Christ Our Priest | Hebrews 4:14-16
Brian Hedges | November 19, 2023
Let’s turn in Scripture this morning to Hebrews 4.
While you’re turning there, I want to ask a question that I want you to reflect upon in your mind and try to answer this morning.
The question is this: when you look into your own heart and life, what is the present greatest threat to your faith? At the present moment, what is the greatest threat to your faith, the steadfastness of your faith as a Christian?
For some of you, it may be doubt. It may be intellectual doubt, it may be unanswered questions about the Bible or about Christianity. It may be objections that you have heard or problems that have been presented to you, and you don’t know the answer to those questions. So you’re wrestling with those questions, with those doubts.
For some of you, the greatest threat is sin. It’s sin in your own life. Perhaps it’s the consciousness of sins committed in the past and the guilt of those sins weighing you down. Or it may be the present conflict as you are aware of a raging war within your heart between flesh and spirit, and you sometimes wonder whether the flesh will get the upper hand after all.
For some of you, the greatest threat this morning is trials, suffering, disappointment, unexpected difficulties that you’re facing in your life, your job, your health, your family. Those trials cause you to question, “Where is God?”
For some of you, perhaps most of you this morning, the greatest threat is simply distractions. It’s the busyness of life. It’s a thousand competing voices that are pulling your attention away from the Lord Jesus Christ.
Maybe it’s something else that I haven’t even named. But whatever the answer to that question is in your heart, the greatest present threat to your faith, the great antidote to that threat, the great answer to our need, is found in the passage that we’re going to look at this morning, Hebrews 4:14-16.
In many ways, this is a transitional statement. It applies everything that has gone before and it leads into the next major section of this letter. These verses have been called “the heart of Hebrews” by Douglas Moo. They really open the way to the argument of Hebrews 5-10 about the supremacy of Christ’s priestly work.
We’re continuing today in this study of Hebrews, and as we close chapter 4 we’re actually going to take a break. We’re going to pause for the next several weeks as we enter into Thanksgiving and the Advent season. But we’re going to come right back to Hebrews shortly after the new year. Today we finish Hebrews 4 looking at these three verses together. Let’s read it, Hebrews 4:14-16.
“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.”
This is God’s word. May he bless it to our hearts.
What I want you to see in this passage is that there are two propositions followed by two applications. The propositions are about the priesthood of Christ, the priestly ministry of Christ. The applications are what we should then do in response.
Proposition one: Jesus is our supreme high priest. You have that in the first part of Hebrews 4:14. The application to that is, “Let us hold fast our confession.” It’s a call to perseverance.
Then proposition two is that Jesus is our sympathetic high priest, in verse 15, and the application, “Let us draw near to the throne of grace,” a call to prayer.
We could summarize it in this way: Hebrews calls us to perseverance through prayer because of the supremacy and the sympathy of Christ our high priest. We’re just going to work through those propositions and those applications together.
1a. Jesus Is Our Supreme High Priest
The first proposition is that Jesus is our supreme high priest. You see it in verse 14. “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God . . .” That’s the statement. Jesus the Son of God, our great high priest.
As I’ve already mentioned, this summarizes some of the argument already in this letter, in Hebrews 1-4, while also paving the way for the arguments of Hebrews 5-10. The author has already shown us that Jesus, the Son of God, is supreme. He is supreme over angels (chapter 1), he is supreme over Moses (chapter 3), and supreme over Joshua bringing us a superior rest in chapters 3 and 4.
He is also Jesus; that is, the man Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, who has shared in our humanity, in our human nature. It’s the whole argument of Hebrews 2. This was necessary so that he could be a merciful and a faithful high priest (the end of chapter 2 and beginning of chapter 3). This one who is our great high priest, our supreme high priest, is the one who has passed through the heavens.
This points us to a theme that runs like a thread through the letter to the Hebrews, the theme of the ascension of Jesus Christ, the exaltation of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the one who, in his very human nature, has been exalted to the right hand of God.
You have it in Hebrews 1:3, where it says that “after making purification for sins [part of his priestly work], he sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high.” You have in Hebrews 7:26, when it says that “it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.” He has said that he is to be seated at the right hand of the throne of the majesty in heaven (Hebrews 8:1).
Hebrews 9:24 says that he has “entered into holy places, not holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.”
Perhaps you remember the well-known words of Hebrews 12:2, where we are called to “run the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of God.”
Jesus is, as A.W. Tozer said, our “man in glory.” The man Christ Jesus, sharing in our human nature, having tasted death for everyone, having defeated the one who had the power of death, and is now raised from the dead and is exalted to the very throne of God—Jesus, who has passed through the heavens.
Perhaps this is also an allusion to the Day of Atonement. You might remember this from Leviticus 16, where once a year, on Yom Kippur, the high priest would penetrate through the curtain into the Most Holy Place, the holiest of all. There he would sprinkle the blood of a goat on the mercy seat, the lid of the ark of the covenant, as he made atonement for the sins of the nation.
This is the imagery that gets developed in Hebrews 6, where we read that we have a “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever.” Jesus the high priest has passed through the heavens, he’s entered into the very present of God, the heavenly sanctuary, and there he represents us. He is our supreme high priest and he is Jesus, the Son of God.
These two names are titles of Jesus that have already been used in Hebrews, but here for the first time they’re combined and used together. Jesus, emphasizing his humanity; Son of God, emphasizing his deity, the one who is exalted over the angels and over Moses, the angels who serve as ministering spirits to the heirs of salvation and Moses, who is a servant in God’s house, but Jesus is the Son. Jesus the Son of God is our supreme high priest.
This whole letter is written to remind us of the supremacy of Jesus Christ, that Jesus Christ is better and he is greater than all that went before. That’s the first proposition.
1b. Let Us Hold Fast Our Confession
The application flows right out of this in verse 14. It’s the first of these two “let us” statements. The author says, “Let us hold fast our confession.” It’s a call to perseverance, to continuance, to endurance, to continuing in the faith, also a theme in this letter.
This word “confession” carries the idea of a confession of faith. It would include both holding onto the inner essence of faith in our Christian lives as well as maintaining our public profession of that faith against the obstacles that we may face.
The NIV reads like this: “Let us hold firmly to the faith that we profess.” It is a call to hold fast. This is a word that means to hold onto something or to stick to something firmly. It’s a nautical term; it carries the idea of a ship holding to its course. It means to adhere closely.
Again, it’s a phrase we’ve already encountered in Hebrews 3:6, where the author says, “We are his house, if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope.” It’s a thread that runs through Hebrews. Hebrews 6:18: “We who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.” And Hebrews 10:23, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.”
Every time I read those words, “hold fast,” I think of a scene from one of my favorite films of all. It’s the wonderful film Master and Commander. Anybody ever seen this movie? If you want a great movie for the holidays, this is a good one to watch. It’s based on the Patrick O’Brian novels about the British navy in the wars in the 19th century. It’s a wonderful film, and on the brink of a battle, this salty old sailor is engaged with this young novice who has just joined the crew, a new young crewman. He shows him his hands, and tattooed across his knuckles are the words “hold fast.”
Evidently this was common among sailors back in those days, that they would tattoo their hands, and it was a reminder to them as they were holding onto the rope to hold it firmly, to hold fast, because a slip of the rope could mean a change of speed, could mean a loss in battle, could even lead to loss of life.
Every time I read the words “hold fast” I think of that scene, those words tattooed on the old sailor’s hands. I would suggest to you that Hebrews calls us also to hold fast in the thick of spiritual and moral battle, in the storms of life, in temptation and testing, in suffering and discouragement. In the face of everything that confronts us, in the face of those very threats that you named in your mind just a few minutes ago, the call is, “Let us hold fast our confession.”
Have you ever wondered what are some of the specific reasons that people leave the faith? Why do people deconstruct and then deconvert? What leads to this? There are lots of reasons for this. Sometimes it’s the gradual hardening of heart that happens as we fail to deal with sin and our hearts are deceived by the deceitfulness of sin; backsliding and a lack of repentance. Someone falls away from their first love. They fail to maintain a close relationship with Jesus, and they slowly drift away.
Sometimes people deconvert because of encroaching intellectual doubts that they fail to address. Often it’s the very thing we named earlier; it’s the busyness of life. It’s the thousand competing voices that distract us from the Lord, and we become lazy in spiritual disciplines. We’ve all seen this. I’ve certainly seen this: those who once were faithful in daily devotions, prayer, and the word, slowly drift away, and then ten years later, fifteen years later, they’re no longer Christian in any meaningful sense at all.
Sometimes it’s a failure to really order our priorities in alignment with the kingdom of God. Sometimes it’s difficulties that we face; it’s facing suffering and never getting an answer to the, “Why, God?” question. Or maybe it’s that church proves to be really hard and there’s difficulty in building relationships and a person never really gets himself connected into the community of faith. Or he’s hurt by the church, he’s disappointed by the church, he’s disappointed by church leaders. All of those things can lead to someone starting down this path of apostasy and turning away from the Lord.
In the face of all these things that test our faith, Hebrews says tattoo on your hearts the words “hold fast.” Don’t give up. Hold on! Hold onto Christ. Why? Because he, our great high priest, Jesus the Son of God, has passed through the heavens.
2a. Jesus Is Our Sympathetic High Priest
Then the author gives us another proposition, and this one actually enforces the application that’s just come. Here’s another reason to hold fast, and it’s a further development of the doctrine of the priesthood of Christ. So proposition two is that Jesus is our sympathetic high priest. He’s not only supreme, he is sympathetic. He is not only the transcendent priest, the Son of God who has passed through the heavens and is now seated at the right hand of God; he is also the one who invites us to draw near to him.
Look at verse 15. “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.”
That has to be one of the most comforting verses in all the Bible. It presents to us Jesus, the sympathetic Savior. It shows us the very heart of Christ towards us when we’re right in that moment of temptation, right in that moment of testing, right on the brink of losing our faith. The heart of Christ goes out to us.
One of the great Puritan authors, Thomas Goodwin, wrote a whole book on Hebrews 4:15. Its title was The Heart of Christ in Heaven towards Sinners on Earth, or a Treatise Demonstrating the Gracious Disposition and Tender Affection of Christ in His Human Nature Now in Glory unto His Members, under All Sorts of Infirmities, Either of Sin or Misery. It’s very common Puritan language; they would give their books three or four different titles.
This is the thesis of the book. This is why Goodwin chose the passage. He said,
“I have chosen this text as that which above any other speaks his heart most and sets out the frame and workings of it towards sinners, and that, as it were, takes our hands and lays upon them Christ’s breast and lets us feel how his heart beats and his affections yearn toward us even now as he is in glory.”
What a beautiful image! This verse takes your hand and lays it on the heart of Christ so that you can feel his heart beating in tenderness and in sympathy for you. This sympathy of Jesus flows from both his humanity and his experience of being tempted and tested in his suffering, because of his humanity.
Remember the argument of Hebrews 2. “He had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation [or an atoning sacrifice] for the sins of the people.” Then verse 18: “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”
You know what this means? It means that Jesus knew the entire flight of human emotions and experiences, and he understands, and he’s able to sympathize. He’s able to empathize. Sometimes translations use the word empathy. Both of these notions are included. He sympathizes with us, and he also empathizes with us. He understands and he has entered into our experiences, so that he is fully one with us in his human nature, sin excepted.
It means that Jesus knows what you’re going through. If you feel fear in your heart, anxiety, dread of what may come in your life, some trial that’s on the horizon, maybe a terrible diagnosis that you’ve received, maybe an unexpected turn of events, and it fills your heart with anxiety such that sometimes you find it difficult to sleep at night, Jesus knows that fear. He knew what it was to dread the cup that the Father had given him to drink.
Do you ever feel sorrow, a deep sadness in your heart that weighs you down? Sadness because of loss, sorrow maybe over loved ones who are far from the Lord? Jesus knew what it was to weep. He wept over Jerusalem. He wept at Lazarus’s grave. He knows those sorrows.
He knows hunger, he knows exhaustion, he knows loneliness, he knows temptation. He knows all these things. And whatever it is that you’re facing today, this moment, whatever you will face this week, whatever unforeseen trial has come upon you or perhaps will come upon you tomorrow and threaten to shake you to your core, you are not alone, because Jesus knows. He understands. He’s been there.
He sympathizes with us because of his humanity, and he also sympathizes with us because of his suffering and his temptation. He was tempted in every respect as we are, yet without sin. That word “tempt” is really the word that means to test or to tempt. In the case of Jesus, it means that he was tested at every point of his humanity.
You remember this, when Jesus, following his baptism, was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, into the desert of Judea, and there for forty days and forty nights he was tempted by the devil, by Satan, his adversary, who presented before him various temptations to try to seduce him away from his mission.
It includes, of course, the suffering and the Passion of Jesus Christ, especially in that final week of his life, where he faced such an onslaught of persecution and physical suffering and the agony of death, and even, for a few hours as he hung on the cross, separation from the fellowship of his Father. In the face of all of it, he never gave up and he never gave in to sin. “He was tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin.”
That shows the strength of Jesus, it shows the endurance of Jesus, but it also shows that he understands the full gamut of human temptation—not in the sense that Jesus felt an inward compulsion to sin, as sometimes do. James says that when we’re tempted we’re often led away by sinful desire, we’re enticed by that, and that leads us into sin. Jesus never felt the inward sinful impulse, but he was presented with every external temptation, and he felt the normal human emotions, untainted by sin, so that he was fully tested.
Perhaps nobody has described this better than C.S. Lewis. He said,
“Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in [this was written during World War II]. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. 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. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it in Christ. Because he was the only man who never yielded to temptation, he is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means.”
“He was tempted in every respect as we are, yet without sin.”
I’ve shared this illustration before, but for some of you this will be new. Have you ever heard of sympathetic resonance? When you have two pianos that are in tune in the same room and you strike a key on one of those pianos, the same note will gently respond on the other. So it is with Christ in his humanity. When a chord of weakness is struck in the instrument of our human nature, there’s something within his heart that responds. He knows our weakness, he knows our infirmities. He’s been tempted as we are.
Consider these movings words from the Scottish Psalter.
“Though now ascended up on high,
He bends on earth a brother’s eye;
Partaker of the human name,
He knows the frailty of our frame.
“Our Fellow-sufferer yet retains
A fellow-feeling of our pains,
And still remembers, in the skies,
His tears, and agonies, and cries.
“In every pang that rends the heart
The Man of Sorrows had a part;
He sympathises with our grief,
And to the sufferer sends relief.”
Christ is our sympathetic priest.
2b. Let Us Drawn Near to the Throne of Grace
He is our supreme priest, he’s our sympathetic priest, and therefore (here’s the second application), let us draw near to the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16). It’s a call to prayer. “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.”
What does this mean? What does it mean to draw near? This verb, the commentators tell us, is highly significant in the argument of Hebrews. It’s a word that was applied to the Israelites in the Old Testament who came before the Lord at Sinai, and then, through the mediation of a priest, offered sacrifices to the Lord. It is the opposite, the alternative to turning away from the Lord or shrinking back from the Lord. Instead of moving away from God, we are to draw near to God.
As one commentator says, “It suggests a specific form of prayer. Coming to the throne of grace means approaching God as an unusually generous King who makes himself available daily for an audience with his subjects in the throne room of his palace.”
We draw near in prayer, and notice what it is we draw near to: we draw near to the throne of grace.
Think about God, the King of the universe, seated on a throne, and the first temptation might be to think of this throne as a throne of majesty, an awesome throne, where the sovereign King sits. And we might be intimidated to even come. But I love these words from Calvin in his commentary. He said, “The throne of God is not marked by a naked majesty which overpowers us, but is adorned with a new name, that of grace.” It’s a throne of grace.
It means that we have access. It means that we can come with the confidence of being received. It means that we who should be cast far off because of our sins, because we come through Christ the mediator, Christ the priest, the one who has shed his blood for our sins, the one who assumed our human nature, carried the burden of our guilt all the way to the cross, made the perfect, atoning sacrifice, and even now intercedes for us with his gentle, sympathetic heart because of what Christ has done in his priestly work. When we come before God, we do not come to a throne of judgment. We do not even come to merely a throne of majesty, we come to a throne of grace, where God is ready to help us.
We sang it this morning:
“I approach the throne of glory;
Nothing in my hands I bring
But the promise of acceptance
By a good and gracious King.”
He promises to accept us if we come to him. What an amazing thought! We are to draw near to the throne of grace.
Why? So that we might receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Let me ask you this morning: do you need mercy? Do you need God to be merciful to you, a sinner? Do you need compassion, pity, forgiveness? Do you need grace, favor from God, blessing unearned, undeserved, given freely without merit? Are you able to come and say,
“Nothing in my hands I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling.
Naked, come to thee for dress;
Helpless, look to thee for grace.
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.”
Those are the words of faith. We find this in our time of need when we come to the throne of grace. We find mercy, we find grace, and therefore we should come, and not come with a fear of being rejected, but notice the word. “Let us then with confidence draw near. Let us then with boldness draw near.” We’re to come with boldness in our hearts, boldness because we know that because of Christ and his priestly work on our behalf we will never be refused.
The hymns put it well, don’t they? Charles Wesley:
“No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus and all in him is mine.
Alive in him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine.
Bold I approach the eternal throne
And claim the crown through Christ my own.”
Let me ask you this morning, how’s your prayer life? This is a call to prayer. Come to the throne of grace; draw near to the throne of grace. How’s your prayer life? Which word best describes your prayer life: haphazard, routine, dry, nonexistent? Or maybe desperate, sweet, comforting, strengthening?
I was thinking in preparation, what’s the best advice I can give about prayer? These are the two things that came to mind.
(1) Number one, trials help. Trials actually help. When I think about my prayer life, the best times of prayer in my life have been not when things are going well, they’ve been when things were really hard. It’s been those times when I was desperate for God to answer, desperate for God to forgive, or desperate for God to provide, or desperate for God to show that he was still with us, that he still cared for us; desperate for him to answer some prayer.
William Cowper, in a wonderful poem called “Welcome Cross,” that is, welcome the cross of affliction, said,
“Trials make the promise sweet,
Trials give new life to prayer,
Trials bring me to his feet,
Lay me low, and keep me there.”
Christian, don’t wish away your trials. Your trials are the fuel for prayer. Trials help your prayer life.
(2) Here’s the second thing, which I think is so essential for prayer: it is, very simply, the gospel itself, because the most difficult thing in prayer, when you really try to pierce into the presence of God so that you know that you are before him and he’s hearing you, the most difficult thing is having confidence that God will accept you, believing that he is gracious to you, and the only place you get that confidence is through the gospel. You get it from God’s promises given to us in Christ. Jesus Christ, as Calvin says, comes clothed to us in the gospel. The promise of free grace and of mercy.
In summary, what we’ve seen this morning are two things about the priesthood of Christ: his supremacy and his sympathy. These two things are both the basis for and the encouragement for our persevering in the faith and our boldness in prayer. The prayer serves the perseverance. The way in which you hold fast your confidence is by drawing near to the throne of grace to find mercy and grace to help in time of need.
Go back to the beginning and remember your answer to the question, “What is the greatest threat to your faith right now?” It may be a different threat tomorrow, may be a different threat a year from now. But what’s the greatest threat right now? Whatever that threat is, you can bring that need, you can bring that burden, that problem, that threat, you can bring it directly to the King himself, and you can bring it with the confidence that God will hear you, that he will accept you, that he will answer, that he will give you the grace that you need, and he will do that because there’s a man in heaven right now who’s praying for you, who’s interceding for you, whose heart beats in sympathy with yours, and who knows exactly what you’re going through, and he is there to intercede on your behalf. His name is Jesus. Let’s pray.
Gracious God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we thank you this morning that we can come before your throne of grace, that we can come with boldness and with confidence, that we can come knowing that we will be heard, not because of anything we bring but because of your promise of acceptance, because of the priestly work of your Son, the Lord Jesus, who has fully paid for all of our sins, who has entered through the curtain into the heavenly sanctuary, and who now, at this very moment, represents us before your throne, who pleads our case.
So, Father, it’s through Jesus that we come this morning. It’s through Jesus that we ask you to minister to us today. In our worship, it’s not really that we’re bringing anything to you. You’re the God who is in need of nothing. Our worship is us coming to receive from you what you have promised, and then to simply offer you our thanks for your gracious provision and pardon, for hearing us and receiving us, for welcoming us. So Father, we ask for it right now. We ask for grace for our trials. We ask for pardon for our sins, healing for our backslidings, renewal in our minds. We ask for the graces of faith and repentance and of perseverance. We ask you, Lord, that by your Spirit you would bear witness with our spirit that we are your children, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ.
We pray, Lord, that by the ministry of your Holy Spirit you would deeply assure us of your grace and your mercy in our lives, and that as we come to the table this morning that you would seal the promises of the gospel through these signs of the broken body and the shed blood of Jesus Christ. Lord, we come to draw near to you this morning, to draw near to your throne. As we do, we claim the promise of Scripture from James 4: “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” Would you do that for us today? By virtue of the work of your Son, Jesus Christ, and through the ministry of your indwelling Spirit, draw near to us in these moments, and give us what we need in our time of need. We pray this in Jesus’ name and for his sake, amen.