted up, right there. He ascended into heaven. And we’ve been waiting for His return ever since. You ever thought that – today would be a good day? But, what’s He been doing? Well, we know He sat down at the right hand of His Father, His rightful place of glory and honor. There, He received a name that is above every name – Jesus Christ our Lord. Meaning, He has been ruling and reigning – building His church as the head of the church.
We also know He has been preparing a place for us. He told the disciples on the night before His crucifixion – I’m going to prepare a place for you, and if I do that, rest assured I will come back to get you, that where I am, there you can be also. So we’re waiting, and waiting. And just like the readers of Hebrews, this waiting hasn’t always been easy. Jesus even said, if they hated Me, if they opposed Me, if they persecuted Me, if they killed Me – they will you also. And they have.
So that’s it? We just suffer and wait? And wait? Is Jesus doing anything else? Is there anything else we do as we wait? Well, certainly we are His witnesses, but is there more He is doing, and more we can do in the midst of suffering, persecution, opposition, temptation, trouble, sickness, even death? Said more fundamentally, is all this worth it? Is there help? Yes, there is. Hebrews 4:14-16.
This passage has encouraged the church for two thousand years – I would suggest even more when we understand its context. The Jewish readers of Hebrews were, like believers through the centuries, suffering for their faith. They had suffered great loss – loss of credibility, loss of property, loss of freedom, and they were facing loss of life. So, as the suffering was so great, some had quit and returned to Judaism. Others were considering doing so. So the author writes to both encourage and warn them. The encouragement comes primarily in the form of, Jesus is greater than anything Judaism has to offer – or any other world religion for that matter. As the Son of God, He’s greater than the angels, and His covenant is greater than theirs. He’s greater than Moses – Moses was a servant in the house, Jesus is the Son over the house. Jesus is greater than Joshua – Joshua led them into the land of promise – merely a type of the rest the NT Joshua named Jesus brought. Further, Jesus is greater than any claims made in other false world religions. After all, their founders are still dead and buried – Jesus, the founder of the Christian faith is alive.
But more than alive – He is caring for His followers. When He told His disciples that He was returning to heaven, He also told them He would send another just like Him, to be with them – another counselor, comforter – the Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit. He told them on the Mount of Olives right before He ascended to wait until they received power – and they did ten days later when the Holy Spirit came. He promised He would be with them through His Spirit to the end of the age. Then Paul tells us these amazing words in Romans 8. Now, you should know Romans 8 was written as encouragement to believers who were suffering and struggling in this present life. Look at verse 18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” So there you go – we are waiting again – for future glory.
The text goes on in verse 23, “And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves [that’s encouraging] waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.” So there we are, waiting again. Is that it? Are we left to fend for ourselves? Verse 26, “In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us…” This is good news – as we are suffering, waiting patiently and eagerly, the Spirit intercedes with the Father for us. You’re not left alone.
But that’s not all, verse 34, “Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.” My brothers and sisters, understand that the Spirit and the Son – two members of the Trinity – are interceding for us. Such that, next verse, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” the answer is nothing. Through a long list, Paul says there is nothing that will separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
So yes, Jesus has ascended to heaven. Yes, He is seated at the right hand of God. Yes, He is ruling and reigning, building His church just like He said. Yes, He is preparing a place for us. Yes, He will come again to receive us – to take us to be with Him. Yes, in the meantime, we eagerly and patiently wait for His return as we suffer. But yes – do not miss it – this is not all Jesus is doing in heaven right now. He is interceding for us. I don’t know what that looks like. He’s seated at the right hand of the Father. Does He just look up and say, “Father, Jenny could use Your attention right now.” It’s not like the Father doesn’t know. Perhaps it is like, “Jenny is one for whom I died and is My sister, Father. Let’s care for her.” However, Jesus is in a sense praying to the Father for us, that we would persevere in the midst of great challenge. Whatever your challenge is – Jesus knows, and is interceding. Just like He prayed for us the night before His crucifixion in John 17:
13 “But now I come to You; and these things I speak in the world so that they may have My joy made full in themselves.
14 “I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.
15 “I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one.
16 “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.
17 “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.
18 “As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.
19 “For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.
20 “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word;”
Do you understand that Jesus prayed for you then? Do you know He is interceding for you right now? Such that, the invitation and promise of Hebrews 4 is indeed one of the most precious in Scripture. He is in closest proximity to the Father, at His right hand. And He hears your prayers, and intercedes for you. With much greater wisdom and insight than our own. Let’s look at the text for a few moments – then we’ll end our time in prayer, going together to the throne of grace. Here’s the outline:
- Our Great High Priest (14)
- Our Sympathetic High Priest (15)
- Our Approachable High Priest (16)
It’s really pretty strait forward today, which is great for Hebrews. Starting with, our Great High Priest. He begins with the word, therefore. We know that’s a conjunction, pointing back to what he has said before. Therefore, since we have a great high priest – when did he refer to Jesus as a high priest? Back in chapter 2:17, “Therefore, He had to be made like His brothers in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”
So, Jesus became a man at the incarnation – took on human flesh, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest. In order to make propitiation or atonement for the people, turning away God’s righteous wrath. He had to be made a man so that He might represent us to God, and God to us. Who else could do that, but the God-man? He was made man, so He might be a faithful high priest.
So, we have a great high priest – we’ll come back to that in a moment – who has passed through the heavens. Stop right there. Jesus did that at His ascension from the Mount of Olives. He was taken up, and cloud received Him or hid Him from their sight. That’s when the angels appeared to the disciples and said, why are you just standing here looking up – He said He was coming back – now go be busy about the work He gave you to do. And they did.
But now, we see Jesus continued to ascend through the cloud, through the heavens. In II Corinthians 12, Paul talks about being taken to the third heaven. The Jews typically thought of three heavens – the first is our sky or atmosphere, the second is space, the third is beyond that – the place where God resides. So, here we see Jesus ascended through the heavens – the idea is to the very presence of God, where He sat down at the Father’s right hand, where He sits as our great high priest. This is the only place in Bible that talks about a great high priest.
Now, let’s talk about this high priest. If you’re familiar with the OT, you know one of the twelve tribes of Israel was the tribe of Levi. They were the tribe of priests, who would offer sacrifices, serve in the Tabernacle, later the Temple. They made sure the incense was in place, the showbread was prepared – things like that. Again, they would offer sacrifices for the people. But there was one and only one high priest. You’ll remember Aaron was the first, and he and his descendents were the highest of the priests – the high priest. He would wear the ephod, upon which were the twelve stones on his chest – engraved with the twelve tribes of Israel. On his shoulders were the Urim and Thummin from which he could enquire of the Lord.
But undoubtedly, one of his greatest duties was on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On that day, and that day only, he would enter the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle. He entered through a thick curtain or veil, that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. In the Holy of Holies sat a golden box called the Ark of the Covenant. In the box, among other things, were the two tablets of stone, upon which God had written the Ten Commandments. Over the box was a golden lid, called the mercy seat. And on the mercy seat were two cherubim with wings stretching from one side of the room to the other.
There, above the mercy seat, God dwelt with His people. There, once a year on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice, covering the mercy seat in atonement for the people. You see, the blood would stand between God and the Law that had been broken. A few other things to note: the High Priest would also be offering a sacrifice for his own sins, and the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement was offered unendingly, year after year. Finally, the high priest wore bells around the bottom of his robe. When he went into the Holy of Holies, he did so with rope tied around his waist. As long as those outside could hear the bells, they knew he was still alive, and his sacrifice accepted. If the bells ceased ringing, they knew he was dead, and would drag him out.
The veil separated the people from the presence of God. Only one entered. And now, the author of Hebrews tells us, since we have a great high priest – again, the only place in the NT that refers to a great high priest – one who has passed through – not the veil, but through the heavens. You see, the veil of temple had been torn in two when Jesus was crucified. When He cried out with a loud voice, “It is finished,” the veil was torn from top to bottom, signaling access to the very presence of God. There was no longer a barrier that said keep out, you are not holy enough. Access to the Father is now granted.
Well, Jesus passed not through a physical veil, but through the heavens, to the presence of His Father, where He sat down at His right hand. And He opened the way for us to enter. You see, this Jesus is the very Son of God, and His sacrifice was complete, perfect, never to be offered again. With these verses, the author transitions to the third major section of the book that will extend all the way through chapter 10. The theme will be Jesus is our great high priest. You see, not only is Jesus greater than the angels, greater than Moses, greater than Joshua – He is greater than Aaron, He is greater than all the high priests who have gone before – He is the great high priest.
So, let us hold fast our confession – that is, our confession of faith of Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah, the Christ, who died and was raised again to take away the sin of the world. So, the author is saying, you cannot go back to Judaism and the Old Covenant. All those high priests, all those sacrifices – even the Temple and the Holy of Holies – simply types, pointing to their ultimate fulfillment in Christ and the New Covenant. So, brothers and sisters, hold fast your confession of faith – belief in the ultimate satisfaction of your sins through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus – hold fast and faithful to the gospel.
Because not only is Jesus the Son of God, our great high priest, as the author will make clear for chapters to come, but He is our sympathetic high priest – verse 15, point two.
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. This, Hebrews 2 told us, was one reason Jesus took on human flesh, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest for His people. For since He was tempted in that which He suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted.
In the context there, the author was writing to people tempted to quit and return to Judaism, because of their sufferings. He reminded them Jesus, too, was tempted to quit. Remember, in the Garden of Gethsemane, He prayed, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me.” Let me not drink the cup of Your wrath. Chapter 5 will tell us with loud cries and tears, Jesus sought the One who able to save Him from death. But, He finished His prayer with, not My will, but Yours be done. And further, He suffered the temptation to its fullest degree because although He was tempted, He did not quit – He drank the cup.
But here in chapter 4, the author seems to broaden the point a bit. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize – it’s actually a double negative for emphasis – meaning, we do have a high priest who can sympathize – with what? Our weaknesses. A weakness to give in, to quit because of sufferings? Certainly so. But notice, we have a high priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses because He was tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.
Not just the temptation to quit – but any and every temptation. It’s not that Jesus faced every temptation you’ve faced, but He faced every kind of temptation – and He did so successfully. Think of the temptations in the wilderness – when Satan tempted Him to turn stones into bread, to fall down and worship him, and to cast Himself from the pinnacle of the Temple. These constituted the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. And Jesus, while tempted, refused them all, such that we can say He was without sin. As we talked about a few weeks ago, that means Jesus not only faced every kind temptation you have faced, but to the fullest degree. You see, our temptation ceases when we give into sin. He never did – so He faced every temptation to its fullest. But never sinned.
Because, if He had sinned, He would not have been the great high priest, nor would He have been the perfect sacrifice. But as such, He is able to sympathize – indeed, empathize with your temptations, your weaknesses. He understands, having faced them Himself.
Therefore, point three, because He is our great high priest, because He is our sympathetic high priest and understands, therefore, let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need.
Now remember, for centuries, only the high priest drew near – once a year – with fear and trembling – bells around his robe – offering a sacrifice for the sins of the people and his own. Only he drew near. But now, we are invited to draw near, not in fear, but with joy-filled confidence – boldness. That doesn’t mean with arrogance – it means, because of the finished work of Christ, we have access – confident, joyful, humble access to God.
Now, when you think of God and His throne, you perhaps think of the great white throne in Revelation 20 which speaks of judgment. Or perhaps you think of Isaiah’s or John’s vision. Seated on throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe fills the temple. And when Isaiah saw the vision, he rightfully cried out, woe is me, for I am undone. It was an awesome sight, and it revealed his sinfulness and his unworthiness to stand in God’s presence.
But now, brothers and sisters, we have been invited to approach God’s throne with confidence because Jesus has opened the way. And it is a throne of grace – grace speaks of getting that which we do not deserve – but we have been accepted because of Jesus. We have received grace upon grace.
How do you view God’s presence – His throne? With fear and trembling? We need not – it is for His children a throne of grace. So go to it to receive mercy – that is, forgiveness and relief from past sins – and find grace – that is strength to live the Christian life in the present and future in your time of need. When do we approach His throne? Probably more often than we think. How often do we think – I’ve got this. I can handle this. How much better to realize we need God and His mercy and grace every moment of every day.
So, we approach His throne of grace. My wife gave me a book to read entitled, From Weakness to Strength. It’s not a book telling you how to go from weakness to strength, but how to find strength in weakness. The author quotes an old hymn at the end of the first chapter – I close with this:
Whatever my God ordains is right;
Here shall my stand be taken;
Though sorrow, need, or death be mine,
Yet I am not forsaken.
My Father’s care is round me there;
He holds me that I shall not fall:
And so to Him I leave it all;
He holds me that I shall not fall.