Our Great High Priest | Hebrews 4:14-16
Brian Hedges | September 13, 2020
Let me invite you to turn in your Bibles this morning to the book of Hebrews; we’re going to be in Hebrews 4.
It’s good to be back after being off for a couple of weeks; I’m grateful for two of our elders, Andy Lindgren and Phil Krause, who filled the pulpit while I was gone. Both of them did a wonderful job in expounding Scripture.
I’m excited next week to begin a new series with you. For the next ten weeks, beginning next week all the way up through Thanksgiving and then the beginning of Advent, will be that next week, and up through Advent we’re going to be looking at a series on the character of God. We’re going to call this series “Behold Your God,” and we’re just going to spend ten weeks trying to understand who our God is. We’re going to begin that next week.
But today I want to do just kind of a one-off message from the book of Hebrews on the priesthood of Jesus Christ. We’re going to be in Hebrews 4:14-16.
You know, virtually every religion in the world, every culture of the world, recognizes a need for a priest, for a mediator between God and man, and certainly you have in Scripture the office of priesthood, and it figures prominently, of course, in the Old Testament, the Old Testament priesthood, where the Levitical priests offered gifts and sacrifices on behalf of the people. They were the mediators between the people of Israel and God. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ comes and he fulfills that role, that office of priesthood.
As theologians have reflected on the office of Christ’s priesthood over the years, they have seen that the priesthood of Christ is vital to our assurance and our comfort and our help in our lives as believers. The 17th-century pastor William Bridge said that “Christ’s office as priest is the great storehouse and supply of all the grace and comfort that we have this side of heaven.”
If you this morning are lacking in assurance of salvation, or if you’re struggling to persevere in faith, or if you feel the need for strength against temptation, or endurance in suffering, or boldness in prayer—all of those things depend on the priestly ministry of Jesus Christ in heaven for you. So this morning, whether you’re struggling with doubt or fear or guilt, or whatever it is, the priesthood of Christ is what you need.
J.C. Ryle said, “Christ’s priesthood is the great secret of daily comfort in Christianity.” I’ve been greatly helped, as I’ve read and studied over the years about the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and so I want to share with you this morning just a few thoughts about it.
Let’s read together Hebrews 4:14-16. In the course of the message I’m going to look at a lot of passages from Hebrews, but we’ll just ground our thoughts in these three verses, Hebrews 4, beginning in verse 14.
The writer says, “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
This is God’s word.
This morning I want you to consider four things about the priesthood of Christ: the position of Christ our Priest, the heart of Christ our priest, the work of Christ our priest, and our response to Christ our priest.
1. The Position of Christ Our Priest
First of all, and very briefly, in verse 14, the position of Christ our priest. What is Christ’s position? Where does he function as priest? What is his role and the place, the location of Christ’s current ministry of priesthood?
Look in verse 14, and it gives us a clue. He says, “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.” He has passed through the heavens.
This is language that points to the exaltation and the ascension of the risen Christ, in which Christ, in his human nature, is now exalted to the right hand of God. In fact, you have this emphasized again and again and again in the book of Hebrews—in fact, perhaps more than in any other book in the New Testament you have an emphasis on the ascension and on the exalted place or position of Jesus Christ.
Listen to just a rundown of a few verses.
In Hebrews 1:3 we read that “after making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high.” In Hebrews 7:26 it says that “indeed it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separate from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.” Hebrews 8:1, “We have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the majesty in heaven.”
Hebrews 9:24, “Christ has entered not into 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.” Hebrews 10:12, “When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.” One more, Hebrews 12:2; we are “running the race 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 the throne of God.”
He’s seated at the right hand of God, he’s passed through the heavens, he’s right there, the majesty of God on high. What does this mean? It means that Jesus Christ, the incarnate one, the crucified one, who is now risen from the dead, in his human nature is now in the very presence of God on our behalf.
I love the way the kind of eccentric Scottish Hebrew professor who was affectionately known as “Rabbi” Duncan put it, John Duncan. He even looks a little eccentric, doesn’t he? John Duncan said, “The Dust of the Earth is on the throne of the Majesty on high.”
That’s an astounding thought, because Jesus Christ, when he became incarnate, without losing any of his deity, without losing any of his Godhood, took to himself human nature, and now that very human nature which was crucified has now been glorified, and it is Christ in his human nature who is at the right hand of God as our high priest.
A.W. Tozer put it this way; he said that “Jesus is our man in glory.” This means, brothers and sisters, that you have a representative who is every bit as much flesh and blood as you are—the man, Jesus of Nazareth, united in a mysterious union to the Son of God—you have someone in your human nature who represents you in the presence of God this morning. That’s his position. He is Jesus, who has passed through the heavens and is seated at the right hand of God. That’s his position.
2. The Heart of Christ Our Priest
Now, what is his heart? 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.”
This is the heart of Christ as our priest—in a word, sympathy. The ability to “suffer with” and to understand another.
Now, I’ve been really helped by a pair of authors, and there are two books in particular, one that I read about a month ago and one that I’m reading right now. One is an old book and one is a new book. The new book is called Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sufferers and Sinners, written by Dane Ortlund.
And Dane Ortlund is writing largely from what he has learned from the old Puritan 17th-century theologian Thomas Goodwin, who wrote a book called The Heart of Christ. In fact, the full title of Goodwin’s book, which is on Hebrews 4:15, is 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. Now that’s why we need guys like Dane Ortlund to write modern books so that we can understand what in the world Thomas Goodwin was trying to say in that old English!
The heart of the book is essentially this, that the heart of Christ in heaven towards sinners and sufferers on earth is a heart of sympathy, it’s a disposition of grace and of mercy.
I’ll just paraphrase Goodwin here, but he says, essentially, that he chose Hebrews 4:15 because he says that that text more than any other text in the Bible speaks of his heart, and he says if a friend could come and help you to lay you ear on the chest of Christ, so that you could hear his heartbeat, this is what you would hear, and this text is that friend. It helps you hear the heartbeat of Christ towards sinners, and it’s a heart of sympathy.
That’s what I want you to experience this morning from this text. I want you to try to understand with me from this text—this is amazing! This blows us away!—that Christ, this exalted priest in heaven, has a disposition towards us of sympathy, of tenderness, of understanding, of care, of mercy, and of grace. “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.”
Now, there are two places from which the sympathy of Christ comes. It’s really based on two things; it’s based on his incarnation and then on his temptation.
(1) First of all, his incarnation. Christ sympathizes with us because he shares our human nature. Look at Hebrews 2:17-18. It says, “Therefore 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 for the sins of the people.” The author there is arguing that Christ did not come in the nature of angels; he came in the nature of human beings, the children of Abraham, people of Israel. He took on flesh and blood. He had to be made like his brothers in every respect. Verse 18 says, “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”
There’s sympathy because he shares in our nature. He understands what it is to be in our nature.
Now, I will just give you a quote from Dane Ortlund’s book. This is helpful, and this may be a corrective to the way some of us tend to think about Jesus in his human nature. Dane Ortlund says, “Jesus is not Zeus. He was a sinless man, not a sinless Superman. He woke up with bedhead. He had pimples at thirteen. He never would have appeared on the cover of Men’s Health (‘he had no beauty that we should desire him,’ Isaiah 53:2). He came as a normal man to normal men. He knows what it is to be thirsty, hungry, despised, rejected, scorned, shamed, embarrassed, abandoned, misunderstood, falsely accused, suffocated, tortured, and killed. He knows what it is like to be lonely. His friends abandoned him when he needed them most. Had he lived today, every last Twitter follower and Facebook friend would have unfriended him when he turned thirty-three, he who will never unfriend us.” His incarnation—he knows!
Listen, I don’t know what you’re going through this morning. Maybe I know a few people, a little bit; but I don’t really know the depth of the emotions and the circumstances and the trials and the suffering and the discouragement and the agony and the struggles that you are facing. But there is someone who does. Jesus knows, and his heart towards you this morning is sympathy. He understands, and he cares.
(2) His incarnation is the source of his sympathy, and then also his temptation. “He was tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin.” Because he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
Now, the temptation of Christ is kind of a mysterious thing, isn’t it? How is it that he could be tempted in every point, yet without sin? There was nothing in Christ, internally, that could ever be solicited as there was a sinful impulse. He never had a sinful impulse. We do have that. We are tempted, as James tells us, when we are drawn away of our own lust, our own desires, and we are enticed. That didn’t happen to Christ. He could not be enticed with his own sinful desires, because he had none. Yet he endured the full scope and brunt of temptation.
Perhaps the best explanation of this I’ve seen is from C.S. Lewis. Lewis said in Mere Christianity that it’s only those who try to resist temptation who know how strong it is. He said, “You find out the strength of the wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down.” He said that someone who gives into temptation after five minutes doesn’t know the strength of temptation, doesn’t know what it would have been like to endure for an hour. But Jesus endured for 33 years, and he never gave in one time.
The deepest temptation, trial, struggle that you have ever felt, Jesus endured more. He endured more, and therefore he is able to help you. Because of his humanity, his incarnation, because of his experience of temptation, Christ sympathizes with our weaknesses.
Did you know that there’s a thing called sympathetic resonance, where an instrument (say, a piano) is in a room—if we had two pianos in this room, if the pianos are in tune with one another and you hit the key on one, the string will vibrate on the other, so that you get the resounding tone.
In Christ, there is sympathetic resonance, so that when the strings of your human nature are touched with temptation, his human nature resonates. He understands. This is his sympathy; this is his heart.
Now, here’s the really stunning thing that Ortlund and Goodwin bring out. Goodwin comments on how Christ is sympathetic with us, he’s able to sympathize with us in our weaknesses. The Old King James said “in our infirmities.” Goodwin shows that these infirmities include not just our suffering, but also our sin. He said, “There is comfort concerning such infirmities in that your very sins move him to pity more than to anger. He suffers with us under our infirmities, and by infirmities are meant sins as well as other miseries. Christ takes part with you, and is so far from being provoked against you as that all of his anger is turned against your sin to ruin it; yes, his pity is increased the more towards you, just as the heart of a father is to a child who has some loathsome disease.”
Think about a father who has a child with leukemia. Does the father despise his child because of the leukemia? No! He hates the cancer and he loves the child.
What Goodwin and Ortlund are saying, and what Hebrews is saying, is that Christ’s heart towards you, even when you’re struggling with sin, is he hates the sin—he does, he hates the sin—but he loves you. He loves you, and his heart towards you is one of sympathy. It’s one of tenderness, it’s one of mercy, and it’s the desire and the availability and the power to help you in your time of need. That’s the heart of Christ towards sinners. Therefore, be encouraged.
That doesn’t mean sit down and don’t fight sin; it means be encouraged, and don’t stay away from Jesus. Run to him; go to him. He will help you in your time of need.
3. The work of Christ our priest.
What is it, then, that Christ does? That’s his heart; what is that he does for us in his priesthood?
I just want to briefly point out two aspects. The Puritan William Bridge pointed out four; I’m not going to take the time for four, but I actually preached a whole series on the priesthood of Christ, and probably half of you, maybe, heard this, a couple of years ago. So if you want more, you can find this on our website from 2018. But I just want to briefly highlight two aspects of Christ’s priestly work.
(1) The first is atonement. He offered a sacrifice for our sins. Again, I just want to highlight several verses from Hebrews, because Hebrews as much as any other place in the Bible highlights for us the all-sufficient, once-and-for-all, single, solitary sacrifice that Jesus Christ made to atone for our sins. In some ways, you could say that much of the book of Hebrews is a commentary on Jesus’ own words on the cross, recorded for us in the Gospel of John, “It is finished!” Just listen to a few verses.
Hebrews 7:27, “He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.” Hebrews 9:12, “He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves, but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.”
Hebrews 9:24-26, “For Christ has entered not into 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. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages, to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.”
Hebrews 10:12, “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God,” once for all. His work is finished; it is done. The atoning work of Jesus Christ is complete.
That’s one aspect of his priesthood, and that was the aspect of his priesthood that he accomplished when he was here on earth. He offered the one-time, once-for-all, single, and sufficient sacrifice for sins, and as the Puritans and many others draw out, when Christ made that offering for sin, he satisfied the justice of God more than if every sin for which he died were to be punished eternally in hell! Because listen, when somebody goes to hell, they’re suffering for eternity, because the justice is never fully satisfied. They continue to live in sin and rebellion against God, and the justice is never satisfied. But when Jesus died on the cross and he paid for your sins, he completely exhausted the wrath of God. There is no wrath left, if you are in Christ. If is finished. The work of Christ as our priest.
(2) So, it’s first of all atonement, sacrifice; and then secondly, it is intercession. He prays for us. Look at Hebrews 7:25: “He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”
You know what Jesus Christ is doing right now, at this very moment? He is praying for you.
You know how churches sometimes try to build these 24-hour prayer drives, where somebody’s praying every hour of the day? That’s a wonderful thing to do. I commend that; we should do that; we have done that before; we should do it again. But listen, there is somebody who is always praying for you 24 hours a day. If nobody else is, Jesus is praying for you. He never ceases to intercede for you. He prays for you.
This is a source of encouragement and of help. Romans 8:34, “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died; more than that, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” It is the intercession of Christ that keeps us in the faith. It is the intercession of Christ that recalls us and recovers us and renews us when we have sinned. It is the intercession of Christ that gives us access into the very presence of God.
It is the intercession of Christ that makes your prayers acceptable to God, 1 Peter 2:4-5, “As you come to him a living stone, rejected by men, but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house—” Listen! “—to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
How can our worship, as imperfect as it is, how can our prayers, as defective as they are, ever be met with acceptance in the presence of God? There’s only way: because they go through the hands of Jesus Christ.
J.C. Ryle tells the story of a young Christian who once came to an older Christian, and he said, “My prayers are so poor, they are so weak, that I can’t think that they are of any use.” The old Christian replied with deep wisdom, “Only place them in Christ’s hands, and he makes them look so different in heaven that you would hardly know them again.”
William Bridge said it’s like a child who goes out into the meadows and the fields to pick flowers for his flower, to make this bouquet; but mixed in with the flowers are all these weeds and thistles. It’s not put together well. So the child brings the flowers to his mother, and the mother pulls out all the weeds and all the thistles and arranges the flowers and wraps them in a beautiful ribbon; and then it’s presented to the father perfectly. That’s what Christ does. He picks out the weeds and the thistles and the thorns. He picks out everything that’s defective, and he presents an offering to God that is acceptable to him.
Charles Wesley perhaps said it best:
“Arise, my soul, arise,
Shake off thy guilty fears;
The bleeding sacrifice
On my behalf appears.
Before the throne my surety stands;
My name is written on his hands.
“Five bleeding wounds he bears,
Received on Calvary;
They pour effectual prayers,
They strongly plead for me.
‘Forgive him, O forgive!’ they cry,
‘Don’t let that ransomed sinner die.’”
He’s praying for you. This is his work. He’s already made the sacrifice, the one sacrifice, the sacrifice of atonement to pay for your sins, and now, in the very presence of God, clothed in your human nature, with a heart of sympathy towards you in your suffering and in your sin, he pleads the merit of his work on your behalf, and he prays. That’s his work.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne said, “If I could hear Christ praying for me in the next room, I would not fear a million enemies; yet distance makes no difference. He is praying for me.”
4. Our Response to Christ Our Priest
What, then, should our response be, our response to the priesthood of Christ? Look at verse 16 in our text, Hebrews 4:16: “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.” The response is to draw near.
Isn’t this amazing? Nearness is possible! You can be near to God, you who once were far from God, you deserve to be cast out of the presence of God; you can draw near to God, and you draw near to a throne! But it’s a throne not of judgment, it’s a throne of grace. Draw near to the throne of grace, because of what Christ has done, because of who Christ is, because of his heart for you, because of his death on your behalf, because of his intercession in the presence of God for you right now. Draw near.
Draw near to receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Anybody need mercy this morning? You know what mercy is? It’s a heart of compassion towards those who are in misery, towards those who are suffering. If you are suffering physically, emotionally, relationally, financially, in circumstances, spiritually, with discouragement, with depression—whatever you are facing right now, you need mercy, and there’s one place you can get it. You get it at the throne of grace; you get it from Christ your priest.
Anybody need grace this morning? Grace is favor freely given to the undeserving! If you think you deserve grace this morning, you need it more than anybody. The reality is, none of us deserve grace. If we got what we deserve, we would be hell right now. You’re sitting here this morning; you’re not dead, you’re not perishing, you’re not lost, because of grace, and you can receive grace for your need, grace for your sins, the grace of forgiveness, the grace of pardon, the grace of eternal life, the grace of sanctification, the grace of change, of transformation, of renewal. All of it’s grace, and there’s only one place you can get it: at the throne of grace. You get access to the throne of grace through Christ your priest.
“So therefore let us draw near with timidness…” Is that what the text says? “...fearing that maybe we won’t be heard…” Is that what the text says? It’s not what it says. It says, “Draw near with confidence,” with boldness.
It is true, and I’ll hasten to add, that Hebrews also says that we are to worship God with reverence and with godly fear, “for our God is a consuming fire.” There’s no place for triviality in the Christian’s approach to God. But reverence is not timidity. Godly fear is not cowardice. There is a combination of boldness and joy and reverence that can be experienced in the heart of a Christian. When he or she recognizes the holy God whom we approach and the sympathetic, gracious high priest through whom we approach, and the sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ, it makes it possible. “Therefore come boldly to the throne of grace.”
Listen, if you come to the throne of grace with boldness through Christ, you will never be refused. If you come through Christ, you will never be refused. “Whoever comes to me I will not cast out,” Jesus said.
Let me end with this illustration. Years ago I heard somebody tell this story; actually, I think it was my dad in a sermon that told this story about a woman who was struggling with assurance of salvation, doubts about her salvation. She was just one of these introspective types; she was always struggling, she was continually coming to her pastor, worried was she saved, was she not saved, confessing her doubts, confessing her struggles.
He was trying to help her, and he eventually discerned that what she needed was to not keep looking inside, internally, at herself, but she needed to look outside of herself to Christ. This is what he said. He said, “Ma’am, you will never be satisfied until you are satisfied with what satisfies God, and what satisfies God is the death of his Son, Jesus Christ.”
Listen, that’s the source of our assurance, of our encouragement, of our help, of our hope. Everything that we need is found in Christ. Are you looking to him this morning? Are you trusting in Christ, your high priest? Whatever you need, whether it’s mercy or grace or help or endurance or whatever it is—whatever you need, it’s there for you. The priesthood of Christ is a storehouse of comfort and holiness for the Christian. It is the secret of our daily comfort; therefore, look to Jesus Christ as your high priest. Let’s pray.
Gracious God, we bow before your throne of grace with reverence as we recognize your majesty, your justice, your righteousness, your holiness; and we confess that we have no right to be here in ourselves. But through Christ, because of Christ, because he is our priest, because the work is finished, because atonement has been made, because the debt has been paid, because justice is satisfied, and because Christ with his beautiful, sympathetic, loving, gentle, tender heart is now interceding for us at your right hand, we do come, and we come boldly. We come asking that you would give us the grace that we need.
Lord, I need grace this morning. My friends here need grace this morning. We need mercy, we need help. In a thousand different ways in our lives, we need it. So we ask you to give it to us through Jesus.
Even as we come to the Lord’s table this morning, my prayer is that the table would be for us a means of grace, that as we take the bread, as we take the juice, we would by faith lay hold of Jesus Christ, our sympathetic priest; that we would look to him who has suffered for our sins, has risen from the dead, and is now exalted at your right hand, interceding for us, and that we would receive from Christ the grace that we need for this morning, for this day. So draw near to us as we draw near to you. Help us come to you, Lord, in these moments, we pray in Jesus’ name and for his sake, Amen.