“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14–16 ESV).
Even a cursory glance at the Psalms shows us that God wants to help his people. Time and time again, in their national prayer book, on inspired by God's Spirit, the people of Israel asked God for his help. "In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help" (Psalm 18:6). "O Lord my God, I cried to you for help" (Psalm 30:2). "Make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation" (Psalm 38:22). They knew they were in need of God's help, and God seemed happy to hear their cry.
God loves his children's dependence on him. Even when pushed hard in life, falling, the Lord helps us (Psalm 118:3). "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble" (Psalm 46:1). Help is what his people need, and help is what he gives.
In the passage before us -- Hebrews 4:14 -- we will ask two main questions. First, according to this passage, who is Jesus? We must think about him and his role in helping his people. Second, how should I respond? There is an application we as God's people must make. If Jesus is who this text says he is, there is a definite response required by God's people.
Who Is Jesus?
"...We have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God...We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin."
The passage tells us Jesus is our great high priest. Whatever image comes into your mind, it likely isn't the one the original readers had. For them, the priesthood was an active reality in Jerusalem's temple. They knew who the high priest was, along with his role in Israel. Additionally, they were conscious of his historic role in the nation, beginning with Aaron, the older brother of Moses and first high priest, all the way down to their modern era. They knew the high priest served as a mediator and representative between them and God, and that he was supposed to encourage the people and priests to complete their duties in the sacrificial system God had prescribed. It was this same sacrificial system many Hebrew Christians were flirting with, and the book of Hebrews tried to point them to Christ as the fulfillment of that system.
But the main thought these original readers would have regarding the high priest was his role on the annual Day of Atonement. On that day, after an elaborate religious procedure, he would go into the innermost room of the temple, called the Holy of Holies, to have a personal audience with God. He brought the blood from sin sacrifices for both himself and the people into God's presence with him. With trembling, he went in to seek God for mercy, for they were annually in need of it. Upon completion of the elaborate ceremonies of that day, God said, "You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins" (Leviticus 16:32). The high priest was a significant player and part of that tremendous and ominous day for Israel.
So when the author tells us Jesus is our great high priest, it is meant to conjure up a different image.
What Makes Him Great?
He passed through the heavens.
The first reason Jesus is our great high priest is that he has "passed through the heavens" or "gone into the very presence of God" (Good News Translation). When Israel's high priest went into the Holy of Holies, he was only going into a room emblematic of the heavenly reality, for it tells us later in Hebrews that the temple was only a "shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form" (Hebrews 10:1). In other words, the ark of the covenant inside the Holy of Holies was a mere representation of the heavenly reality, the true throne room of God. The top of the ark may have been called "the mercy seat," but God's true seat was in heaven, and Jesus ascended to his right hand after his resurrection. He passed through the heavens, where he is today "at the right hand of God...interceding for us" (Romans 8:34).
Because Christ ascended through the heavens, he has become the high priest who can take his people into the actual presence of God. Israel's high priest could only come once per year, but Jesus paves the way for active fellowship with God. He passed through the heavens, taking his people, the new humanity he's created, to the One "who dwells in unapproachable light" (1 Timothy 6:16). God's holiness set him apart from sinful humanity, but when Christ bestows his sinless perfection upon you, you have access to the living and holy God. He passed through the heavens and, if you believe in him, so will you. And so can you, today.
He is the Son of God.
The second reason Jesus is our great high priest is that he is "the Son of God." The high priests were descendants of Aaron, but Jesus did not come from his line. He wasn't even of the tribe of Levi, but Judah. Later, the author of Hebrews will declare him as priest according to a figure named Melchizedek, which is worthy of another article altogether, but here we learn Jesus is our great high priest not through any line, but because he's the Son of God. This makes him God the Son. So he is better than Aaron and he is divine. The access he has to the Father, the rightful claim he has to the Trinity, that he is God himself, makes Jesus special as our high priest. It was God himself, in Christ, who paved the way to himself for us.
The third reason Jesus is our great high priest is that he is able to "sympathize with our weaknesses." The way Hebrews says it is noteworthy, because it is written in the negative: "For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with us in our weaknesses." The point is clear -- Jesus can sympathize with us in our weakness -- but why is it stated in the negative? Well, one can imagine how hearing Jesus is our great high priest, located in heaven, the very Son of God, might cause his followers, even if impressed and awestruck, to feel he is distant from them.
Perhaps the writer felt an objection swelling from his audience: Hey, Jesus, as the Son of God, is too distant from us. With the temple and the high priest we have something we can relate to! We can't touch Jesus! We need something we can handle, feel, experience. We want to smell the burnt offerings and incense! We want to hear the songs of the people and prayers of the priests! We need something we can relate to!
In response, the author tells us that Jesus can indeed relate to his people. He can sympathize with us in our weaknesses. And we bring a truckload of weaknesses to the Lord. First, we have physical weaknesses, for our energy wanes and we do not serve him with the vigor and passion we intend. Second, we have moral weaknesses, for we often do that which we know is sin, don't do that we know to be good, or are confused as to which is which. Third, we have spiritual weaknesses, for though we are spiritual beings, even after being reborn by the Spirit, we often give in to the desires of the flesh. Fourth, we have mental weaknesses, for we do not retain all we've learned, struggle to add to our knowledge base, and are limited in what we can know in the first place. Fifth, we have personality weaknesses, for our moods and temperaments are not delightful and comfortable for every other person we interact with. Sixth, we have experience weaknesses, for our histories are filled with experiences which have negatively shaped us, or we've lacked experience and have not been shaped where we otherwise should have. In a thousand ways, we bring weakness to the Lord, yet he is able to sympathize with us in our weakness, meaning he still longs to sanctify and grow us past our weakness, but that he understands.
He can sympathize with our weakness.
But how can Jesus Christ, the Son of God who passed through the heavens, sympathize with our weaknesses? He was "in every respect tempted as we are, yet without sin," which means he is able to sympathize because he was tempted like we are. But how can this be?
Remember, Jesus was tempted to a greater degree than anyone else. When he was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit of God, he spent forty days fasting and praying to God, and during the entire time, he was tempted directly by the devil himself. The full force of the demonic realm concentrated on Jesus in a conspiratorial attempt at bringing him into imperfection. To get the Christ to sin, even only once, would hijack God's entire redemptive plan. So Jesus came under a weight of temptation so forceful there is no other human being who could claim to have been tempted as he was. Adam, satiated, sinless, and in a garden, failed, but Christ, emaciated, in a broken world, and in a wilderness, succeeded.
Additionally, consider that Jesus endured temptation to the bitter end. In other words, when we are tempted, eventually the temptation fades through our resistance or some change, like a distraction or change in location, or we give in to the temptation. Either way, we did not experience the full power of temptation. But Christ never gave in, so when temptation beckoned him throughout his life, he came under the total weight of its power. If temptation were measured with time, we might come under five seconds or five minutes of temptation, but Christ came under thirty-plus years of temptation. He endured through the full length of every temptation brought against him, always, again, with complete success.
But we should also consider what Jesus endured on the cross of Calvary. There, Paul writes, God "made him to be sin who knew no sin" (2 Corinthians 5:21). In other words, the perfect and sinless one was brought into our sin and rebellion. As Isaiah wrote, he bore our griefs and carried our sorrows. He was "stricken, smitten by God." He was "pierced for our transgressions...crushed for our iniquities." On the cross, Jesus took the punishment for our crimes, so it would not be unreasonable to imagine he was conscious of the crimes, somehow able to comprehend the immense evil in every human heart as he paid the price for our sin during those hours of darkness on the cross.
So Jesus sympathizes with humans. He was tempted in all points as we are, and it was a sinless temptation Jesus endured, so we rejoice that we have a God who is able to connect with us in our weakness. Our Lord knows our lusts and attractions, wrath and folly, selfishness and greed. He never gave in, but he can sympathize with us in our weakness.
We live in a harshly pharisaical world. If you do not say or think or write the right things, the Pharisees jump out from behind the bushes and condemn you. The vitriol is intense. Sympathy is hard to come by. But Jesus, seeing our temptations, knowing our sins, and wanting to rescue and mature us out of them, still sympathizes with us in our weaknesses.
How Should I Respond?
"...Let us hold fast our confession...Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Hold fast to your confession.
First, hold fast to your confession (v. 14). The gospel is worth holding onto, and these original Hebrew Christians were struggling with the idea of Jesus. They wanted to be 'normal' in the world they lived in, and rushing back to the sacrificial system would've done the trick. But their confession said Jesus was the One all those sacrifices pointed to in the first place, so they needed to hold fast to their confession. In our day the exhortation has a different emphasis, but is still poignant, for we must hold fast to our confession about Jesus Christ as well.
You must become willing to live as an exile, to b different from the world in which you dwell. The prophet Jeremiah told the ancient Israelites, carried off by God's discipline into foreign Babylon, to live as exiles in Babylon. They had to embrace the fact they would be different people living in a different world. They were required to hold fast to God in the midst of it all, and praying and fasting and seeking God from afar. Their life would be exilic, and our lives are much the same. Peter said, "Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul" (1 Peter 2:11). His is one of many invitations for modern Christians to dispense with the past life and recognize how different they will be from the cultures around them.
Draw near to God's throne of grace.
Second, we must draw near to God's throne of grace. The same throne which used to only speak of his sovereignty and judgment and holiness, now speaks, for the believer covered by the blood of Christ, of the grace of God. His favor is meted at his throne for his people. So we are to draw near to the throne of grace.
The attitude we are to have in coming to his throne of grace is that of confidence. We are to bravely, boldly, courageously, without fear, and with a joyful heart come into God's presence! We have great reverence for him, of course, and it is still true that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but the blood of Christ takes us past fear and reverence into bold confidence of his divine favor and grace towards us. Since we are in Christ, we are seen as coheirs with Jesus, his position is now ours. In him "we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him" (Ephesians 3:12).
This announcement and exhortation is a shocking one. The invitation to do what the high priest only did on the day of atonement, at all times, is revolutionary, but it is true. We have the real rights of the true high priest bestowed upon us. He passed through the heavens into God's throne room, and now, in prayer, so can we.
But why would we go to his throne of grace? What is the benefit to us as believers? Here, and he will expand on what this means in the coming chapters, he tells us it is for two reasons. We go to God's throne of grace, first to receive mercy, and, second, to find grace.
Mercy is needed for our failures. When the judgment of God is deserved, we need mercy. We will often stumble and live out this Christian life and mission with imperfection. The goal, of course, is to let Christlikeness unfold from our lives. He has made us into new creatures, and now he resides within us, so we are to display his mission, love, character, and sacrifice in our daily lives. But we often fall short of this ideal, for sanctification is slow and winding work. For our shortcomings, for the progress and failures, we need the mercy of God.
Grace is needed for our fruitfulness. Christ has given us a task -- we are to make disciples. We are to let Christlikeness form in us, and also work to bring about Christlikeness in our relationships, workplaces, and churches. We are to let him work in us, but also through us, and we desperately need his grace to get the job done. It is a mini-miracle when God uses our lives, and we need his strength, power, and gifting to used for his purposes, and all those needs are found in his grace. We need his favor for open doors, provision, and guidance -- this is all grace. We must have the grace of God in order to find fruitfulness.
When, though, do we need to go to God's throne to get this mercy and grace? He writes, "in time of need." Rejoice, oh believer, for in your times of greatest need you are invited to come into his presence, to pray and ask for his aid. Spiritually, invisibly, and by faith, you go into that throne room to speak with God. Though invisible to you, you are there in reality and truth, in the presence of the Lord during your time of need.
We are a people beset with weaknesses. Paul listed some of his: insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities (2 Corinthians 12:10). In the face of all these, he wrote, "Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me" (2 Corinthians 12:9). He heard Christ's voice, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:8). During his times of need, Paul went and got the mercy and grace required for his survival and fruitfulness.
What is it, particularly, we are meant to do? What does it mean to come to his throne of grace? How do we actually get there? The future chapters in Hebrews help answer the question, but prayer is a significant part of the answer. In various ways, we are to pray to God. To begin the day, yes. Throughout the day, yes. On the cusp of new endeavors, yes. Amid temptation, yes. At all times, we are to cry out to God.
How Is This Response Different From Other Religious Messages?
How does this throne differ from that of other religions? It seems like a typical idea: God is somewhere, ruling, and we must go to him to get his help. Does this not feel a little like we are the ones in pursuit of God? Like we are active, but he is passive? But the entire gospel should disabuse us of the idea that we are the initiators of this arrangement, for it is God who made a move, and continues to make moves, to unify himself to us. He pursues his people. He calls and chooses and runs after his bride.
So, in a word, the great difference amongst many differences is God's pursuit of man. He is the one who went first. He is the one who came to us. He is the one who, daily, beckons and calls and sings over his people. He loves his bride. He lovingly invites us to come into our relationship with him.