Back in the 90’s there was a popular song entitled, “What If God Was One of Us.” A question the song causes one to ask is whether God really does know what it is like to be human – to face the everyday ups and downs of life? Does he know what it is like to work late, to commute on a crowded bus, to do laundry and fix supper, to be tired, to be sick? Does he know what it is like to feel rushed during the Christmas season, to feel anxious about buying presents and getting them mailed on time, or not being able to buy presents because you don’t have a job, or what it’s like feeling alone because you haven’t been invited anywhere, or because your loved one is no longer with you? Does God know what it feels like?
Our text addresses that question.
Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
The writer of Hebrews has written powerfully of the work of Christ as the “founder of [our salvation], as he refers to it in verse 10. Through his suffering, specifically through suffering death, he won the victory over the devil and delivered his people. Read verses 14 and 15:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.
Jesus took on flesh and blood that he might suffer, and in that suffering, in his death, he won great victory for his people. I like how Rick Phillips says it in his commentary on these verses: “Jesus is the champion from heaven who has defeated our hellish foe by his victory on the cross.”
I think of C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Aslan, by submitting to death on the great table, breaks the spell of the Deep Magic, frees Edmund from the penalty of his sin and delivers all Narnia from its lifelong slavery to the White Witch. Our Lord won an even greater victory! What a great champion! To win that kind of victory – to conquer death by first submitting to death – the Son of God must take on flesh and blood.
There is another reason for taking on flesh and blood, indicated again in verse 10: “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.”
That phrase “make…perfect through suffering” seems odd. Couple it with a similar statement in 5:7-9:
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him…
Again, we have that phrase, “being made perfect.” What does it mean? It does not refer to his character. You and I do have our character improved by suffering. All of us can attest how suffering has made us better persons (though oddly enough, we do whatever we can to avoid it). But Jesus’ suffering perfected him to fulfill his role as Deliverer. His suffering resulted from his very obedience. By his obedience he fulfilled all that was required of righteousness. He endured suffering without sin; he persevered in suffering to attain his victory and thereby became the perfect Redeemer of his people. The sacrificial lamb on the cross was a righteous lamb, a lamb without blemish, and as such could make “propitiation for the sins of the people.”
We now come back to our text. That work of sacrifice – that is the work of the “high priest in the service of God.” There is the work of deliverance done “out there” on the battle field. But there is also the work of bringing before God a sacrifice to atone for our sins. An offering to God must be rendered, and it must be rendered by a priest acting on our behalf.
This is what a priest does. He acts on man’s behalf before God. He acts on behalf of sinful man. Indeed, that is why he is necessary. Man – any human being – ought to come into God’s presence to offer worship to him, to commune with him. That was the case with our first parents, Adam and Eve. God would visit with them in the Garden of Eden. They needed no one to come between them, nor did they need a sacrifice to offer. But the Fall took place. Man – both Adam and Eve – sinned, and sin has been with us ever since, as we all demonstrate.
But God is holy. He cannot abide with sin. And sinful flesh cannot come before him, not without some sacrificial offering to make propitiation for sin. What does propitiation mean? If you have a different translation from mine, you might read a different word in verse 17, such as reconciliation or atonement or expiation. Propitiation includes all those senses. Propitiation recognizes that sin separates man from God and that something must be done to bring about reconciliation, something that allows man to enter again into the presence of God and be received by God. Atonement needs to be made. Satisfaction, or reparation, must somehow be paid to God. The sin must be removed, and so expiation must occur – the removal of sin and its stain. When all this takes place – when sin is removed, and satisfaction is given to God, then God is reconciled, then God is propitiated. His just wrath against sin is appeased, and we are accepted before him as justified.
All of this is accomplished by the sacrificial offering… or sort of. The writer of Hebrews will make clear in chapter 10 that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Both the sacrifice and the priest are blemished and cannot effectually carry out their duty.
Then why the system and why has God not slain every priest entering into his temple? Because the system and the priest point to the High Priest who was to come and offer the perfect sacrifice, namely, himself. For a time, God was willing to pass over sin and to honor the imperfect sacrifices made by imperfect priests.
So let’s go back to the system to understand what our text is teaching us. It mentions specifically the High Priest and the “sins of the people.” There was an occasion in which the High Priest of the nation of Israel made propitiation for the sins of the people of Israel. It was the annual Day of Atonement. On that one day of the year, the High Priest entered into the Holy of Holies, the holiest portion of the temple separated from the rest of the temple by double curtains. In the Holy of Holies resided the Mercy Seat, a rectangular slab made of solid gold that contained the Ark of the Covenant, a box which contained the Ten Commandments. On the Mercy Seat stood two gold cherubim angels.
Again, once a year the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies alone with burning incense that created a cloud of smoke. He entered after having consecrated himself by offering a sacrifice for his own sins. He took with him the blood of an animal to offer before the Holy God as atonement for the sins of the people. He sprinkled that blood on the Mercy Seat with the intent to propitiate God’s just wrath against sin, so that he and his people would indeed receive mercy instead of judgment and thus live.
Now here is what our text is telling us. Jesus is the High Priest. He has entered into the Holy of Holies, the real Holy of Holies in heaven, and he has presented the truly effectual sacrifice – his own body with his own blood. And thus, he has truly propitiated the just wrath of God for all our sins. As 10:12 makes plain, “Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins.”
Let’s review for a moment. We have been contemplating the purpose for why the Son of God took on flesh and blood, i.e. the purpose of the incarnation. We have seen how his incarnation allowed him to do the work of conquering death through his own death and deliver his people from bondage. His incarnation also allowed for him to exercise obedience through his sufferings so that he was made the perfect sacrifice and priest who could then make propitiation for our sins.
There is a third reason that our verse gives us, one that, if we grasp it, will do much to comfort us. Look at the first half of the verse: “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God…”
The Son of God took on flesh and blood that he might become merciful and faithful as a high priest. Think back again to the role of the High Priest. Once a year he is going to risk his own life to make propitiation for the sins of the people. If ever there would be a time that he would be struck dead by God, it would likely be then – entering into the most holy place of all the earth, the place of the presence of God. If you were a Jew in those days, how do you want your High Priest to feel about you and your fellow citizens? Would you be troubled if he were to be irritated with you? Would you care if he felt disinterested toward you? Would you be concerned if, as the day drew near, he took less and less interest in his duties?
You certainly do not want a High Priest begrudgingly acting on your behalf before God. He is your lifeline to God. Perhaps then you do your best to encourage him. You do what you can not to be a burden. But, really, what are the chances of, year after year, millions of sinners keeping the priest happy in his work?
Our real hope is in having a merciful and faithful High Priest in the service of God. And what will make him merciful and faithful? It is being someone who is able, as 4:15 tells us, “to sympathize with our weaknesses.” It is being someone who has faced the same temptations as we have, who has suffered when tempted. It is being someone who is beset with the weaknesses that accompany flesh and bone. And so, on those days when he is ready to give up because of the irritations of a wayward people, he comes back to himself and mercy rises up in him as he reflects on his own weaknesses and the temptations that afflict him. And so he deals gently, as 5:2 notes, with the ignorant and wayward.
There is an interesting feature about the Day of Atonement concerning the dress of the High Priest. The normal attire for the High Priest, when carrying out his office, was very elaborate. He wore a robe of bright colors, interwoven with gold. There was a breastplate with precious stones and gold. He had a headdress also adorn with gold. But on the Day of Atonement, he wore only plain linen. The day that he enters into the Holy of Holies, he comes representing his people dressed as one of them, identified as one of them.
And so our High Priest dressed as one of us. Indeed, as our text states, he had to do it. He “had to be made like his brothers in every respect.” He had to be conceived and brought forth from a mother’s womb. He had to experience cold and heat. He had to grow from a helpless babe and pass through the stages of life that we all grow through. He had to know what it was like to be poor and to be oppressed. He had to know what it was like to have to learn how to read and to work with his hands. He had to know what it was like to be slighted and to be regarded as a fool. He had to know what it was like to lose loved ones and to experience the indignities of flesh that is exposed to sickness.
And more, our High Priest had to know what it was like to be tempted day in and day out. To be poor and tempted to covet. To be threatened and tempted to lie. To be tempted with lust. To be tempted to steal. To be hated and tempted to murder in his heart. To be ruled by sinful parents and sinful authorities and tempted to show dishonor. Foremost, he had to face in reality what we feared would come upon us – to have the Day of Atonement draw ever near when he would offer the ultimate sacrifice of his body on the cross, when he would receive that just wrath we so feared. And so the temptation was placed each day before him to worship another god, to do anything to avoid such a fate.
He had to be made like us in every respect – to feel the weakness of the flesh, to know the fears that haunted his brothers and sisters. Yet without ever giving in to sin. “But then he cannot identify with being a sinner,” we might say. True, but neither can we identify with always persevering. We cannot know the depth of his suffering. We sin to end the suffering. He bore it all.
And because he did, he proved himself a faithful High Priest. He never failed, never. He never gave in. He always did the will of his Father; he always delighted in doing the will of his Father. He was faithful to the end of his days on earth, and he remains faithful and merciful in heaven.
That is what the incarnation – taking on flesh and blood – assured. We know now that our High Priest is always merciful and faithful. Listen to these comforting words from 4:14-16:
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.
We have all felt at some time (maybe most of the time) that, while we know the work of salvation on our behalf was down out of love, and, yes, out of mercy, surely there had to be some reluctance on Jesus’ part. And we will even look to the incarnation for support. Surely he had to begrudge a little bit the humiliation of taking on flesh and surely the humiliation of suffering in the flesh. And if he had had some idealistic view of suffering for mankind while in heaven, when he experienced personally the ugliness of man, surely then he had to ask himself why he was enduring all this.
Well, evidently, it made him all the more merciful toward us and all the more faithful to carry out his purpose as High Priest. Evidently, he cared all the more for us and determined all the more to obey his Father. If ever the Son had not shared the Father’s burden for man (which is not true), if he was acting only out of obedience to his Father, then taking on flesh and blood won his sympathy for us.
Your High Priest made propitiation for your sins out of mercy for you, out of sympathy for you. And understand this, he still intercedes for you out of mercy.
“But I’ve failed him so many times.” He knows. But he also knows the suffering you go through to battle temptation. He knows how weak your flesh is and why it is so difficult to stay obedient. He knows the sorrows that have weakened your faith. He understands how the troubles of life undermine your faith. He knows how unrelenting Satan is in his attacks against you. He understands how strong are the lures of the world to give in to its way of life. And he remains faithful to act on your behalf as your High Priest. Because, remember, he was made like you in every respect. Your High Priest is your Brother. And he will always, always look on you with mercy.
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