Monday, October 25, 2021

Christ died for those who obey him (Heb. 5:9)

Christ is better.  This is the argument of the letter to the Hebrews.  He is better than the angels (chapters 1-2), better than Moses (3), better than Joshua (4), and better than the Aaronic priesthood (5).  It was the failure of these Hebrew Christians to see this that made them vulnerable to the temptation to go back to a Christless Judaism.  But we too need to see this.  We need to see that Christ is better than all his competitors, better than anyone or anything that this world has to offer.  For it is only as we are convinced of the supremacy of Christ that we won’t fall prey to all the blingy-yet-bland contenders for our affections and loyalty.

In this fifth chapter, the author is making a case for the supremacy of Christ as high priest.  Here in Heb. 5:9, we see just how much greater Christ is than the Levitical priesthood.  The Levitical priests could never truly take away sins.  Not that they didn’t function in an important way, but their necessity was grounded in the fact that they pointed forward to our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, who did in fact by his sacrificial death on the cross take away sins.  And by taking away sins, he became the author, or the source, of eternal salvation. We need eternal salvation because there is such a thing as eternal death: “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal” (Mt. 25:46).  Those whose sins are not forgiven will descend into eternal punishment; those whose sins are forgiven will enter into life eternal.  This is what the Bible says.

His sacrifice moreover was perfect, as opposed to the imperfection of the Levitical sacrifices.  The sacrifice that our Lord offered was perfect because he was perfect: “and being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation.”  Again, we should not interpret this to mean overcoming moral imperfection.  The point is just that in order for our Lord to be our High Priest, he had to be equipped for it.  This meant becoming a man, the incarnation, and it meant suffering – especially the suffering of death.  But at the end, he was able to say: “It is finished!” (Jn. 19:30).  His suffering was complete, the sacrifice was finished, redemption had been accomplished and secured.  This is what it means that he was made perfect.  He was made perfect in that he fully and finally finished the work of redemption on the cross.

And it means that there isn’t anything that we need to add to it.  You don’t become saved, or enter into eternal life, by becoming perfect yourself or even by adding to the perfection of Christ.  Our salvation doesn’t depend upon our perfection but upon the perfection of our Lord, and we are told that he has already been made perfect.  And we see this in that he didn’t just made salvation possible, but became the author and the source of eternal salvation.  Salvation is not something that we need to complete; it is something which we receive entirely from Christ.

But this begs the question: for whom did Christ die?  To say that he died for me is really a claim that I am a recipient of the saving blessings of the cross, and thus to be saved.  But it is clear that not everyone is saved.  So who will receive the incomparable blessing of eternal life?  How do I become a beneficiary of the saving benefits of Christ’s death?

There are a number of ways to answer that question.  Our Lord himself put it this way, that he came to save those whom the Father had given him: “For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.  And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all that he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day” (Jn. 6:38-39).  Or, in another place, our Lord describes those for whom he died as his sheep: “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:11; cf. ver. 15-18).  Or the way the apostle Paul put it is that Christ gave his life for the church: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it” (Eph. 5:25).  For whom did Christ die?  The answer of the foregoing passages is that he died for the elect (those whom the Father gave to his Son to save), for his sheep, and for the church.

Now this is truly an innumerable host.  And this is, I think, one of the points of all the passages that say that Christ died for all, or for the world (cf. Jn. 3:16; 1 Tim. 2:4; 1 Jn. 2:2).  The apostles had to help especially the Jewish Christians in the early church understand that God’s gift of salvation was no longer primarily limited to the Jewish world, but that it encompassed the nations – the Gentiles.  He didn’t just die for this people group or that people group, but as the people of God sing to Christ in heaven, he “redeemed us to God, by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” (Rev. 5:9).  This is the “all” for whom Christ died.

Nevertheless, the blessings of Christ’s death do not encompass everyone, for not everyone is saved.  So that leads to a further question: what are some ways that describe to us who the elect are, or the sheep, or the church?  What characteristics do they have, and can I identify with them?

Now there are many ways we could work this out.  Our Lord himself in John 6 goes on to make it very clear that those whom he described as the ones whom the Father gave him are those who believe in his name (Jn 6:40, 47).  And this is an important characteristic: do you believe on Jesus Christ?  Do you believe he is the Son of God and Savior of the world (1 Jn. 4:14)?  Do you believe that God raised him from the dead?  Do you believe that forgiveness of sins is found only in him?  This is so important, since we are told that God’s righteousness is imputed to us “if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead; who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification” (Rom. 4:24-25).

But, as important as this description is, it is not the only way we can describe those for whom Christ died.  Our passage provides another very important description of those for whom Christ died.  It tells us that our Lord is the source of eternal salvation “unto all them that obey him.”  And this is what we want to consider this morning.  In particular, we want to ask the following question: why this description?  What we will see is that is serves as a warning for the drifting, as an encouragement for the discouraged, and as a boundary for the disciples.

A warning for the drifting

First and foremost, this serves as a warning for those who are drifting (Heb. 2:1).  This was the state of many in the audience to which the author of Hebrews was writing.  They were moving away from a willing submission to the Lordship of Christ over their lives and hearts.  They were moving from a lifestyle of obedience to a lifestyle of disobedience.  And those, by the way, were the only two options for the recipients of this letter.  They are the only two options for you and me.  You are either living in a posture of obedience to Christ or you are living in a posture of disobedience to Christ. 

Embedded in this description is obviously a warning to those who are disobedient.  In other words, the author is communicating the reality that if you are living in disobedience to God, you will not be saved eternally.  Otherwise, what is the point of the description?  If there are scads of people out there living in total neglect of the rightful claims of God and of Christ upon their lives, living and doing what they want to do and not living to please the Lord, then what is the point of this passage?  If Jesus is also the author of eternal life to many who displease and disobey him, then this is a pointless description.  

The point is that if you are not obeying God you cannot place yourself in the number of those who are saved by Christ.  That’s the message, plain and simple.  It’s a warning, but it’s a warning some of us need to hear.  It certainly was a warning that many in that audience needed to hear.

Now I know that there will be someone somewhere who will trot out the infants at this point.  Well, they will say, infants can’t obey Christ either, so aren’t you condemning all infants dying in infancy to hell?  And the answer is, no, of course not.  The fact that this is a warning for those who are not obeying, means that infants, who can’t obey or disobey, are neither included nor excluded by this description.  This passage simply doesn’t address the question of infants dying in infancy.  Though we have good reasons to believe that they will be saved, we can’t go to passages like Heb. 5:9 to adjudicate that question.  But we can say this with certainty on the basis of this text: if you are living in sin and out from under the authority of Christ, you cannot claim Christ as your Savior. 

This is another way of saying what has already been said: we belong to the family of Christ “if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end” (Heb. 3:6).  Or, “For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end” (3:14).  It means that if we neglect the great salvation in Christ, we can expect to receive judgment (2:2-3).  It means that if we harden our hearts, as Israel did in the wilderness, we will find God saying to us, as he did to them, that we will not enter into his rest (3:7-10; 4:11). 

This is also confirmed by many, many passages in the Bible.  Our Lord warned about this in the Sermon on the Mount.  Who will enter into everlasting rest but those who did the will of the Father? (Mt. 7:21-23).  The apostle John says that this is a sure sign of the new birth, of being made a new person by the work of God’s Spirit in the heart: “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin [i.e., does not make a practice of sinning]; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.  In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother” (1 Jn. 3:9-10).  Do you hear that?  He is saying that if you are born of God you will not make a practice of sinning.  Those who do not practice righteousness are not to be considered children of God. 

It is this error, the error of allowing sin so that grace may abound, that the apostle Paul is combatting in Romans 6.  His answer to it is this: “How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” (Rom. 6:2).  For him this is an utter impossibility.  He goes on to say, “What then, shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace?  God forbid.  Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?” (Rom. 6:15-16).  Sin leads to death, but those who belong to Christ will not serve sin. 

Now this does not mean that the Christian does not sin.  Each of the previous passages we referred to, such as Romans 6 and 1 John, are incompatible also with that idea.  We cannot expect perfection this side of glory.  We can never say that we have perfected the Beatitudes.  But every Christian is becoming the Beatitudes.  And if you are not on that trajectory, you need to do some serious introspection.

Does this do damage to the glories of God’s grace?  Does this make it less free?  No!  In fact, if anything, saying that Christ died for those who refuse to bow the knee to him until they are in heaven is a disparagement of the grace of God.  It is to say that God’s grace is neither able nor sufficient nor powerful enough to bring about the conversion and the sanctification and the perseverance of the elect.  This kind of argument has more affinities with Arminianism that it does with a firm grasp of the doctrines of grace.  To say that is to dishonor God’s grace, not to celebrate it. 

Nor does this disparage the freeness of God’s grace.  To say that the disobedient will not inherit eternal life does not logically or Biblically curtail the fact that salvation is free.  It is free; we don’t receive it because we earn it.  Our good works are only good because of God’s grace which precedes them and makes them possible.  But when God saves a man, he doesn’t leave him in the same state in which he found him.  No, he makes him a new man, a new creation, and the old passes and the new comes.  We have put off the old man and put on the new man, and that is a free gift of God’s grace.

There just is no reason to leave hope for those who cling to their rebellion to the end.  The Bible doesn’t teach it.  Grace doesn’t imply it.  The salvation that our Lord went to the cross to purchase goes in a different direction altogether.  He is not about leaving people in their sin, but he is all about rescuing them from it.  He is about delivering us “from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father” (Gal. 1:4).

An encouragement for the discouraged

But that is not the only way this passage functions.  It also functions to provide encouragement to those who are struggling and discouraged by the way.  For the reality is that “all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12).  This is what was happening to this house church in Rome.  The discouragement was beginning to tell and they were wearing down.  And that left them vulnerable and weak and open to the temptation to abandon the faith in order to get some relief from the constant pressure from identifying with Jesus.

How is this an encouragement?  It is an encouragement in the sense that our obedience to Christ is not only a reminder of whom we belong to, but also a reminder of the hope that they enjoy who belong to Jesus.  Whereas the disobedient cannot wring one drop of hope out of this verse, yet those whose faith is in Jesus and who remain faithful to him can abound in hope.  We cannot not only rest in hope and repose in hope, we can “rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:2).  Those who truly belong to Christ and who show they belong to Christ by a heart that clings to him in faith and faithfulness, can be assured that they will one day enter into the “eternal salvation.”

I am more and more convinced that to be fruitful Christians, we need to be happy Christians, and to be happy Christians, we need to be hopeful Christians, and to be hopeful Christians we must have our eyes fixed on the prize set before us.  You’re not going to continue laboring if you are not laboring towards the eternal rest which God’s people will certainly receive (Heb. 4:11).  Look, God has not promised us that our present trials will end this side of the grave.  As Elder Bradley reminded us a couple of weeks ago: it’s groaning now and glory later.  The more we hold onto that hope the more our sure hope in Christ will vanish from our sight.  Don’t get fixated on things God has not promised because in doing so you will lose sight of that which is guaranteed in Christ. 

Need I remind you that this is the way that Christians are consistently described in the NT?  “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ; who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Tit. 2:11-14).  What ought to characterize those who have received God’s grace is not a looking for of a best life now, but that blessed hope which will be realized with the appearing of our Lord when he comes again for the salvation of his church.  The Thessalonian believers were similarly described: “For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:9-10).

Now that doesn’t mean that God does not give us many good things of this earth.  All the health we enjoy, our possessions, the food we eat and the clothes we wear, are all good gifts from our heavenly Father and it is good and right that we thank him for them.  And, it is both good and right to ask our Father for relief from physical pain and sickness, or for a better job, or for food (didn’t our Lord teach us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread”?).  But never has God promised that we would be able to glide into heaven’s shores.  We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22).  We must; it is not optional.  Through much, not some, tribulation.  The road is narrow and hard that leads to life.  It’s the reason there are not many people on it.

Moreover, he has promised to give grace and his presence and his blessing, and we should thank him for this and expect it.  But we cannot expect to be rid of the sufferings of this life until we enter into the Promised Land.  But can we not see that, upon entering that blessed abode, it will have been worth it?  Will we ever look back and say we would have wished we had not chosen to obey God?  Will any of the trials of this life dull the incomparable thrill the child of God will experience when they hear those words, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord”? (cf. Mt. 25:21).

That does not mean we have to wait until we die to begin enjoying that hope, however.  For the Bible speaks of the firstfruits of the Spirit (Rom. 8:23) and of the earnest of our inheritance (Eph. 1:14).  In other words, the eternal salvation which was purchased by Christ and is given to us through the Spirit begins to dawn on the believer even this side of heaven.  We don’t receive it in full, of course, but we do begin to enjoy the first fruits.  We are allowed foretastes of glory.  And why shouldn’t we? for the Spirit who will raise us up from the dead and usher us into the new heavens and new earth is the same Spirit who even now indwells the believer.  There is, in other words, an unbreakable cord that unites the child of God on earth to what we will be in glory.

But this is not a promise for just anyone who takes up the name of Christ.  This is for those who obey God.  This is not for the sunshine soldiers who leave the battlefield when the going gets tough; this is for the persevering patriot who by the help of God’s Spirit and grace weathers the battle and fights to the end.  And it is comfort for them.  Hold on and hold fast!  Remember the promise; remember what that promise is, and don’t give up!

A boundary for the disciples

This is not only a warning for the drifting, and an encouragement for the discouraged, it also functions as a boundary around the disciples.  In other words, we should not only hear this as a word to the individual who professes faith in Christ; this is a word to the church.  Remember that one of the descriptions of those for whom Christ died is the church.  What is the church?  It is the community of those who have been called out of the world to obey God, who love Christ, and who keep his commandments.  The church is the community of Christian people.  But this implies that those who make up the church are following Jesus.  And this means obedience to God, for isn’t this what characterized our Lord?  “Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered” (8). 

This is what our Lord himself said: “He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.  If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will my Father honor” (Jn. 12:2-26).  How do you serve Christ?  You follow him.  How do you follow him?  You die to yourself and stop prioritizing the things of this world over the things of the world to come.

You do not belong to the church if you are not willing to take up your cross and follow him.  Of course, it goes the other way too: if you are willing to put your trust in Jesus, and to submit to him as Lord and Savior, then you need to be publicly confess Christ and be baptized and you need to join yourself to his church.  This is the pattern of the NT church: “Then they that gladly received his [the apostle Peter’s] word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41).  To gladly receive God’s word in faith and repentance as they did is conversion.  What do you do then?  You receive baptism.  And you join yourself to the church.  That’s the pattern.

Now when we say that this is a boundary for the disciples, this doesn’t mean that if you slip up or mess up you are out.  The church is a hospital for those who are getting well; not a gymnasium for the saints to show off their spiritual muscles.  We are here to bear each other’s burdens.  We are here to encourage each other when we’re down and to exhort one another when we’re out of the way.  However, the point is this: if you discharge yourself from this hospital and refuse the treatment dispensed through the ministry of God’s word, well then, you should not be a part of the church.  Christ died for those who obey him and if you will not obey him then you need not take his name.

This reminds me of a story I heard somewhere (I don’t remember the source) about Alexander the Great, the famous military leader who single-handedly conquered the Persian Empire and Made Greece Great Again.  During one battle he noticed a soldier running from the fray; he accosted him and demanded to know his name.  To which the soldier replied: “My name is Alexander.”  The great general looked at him with all seriousness and told him, “Soldier, either change your ways, or change your name.”  My dear friend, do you claim the name of Christ and yet do not walk in his ways?  Then either change your ways or change your name!

So this morning, if you are drifting away, I hope you hear this warning and repent.  If you are discouraged, hear this as an encouragement and let your hope be renewed.  And as the church, let us be committed to remaining a faithful witness in this world for what it means to follow Christ.

As we close, let’s remind ourselves once more about what is promised here: “eternal salvation.”  In our secular world, there are many who say this is just impossible, that this life is all there is to it.  No hope.  Nevertheless, even in this post-modern age, religion hasn’t gone away, and more and more people are submitting to a new kind of pagan spirituality.  I see it in some of my friends.  They too long for eternal salvation of some sort.  But on what basis?  On the basis of some guru?  On the basis that you believe you will be good enough?  On the basis of what you think it will be like on the other side?  What flimsy grounds for hope!  My friend, Christ is the only one upon whom we can confidently put our trust.  “He that believes in him will never be put to shame” (cf. Rom. 10:12).  He is the only one who can guarantee not just life but eternal life, life abundant and overflowing.  For he is the perfect sacrifice, and we know that God accepted his atonement because he raised him from the dead.  Don’t bank eternity on anyone or anything else: Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father through him – and all who come to him will never be cast away (Jn. 14:6; 6:37).


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.

The Seals of the Scroll (Rev. 6)

Most of us have experienced disillusionment as the result of false promises of help. Perhaps this is one reason why the whole Charlie Brown ...