Friday, October 8, 2021

A Better High Priest (Heb. 5:1-10)

In Hebrews 5:1-10, our Lord is compared and contrasted with the Aaronic priesthood. In the first four verses, we have a description of this priesthood; what follows in verses 5-10 is the way our Lord’s high priesthood corresponded to that of Aaron’s. In particular, the author of Hebrews gives us two main reasons why the priests ordained under the Mosaic covenant were fitted for the office to which they were appointed, and then he follows that with our Lord’s superior suitability for the high priesthood and how he really is a greater and better high priest for us.

First of all, the Aaronic priests were fitted to their office because they were men (1-2). A priest was ordained for men and as such needed to be taken from among men. An angel could not mediate between God and men in this way. Also, because priests were men, they were able to “have compassion on the ignorant and on them that are out of the way.” However, part of the reason the priests could sympathize with sinners is that they themselves were sinners, and the “infirmity” of verse 3 is an infirmity arising from the moral frailty of the Levitical priests. Hence, they not only had to offer sin offerings for others, but they also had to do so for themselves as well (3).

Second, the Aaronic priests were fitted to their office because they were ordained by God to it (4). It was not something you could take upon yourself; priesthood is an office that only makes sense if you are chosen by God to it. After all, priests are mediators between God and man, and if God does not recognize the mediator, what good is it to have one?

The fact that God is the one who ordained the Aaronic priesthood for what are the two greatest needs of humanity, but which we have lost as a result of our sinfulness and brokenness, shows us how much God cares about these things. We primarily need to have our relationship with God restored and which has been severed by sin. Hence the need for atonement and hence the need for a priest. But we also need to have our relationship with our fellow man restored (cf. Eph. 2:11-22). We need to have God’s favor, but we also need human companionship and compassion as well. We need God’s presence and we need the arm of a fellow human around our shoulder, so to speak. The priest was meant to give both, and God ordained him to give both. We need God’s fellowship and we need human fellowship; God knows that and he has provided for that.

But as good as a priest was, the fact is that he could never provide for either of these things perfectly. The atonement provided in the Mosaic covenant was not sufficient in itself to atone for sins. It was figurative and ceremonial and pointed forward the greater sacrifice of Jesus Christ. And the compassion offered by the priest was not only tempered, but also marred by, his own sinfulness. In both categories, however, we see that our Lord can give what the old high priests could only, at the end of the day, point to. And that is the point of verses 5-10.

Like Aaron, our Lord was ordained by God to be a high priest (5-6, 10). As such, Jesus provided atonement, but not merely a figurative atonement that erased ceremonial uncleanness, but a real atonement that provides “eternal salvation” (9). Moreover, our Lord does not give us a fallible human hand of help, for he was “in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (4:15; 5:7-8).  We've argued that this does not diminish his ability to help; in fact, it increases it.

Our aim in this message is to focus on the way our Lord’s priesthood enables him to have compassion on the ignorant and those out of the way. And this is important; just because someone is willing to help or willing to show compassion does not always mean that their help and compassion are what we really need. After all, how many times have we been hurt by the very people we have reached out to? How many times have those closest to us been the ones who hurt us the worst, often because they were so close to us? Or, how often is it that people just can’t enter into the pain we are experiencing, not only because they’ve never walked in our shoes but because they have never experienced the level of suffering we are enduring? It is one thing to endure affliction, but we all know there are various levels of suffering and affliction. Some people at least seem to breeze through life; others seem to be stuck in a kind of quicksand of pain and anguish. Some people seem to never have a sad day in their life; others seem to always be fighting a losing battle against the swirling mist of depression and despair. Of course, we should be careful not to judge someone by what their experience appears to be to us. Some folks are better at hiding grief and pain than others.

However, the point is that when we are in distress, often the compassion that encourages us the best is compassion coming from someone who has been through the fire – maybe not the same fire, but real and hot fire nonetheless. And we tend to listen to the advice of those who have been through the fire, when they share with us how they made it through. When someone comes to you out of the furnace of affliction and you can almost smell their smoke-tinged soul, you are going to listen. They made it through and you want to hear what they have to say about it, especially when you are there as well.

Isn’t this what the apostle Paul said? “Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of all mercies, and the God of all comfort; who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God” (2 Cor. 1:3-4).

What does this have to do with Hebrews 5? Again, one of the things I think the author is telling us here is that Jesus can do perfectly what the priests under the law could only do imperfectly. They could have compassion on the weak and ignorant. What about Jesus? This is where verses 7-8 are so important. In particular, they help us to see how it is that our Lord can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities and how he was in all points tempted like as we are yet without sin (4:15). Also, they give us an example for how we should deal with our difficulties as well.

Now I need to say something here about that last sentence. Some Christian writers and thinkers seem to believe that setting Christ forward as an example is always bad. They tell us that this undermines the gospel. They say that Christ did not come to set an example for good works but to provide an expiation for the guilt arising from our bad works. But this is imbalanced. It is true that our Lord is not just an example, and that we should never primarily interpret the cross in that light. But to say that nothing our Lord did is an example that we should follow frankly flies in the face of the NT (see, for example, 1 Pet. 2:21). And so though we don’t want to gut the grace of the gospel by making it mainly about becoming better people, neither do we want to go to the opposite extreme and turn the grace of God into lasciviousness (cf. Jude 4). Jesus is our high priest who makes atonement for our sins, and yet even in that role he provides for us the best of examples as well.

Very well then, we want to look at these two things this morning. First, we want to consider our Lord’s experience and how he entered into our weakness and how this positions him to be the very best source of compassion and encouragement and strengthening and grace. And then second, we want to see how our Lord’s example shows us the way to deal with the suffering we find in our own lives.

Our Lord’s experience

Look at verse 7: “Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared.” I want us to consider a couple of phrases embedded in this text. They are: “days of his flesh” and “strong crying and tears.” These two phrases point us to the boiling furnace of suffering that our Lord went through and which uniquely positioned and equipped him to be a high priest who can have compassion on us and be touched with the feeling of our infirmities.

The days of his flesh

We should be careful that we don’t interpret this phrase wrongly. It doesn’t mean that after his death when our Lord ascended into heaven that he ascended as a bodiless, ethereal spirit. No, our Lord ascended into heaven in a body. He was able to have the apostle Thomas touch him, after he had risen from the dead. Rather, “flesh” here is a reference to a body which is susceptible to and crippled by the effects of living in a sinful and cursed and fallen world. It means mortality. It means that “the moment we are born we all begin to die.” It means having bodies which are broken and susceptible to disease and pain. It means having minds which are vulnerable to anguish and sorrow and discouragement and depression.

The apostle Paul uses the word “flesh” in this way to refer to our bodies as they are before their resurrection. It is important to see that resurrection implies that though there is real continuity between the body I have now and the body I will have after it is raised from the dead, nevertheless there is also real discontinuity – discontinuity in the sense that our bodies then will no longer be afflicted by the ravages of the curse. Hence, Paul writes, “So also is the resurrection of the dead. It [our physical body] is sown in corruption; it [note the continuity – it is the same “it”!] is raised in incorruption: it is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: it is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body and there is a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:42-44). Then notice what he says in verse 50: “Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.”

There you see that word “flesh” again. The context demonstrates that what flesh means is having a body that is subject to corruption and decay, to dishonor and ugliness, to weakness and sickness and disease. It is called a “natural body” because this is what we are born with; it is contrasted to a “spiritual body” because this is the body we will have as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit raising it from the dead (and not because it is mere spirit, cf. Rom. 8:9-10).

This is what it meant, then, when we read of “the days of his flesh.” It is a reference to our Lord’s experience of taking to himself "a true body and a reasonable soul" that was subject to the ravages of a fallen world, under the curse of death and mortality. Though he never participated in the sin that we are all guilty of, yet he did participate fully in the endurance of sin’s effects in terms of the curse. He was tempted in all points, like as we are, yet without sin. That is what this means. Hence when the prophet says that “he is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isa. 53:3), he means that our Lord really did feel the rejection and the grief. And when he wrote, “Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken of God, and affliction” (53:4), we are to understand that the grief, sorrow, and affliction were very real and not at all imagined. Or, to use the language of Hebrews, “as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same” (Heb. 2:14). “Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God” and thus “able to succour them that are tempted” (2:17-18).

Strong crying and tears

Though “the days of his flesh” is a way of capturing all our Lord’s earthly experience in one fell swoop, this phrase – “strong crying and tears” – captures a particular instance of it. The word for “crying” here is interesting. By itself it could refer not only to crying, but to loud crying. This is not a whimper. But then you add the adjective “strong” to that and you have a picture of someone almost screaming in pain and torment. It is, in fact, the word used in the Septuagint in Exod. 3:7 to describe the cries of the Israelites as they groaned under Egyptian slavery.

Though we can’t be sure it refers exclusively to events in the Garden of Gethsemane right before our Lord was captured, it certainly includes it. One reason for thinking of the events in the Garden is that our Lord is said to cry to “him that was able to save him from death.” It was the prospect of death that he was facing that led him to agonize so intensely in his soul and which squeezed him psychologically and emotionally so hard that he could not help but cry that cry that can only come with tears.

By the way, one thing we do need to write off immediately – that this reference to crying and tears is proof that Jesus was a wimp or that he was what we might sometimes call a sort of cry-baby. Perish the thought! No, even the strongest men and women cannot hold back the tears when they are face with terrible trials. There are griefs that no one can hold within without going insane. It is not necessarily a sign of strength to say that you have never shed a tear. Maybe it is rather a sign that you have lost your humanity, rather than a sign of human strength.

Nevertheless, others have pointed to the fact that our Lord was still not as strong as other men and women have shown themselves to be when faced with death – even Christian martyrs! How many people have gone to their deaths – whether as a martyr or as a soldier on a battlefield – and faced death, even the most painful death, with bravery and a stiff upper-lip? And yet, we have this picture of Christ doubled over with fear and anxiety, begging God to let this cup pass from him: “And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s cast, and kneeled down, and prayed, Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done. And there appeared an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Lk. 22:41-44). In Matthew’s account, our Lord is recorded as saying, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death” (Mt. 26:38; cf. Mk. 14:34). Sorrow, agony, sweat, while begging his Father to avert death on a cross. What are we to make of that?

What we are to make of it is that our Lord faced something no man or woman has ever faced this side of death. And I would venture to say that even those in hell have not had to face what our Lord faced. It is one thing to endure something over a long period of time (try eternity!); but to take an eternity of suffering and squeeze it into a few hours on the cross – that no one has ever endured, except Jesus Christ. He looked into the very face of death, death on a cross, death that would come upon him because he would hang there with the sins of men upon his shoulders, and there really was no other way to psychologically anticipate that without strong crying and tears. Unlike some people, Jesus did not avoid reality by denying it existed. He looked hell square in the face, took the cup filled with damnation, and drank it dry. We really have no idea what that was like, the level and intensity of his suffering and pain. You simply cannot compare Jesus with anyone else, no matter what kind of death they have endured.

And be careful that you do not exhaust the sufferings of Christ in terms of the flogging and the crucifixion. That was a very terrible and painful and shameful way to die – there is no doubt about that. But you will notice that the Gospels don’t really do what Mel Gibson did; they don’t focus on that. Rather, they focus on the fact that God withdrew his presence – his presence of blessing – as our Lord hung there as the sin offering for men (cf. Mt. 27:45-46; Mk. 15:33-34; Lk. 23:44-46; Jn. 19:30). Our Lord’s sufferings were almost surely as unseen as they were seen, and he received the blows not only upon his physical body but upon his mind and soul and spirit.

But, my friend, here is solace for you and me. Jesus endured this so that his elect won’t have to. He went to the cross and went to the utter limits of pain and suffering – physical and mental and spiritual – so that those who receive him as Lord and Savior by faith will not ever have to navigate the infinite ocean of eternal death.

And what this means is that there is no suffering that we can bring to Christ and say to him, “You just don’t know what it’s like to suffer this much.” That’s foolish talk. That’s like comparing a number in the single digits to infinity. In fact, rate your pain and anguish at any number and there is still an infinity of numbers beyond that. Jesus took it to infinity; you cannot justly compare your suffering to his. But it does give us this precious reality: that no matter how painful the suffering you are enduring or have endured – and no matter how little understood you feel yourself to be by your fellow man – there is one to whom you may take your suffering. You may take it to Jesus. I may not be able to sympathize with you, but there is one who can – the Lord Jesus Christ.

Our Lord’s Example

We not only have our Lord’s experience, but we also have our Lord’s example. Now the first thing we should always do is not to ask ourselves what we can do about our sin and our suffering, but to take our sin and suffering to Jesus. We are to look to him for atonement and to look to him to give you grace for your suffering and hope in your suffering. But that does not mean that we don’t also look to him as the supreme example. And that’s what I want to consider with you now. What did our Lord do when faced with suffering that would end in death? He did three things. And what we will see is that these are three things we can do and should do.

First of all, he prayed. He “offered up prayers and supplications . . . unto him that was able to save him from death.” If this is a reference to events in the Garden of Gethsemane, then we have even more information about this. We are told that he went and prayed on three different occasions. We are told that he prayed very simple prayers. And we are told that he repeated the first prayer on the second and third occasions.

This is so encouraging to me. So often we think that unless we come up with very ornate prayers, God isn’t going to be interested. Or if we don’t pray long prayers (though be careful here – don’t take this as an argument against long prayers, for sometimes our Lord prayed all night!), God won’t hear us. But he did hear his Son: “and was heard in that he feared.”

By the way, what does that mean? He “was heard in that he feared.” The word “feared” here is the word eulabeias and means “reverence” or “godly fear.” It is the same word used in Heb. 12:28, “Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.” This is not, therefore, fear in the sense of terror or being afraid. One way to translate this would be: “he was heard because of his godly reverence.”

Now God doesn’t hear our prayers because we are “good enough.” But because we are righteous in Christ and because he is doing a work of grace in the hearts of his people so that they are becoming progressively more holy, God does hear our prayers. At the same time, let us not think that we can sin with impunity and then come to God in prayer when we need his help. It is the “effectual fervent prayer of the righteous man” that avails much.

So pray, brothers and sisters. When you are faced with painful and grievous trials, pray, take them to the Lord who can truly sympathize and show true compassion.

Second, note that our Lord prayed in faith. You see this in the words, “unto him that was able to save him from death.” In other words, when our Lord prayed to the Father, and brought before him the painful anticipation of death, he did so while trusting that his Father “was able to save him from death.” And, by the way, we know what happened. God did save his Son from death. Three days later, he rose from the dead.

Our Lord shows us the way we should pray, too. We need to pray in faith. We need to trust in God as we navigate suffering. We may not understand why we are having to go what we are going through. But one thing we can be confident in – that God is in control, that he will work all things for our good, and that the worst thing that can happen to us, eternal death and judgment, has already been decisively dealt with through the person and work of Christ.

Finally, our Lord never stopped obeying his Father, despite the sufferings he went through. In fact, we are told in verse 8: “Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered.” Now we shouldn’t think that learning obedience means that Christ went from being disobedient to being obedient. Rather, this is a reference to the earthly experience of our incarnate Lord which was new to him. As a man, he had to learn obedience and he had to suffer – and he had to learn to carry out his Father’s will through and in suffering. He did it without sin, but he learned it in the sense that this was a new experience for him.

But what an example for us. In fact, isn’t this what the apostle Peter points us to? “For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously” (1 Pet. 2:21-23). It is in suffering and trials that the devil puts us in the rack and presses us to deny Christ. He whispers in our ears that it is not worth it to obey God when it brings so much suffering. But let us, as the apostle encourages us to do, take our Lord for an example (cf. Heb. 12:1,ff). Don’t stop obeying, don’t stop believing, don’t stop praying.

Our Lord is the very best high priest. He can do what the Aaronic priests could not. He can do what no other man or woman in history can do. He brings us to God and he supports us with his love and grace and compassion. How could we want to take refuge in anyone or anything else? Let us find our rest and our hope and grace in the only place where we can find eternal rest and hope and grace: in Jesus Christ.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

God, Man, and Sin (Heb. 5:1)

There are two titles that the author of Hebrews attributes to Jesus that are extremely important for our understanding of who he is and what he has done. Those two titles are Son of God and high priest. Both are used in Heb. 5:1-10. In verses 5 and 8, he is referred to as the Son of God; in verses 5, 6, and 10 as high priest. Both titles are Scriptural, that is, they derive from OT predictions concerning the Christ. In this text, the author refers in particular to two Psalms in order to ground his understanding of the Messiah: Psalms 2 and 110.

Christ is the eternal Son of God. Remember that “begotten” in Psalm 2:7 and Heb. 5:5 is not a reference to his birth in the manger or to his becoming a man. Nor is it a reference to his becoming, at some distant point in time in the past, the Son of God. Rather, it is a reference to our Lord’s enthronement in heaven after having conquered death. This does not mean that this is when he became the Son of God, for the Father declared him to be his Son at the announcement of his incarnation, at his baptism, and at the Mount of Transfiguration. It is just that, at his resurrection and ascension, our Lord was invested with the honor that belonged to him as the Son of God and which he temporarily laid aside in order to accomplish his earthly mission.

You see hints of this in verse 8: “Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered”. If the Sonship of Christ were only a reference to his incarnate manhood, then his learning obedience by the things which he suffered would be a necessary part of his Sonship, but in verse 8 it is understood that his obedience and his sufferings were things essentially incompatible with it. This is why the verse begins with “though he were a Son.” In other words, you would not expect that the one who is the Son to have to learn obedience or to suffer. Nevertheless, we are told that he voluntarily took them on in order to accomplish the salvation of his people (cf. Phil. 2:5-11). It was a part of the “becoming poor” of him who was eternally rich, so that we might through his poverty becomes truly rich (cf. 2 Cor. 8:9).

The Son of God is that name which tells us who the Lord Jesus Christ is in relation to God the Father. It therefore describes an eternal relation. There was never a time when our Lord was not the Son and never a time when the Father was not the Father of the Son. It is not a title that he took on but a description of who he is in an essential and eternal sense. And it points us to his divinity: that he is one with the Father and shares equally with him in the essence of the Godhead.

I recently heard a Muslim preacher say that the reason he was not a Christian was that Jesus never claimed to be God. But this is false, for when he claimed to be the Son of God he was claiming to be God. You see this, for example, in John 10. There, our Lord repeatedly refers to God as his Father (something, by the way, that none of Jesus’ contemporaries did), and then he says this: “I and my Father are one” (Jn. 10:30). To this his enemies responded by picking up stones to stone him – they clearly thought he had just uttered a blasphemy. When our Lord asks them why they are doing this, they respond: “For a good work we stone thee not; but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God” (10:33). In other words, our Lord’s contemporaries understood the claim to be the Son of God as a claim to be God. But it doesn’t keep him from affirming it: “I said, I am the Son of God” (36).

Now some folks will turn to something our Lord says later as a refutation that Son of God implies equality with God. They will refer to John 14:28, where our Lord says, “If ye loved me, ye would rejoice, because I said, I go unto the Father: for my Father is greater than I.” However, this is clearly a reference to our Lord’s future ascension into heaven (“I go unto the Father”) where he will receive the glory that he had laid aside as a part of his earthly ministry (cf. Jn 17:1-3). At the moment when the Lord spoke these words, he was still suffering and learning obedience and as such his Father was greater than he – greater in the sense of his exalted status in heaven. In ascending to the Father, he was also ascending to the greatness of the Father, and this was the reason why his disciples should rejoice.

This is very important and grasping the truth that Jesus is in fact the eternal Son of God is essential for a true and saving understanding of who Jesus is. To refuse to receive him as such is to reject him, and to reject him is to turn away from the only source of eternal salvation. This is what the apostle John would later write: “Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father; but he that acknowledgeth the Son hath the Father also” (1 Jn. 2:23).

And yet, as important as it is that we embrace Jesus as the Son of God, it is equally important that we understand what he did in terms of his designation as high priest. Alongside the confession of Jesus as God’s Son in Psalm 2:7, we also have the confession of Jesus as high priest in Psalm 110:4, “Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchisedec” (Heb. 5:6, 10). God is speaking in this Psalm, and our Lord in the gospels says that the one to whom he is speaking is the Messiah, David’s Lord (and thus to himself; see, for example, Mt. 22:41-45). Now we are going to hear a lot more about this mysterious man, Melchisedec, in chapter 7. But for now the point is simply that the Messiah, Jesus Christ, was ordained to be a priest, and that to understand who Jesus is and what he does we need to understand him in the categories of the priesthood.

It is tempting at this point just to skip to verses 11 and following because folks today are just as “dull of hearing” when it comes to the priesthood of Jesus as the original audience of this letter. How many of us read this and think how exciting it is to think about Jesus as a high priest? How many of us understand just how relevant and important this is?

I think there are a number of reasons why we find it hard to engage in any meaningful sense with these verses. One reason is that many of us view the priesthood as belonging solely to the period of OT sacrifice and as therefore irrelevant to NT Christianity. Our approach to this chapter is an artifact of a pervasive understanding of the OT as having no relevance for the NT Christian. We think that the Mosaic ritual was for folks before Jesus and for the NT church we don’t need to be bothered about such things. Of course, there is some truth to this; we are not under the Old Covenant but under the New Covenant. We no longer have to keep many of the ordinances and prescriptions of the Mosaic Law, especially the ceremonial aspect of the Mosaic Law. But we must never try to untether the NT from the OT. The fact of the matter is that without the OT we will never really understand the NT. After all, didn’t Jesus say of himself, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill” (Mt. 5:17)? In other words, our Lord himself understood what he was doing entirely in terms of the fulfillment of the OT Scriptures. So if we are really going to come to grips with the work of Christ, we must do so in terms of it as the fulfillment of the OT.

Another reason for this lack of appreciation of texts like Hebrews 5 is that careful thinking about the person and work of Jesus is not considered important in our day. We just think that the most general notions of who Jesus is and what he did is sufficient. And though I never want to give the impression that you have to be a systematic theologian to be saved, neither must we go to the opposite extreme and say that it doesn’t matter what you think or how you think about Jesus. The reality is that there is such a thing as preaching “another Jesus” and “another gospel” (2 Cor. 11:4; cf. Gal. 1:6-9), and this other Jesus is a Jesus taught by false prophets who are ministers of Satan (2 Cor. 11:13-15). And we must not think that embracing that Jesus would do us any good. Doctrine matters. What you think about Jesus matters.

So, what does this passage tell us about Jesus? It is all about his being a high priest (Heb. 5:1, 5, 10). A priest was fundamentally a mediator between God and men. You see this in the text in verse 1: a priest, and the high priest in particular, was “ordained for men” –to represent them in their place before God, “in things pertaining to God.” Under the Old Covenant, you didn’t approach God directly, you did so through the priest. He took your offerings and presented them to the Lord. He was your representative before God.

Now this gets at the heart of why we modern people in the Western world are especially unable to understand the importance of a priest. In order to understand the importance of a priest, you have to be able to understand the categories in which the priesthood makes sense. There are three basic things you have to understand correctly if you are going to read this text with any interest. You need to have a correct understanding of who God is, of what man is, and of what sin is.

You see each of these things in verse 1. First, the high priest was “taken from among men” and “ordained for men.” The priesthood is defined here in terms of its relation to men. In other words, there is something about mankind that makes the priesthood necessary. Second, the high priest was “ordained for men in things pertaining to God.” That is, the priest is not representing God to men; it is the other way around. He is representing men to God. He is a mediator between men and God. And what makes that necessary is the third thing: sin. The high priest functions “that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins.” I believe that it is precisely because we have become as a culture increasingly alienated from the biblical categories of God, man, and sin that the priesthood of Christ seems so foreign and bizarre to us. What I want to do this morning is to contrast the Biblical accounting of these realities with our own and so show why it is so important that Jesus not only came to save us from our sin but that he did so as a high priest ordained by God.

Who is God?

What do we normally think of when we think of God? Well, we don’t have to wonder what modern American folks, especially those who are younger, think. They’ve been asked, and their answers have been recorded for posterity. They are consistent enough that the sociologists put a name on it: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. What is it, you ask? Well, it has been identified by five key beliefs.

As described by Smith and his team, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism consists of beliefs like these: 1. "A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth." 2. "God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions." 3. "The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about ones self." 4. "God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem." 5. "Good people go to heaven when they die."1

It is called deism because the God of the deists does not get involved in this world; he made it to begin with, but he leaves it up to us to do with it what we will. Now there are all sorts of reasons why people believe that God is this way, but I would suggest that the most plausible reason people see it this way is that this is the kind of God that simply doesn’t get in the way – that is to say, this God doesn’t get in our way. It’s a lot like the constitutional monarchy of Great Britain; they have a monarch, but a monarch without any real power. People want a God, yes; but they want a god that is subservient to the parliament of their own lusts. We want a king, but not a king who really rules over us. The fourth part of the definition goes along with this: that the only time God gets involved in our lives is only when we need him to resolve a problem; and one gets the distinct impression that we (not God) are the ones who decide when God needs to get involved.

Another thing you might notice about this view of things is that God simply wants people to be nice (moral in the vaguest sense). Now I would suggest that what they mean by this has nothing to do with holiness in a Biblical sense. It corresponds to what they think is the main purpose of life: “to be happy and to feel good about oneself.” In other words, being nice to me means allowing me to be happy and to feel good about myself, and you are not nice (and therefore bad) when you do not allow me to be happy and to feel good about myself. It would follow in this worldview that if God is going to get involved with our lives, he would be expected to help us feel good about ourselves.

And of course good people go to heaven when they die – and as long as you are sufficiently nice, you don’t have anything to worry about.

What does this tell us about God? It paints a picture of a God who exists to support our own dreams and decisions. We are totally obsessed with ourselves and if we want God at all, we just want enough God to support our own love affair with ourselves. In particular, this is not a God to be reckoned with, this is not a God to be feared, not a God to be concerned about. The focus is not on what God thinks of us; the focus is on how we feel about ourselves. This is the therapeutic part of the modern religion: God exists to massage our egos and to help us feel good about ourselves. In other words, God exists to serve man and his goals, desires, interests, and dreams.

Now if this is the way you think about God, the priesthood of Christ is going to appear bizarre and unnecessary and irrelevant. In Moral Therapeutic Deism (MTD), God exists to serve us. But in the priestly view of things, we exist to serve God. In MTD, what matters is what we want. But in the priestly (and Biblical) view, what finally and ultimately matters is what God desires. In MTD, man is preeminent, but in the Biblical world of priests and sacrifices, God is preeminent. In other words, the modern accounting of things is exactly backwards from the Biblical view of things.

The problem with the modern view of things is just that: it is a man-made and modern view of God. It is the human attempt to make God in our image. However, if we really want to know who God is, we need to let him tell us who he is, instead of projecting upon him what we wish he was. And he has done exactly that in the Bible. What does the Bible say about God?

First of all, it tells us that God created everything, which indeed is affirmed by MTD, but it doesn’t follow through with the implications of this. God is the only Being in the universe that exists necessarily; that is, who does not depend upon anyone or anything for his existence. In a real sense, all of the Bible is simply an unpacking of Gen. 1:1, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” He does not exist in time and he did not ever begin to exist. He is completely self-sufficient. He does not need you or me, and he does not exist to serve you or me.

Some people give the impression that God needed the creation and that’s why he created it. But that doesn’t even come close. The creation cannot fill a need in God since all the creation depends upon God.  Whatever it could be that God gets out of the creation would simply be something that originated in himself to begin with. King David understood this, and this is how he put it when he was preparing for the temple and had received generous gifts from fellow Israelites for that purpose: “Blessed be thou, LORD God of Israel our father, for ever and ever. Thine, O LORD, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty: for all that is in the heaven and in the earth is thine; thine is the kingdom, O LORD, and thou art exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come of thee and thou reignest over all; and in thine hand is power and might; and in thine hand it is to make great, and to give strength unto all. Now therefore, our God, we thank thee, and praise thy glorious name. But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to offer so willingly after this sort? For all things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee” (2 Chron. 29:10-14).

It is not God who depends upon us; it is we who depend upon God. In him we live, and move, and have our being. He holds our every breath in his hand.

And he is holy. In the vision that Isaiah saw of God (Isa. 6) and that the apostle John saw in his own vision (Rev. 4:8), God is addressed as, “Holy, holy, holy.” There is no other attribute of God that is repeated this way, not even love. This suggests that holiness is the fundamental attribute of God, and it is when we consider that holiness is not just a term that points us to God’s moral purity (though it is partly that), but fundamentally to say that God is holy is to talk about the otherness of God, his transcendence. It is the sum of all his glorious attributes (note the second part of the anthem of the Seraphim in Isa. 6: “the whole earth is filled with his glory”). God is not fundamentally like us. Though it is true that we are made in God’s image, this is a far cry from saying that we are like God in every way. We are not. There is and will always be an infinite distance between man and God. He alone is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. He alone is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable.

In the modern accounting of things, man is primary – his wants, desires, and dreams. But we could only begin to say this because we have reduced God to a feathery being who exists just to make us happy. However, the God of the Bible is primary, not man. He does not exist to make us happy – we exist because it pleased him to make us (Rev. 4:11). And when we see reality in this way, which is as it really is, what we will inevitably be faced with is that God is the one “with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:13). And we will understand two things: it is infinitely more important for this God to be pleased with me than it is for me to be pleased with myself, and second, that it is folly to think that I can approach him on my own terms.

If this is the case, we need a mediator; we need someone to come between us and God. And therefore it is good news to learn that Jesus came to be a high priest – and as such to represent men to God and to bring us to God.

What is man?

The second thing we need to get right is a proper understanding of man. When you read Genesis 1, you realize that man is not just another animal. I know that is the way modern man likes to speak of himself, and the bad theory of Darwinian evolution has only served to reinforce this wrong idea. But we are not another animal, and this is shown in the fact that man and woman are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). Now we must not misunderstand this to mean that we are equal with God, or even that we are made into little “gods.” But one of the things it means is that we are able to enter into a relationship with God. You can see this in that unlike the rest of the creation, God enters into covenant with Adam and Eve.

But what it also means is that we have a purpose for existing, and that this purpose is not something that we assign to ourselves but given to us by our Creator. Or, in the words of Psalm 8, we are crowned with glory and honor because God has crowned us with glory and honor – it is not something which we bestow upon ourselves. This means that just as God is independent of everything outside of himself, including man, man himself is radically dependent upon God for purpose and dignity and identity as well as our very being. It is folly to think that we don’t need God or that we could get along without him. God may not need me but I need God for everything, for life and breath, but especially for eternal life. For there is no eternal life apart from a relationship with the eternal God.

This leads to the next point, which is,

What is sin?

“Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.”2 God, not man, determines the conditions by which we relate to him. He established this at the very beginning with Adam and Eve. In his generosity, God gave them the privilege (it wasn’t an inherent right they could demand from God) to eat from every tree in the garden in which he placed them, with the exception of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. If they ate from that tree, they would die. Now there has been a lot of confusion as to the designation “Tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Does it mean that by eating this tree, man would obtain an experiential knowledge of good and evil? No, because by knowing good and evil, men become like God (cf. Gen. 3:22). Rather, it means that, “By violating the command of God and eating of the tree, they would make themselves like God in the sense that they would position themselves outside and above the law and, like God, determine and judge for themselves what good and evil was.”3 Only God has the right to determine what is good and what is evil, and it is rebellion against God when we take it upon ourselves to decide for ourselves what is best and good for us. But this is exactly what Adam and Eve did when they took the fruit. And it is what we do every time we sin.

It is evil to sin thus against God. And it is only our blindness and folly that we do not see that such choices merit God’s eternal displeasure and judgment. This is what has happened: by our sin we are cut off from God, justly separated from his goodness and love and favor. We can no longer draw near to God. Like Adam, we must hide ourselves at his approach. Thus we see our need for a mediator. This is not something we can fix ourselves. This is something that must be done for us. We need someone who can offer before God and to God an atonement for sin.

Jesus our high priest

We will consider in more detail later how Jesus is a better high priest, better than Aaron. But for now, I want us to bring together the above considerations so that we can see that we need Jesus to be a high priest for us. Because of the transcendence of God, because of the debt we have incurred by our sin against God as those who have defaced the image of God in ourselves, we need someone who can bring us to God, not for judgment but for salvation. We need someone who can become the author of eternal salvation for us (Heb. 5:9).

We need a high priest. I think it is important to see that Jesus is not just a priest, but that he is a high priest. What is the significance of that? It is significant in the sense that it was only the high priest who was allowed to enter the Holy of holies. He was the only one who, once a year on the Day of Atonement, would take the blood of the sacrifice and bring it to the Ark and sprinkle it there in the very presence of God himself. In doing so, the sins of Israel, all of them, were symbolically purged. In fact, in order to make the picture clearer, two goats were chosen, one for the blood sacrifice and then the scapegoat which would be released into the wilderness.

Here is what would happen: “And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the LORD’s lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness. . .. And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: and the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness” (Lev. 16:9-10, 21- 22).

Even so, by designating Jesus as our high priest, we are being told that he has made an atonement for our sins, the thing that separates us from God. He does not do this by simply being a martyr. The cross is not primarily an example of endurance or selflessness or even an example of love for others. It all these of course, but fundamentally, the cross was the place on which Jesus bore the sins of his people, of those who believe in him. Except this time the transfer of sins from us to him was not symbolic, it was real. And he didn’t just bear them away into the desert but he put them away forever.

Now where are you this morning? Do you stand outside the congregation of God’s people? For the high priest didn’t offer for just anyone; he offered for the people of God. Are you one of his? I will tell you how you know it: do you see that you are a sinner and that you cannot save yourself? Do you see that your sins really do merit God’s judgment upon you? Do you loathe yourself for your sin? Then, my friend, the Bible tells you to look to Christ, to trust in him to be your high priest. And the Bible also says that all who believe on him will never be ashamed. As the prophet put it, “Look unto me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth”! (Isa. 45:22).


2 Shorter Catechism, Q. 14.

3 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ (Baker, 2006), p. 33.

Monday, September 20, 2021

The Authority and Inerrancy of Scripture


Statement of the doctrine: the Bible has the right to bind our consciences to believe and obey it in all that it teaches.

How do we come to stand under the authority of Scripture? That is, how can a person come to gladly believe that it is, in fact, God’s word?

We can follow the lines of evidence that support the Bible’s claim to be God’s word.

  • The testimony of Jesus
  • The fulfillment of prophecy
  • Its internal consistency
  • The consistency of its teaching with empirical reality

But ultimately, the only way we can move from probability to a glad certainty is from the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.

  • Because of sin, which blinds us to truth and hardens our hearts against it. Jn. 3:19-20; 2 Co. 4:1-3. This is not a simple matter of deciding between flavors of ice cream – for the Bible confronts our idolatries that we love so much and commands us to repent.
  • Because the best we can get from philosophical or historical arguments is a probabilistic case for the truth of God’s word.
  • God promises this and Scripture and the experience of two millennia of believers testify to it. 1 Jn. 2:20-27; Jn. 10:27.

This doesn’t mean that the above arguments are useless. God can, and does, use them to bring about our conversion. Nevertheless, ultimately our confidence rests in the witness of the Holy Spirit to the truth of God’s word, and he can, and does, many times brings about this conviction directly through his word.  (Story of the village in India with Carey’s Gospel of Matthew; Testimony of G. Campbell Morgan.)


Statement of the doctrine: the Bible is true in all that it teaches.

  • Proof 1: God does not lie: Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18; 2 Sam. 7:28
  • Proof 2: God’s word carries the character of God himself: Ps. 12:6; Prov. 30:5; Mt. 24:25; Mt. 5:17-19; Num. 23:19; Jn. 17:17

This is consistent with:

  • Use of ordinary language, like the sun rising and setting. 
  • Use of free quotes
  • Bad grammar

Challenges to inerrancy

  • The claim that inerrancy a poor term – an unbiblical term.  But we must sometimes use non-Biblical words to defend the statement of Biblical truth, since it is the meaning of the Biblical words themselves that are in question (like the debate around the Trinity).
  • The claim that inerrancy only applies to “matters of faith and practice” – but see Acts 24:14; Luke 24:25; Rom. 15:4.
  • Accommodation. But see 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21. Moral problem: we are to imitate God – is it okay to lie in order to make a larger point?
  • The claim that we are overemphasizing the divine aspect in inspiration of Scripture.
  • The claim that there are clear errors in the Bible
    • “The Bible is a hammer that has worn out many anvils.”
    • Voltaire and the Hittites; B.B. Warfield and Belshazzar and Nabonidus
    • Most apparent errors appear so because of a paucity of evidence and our lack of access to data from the ancient world. 
    • There are no alleged contradictions that have not been given a satisfactory solution.
  • No inerrant manuscripts: inerrancy applies to what was originally written. Thus Grudem’s definition: “the inerrancy of Scripture means that Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.”

Question: how can we have confidence that we possess the words of Scripture today? This is the question of the Preservation of God’s word, which we will take up next time.

Resources: Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (2nd edition); William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (1st edition), Chapter 1.

Help for Hurting People (Heb. 4:14-16)

Christianity is not just a philosophy. It is not something which merely addresses the intellect. It does that, of course, but this is not all it does. Nor is Christianity a self- help program, giving tips so that you can become a better you. Along these lines, it is not like Buddhism, which argues that the way to deal with the suffering which is endemic to this world is to make yourself become dead to it, ultimately by achieving Nirvana. Rather, Christianity addresses itself to hurting and wounded people, to those who are weary and heavy laden, as our Lord put it (Mt. 11:28). It addresses itself moreover to people who realize that there are things about their life that they cannot fix, especially when it comes to the brokenness in their lives that is the result of sin. And the gospel helps us to recognize that the main problem behind all this is not the horizontal problems that our sins have caused, but the vertical problem of our relationship with God. Sin has separated us from God, and from this comes all the misery caused by our revolt against the Lord.

In other words, Christianity says that we need help, and we need help from outside ourselves. But it goes beyond a recognition that I might need help here and there; it involves a recognition that there is no time in my life that I don’t need help. I am not self-sufficient. I am not the master of my fate or the captain of my soul. That kind of talk is crazy talk for delusional people whose perception of themselves and the world has become twisted out of all proportion to reality.

Now I’m not saying that such people can’t sometimes achieve a sort of success in this world. The Bible often speaks of the wicked who prosper in this world (cf. Ps. 73:3; 17:13-14). But their success does not go beyond the borders of the grave; they die in their sin (Jn. 8:24). Furthermore, the Bible recognizes what we often see ourselves – that with such earthly success comes a lot of collateral damage as they cause irreversible hurt to those around them in order to get ahead and achieve their own personal dreams.

On the other hand, a person who sees their own vulnerability is much more likely to be sensitive to the vulnerabilities of those around them, and instead of stomping on them to get ahead will be much more willing to give a helping hand. In other words, people who recognize that they are not self-sufficient are much more likely to be kind and gracious and loving. When we look around and see all the suspicion and discord and hate, we can readily see that we need more of this sort of person in the world.

This is the kind of person that is addressed in our text. This text is not for self-sufficient people. This is a text for people who find themselves in need of help beyond themselves. In fact, this is a text for people who realize that the kind of help that they need is not something that can be given by a mere mortal. Which means that this is a text which is for people who see things as they really are. We are people who need help, and we need help that comes from God. If you realize that, that is a good thing, and boy have I got good news for you.

Help for hurting people

Note where this text ends: “that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). Mercy is for hurting and miserable people. And we remember that this epistle was not written to folks who lives were just fantastic but who were enduring suffering and persecution. Life was not easy for them. They were hurting, they were wounded. They needed mercy, and this is what is offered to them in this verse. And they needed mercy that would come in the form of help. They didn’t just need a pat on the back, they needed support and strength and guidance and comfort and hope. Where would they get that? How would they get that? These verses are about help for hurting people, and how the Bible – God’s word – directs us to it. In them, we see that help comes from grace that we obtain by prayer which is made successful through our high priest, Jesus Christ, God’s Son. And it is all centered around God’s throne which through Jesus our Lord has become for us a throne, not of judgment, but of grace.

We need grace

Grace is something we can give to each other (cf. Eph. 4:29, but even here the grace is grace ministered through the believer but which finds its ultimate origin in God, not man), but in the Bible grace is almost always spoken of in connection to what God gives. In the Bible, grace is not a human gift but a divine gift. Grace is a gift – something freely given to us by God. As Paul puts it to the Romans, we are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). And when he says, “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32), the phrase “freely give” is a single verb in Greek which could also be translated “to give graciously” (charizomai – the verbal form of the noun charis, grace). Grace is anything freely given to us by God – which, by the way, is every good thing, beginning with our salvation in Christ. Everything good that we enjoy comes to us as a gift of grace, including mercy and help. This is why the text describes the help that we receive as “grace to help” and the source from which it comes as “the throne of grace.”

This is good news because we not only don’t deserve mercy and help but we actually deserve anything but. In reality, we deserve to be punished for our rebellion and sin against God. This explains why the good things that we receive are given to us by grace – grace because we don’t deserve them; grace because we don’t merit them and God gives them to us as a free gift.

This is important to remember for a couple of reasons. One reason is that when we forget that we need grace, out of pride we inevitably adopt an attitude of entitlement. We think we are owed the good things we have, whether they be material things, our relationships with family and friends, success in our endeavors, or even explicitly spiritual blessings. And that not only guts a heart of thanksgiving toward God, it also makes us resentful and bitter when things don’t go the way we think that they ought. Grace destroys that sinful sense of entitlement and engenders a heart of gratitude toward God and trust in God.

Second, it is important to remember this because we can also be crippled and paralyzed by a sense of our guilt, and think that there is no way we could ever hope to receive anything good from God. Prayer becomes almost impossible in this emotional atmosphere and despair begins to grip our hearts and minds. However, grace reminds us that God does not relate to us with a balance sheet in hand. He justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). He receives sinners. Why? Because God relates to the believing sinner by grace.

The greatest gift of grace is that of our Lord Jesus Christ, because it is in him that we receive everything else – this is in fact the very point of Romans 8:32. Chief among all these blessings is the forgiveness of sin and hope of eternal rest. We are saved by grace though faith (Eph. 2:8), and in the ages to come God will put on display the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:7). But we must remember that between the initial forgiveness of sin and our final victory over it in the new heavens and new earth, God continues to give us grace for help in our times of need.

What does grace do for weary and worn people?  Well, it gives us help.  First and foremost, it brings us into the family of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.  But we must not think that, having forgiven us all our sins, God leaves us to ourselves.  No, grace is something which gives us daily help.  

For example, God gives us grace to strengthen us in our infirmities. This is what the Lord told the apostle Paul who was struggling so much against his thorn in the flesh: “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor. 12:9-10). Here we see grace coming in the form of strength and power so that the weak and powerless are able to gladly bear with their infirmities. I think it is important, by the way, to point out that this grace and strength was with reference to a thorn in the flesh. In other words, we don’t just go to God for grace to help when the need is explicitly spiritual; we should also do so for physical and earthly trials. There is no problem that is beyond the scope of God’s grace for help and rescue.

Grace not only enables us to endure affliction with joy, it also strengthens us to serve others. In times of weakness we often turn inward. But grace turns us outward again. Thus the apostle Peter writes to saints who were also suffering: “As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God; if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth: that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion for ever and ever. Amen” (1 Pet. 4:10-11). God gives grace to us as stewards of his grace, not to monopolize it all for ourselves but to share it with others through the spiritual gifts which he has given to us.

You see both these things coming together in Acts 4:33 (grace to strengthen in times of weakness and grace to empower for ministry to others). The context of this verse is the prayer of the church after they had received the report of the apostles who had just been examined and threatened by the authorities not to preach the gospel anymore. The church then appealed to God for help; it was a great and stirring prayer (verses 24-30). One of the things they prayed for was that the Lord would “grant unto thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak thy word” (29). God answers almost immediately, and in verse 33 we see part of his answer: “And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.” This seems to link, if not equate, grace and power. God’s grace comes upon his church to give them power in their weakness so that they will boldly proclaim the gospel to the lost.

Not only does God give grace to help, but he gives it at exactly the right place and at exactly the right time. Notice how the grace is described: “grace to help in time of need.” Unfortunately, people can disappoint us at this point. They will promise us all sorts of help, but when it comes to crunch time, they are nowhere to be found. I’m probably guilty of this. But not so with God. He gives grace at our time of need. It is gracious help and it is timely help.

The bottom line is this: the help that is promised is help that comes from grace. That means two things. It is help that comes from God, because in the Bible grace is ultimately a gift of God. It is not just another helping hand that is promised here, but help that comes from heaven itself. Second, because this is help that comes from grace, it is not something we have to deserve in order to get it. It is a free gift. It is not waiting for you to pay for it or merit it; it is offered to us freely in Christ.  

Brothers and sisters, we all need help somewhere and in some way. And all of us need help that requires more than what another human can give to us: we need God’s help.  This may seem out of reach, but thank God, through grace he gives us help: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” “God is in the midst of her [the city of God]; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early” (Ps. 46:1, 5). This is a promise, my friend, you can bank on it.

The question is, of course, how do we bank on it? How do we take advantage of this precious, precious resource? And this brings us to our next point.

We obtain grace through prayer

Prayer brings us into the very presence of God. This is not something I’m making up: it is right here in the passage: “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace” (16). The throne here is God’s throne, for our high priest ministers now in the heavens (14). How do we come boldly unto God’s throne which is also the throne of grace? We do so by prayer.

There is an incredible picture of this in the book of Revelation. There we are given a glimpse of the goings on in heaven, in the very presence of God (8:2), and we see this: “And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand” (8:3-4, emphasis mine). What follows is God’s intervention upon earth (5, ff), apparently in response to the prayers of the saints which are pictured as incense before God. He hears the prayers of the saints and he acts upon them. They don’t just hit the ceilings of our homes and stay there; they come before the very presence of God. Through prayer we really do enter into the presence of God and stand before his throne of grace. Grace is gotten at God’s throne, and the way we get it is through prayer.

We can sometimes think that God doesn’t hear us, or that talking out our hurts won’t be heard by God. Surely he is too busy to be bothered by us. Surely he is too exalted to take notice of us. Surely our problems are too small or too unimportant to get his attention. But that is not what the text says. If you go to God’s throne, you will get mercy and find grace to help in time of need. I know that God will hear those who call upon him, when they do so through Christ, with humble and repentant hearts. I know he will because he commands us to pray and he promises to answer when we pray: “Call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee and thou shalt glorify me” (Ps. 50:15).

Our Lord himself reiterates this: “And whatever ye ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask anything in my name, I will do it” (Jn. 14:13-14). Now, yes, we should not take this as a blank check to ask things for the fulfillment of our lusts (cf. Jam. 4:3). It is when we pray according to God’s will, that he hears us (1 Jn. 5:14). But neither should we sell these verses short. God hears our prayers. The Son of God hears our prayers and he delights to answer them. It was our Lord himself who gave us the parable of the widow and the judge in Luke 18 for this purpose: “that men ought always to pray and not to faint” (Lk 18:1).

What should we pray about? Let’s let the apostle Paul answer that question: “Be careful [anxious] for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7). What should be bring to God in prayer? “Everything”!

Again and again, the Scriptures give us encouragement to pray, not as a duty to assuage our conscience, but as a privilege to enjoy as children of the Most High. Our Lord put it this way: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he seek a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?” (Mt. 7:7-11). What an encouragement to pray!

Thus, though we are so often hesitant to take advantage of this privilege to enter into God’s presence in order to obtain from him mercy and grace for help, we are not only encouraged to do so, but to do so “boldly” (16), with confidence. This confidence doesn’t come from us, for this is again a throne of grace. This is not about putting your game face on or pretending to be something that you are not. No, this entrance into God’s presence something which is given to us by the Spirit of God, who enables us to approach God as children would a father. That’s where the boldness comes in. A child of a king doesn’t worry about the fact that their father is a king; they come boldly in. This is what the apostle Paul is writing about to the Romans: “For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God” (Rom. 8:15-16). Indeed, for it is through Christ that we have access by one Spirit unto the Father (Eph. 2:18).

If you are still unsure that you can do this, let’s look at a couple of examples of folks who did find mercy and grace to help. Sometimes we think that God doesn’t hear us if we don’t have the right words. But, my friend, it is not the words that are important so much as the attitude with which we approach him. In fact, Paul himself admits that we don’t always know what to say, but that doesn’t really matter for the Spirit intercedes for us even in our groaning (Rom. 8:26-27).

Then take the example of the poor publican: “And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner” (Lk. 18:13). Note several things here. First, he stood “afar off,” probably because he didn’t think himself to be worthy of being in the presence of “religious” people. In fact, he does not refer to himself as “a sinner” but as “the sinner” (Gk. to harmartolo). Second, though it was normal in those times to look up when you prayed, he didn’t even feel worthy enough for that. He must have felt embarrassed even to show his face to God. Third, his prayer was very simple and short: it was a simple cry for mercy. Technically, he asks for God to be propitiated – “let thine anger be removed” would be another way to translate that (see Leon Morris, Luke [TNTC], (IVP, 1999), p. 290). He understood that he was a sinner who deserved, not mercy, but judgment. Nevertheless, what was the result? In comparison with the Pharisee, who thought he was doing God a favor by praying, our Lord comments, “I tell you, this man [the despised publican] went down to his house justified rather than the other [the proud Pharisee]: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Lk. 18:14). My friend, it is precisely those who do not feel worthy before God whose prayers are heard.

On the other hand, consider Elijah, as the apostle James tells us to do (Jm. 5:17-18). The fact is that, at the end of the day, Elijah was just another man. He needed grace and mercy too. So don’t cordon off his example as unapplicable to yourself: “Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.” Why does James say this? Because “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (5:16). He was like us, says James, and we should expect the same answers to prayer as did Elijah.

But how do we get this boldness? How can we say, with the hymn writer,

“Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ, my own.”

Well, that brings us to our final point.

We come boldly because of our great high priest, Jesus Christ.

There is no way any of this would be possible apart from Jesus Christ. You can pray and pray all day to God, but it is madness to think that we can approach God on our own terms and in our own way. You wouldn’t do that with the

President of the US, so why do you think that you can do that with God? God makes it clear in his word how we can approach him, and on what grounds we can have this boldness. Any other way of approaching God is presumption and you will meet with the same end as the sons of Aaron who presumed to go into the tabernacle with strange fire (see Lev. 10). He makes it clear right here in the text, in verses 14 and 15. Note that the point in both verses hinge on the fact that “we have a great high priest” (14). In verse 15, if you take away the double negative, you get the same thing: we have a great high priest.

The high priest was the mediator in the OT ritual between God’s people and God himself. He was the one who was allowed once a year to enter into the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement. The fact that our author describes Christ in this way shows us that he is the only one who can give us entrance into God’s presence, and that the way he does this is through his atoning death on the cross. Remember what has already been said: “Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17).

The Bible doesn’t sidestep the problem of sin. It doesn’t pretend away the evil that dwells in every one of our hearts. It doesn’t nourish the self-righteousness that turns even secular Americans into Pharisees who look down their noses at “those religious people.” The Bible doesn’t buy into the fairy tale we tell each other every day: that man is basically good and if you just throw enough money and kindness and information at people they will save themselves.

There are two things that are said here about our Lord that gives us the boldness to enter into the throne room of God. First, we are reminded of the transcendence of our Lord: “Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God” (14). He is not only a high priest, but he is a great high priest. The author of Hebrews will have much more to say on this point later, but the basic idea here is that Jesus is not messing around in some earthly tent or in some building made by hands: he is in heaven, bringing before God’s throne the infinite value of his atoning sacrifice once for all accomplished for his people. It is no accident that John saw Jesus pictured in heaven as “a Lamb as it had been slain” (Rev. 5:6). Moreover, the idea here is of a successful Savior. When the high priest emerged from the Holy of Holies, it was a sign that God had accepted the sacrifice. Even so, when Christ emerged from the tomb and ascended into heaven he demonstrated that the sacrifice had been accepted by the Father. Those who come to God by Christ will find God’s throne to be a throne of grace because those who do so are covered in the blood of the Lamb. Their sins have been atoned for and all their sins have been forgiven. There is therefore no reason why they cannot come before God’s throne and come with confidence that God will accept them.

The other thing that is said here about our Lord as high priest is that, even though he is in the heavens, he is able to sympathize with us: “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (15). Another reason one might have for a reluctance to enter before the throne of grace is that we might think that God is so unlike us that he just cannot understand what we are going through. But the Son of God is also the Son of David (cf. Rom. 1:3-4). He who is the eternal Son of God entered into an estate of humiliation by becoming a man. In doing so, he entered fully into our experience, with the sole exception of sin.  The result is that he is able to sympathize with us and be touched with the feelings of our infirmities.

One of the most beautiful pictures of this in the gospels is the story of our Lord’s encounter – apparently his first in his public ministry – with a leper. As you might know, lepers were separated from the rest of the community, they were not allowed to participate in public worship, and you weren’t even supposed to touch them. Here is Mark’s account of it: “And there came a leper to him, beseeching him, and kneeling down to him, and saying unto him, If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean” (Mk. 1:40). Now most people would have already made it home by this point; they would not have stayed around the moment they noticed this guy was a leper. But Jesus has stayed and listened to him. And then we have this amazing description of what happened next: “And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean” (41). Note two things here: first, he was moved with compassion – he didn’t just heal him because it was the right thing to do, he did so because he was genuinely touched with the feeling of this leper’s infirmities. Second, the way Jesus healed him is significant: he touched him. He didn’t have to do it that way. Clearly, he could simply have spoken and he would have been healed. But here he was putting his hand on this defiled leper – probably the first time anyone had touched him in years. Because Jesus can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, he reaches out to touch us with the hand of his mercy and grace. When everyone else forsakes us, then the Lord takes us up.

Where are you this morning? Do you feel overwhelmed? Do you feel like you need help but no one can give it to you, except God? But do you feel that God would never help you because you’ve sinned against him and deserve only his judgment? That is true, we do only deserve his judgment. But Jesus Christ came to be a high priest. He came to offer a sacrifice – his own life – not as a martyr, not as an example, but as an atonement to pay for the sins that we committed and to bring us to God. If you want to summarize in one phrase what our Lord did on the cross, this is it: “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). He came to bring us to God’s throne and to make it for us a throne of grace. If you need help that only God can give, this text is very good news. We can get help through the grace of God, grace which is obtained at the throne of grace through prayer, because Jesus our high priest has made atonement for sins by his death on the cross.

Which means that, even if your troubles have mounted into the heavens, the place to start is not by dealing with the troubles themselves but by believing on Christ and putting your trust in him. There is one command I haven’t dealt with yet: “let us hold fast our profession” (14). The profession, or confession, has as its content faith in Christ. Remember how the author put it back in chapter 3: “Consider the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus” (3:1). We hold fast our profession by holding on to Jesus by faith. Do you? This is where we start and if we start there, the rest of the text becomes a reality for us too. Thanks be unto God for his indescribable gift!

A Better High Priest (Heb. 5:1-10)

In Hebrews 5:1-10, our Lord is compared and contrasted with the Aaronic priesthood. In the first four verses, we have a description of this ...