Hold Fast; Draw Near; We Have a Great High Priest!
February 2, 2020 Speaker: Bret Rogers Series: Hebrews: Jesus>Everything
Topic: Incarnation/Humanity of Christ, Perseverance of the Saints Passage: Hebrews 4:14–16
14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 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. 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.
Occasionally, a child will enter our house holding a bloody knee or scraped elbow. I can always expect, “Daddy, can I have a Band-Aid?” “Sure!” We make it to the bathroom. I pull out the Band-Aids, the ointment, and the dreadful Hydrogen Peroxide. “No! Not the stinging bubbles!” But then I explain, “I cannot bind you up until I clean the cut.” Sometimes the best care will sting before it binds up.
The same is true when we visit a good physician. Sometimes problems in our bodies require the doctor to cut into us. He must first wound us before binding us. When he does wound, a good doctor will not lie about what he finds. He will expose what’s there and determine how much further to cut, before binding us up again.
Last week, we studied God’s word piercing us like a sword. God’s word penetrates to the depth of our innermost self. God’s word exposes the inner secrets of our hearts. That word stings. That word wounds. But next to verses 14-16, this is but one part in our great Physician’s work. After wounding us with the sword, God bind us up with his Son’s work as our great high priest.
Within the letter, verses 14-16 do two things. We’ve encountered Jesus’ priestly work before, but only briefly. In 1:3, Jesus’ priestly work included “making purification for sins.” In 2:17, he’s the merciful high priest who removed God’s wrath from us. Then in 3:1, we’re called to consider Jesus’ faithfulness as high priest of our confession. Verses 14-16 reach back to that theme.
At the same time, we’re about to enter a lengthy discourse on Jesus’ superior priesthood. Chapters 5-10 explain why Jesus’ priesthood is greater than that of Aaron, why Jesus’ priesthood involves better promises, why Jesus’ priesthood begins a better covenant, and so forth. So verses 14-16 not only reach back. They also reach forward to introduce a lengthy discourse on Jesus’ priesthood.
You might’ve picked them out yourself. But in verses 14-16, we encounter two complementary exhortations. Hold fast; draw near—only two imperatives here. Jesus’ priesthood compels us to act in these two ways: hold fast; draw near. Those two complement one another. Hold fast has to do with endurance, resolve, moral fortitude in the face of hardship. But it’s not as though there’s no help when doing so. Quite the opposite: Jesus opened the way to the throne of grace. So he also says, “Draw near.” Draw near to find help in time of need. Everything else explains why.
So, let’s take each exhortation more carefully. Let’s discover why Christ’s priesthood is so compelling. The first exhortation is hold fast. End of verse 14: “let us hold fast our confession.” Remember, some Jews became Christians at some point. But they’re now wavering in their commitment to Jesus. Part of that is due to their own passivity. The other part is due to persecution. Both may even be related. You can imagine a Jewish Christian thinking, “Why keep suffering? Wouldn’t our old ways in Judaism be easier? The Jews would leave us alone. Besides, didn’t God speak in the old covenant as well? Why bother with Jesus if it means so much sacrifice?”
Hebrews says, “Don’t go there! Let us hold fast our confession.” Confession of what? Verse 14 gives us a clue: Jesus, the Son of God. That’s who we confess. 3:1 mentioned him being the high priest of our confession—we confess the role he took on to save us. We also confess what he accomplished. 10:23 speaks to “the confession of our hope.” Meaning, God’s Son became our high priest to secure for us a hope—the hope of all-satisfying rest in God’s presence.
That’s our confession. It’s the gospel. We confess Jesus as God. He became our high priest. We have true hope based on his finished work. The context for that confession, though, is mission in a world hostile to Jesus. The world, the flesh, and the devil threaten our confession. Holding fast means great endurance.
If it was easy, he wouldn’t have to say hold fast! From elsewhere in the letter, we know that false teaching threatens their confession. The fleeting pleasures of sin were alluring others. Weariness in the fight of faith was tempting others to give up. Persecution was a looming threat every day. And with that, it wasn’t uncommon to lose material wealth. Some of them endured the plundering of their property. Satan as well had his own schemes to manipulate others with the fear of death.
Various obstacles were testing them, tempting them, putting pressure on them to give up. Various obstacles tempt us as well. False teaching. Pressures from a culture hostile to Jesus. Pressures from within to compromise. Sinful pleasures that allure us. Weariness in long seasons of affliction. Weakening bodies. Loved ones dying. Facing these obstacles, we must hold fast to our confession.
But why? Why keep holding fast? What about Jesus should strengthen our hold on him? Verse 14 says, “we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God.” Notice how it says, “since [or because] we have a great high priest…let us hold fast.” The reason to hold fast is that Jesus isn’t just a high priest like all the others, he’s a great high priest. He’s superior.
First off, he is the Son of God. Son of God language has various connotations in Scripture. But we don’t have to guess what he means. Chapter 1 laid it out. God has spoken through a particular Son. That Son is heir of all things. He created the world. He is the radiance of God’s glory. He upholds the universe by the word of his power. He has a name greater than the angels. Unlike previous kings, Jesus fully manifests God’s rule on earth. He’s worthy of worship. He’s the eternal God. This is what it means for Jesus to be Son of God. He’s in a category all by himself. There’s no one else is like him.
That Son became a high priest. Remember what it said in 2:17—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. God’s Son had to be chosen from among men to act on behalf of men. That Son became one with us so that he can represent us. In the Old Testament, that’s what the high priest did. He represented the people before God. That’s why he wore the breastpiece; and on that breastpiece were the names of the sons of Israel. He wore it into the Holy Place to bring them before the Lord. Then once a year he would enter the Most Holy Place to atone for the people’s sins.
God is holy. He cannot overlook sin. Sin separates us from God. At the same time, God chooses to love sinners and bring them into his presence. But the only way they can enter his presence is by the death of another in their place. Hence the high priest would offer the blood of bulls and goats. Those were but copies of the greater things to come. The blood of bulls and goats never really took away sins. But the sacrifice Jesus brings—he offers himself and his blood removes sins once and for all.
Jesus is the greater high priest. Hebrews will develop this further as we move along. But as the greater high priest, Jesus opens the way to God’s presence. That’s why verse 14 also says he passed through the heavens. Jesus didn’t stay dead. He rose to pass through the heavens. “Heavens” could mean the regions above the earth. That’s how it appears in 1:10—“you laid the foundations of the earth…the heavens are the work of your hands.” The idea would be he passed through these heavens into the heaven of heavens, God’s presence—just like the apostles witnessed at Jesus’ ascension.
But in addition to that Hebrews 9-10 will speak of Jesus entering the true, heavenly temple in contrast to the earthly copies. As the greater high priest, he entered through the greater and more perfect tent, one that’s not made with hands, one that’s not of this world. He passed through those heavenly places to enter beyond the curtain into the very presence of God. He opened the way for us. This makes him a great high priest.
If he’s greater than any other priest who came before, if what he accomplished is infinitely greater than what any other religious figure could ever accomplish, then let that truth strengthen your grip on your confession. There’s no other Savior. There’s nobody else who passed through the heavens like Jesus did. There’s nobody else who opened the way to God. When hardships come, don’t let him go of him. When the pressures come, keep confessing Christ. When Satan tempts us to despair, upward you look and see him there—he made an end of all your sin!
It’s not always easy to do. We need help. Sufferings, persecution, temptations, various afflictions in life, difficult circumstances, wearying relationships, dark seasons of the soul—if we’re going to hold fast, we need help. That’s where verses 15-16 enter. After reading that he passed through the heavens, one could easily think, “He’s distant. He expects me to hold fast, but does he really know what I’m going through down here?”
Verse 15 gives a resounding Yes, he does know. More than anyone, he knows what you’re experiencing. Not simply because he’s all-knowing. He actually identified with our humanity and experienced temptation himself, only without sin. 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.” Before explaining what this does mean, it’s helpful to explain what it doesn’t mean.
Some have used this verse to suggest that when the Son became man, he took on a fallen human nature. Not just a human nature, but a fallen human nature. He had to be tempted in every respect as we are. So they argue, in order for that to happen, Jesus had to take to himself a fallen human nature. Now, they will also argue that Jesus committed no sins in that fallen nature. They only mean to stress that in order for his experience to be genuinely like ours, he too had to share in Adam’s fallenness.
You can find this implied on Christian blogs that suggest Jesus had wayward desires. Also John Clark published a theology book in 2015 where he too entertains this idea. But that view is dangerous to our confession.
For starters, fallenness is not intrinsic to being human. Was Adam less than human before the Fall? No, but we sometimes we forget that. Also, to have a fallen human nature with Adam is also to share in Adam’s guilt according to Romans 5. Christ, however, has no guilt. Moreover, to say the Son took on a fallen human nature immediately compromises his person. In the incarnation, his human nature is inseparably one with his divine nature. Holiness cannot unite with wickedness.[i]
So be careful not to read it that way. Jesus simply took to himself a human nature. That human nature was like ours in that it was human—body and soul. In every respect he was a man. He also entered our fallen world. He entered the world after Adam sinned. So as a man he experienced the effects of our fallen world. He put himself in such a state of humiliation that he even experienced human weakness. He upholds the world by the word of his power, yet 2 Corinthians says he was crucified in weakness.
But Jesus had no actual sin—he did nothing wrong and everything right. And Jesus had no inherent sin. He was “free from sin in the entire structure of his being.”[ii] It’s like the angel told Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy…” (Luke 1:35). The virgin conception makes Christ unique from all others born in Adam. Also, Hebrews 7:26 describes Jesus as “holy, innocent, unstained.” Meaning, Jesus experienced an onslaught of temptations, but none of them ever came from within himself. None were the result of his own personal depravity.
What, then, does verse 15 mean? How exactly was Jesus tempted as we are? Think of it this way: he was tempted the same way Adam was in the Garden prior to the Fall. Adam didn’t have a fallen nature when he was first tempted. God tested Adam and Adam failed the test. Adam buckled. Not Christ, though.
Like Adam, Christ entered the world with a human nature but not a fallen one. Then he too was tested and tried and tempted. But unlike Adam’s world, the world Christ entered was fallen. Being truly man, he experienced hunger. He experienced fatigue and weariness. He felt the enemy try to thwart his mission. He felt the devil’s lies, the questions doubting his sonship: “If you really are the Son of God…”
He experienced pain in the Garden at Gethsemane. He felt the dark night of the soul when God seemed absent. He prayed with loud cries and tears, 5:7 says. He knows what it’s like to not want to suffer, but still chooses it in obedience to his Father.
He was born in a stable and grew up with no place to lay his head. He experienced abandonment from friends, the abuse of enemies. His own family misunderstood him. He felt the misery of death when his friend Lazarus died. He was shamed, hated, mocked, and beaten. People lied behind his back. Even the closest friends tried to get him to walk away from the cross. They slept when he needed them most. But unlike the first Adam, Christ never gave in.
It was way harder to remain faithful on this side of the Fall, and yet Christ still never gave in. From birth to the cross, Christ remained constant and faithful under the pressure. He only ever did the Father’s will. Every time he faced temptation, he succeeded, even under the excruciating pressure of drinking the cup of God’s wrath. Don’t think, “Oh sure! Easy for him to do. He was God.” Yes! He was God in the flesh. But he didn’t lean on his divine nature to succeed in those really hard moments. No, he succeeded as a man wholly dependent on his Father’s care and the Spirit’s power.
Some people think that when you argue this way—that Jesus didn’t have a fallen human nature—it seems to take away from some of the pressure he felt. “After all, don’t we have the added pressure of a fallen human nature? Doesn’t that make our experience harder?” Actually, no. It’s just the opposite. Who experiences the full force of temptation? The one who’s tempted and resists, tempted and resists, tempted and gives in? Or the one who’s tempted and resists, tempted and resists, tempted and resists, and never gives in?[iii] Listen to the way Donald Macleod puts it:
“We must be careful not to misconstrue the effect of Jesus’ sinless integrity…Far from meaning a shorter, painless struggle with temptation it involved him in protracted resistance. Precisely because he did not yield easily and was not, like us, an easy prey, the devil had to deploy all his wiles and use all his resources. The very fact that he was invincible meant that he endured the full force of temptation’s ferocity, until hell slunk away, defeated and exhausted. Against us, a little temptation suffices. Against him, Satan found himself forced to push himself to his limits.”[iv]
Whatever your experience with temptation and trial—no matter how great it may seem in your eyes—the onslaught of mounting temptations that Christ endured are incomparably worse. And he willingly held fast under that pressure for your sake. He willingly held fast to become your high priest. Which means he’s perfectly suited to sympathize with your weaknesses. Not only was he human, but he identified with us in temptation. He felt what we feel and so much more; and all to become our help.
Hebrews 10:34 illustrates what this word “to sympathize” means. Some Christians are in prison for their testimony. Some other Christians aren’t in prison, but it says this of them: “you had compassion [or sympathy] on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property.” The point is that the Christians not in prison had such a compassion for those in prison, it moved them to act.[v] So also here. As our high priest, Jesus sees our weaknesses. He knows what temptation feels like. He knows the full force of the trials and the darkness and Satan’s attacks. And Christ has such a compassion for us that it moves him to act on our behalf.
Not only did he never give in. Not only did he became that unblemished sacrifice. Not only did he opened the way to God’s presence. Even now he sympathizes with us in our weaknesses. Even now his compassion for us moves him to act. Which is why he says, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace…”
It’s not a throne of wrath for those who have Jesus as their high priest. Don’t miss the language of “we have a great high priest…” It’s not just “he is a great high priest”—although that’s true. What makes all the difference here is that you personally relate to him as your high priest. When he belongs to you and you to him, a throne of grace is available to you. We have access to the very presence of God himself.
I couldn’t help but think of the Old Testament temple imagery here. Occasionally it speaks of God being enthroned above the cherubim. The cherubim—these angelic figures—spread their wings over the mercy seat. You see the imagery? To come before the Lord enthroned above the cherubim, the one before whom they hide their faces, was to come before the Lord who graciously makes provision for your sin. That’s what he’s like. That’s who he is. In Jesus he made the ultimate provision for our sins.
As 1:3 says, he made purification for sins on the cross. He removed God’s wrath from us on the cross. And he then passed through the heavens to open the way for us into God’s presence. Even now we can draw near. And we can do it with confidence. Not with worry of being smite-down. But with confidence—through Jesus’ blood we’re accepted before God. We’ll be heard when we pray. He will respond with grace.
That’s the purpose, it says: “that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” This goes hand in hand with the sympathy part. Remember, not only is he able to identify with our struggle since he too was a man, his compassion for us moves him to act. It moves him to give mercy and grace to help in time of need. Not only does he know what we experience. He’s able to strengthen us to overcome as he overcame. He delights to give us mercy and grace in time of need. He forgives when we do wrong; he gives grace to do what’s right. Our relationship to him isn’t merely a matter of reporting to him our wrongs; it’s also asking him for grace to do what’s right.
And it’s timely grace. It’s grace that’s suitable for everything we encounter. John Owen has a great commentary on Hebrews. About this phrase, “in time of need,” he writes this: “There is…many a season in the course of our profession and walking before God, wherein we do or shall stand in need of special aid and assistance.” Then he teases out some of these seasons of life in which the saints throughout Scripture have needed special assistance and made their cries to God.
He mentions times of affliction. Think of the people trapped in slavery. Or when Paul was so utterly burdened that he despaired of life itself. Or when the people are concerned with other believers who’ve fallen sick. Even this morning, the Thom family who’ve been visiting—Sherry’s brother fell and injured his head. The doctors had to do surgery to stop the bleeding. Times of affliction.
Also, times of persecution. We find that in Hebrews 10. Also we see the saints drawing near to God in Acts 4 when they face persecution. Temptation is also a season in which we need special grace. The world entices us all the time. Satan roams about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Sometimes even the good things in life can become controlling things, such that we’re tempted to sin in order to have them.
He also mentions seasons in which we’re called to perform any great duty. Whether it’s Moses to lead the people, Joshua to enter the promised land, the disciples to follow Jesus, you and me to take the gospel to all nations, some of you to parenting, others of you it may be a task at work, some of you are studying for a degree, or preparing for the mission field—we need the Lord’s special assistance.
Also, Owen adds times of changes, and the difficulties associated with those changes. Changes cause fear and uncertainty. Changes sometimes mean running into new problems, enduring new stresses. Changes sometimes mean appliances don’t work when you need them too, or people don’t respond to change as you wished they would.
He also mentions feelings of spiritual desertion. Meaning, those times when it feels like God is absent. Job made his cry: “[Lord,] I cry to you for help and you do not answer me; I stand, and you only look at me. You have turned cruel to me…” Or Asaph cries this way in Psalm 77: “Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” Sisters, some of you have been praying that way for a while now. You know this season very well; and I’m sorry that it’s lasting so long.
Then lastly Owen mentions death as another season in which we need special assistance. Whether that death is our own—one day we will have to face it. Or whether that death means the loss of someone we loved dearly. Someone we now miss every morning we wake up, and every evening we lie down. A pawpaw we wanted our kids to know, right Dustin? All these different kinds of seasons bring with them various pressures and temptations; they require further strength and fortitude to keep holding fast; and I’m here to say, “Your great high priest has opened the way to the throne of grace.”
Draw near with confidence, beloved. He will give you mercy. If you’ve sinned, don’t run away from the throne of grace. Run to the throne of grace; he will forgive. If you’re hurting, struggling, exhausted, or know someone who is, draw near to the Lord in prayer. Cry out with confidence, knowing you’re accepted in Christ. And he will give you grace to help in your time of need. He sympathizes with you in your weakness. He knows how to strengthen you for everything you will face.
The world doesn’t have this access to God. But you do. No other priest or religious figure on earth can give you what you truly need. But Jesus can. Jesus will. His sacrifice opened the way to God. How do we know? He passed through the heavens. He sat down at God’s right hand. Through Jesus’ blood, you can draw near. So draw near to him. What more could we ask for than to find ourselves in the very presence of God—a God who gives grace to fit our time of need.
[i] For further discussion, see Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ, Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove: IVP, 1998), 221-30; Stephen J. Wellum, God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ, Foundations of Evangelical Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 230-40; Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 520-33.
[ii] Macleod, Person of Christ, 221-22.
[iii] I heard this question posed in a lecture by D. A. Carson.
[iv] Macleod, Person of Christ, 227-28.
[v] George Guthrie, Hebrews, NIVAC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 176.
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