A High and Perfect Priest
(The following text is taken from a sermon preached by Gil Rugh in 1978.)
In Hebrews 4:1-13 the author again compared the account of Israel in the wilderness with the faith of the Hebrews. Referring to God's rest, which is promised to all who believe, the author said, 'Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly had good news preached to them failed to enter because of disobedience' (vs.6). Again, the author is drawing a comparison between Israel's disobedience and the Hebrew's lack of faith.
God's rest was likened to a freedom from toil and labor (vs.4), and is not given to those who reject Him (vs.5).
We, as believers, were encouraged to examine ourselves to be sure we are in the faith. The author said, 'Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall through following the same example of disobedience' (vs.11). Again, this is a reference to the example of disobedience evidenced by Israel. Because they disobeyed, they were not allowed to enter the promised land.
How are we to be sure that we are being diligent enough to enter that rest? The author gives us the answer in verse 12: 'For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.' A believer can mature in Christ only by studying and submitting to the Word of God. The Word is alive, and able to bring change to the life of everyone who is a believer.
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 cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as (we are, yet) without sin. Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need. For every high priest taken from among men is appointed on behalf of men in things pertaining to God, in order to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins; he can deal gently with the ignorant and misguided, since he himself also is beset with weakness; and because of it he is obligated to offer (sacrifices) for sins, as for the people, so also for himself. And no one takes the honor to himself, but (receives it) when he is called by God, even as Aaron was. So also Christ did not glorify Himself so as to become a high priest, but He who said to Him, 'Thou art My Son, Today I have begotten Thee'; just as He says also in another (passage), 'Thou art a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek'. In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety. Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation, being designated by God as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
Verse 14 resumes the illustration of Christ as apostle and high priest that was broken off in 3:6. In that section we learned that Jesus Christ is vastly superior to every other person and being who has ever been in existence. The author then broke from this topic to issue a warning passage concerning the superiority of Christ.
Verse 14 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.' The author begins 'Since then,' or 'Therefore.' The author is saying, 'Therefore, in light of who Jesus Christ is, the Son of God who died and was resurrected, we have certain responsibilities we must carry out.' In light of the fact that Christ is our High Priest, we must 'hold fast our confession.' Remember, this letter is written to professing believers who are turning back to Judaism. The author says that what we have been given through Jesus Christ makes that impossible. The same is true for us today. When we truly trust Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, and understand what He accomplished on the cross, it is not possible to return to our old, unbelieving ways.
Verse 14 puts emphasis on understanding what we have in Christ. If you claim to be a Christian, but you don't understand who you are and what you have in Jesus Christ, you cannot function intelligently according to God's will. We have 'a great high priest.' This fact is true of everyone who is a child of God.
The title 'great high priest' is used only to describe Jesus Christ. It denotes His vast superiority to any high priest that has ever existed, before or since. The high priest has two primary functions: representation of the people by offering sacrifice for their sins, and carrying out the continual ministry of intercession before God on their behalf. This is what Christ does for us as our 'great high priest.' He has offered Himself as our sacrifice for sin, and He continually intercedes on our behalf before God.
One will notice that Christ is referred to by three titles in verse 14: 'great high priest,' (His present ministry) 'Jesus,' (focusing on His humanity) and 'Son of God' (declaring His deity). Because a High Priest has to be of the same race as the people He represents, Christ's high priesthood, and the name Jesus are linked together.
The title 'Son of God' points to the fact that Christ is more than a mere man, although He is man. Some people have a difficult time grasping the truth that, while Christ was completely human, He is also completely deity. This is what is known as a 'theanthropic' union, meaning the combination of two Greek words --'Theos-antropos (God + Man).' Christ is the God-man. He is totally unique because He is God, but He is also man, and able to function as High Priest on our behalf.
We are also told that He 'passed through the heavens.' This phrase tells us where Christ is now, and what He is doing. Matthew 28 tells us that Christ rose from the dead. Acts 1 says He ascended to the clouds. And now, Hebrews 4 says He 'passed through the heavens.'
As we have examined, it is necessary for Christ to be in heaven if He is to be our High Priest. Remember, Christ had to become a man so that He could function on our behalf. If He had not become a man, He could not have provided our salvation. He became a man so He could function as a High Priest, '...to make propitiation for the sins of the people' (Hebrews 2:17). The word 'propitiation' simply means 'satisfaction.' Jesus Christ, as our High Priest, satisfies God's demand of righteousness for our sin. This is another unique aspect of Christ's high priestly ministry. Rather than offer another sacrifice to God, as all other high priests had done, Christ offered Himself as the one, perfect sacrifice for our sins.
After Christ became a man and died on the cross, He was raised from the dead and ascended to heaven. What happened when He came before the Father? The author says, 'When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high' (Hebrews 13). Christ's sacrifice is sufficient to cleanse us of our sin. After He rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, He sat down at the right hand of the Father, signifying that His sacrifice for sin is complete. Nothing else needs to be accomplished to offer salvation to humanity. He now functions as High Priest, but He is no longer offering sacrifices to God. His redemptive work is finished.
This fact differs from the action of earthly high priests. In the Old Testament tabernacle there were no chairs or furniture for the priests to sit on. Why? Because the Old Testament high priests were never done offering sacrifices. They could not rest when they were in the tabernacle. But Jesus Christ sat down, signifying that His sacrifice was perfect, and complete. Hebrews 10:12 says, 'but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God.' There is a continual emphasis that the sacrifice Christ offered was final. There is no need for any other step toward salvation. He has provided it all.
Once we understand that Christ's sacrifice was complete, and now He is in heaven interceding on our behalf as High Priest, we are to '... hold fast our confession.' 'Confession' does not mean the same type of confession we think of today. It simply means 'to ascent or agree,' or 'to say the same thing.' So our confession is that we agree that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became a man, provided the perfect sacrifice when He died on the cross for our sins, rose from the dead, and now functions on our behalf as High Priest. That does not mean that everyone has Christ as their high priest. Only those who hold fast to their confession, trusting Jesus Christ alone for their eternal salvation have this High Priest.
Who are those who have trusted Jesus Christ? Paul says, 'that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved; for with the heart a man believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.' (Romans 10:9-10). Notice that there are two aspects blended together. First, one believes the gospel in his heart, and when he believes, he will confess with his mouth. This does not mean that everyone who says 'Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead' is saved. Anyone can stand up and proclaim a creed, but only those who have believed the message of the gospel in their hearts are truly saved and transformed to a life of righteousness.
Now we understand that we, as believers, have a High Priest that is functioning on our behalf in heaven. But if He is in heaven, can He really understand what we are going through here on earth? The author answers this question for us in verse 15; '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.' 'Sympathize' means to 'feel along' or 'to feel with someone.' When we want someone to sympathize with us, we want someone who will share our feelings. Christ does this. He knows what we are going through.
The negative of verse 15 is that we are sinful. But Christ knows and understands our 'weaknesses.' This includes everything one can think of--obstacles, frailties, failures. Christ is able to enter in with us to understand and feel along with us in any situation.
The positive of verse 15 is that Christ is '...one who has been tempted in all things, as we are, yet without sin.' 'Tempted' means to be 'tried or tested.' It does not mean 'sin.' In fact, Christ's whole earthly life was a test. When one reads the life of Christ in the gospels, one can understand why Christ commends those who have walked with Him during His trials, and testings (Luke 22).
The author states three facts concerning Christ's testing in verse 15. First, He was tested in 'all things.' Nothing was left out of Christ's temptations. He was tested in every way.
Secondly, He was tested 'as we are.' This phrase means 'in the same way.' Christ was tested in everything exactly in the same way we are. Today, it is so popular for people to turn to psychologists with their problems, but the truth is, those people cannot help. They haven't experienced everything you have. It is impossible for them to understand. But Christ was tempted in every way, and He understands everything we are going through.
The third area of Christ's testing is that He experienced everything we do, but 'without sin.' You say, 'I knew there was a catch. How can Christ really understand what we have gone through if He never succumbed to sin?' He can understand because He underwent the full brunt of all temptation, yet did not sin. It is similar to someone who is continually on a diet. What happens? Before they ever lose any weight, they succumb to the temptation to eat. But someone who stands against the temptation to eat loses weight. The person who loses weight understands what the person who always succumbs is going through, even though he himself withstood the temptation.
In like manner, Christ understands what we are going through. He withstood every temptation that we face, yet He never succumbed, and so He never sinned He knows loneliness like you and I will never know. He knows suffering like you and I will never know. He knows persecution like you and I will never know, yet He never succumbed to the pressure. This is the reason that only Christ can offer salvation for sins. If He had sinned, He would not have been a sacrifice acceptable to God. When He died, He took our sins on Himself. This is what Paul meant in 2 Corinthians 5:21 when he wrote 'He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.'
Verse 16 is an encouragement. The author says, 'Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need.' Because Christ is our great high priest who is identified with us and understands us, we are to 'draw near' to God. The term 'draw near' is in the present tense, denoting an action that we are to be continually taking.
But we cannot draw near by ourselves. This is why we have a great high priest interceding for us. Jesus said 'no one comes to the Father but through Me' (John 14:6). He is the only means by which we may reach God. This is an exciting message. Any one on earth can draw near to God and have a personal relationship with Him because Jesus Christ died and rose again from the dead, and now functions as the great high priest on our behalf.
When we draw near to God, are we supposed to meekly go to Him? No, we are to draw near to Him 'with confidence.' You may say, 'Hey, that's kind of arrogant isn't it? We're supposed to be humble.' But it is God who says we are to come to Him confidently. The word 'confidence' means 'boldness.' We aren't supposed to draw near to God wondering if He will hear us. He says we are to come to Him boldly. We can have full assurance that God will accept us, understand us, and listen to us.
How often are we to be drawing near to God? Do you think once a month is enough? How about once a week? He wants us to constantly draw near to Him. This is called the 'throne of grace.' This is the place where God Himself is, and it is a place of grace for those who have Christ as their high priest. For those people who reject God, it is a place of judgment. 'Grace' means 'favor', so the 'throne of grace' is a place we come for God's favor.
We come to this throne so that '...we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need.' Most people assume that they will never be punished when they stand before God, but this phrase proves otherwise. We are to draw near to God through the salvation provided only through Christ so that we may receive 'mercy'. Those who attempt to draw near to God without Christ as their high priest, will be destroyed in an eternal hell. That is true arrogance. Those who claim God will accept them however they are have declared themselves gods, and have rejected the truth of the Word of the one, living God.
We draw near, through Christ, so that we may have mercy and 'grace to help in time of need.', Remember, 'grace' means 'favor.' Again, only those who draw near to God through the Great High Priest will find, 'favor' with God in the time of need. Where can we go for help when we are lonely, frustrated, angry, or have any obstacle that is weighing us down? Other people cannot be depended on. Books cannot be depended on. Television cannot be depended on. Psychoanalysis cannot be depended on. Only God is dependable to be our source of strength. And that source of strength depends on nothing external. It depends only on you and your relationship with God, and it cannot be taken away from you. He suffered the same things we do (vs.15) and He understands how we feel. Only He can enable us to deal with every situation we face.
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