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,
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!