Our Great High Priest
Our Great High Priest
The overall message of Hebrews is to keep moving forward, don't turn back. The writer to the Hebrews is doing this by showing them who Christ is. They're wanting to go back to Moses. Thus far in the book, he's already shown them that Jesus is far superior to Moses. Moses was a great servant, who was faithful in all of God's house, but Christ is the Son, who is faithful over all of God's house. Moses revealed what Christ himself would do, that what Moses spoke was ultimately fulfilled in Christ. We don't want to go back to the prophecy that looks forward, we want to go to the thing itself, the thing that Moses foreshadowed.
The writer of Hebrews tells them that if indeed they turn back then it's only an indication that their faith was never genuine. He says, you should fear. Fear lest there be any among you, someone there with an evil heart of unbelief. The sin that we're to fear greatest is not that we might fall into some physical sin as great as that is, as serious as that is. It's the sin of unbelief, that is the great sin against God. It's for this sin that Jesus said it would be worse on the Day of Judgment for those villages that saw Jesus and heard him preach, than for Sodom and Gomorrah. Because he said, "If the works that I did in you had been done in Sodom and Gomorrah, they would have repented."
So the great fear is that we would hear and not believe, not repent, not persevere and trust in Christ. But now with this admonition, the writer has this deft hand in which he's not just telling us the negative. He's not just saying, "Oh, you need to be afraid of this." At the same time, there comes along this encouragement.
We're going to see in this passage that it is an encouragement passage. In fact, this section begins a whole new passage. We saw the hinge point in Hebrews 4:12-13 about the Word of God. The Word of God, it's living, and it's powerful. It's sharper than any two-edged sword, it's able to divide the things that to us seem invisible. It knows the thoughts and intents of our heart. It is by the Word of God that we are exposed and naked before God. We cannot hide behind our own pitiful efforts to construct our own righteousness, the Word of God exposes our sin and points us to Christ.
Now in verse 14, leaving us there exposed, the writer reminds us that we have to give an account to God because of what we know about Christ.
(Read Hebrews 4:14-5:10)
The Court of Heaven
The OJ Simpson trial occurred almost 30 years ago. Nicole Simpson’s murder occurred in June of 1994. I can tell you exactly where I was when I heard that his wife had been murdered and that he was a suspect. We were at a camp in Wayne County. One of the counselors came to me, "Have you heard what's going on about OJ Simpson?" I said, "No." He said, "They're saying that he's a suspect." You're kidding. I mean, it was just unthinkable then the next thing you know, the white Bronco is on TV and the low-speed chase.
We were all riveted to that trial until the verdict came out around June of 1995. We all watched. We can all remember that.
The thing that shocked us was the way different parts of America viewed what was going on. Let's be real candid. Most white Americans said, "He's guilty. He's obviously guilty, he ought to be convicted." But many African Americans, they cheered when the not guilty verdict was announced. They felt like it's about time. The system has been so stacked against them for so long, that whether he's guilty or not, it shows that an African American man can be something other than a victim of the system.
But it comes down to this, who represents you there in that courtroom? If you identified with the prosecution, you felt represented by them. They're in fact called the people. The people make their case. The people present evidence. The people rest their case. Then the defense gets to make their case. So, who was representing you there? Was it the prosecutor, Marcia Clark, or was it the defense, Johnnie Cochran?
The writer to the Hebrews is pointing us to a far superior court, the court of heaven. It's the court in which all of us stand condemned, and found guilty. All of this discussion of a high priest is fairly foreign to Gentiles, if you don't understand the Old Testament practice of the high priest, who represented his people.
His task was to represent the sins of his people, and on the great day of atonement, the high priest had two jobs to do. One, he had to go into that holy place and the first thing he had to do was he had to make a sacrifice, he had to sprinkle blood there to make an atonement for his own sins, because he was a sinner. Secondly, he had to make that sacrifice and an atonement to sprinkle blood there for the sins of his people. It was a foreshadowing. It was a type of what Christ would one day do. That Jesus himself would sprinkle blood on the altar on the throne of heaven, to say that I have represented my people, I have made an atonement for the sins of my people.
This is exactly the case that the author's making. He wants them to see that it would be foolish for them to go back to the type when we have the antitype. Don't go back to the thing that looks forward to something significant, go to the thing that is the significant thing it looks forward to, which is the Atonement of Christ.
This is why he says, after all this warning, you ought to fear, lest there be sitting in the Buck Run Baptist Church, someone who's hearing this message repeatedly, and yet still has this evil heart of unbelief. That should strike fear in our hearts. But he does not want us to live in fear. That's not his point. Because now he's talking about this great high priest after telling us that the Word of God does its job. It exposes us, it shows us the nakedness of our efforts to try and stitch together some defense. We can't do it, we can't deal with our sin. We need a great high priest who will represent us, who will go into the throne room on our behalf. That's what we need.
Notice the first verb that is used in verse 14. In Greek, it is a hortatory subjunctive. Now, my wife, Tanya and I use hortatory subjunctives all the time at our house. I bet you do too. Because the hortatory subjunctive is used when you say something like: let's do something, let's try harder, let's encourage each other, let's be faithful to go to the Lord's house on Sunday. That's a hortatory subjunctive. It's an encouragement, and it's put in the first person and plural, let us do this.
The writer of Hebrews is including himself in there. He said, "All right. The first thing is, let's hold fast." So in the foreground of what he's saying here, is you need to cling to Christ. Immediately after the warning about God's Word, there's this wonderful encouragement. Let's cling to Christ.
Well, what does that look like? Well, he's saying let's hold tightly to what we profess. What we profess is that Jesus is the Christ. That Jesus is the Savior.
My dad used to illustrate it like this. When God had Noah build the ark, he told Noah to put eight spikes on the outside of that ark. Then when it started raining, he told Noah and his wife, and his sons and their wives to hold onto one of those spikes. As the water raised the ark they're holding on to the spike. Now is that the way the story of Noah goes?
There's nothing in that story about spikes and clinging on the outside of the ark. Where were Noah and his family? Inside the ark. They didn't have to cling in order to not fall in the water. They were raised by the water, the very same thing that destroyed everybody else, raised them up. The only difference was which side of the ark they were on, they were inside the ark.
But let’s think about it this way. With all the rolling and the waves, the undulation of the water in that terrible storm, I'm pretty sure that Noah and his wife and his sons and his daughters held onto something in there. You see, it wasn't holding on to not perish. It was holding on to the thing God had given them to get them through this storm. Do you see the difference?
We don't cling to our confession because we fear if we let go we'll fall into the pits of hell. We cling to our confession because this is the very thing God has given us, to get us through the storms of life and ultimately to deliver us to heaven's shore. Let's hold tightly to our confession, to what we profess.
This looks back to the comparison between Moses and Christ. Moses was a faithful servant, but Christ is the Son. Moses was faithful in the house, Christ is faithful over the house. So he's saying this is the confession we cling to. Our confession is not about Moses, our confession is about Christ. This is what we cling to.
Our High Priest
Why do we hold tightly to what we profess? Well, because of who Jesus is. Our great high priest is Jesus, the Son of God. The Israelites in the Old Testament, they had Aaron and then later his sons, grandsons, great grandsons, and so on, were the high priest of Israel. We have an even greater high priest, we have Jesus, the Son of God. Why would we want to go back to the Old Testament, when what we have in Christ is so much better?
Our high priest has entered into heaven. The word used there means he passed through the heavens in his ascension. Remember, we've talked about the ascension of Christ, that he ascended to heaven in order to reign in the same way that the high priest in the Old Testament would enter into the Holy of Holies, Christ has entered into heaven as he passed through heaven.
Our high priest knows our weaknesses. Wow. We don't have a high priest who's alienated from us. If Jesus had never come to earth, if Jesus had never been a man, if Jesus had never known hunger and thirst and pain and sorrow, if Jesus had never known temptation, what kind of a high priest is that? How can that high priest represent me? How can that high priest in any way relate to me?
The writer’s point is that we can hold fast to him, because of what he's done, he has entered into heaven and the same way in the Old Testament that the high priest identified with his people because he said he had to make an atonement for his own sins that shows that he was related to them. Jesus is not a sinner in the same way. He doesn't have to make an atonement for his sins. But he shows his identification with us, not through sin, but through temptation and through suffering. He knows our weaknesses, he has faced our temptations, yet he has never sinned.
Now that makes people uncomfortable, when we say every temptation we have ever faced, Jesus has felt. But it shouldn't make us uncomfortable. It should make us very comfortable. I don't understand everything that that means. But whatever our struggle is Jesus has felt that temptation. We don't have a high priest who is so separate from us that he can't relate to us. Whatever temptation you have felt, in some way, Christ has felt. That's an astounding thing.
Yet, the text is very clear, he never sinned. He never succumbed to that temptation. He never gave in to that attraction. He felt it, it was real, he was truly like Adam and Eve. When Adam and Eve sinned, it was different than our sin because they sinned from a place of innocence. Their flesh was not predisposed towards sin. They were the only human beings yet ever to have a truly free will. Our will is free but it's bound by our nature. Yet theirs was not and Jesus was not. He was the perfect man for God, the perfect God for man. He felt every temptation, but because he was sinless, there was nothing on which Satan could hang that temptation, nothing that would hold on to it, he felt it. But because he was God, he could defeat it. He never sinned.
This is our faithful high priest. This is who he is and what he's done. And now look at the second admonition about him is let's get close to him.
Get Close to Jesus
We are to draw near and approach Jesus. In the Old Testament, only the high priest could go to the holy place. If anyone else did, they would be struck dead. You didn't go in there with the high priests, it was off limits to you. In fact, you couldn't even be near it unless you were a Levite, a priest. You couldn't even be in the holy place, let alone the most holy place. You couldn't even be in the tabernacle at all, unless you were a man. Women had to stay outside in the outer court along with the Gentiles and think about how many things separated you. There were things that disqualified you right from the beginning, that you could not go in there.
What a contrast now that through Christ, we are called to all draw near. Let's approach him boldly. Let's go right before the throne, let us go right into the most holy place. Not with fear and trembling, but with boldness, with confidence. Let's get close to him.
How do we come? We come with boldness. Remember back in verse one, we're told the fear lest any of us have unbelief. But if we have made our calling and election sure, if indeed we say, "Yes, I believe. I have committed my life to Christ." Then we need not fear. We can have boldness and go right before his throne.
Where do we come? We come before his throne of grace. I like that title. The throne could be called a lot of things, it could be called a throne of his sovereignty, the throne of his rule, the throne of his power. But I love that what the writer emphasizes is it's his throne of grace. What do we need? We need to receive mercy. Let's draw near to the throne of grace that we may receive mercy.
What do we get? We find grace. We may receive mercy and find grace. Remember, the old hymn we used to sing? It was in all the hymn books: Mercy, there was great and grace was free, poured in there was multiplied to me. There my burden so found liberty at Calvary. It's through the act of Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary that we receive mercy, we find grace.
When do you get it? It says in the time of need. That's not a great translation. Most Bibles translate it that way. But literally, it says at a propitious moment, at the right time.
Some people in our church work at Toyota. If you ever get the opportunity to go to Georgetown and tour the Toyota plant, you ought to do it. One of the fascinating things is you see these big rolls of steel. The steel gets heated and pressed and molded and becomes a chassis and the chassis is put on a line as it goes down. Here comes a body and a body is put down on that and it's a certain color. Then up ahead, overhead there are all these tracks and these robotic arms and here comes doors, red doors, yellow doors, and blue doors. The right color door gets to the right car at the right time and then the right hood gets on that, and the right trunk and it's amazing. As it goes down, everything gets to it at exactly the right moment. Workers are waiting there to attach it and to check it out and to make sure it's done right.
As that chassis goes down the assembly line, what began as raw steel and a bunch of rolls, at the end is a car. It's a car because things got shaped and molded and added at exactly the right time, you can't just put a door on it any odd time, you can't stick the engine in it at any odd time, it's got to be in exactly the right moment.
This is what the sovereignty of God does in our lives. Christ is always our high priest, he's representing us, and he's shaping us, he's molding us. In our weakness that is so great, in our temptation, and in our sinfulness, he makes sure that the great assembly line of God's providence brings into our lives, mercy and grace at a propitious moment, at exactly the right time, in your time of need.
You don't need to imagine things and say, "Oh, I just don't think I'll be able to handle it if that happens." That's worry. Worry is using our imagination, we imagine that it'll happen and we won't be able to handle it. I'll tell you this, if you're a believer, he'll make sure that you get his mercy and his grace at precisely the right moment.
Trust Jesus As Your High Priest
What do we learn from a high priest that makes us think of Jesus? Every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God. All right. This is about the role and qualification of the high priest.
The first thing is he represents people to God. That's the primary job of the high priest when he goes in to make an atonement, he's going in there on behalf of all his people.
What is it that he does when he goes in there? He has sacrificed a spotless lamb, he has taken its blood, and he's going to sprinkle that blood. So, he's made a sacrifice. He offers the blood as a gift to atone for the sins of the people. His primary purpose is to make sacrifice for sin. He represents people to God and he does that by making a sacrifice for sin.
Now the writer wants to point out a few things. He says he can deal gently with the ignorant and the wayward since he himself is beset with weakness. He's chosen from among people. Did you catch that? He's chosen from among them to represent them. He doesn't bring somebody from somewhere else, someone who's not from among the people to represent them, it's one of the people. Aaron was initially chosen to do that. Aaron was chosen for this task by God. This is important because the high priest is always chosen by God. It's God's choice.
By giving us the background of what the high priest does, the writer put us on solid ground by showing us that we need to trust Jesus as our high priest. That's the solid ground that he's putting us on. He doesn't want these Jews going back to the old system. Why would you want a solely human high priest when you have Christ?
The writer told us what the high priest is like, now he's going to tell us how Jesus is in some ways the same, but in other ways he's different. He begins by telling us that God did in fact, appoint Christ as high priest. He quotes Psalm 2:7 and Psalm 110.
Since Jesus was appointed as our high priest, then Jesus does what a high priest does. What is the high priest’s job? It's to represent his people to God and to make a sacrifice for their sins. This is exactly what Christ did.
But there's something about Jesus that is different than any high priest in the Old Testament. Well, actually, two things. One, I'm going to mention and defer until we get to chapter seven. That is Jesus is not a priest after the order of Aaron but after the order of Melchizedek. Tuck this aside for now. The writer is merely introducing that, and he's going to pick it back up in chapter seven. So Jesus is not a part of Aaron's priesthood, because Jesus isn't a Levite. He's a priest like Melchizedek, different kind of priests.
The other thing about Jesus is, he's perfect. He's sinless. This is different. No other high priest was ever sinless. In fact, the high priest in Jesus' day in Jerusalem, they were bad guys. They were like the mafia. They were running the show, they controlled everything. They were the ones that ultimately, were responsible for putting Jesus to death. Just because somebody was in the office of high priest didn't mean that they were even a good guy, let alone sinless, no one was sinless. So, Jesus is different in that he is sinless. He did what a high priest must do, but he didn't have to make an atonement for his own sins. He did however, have to learn obedience. He learned obedience through suffering. Now, this is remarkable.
What I've just said, that Jesus learned obedience through suffering is to some people, one of the greatest obstacles to believing the gospel. Talk to any of our Muslim friends. This is the major objection, God cannot die. Jesus died, therefore he is not God. I've had that discussion with many, many Muslims. They can't get past that. If Jesus suffered and died, he can't be God. That is precisely the remarkable thing. That we have a God who became a man, lived sinlessly and died.
You say, “But what's this business about learning?” He learned. “Isn't he omniscient? Doesn't he already know everything?” Well, God knows everything. But God himself did not have the experience of humanity and Jesus, particularly as ruler of all, had to learn obedience. He had to become like one of us. We couldn't relate to him. How can One who is only omnipotent, omniscient, who is totally transcendent, the One who has passed through the heavens, how can that God relate to me in my suffering, in my sorrow, in my struggles, in my temptation? The only way he can is to become like me. To live in my world, inhabit my space. Know hunger, sorrow, grief, and tragedy. Only Jesus could do that. So, Jesus too learned obedience through suffering.
Jesus knows how you feel. Jesus came as the logos, the divine reason, the divine argument. Then he suffered the pathos. He is not a high priest who is not touched with the feelings of our weaknesses. He is. He's touched with the feelings, the pathos.
This is what gives him his ethos. This is what gives him the credibility, I can trust this God. His love for me was so great that he was willing to become like me to become a faithful high priest. All three—logos, pathos, and ethos—met in Christ on Calvary's cross, and in the empty tomb. Jesus could not save me had he not suffered for me. He can only know my feelings if he becomes a part of my world. He suffers death like I must face. He can only qualify me for heaven if he takes my sin and he pays for that. He doesn't just suffer to say, "Hey, I know how you feel," he suffers in order to pay the penalty of our sin. Because he suffers, he saves.
He can deal gently with the ignorant, the wayward, because he has taken our sin upon himself. In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to him who was able to save him from death. Jesus cried, "Father, if there'd be any other way, let this cup pass from me." God heard him but God did not deliver him from death in the sense that he didn't have to go through it. God waited until he died and then delivered him from death in the resurrection. And isn't that precisely what God will now do for you and for me?
John Church went home to be with the Lord Friday night. John was such a faithful, good man. I talked to John about death. We talked about it many times. John didn't fear death. You know why? Because God had already shown that he allowed his own Son to go through death, and then delivered him from it. That's exactly what he's going to do for John Church. He allowed John's body to go through death and God’s going to raise it up again. That's what his promise is to you and to me.
When he did that, even though being a Son, he'd learned obedience through what he suffered and being made perfect. Now Jesus was always morally perfect. It's not talking about his morality here, it's not talking about his sinless perfection. It's talking about his perfection as our high priest. It was through his death and his resurrection through becoming completely like us suffering death, through God raising him up, that God perfected him as our high priest. He qualified him. He matured him. He completed him as our high priest.
This is why Jesus is different. This is why Christianity is different from any other religious system in the world. Because every other religious system points you to what you must do. Jesus points us to who he is and what he has done on our behalf.
It's just through faith we accept it. Jesus has done it. I can never be perfect like Jesus, but I can have Jesus’ perfection. In the same way that he took my sin, as my faithful high priest he entered into the holy place and there he made sacrifice for sin on my behalf, representing me to God. My advocate, my high priest, my lawyer representing me. Now he comes to me with his robe of righteousness and he puts it around me, he says, "Here, this is yours." I didn't do anything to get it, I couldn't earn it. I couldn't take my filthy rags and get them clean. I couldn't do any of that. Jesus had to take my sin away and clothe me with his own righteousness. He gives me his perfection. Jesus became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.
But now this doesn't mean obeying him by going to church, obeying him by giving money, and obeying him by doing good deeds. What's the obedience he's talked about all along? You obey him by believing him. Remember the fear, verse one, is that there being any of you with an evil heart of unbelief. So, to obey him, is to trust and rest in him completely. Jesus was made perfect through suffering. But I am made perfect through faith.
Hershael York is pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, as well as professor of Christian Preaching and dean of Southern Seminary's School of Theology in Louisville, Kentucky.