Poor Dorothy – she wants to go home. A hurricane has lifted her up into the land of Oz, and only the Wizard of Oz can help her. She travels along the yellow brick road and picks up three friends, each of whom who is hoping the wizard will help them. They finally arrive to his capital, then timidly, even fearfully walk the long hallway into the entrance of the throne room. There before them in all of his terribleness is the frowning wizard, demanding to know what right they have to appear before him. He condescends to give them what they ask, but for a price – to bring to him the broomstick of the evil witch of the East. They have got to earn his favor, even if it means risking their lives.
Poor Dorothy; poor cowardly lion who jumped through a window so frightened he was by the wizard. But we know the truth – that the wizard was a fraud, no more than a mere man with nothing to give. And yet, what then can we expect, standing before the true holy God? We truly are unworthy. We stand before a truly almighty, all holy God and there is no brain, no heart, no courage to win his favor. How can we appear before him for help? Do we look to Jesus for help? Do we dare, when we know how we have failed him? He said his friends were those who obeyed his commands. Considering our track record, will he consider us his friends?
Let’s look at our text. The context is that believers are wavering in their faith (2:1; 3:19) leading to transgression or disobedience (2:2; 3:12-18). And so the author writes in 2:1-3:
Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. 2 For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?
Be careful of drifting from the faith. Don’t be disobedient. At the end of chapter 3, he gives the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness as an example of unbelief:
For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? 17 And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient?19 So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief (3:16-19).
There is that connection again between unbelief and disobedience. One leads to the other. Why are they wavering? They lack confidence in Christ – either that his work is not sufficient or that he begrudges interceding for them. Why do they lack confidence? It appears that the trials they are going through are making them waver. Maybe they didn’t realize what they were buying into. Maybe they were looking at their neighbors around them and see that their neighbors seemed to be doing fine. Maybe they engaged in sin and found out that it felt good. Whatever the reason, they waver, and their wavering leads to sin, which all the more leads to wavering.
And so the author solemnly warns them. Take heed; don’t be like the disobedient, unbelieving Israelites in the wilderness. Then the conclusion in 4:11-13:
Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. 12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
Those are sobering words. Don’t they make you squirm a little bit? Every thought, every intention of the heart are exposed to our judge. How now do you feel about appearing before him?
Verses 14-16 lay forth what our author wants us to know and do.
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.
He wants us to “hold fast our confession.” What does that mean? Our confession is our confession of the gospel. It is the confession by which we are saved – that Jesus is Lord (Rom 10:9); it is the confession of Christ’s incarnation, that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (1 John 4:2); that he is the Son of God (1 John 4:15); it is the confession of our hope that we have in Jesus Christ to return (Heb 10:23).
We are to “hold fast” to that confession. Grip it tight; do not let it go. Why are we not to let it go? This is the interesting, surprising thought process. The author has been warning of the dire consequences of unbelief and of disobedience. And we would think, especially after the comment that we stand before the judge to whom we must give account and who sees everything, that he would say something like, “strive to earn favor with God.” Strive to be better, to obey the commandments. He does say to strive, but to strive “to enter that rest.” What rest? The Sabbath rest of Jesus Christ by which one rests from his works (cf 14:9-11).
The dangerous sin of the believer is not resting in the work of his Savior. It is failing to believe that Jesus did the necessary work to save from sin. So the author spends most of his epistle explaining the priestly work of the Son of God, showing how it was fully effective in removing the guilt of sin.
“We have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God.” He passed through the heavens. The sacrifice he offered upon the cross was accepted; and so he rose from the grave; he ascended into heaven. Indeed, he has entered into the true heavenly temple, of which the earthly one is but a copy. He has entered into the holy of holies with his blood offering, and he has made full atonement for his people.
The covenant nation of Israel had a high priest who entered into the holy of holies once a year to make a similar atonement. But he had to first offer a sacrifice for his own sin; and then he had to make that offering year after year, because whatever he offered was never sufficient. But our high priest is the “great” high priest; the priest who needed no offering for himself, for he was perfect; the priest who needed to offer only one offering because it was sufficient for all of his people all of the time. His work of salvation was complete. Believe it; rest in it; look to no one else; look to nothing else; by all means do not look to our own righteousness or works.
But one might still object. “I know that I cannot earn favor with God by my works. I know that my only hope is in Jesus Christ. But what if he has given up on me? I have failed him again and again. He died on the cross for me, and what do I have to show for it? I sin; I sin the same sins. I disappoint myself with the sins I commit. Surely he must begrudge the sacrifice he made for me.
Now listen to the next sentence in verse 15:
15For 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 great high priest who is at God’s right hand in his throne room – that high priest “sympathizes with our weaknesses.” He has compassion for us because he understands us, and he understands us because he has been in the same circumstances as we.
What does he understand? What has he experienced that we have? He has been tempted. Yes, but temptation has no impact on him. Really? Look at 2:17-18:
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. 18 For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
Note verse 18: Christ “suffered when tempted.” He was hungry when tempted by Satan to make bread. He was a nobody when tempted to demonstrate his power to jump from the temple. He had the cross in front of him when tempted to go around it by worshiping Satan. We suffer from temptation precisely because the temptation proposes to meet the need we feel. But Christ’s sufferings went further. We give into temptation because the temptation itself burdens us too heavily. We give in simply to get rid of the burden of temptation. Christ never gave in. He fought against every temptation every day, never giving in, never removing temptation’s burden.
And he bore the sufferings that came precisely because he did not give into temptation. We give in to temptation to satisfy our cravings. We might feel guilty about eating or drinking or whatever it may be we indulge in, but we at least satisfied our thirst or hunger or other craving. He remained thirsty and hungry and unsatisfied. He suffered from the lack of what the temptation would have fulfilled.
But he was God! He could handle it! He was also man. He possessed the same flesh as we. He knew hunger; he knew thirst; he knew the same needs and urging that all human flesh feel. And though he was divine, he did not avail himself of his divine qualities and resources to overcome temptation. He did not call down his legion of angels. Rather, he learned to avail himself only of the same resources we have. Consider 5:7: “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.”
What did Jesus do when suffering through temptation? He prayed. Why was he answered? His reverence for God. He was not heard because of his special connection in the Godhead. He was heard because, however great the temptation may be, his desire and determination to please his heavenly Father was even greater.
Note verse 8: “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” How could the Son of God have to learn obedience? Had he been disobedient? He, of course, was never disobedient, but before he took on flesh and dwelled in glory, he did not undergo the continual assault of temptation that we do. By leaving his home in glory and by taking on our flesh, he then learned through experience what it is like in human flesh to obey his heavenly Father.
But let me take this all back to 4:15 to the main point for us. Because Jesus suffered in the flesh, he qualified to be our high priest precisely because he could then be sympathetic with us sinners. What good does it do us to have a high priest who is able to mediate between us and God, if the high priest does not care to do so? But Jesus does care. Chapter 5:2 says of the high priest: “He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness.” Our high priest was never beset with sin, but he did know what it was like to withstand the temptation to sin in weak flesh.
He was beset by temptation, “yet without sin.” He did learn obedience, so much so that he was “made perfect” as 5:9 states. He was made the perfect sacrifice that once and for all was sufficient “to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Again, he thus was able to pass through the heavens into the holy of holies to mediate our salvation before the holy God. As critical as it is to have a high priest who is sympathetic, it is even more important to have a high priest who heard by God. We have a sympathetic, effectual high priest.
And so verse 16 concludes:
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.
Listen to the author. He makes very clear that we are sinners, whose guilt is laid bare before our divine judge. Any effort to redeem ourselves, to make amends, to offer reparation is worthless. And yet, he bids us to draw near to God’s throne with confidence. Remember Queen Esther’s fear when her uncle Mordecai urges her to go before the throne of King Ahasuerus on behalf of her people? She could be put to death. What should we expect, sinners appearing before the throne of the holy God?
But we are bid to draw near with confidence knowing that the throne before which we appear is the throne of grace. This throne of grace is a reference to the mercy seat in the holy of holies. It was made of gold and placed over the ark of the covenant. On the seat were two gold cherubim who faced each other and their wings spread over the ark so as to form a throne for the King of kings. It was before that throne that the high priest would enter into the holy of holies with the blood of a sacrifice to make atonement for the sins of God’s people.
The author is saying that our great high priest has already entered and sprinkled his own blood on the mercy seat, and that blood was sufficient! Our great high priest atoned for our sins completely; he paid the full price. And he did it gladly! He did not, does not begrudge the work of our mediator. And so we are to come forth in confidence of the work that our Lord Jesus Christ has done. Jesus is true to his word.
So we are to come near “that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Mercy and grace is what we will find before the throne – not judgment, not rebuke. The mercy seat truly is the source of mercy because of the blood sprinkled upon it, the “precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:19).
The throne of grace truly does provide the grace that we need to help us in our time of need. Our King will give to us the resources we need to face our trials, to bear up under suffering, to wage the ongoing battle against temptation and sin. And he will give to us gladly because of the mediation made by his Son, our Brother, who is our High Priest.
I selected this passage for my last sermon because it is one that I turn to time and again when members of my flock have come for counsel. Suffering and giving in to sin take a toll on us. They wear down; they cause us to waver in our faith. Suffering leads us to wonder if God cares; sin leads us to wonder how God could care.
How many more times can we confess the same sin before God says enough? Maybe that is why we suffer? God is displeased with us. We’ve got Jesus, but how pleased can Jesus be with us? He died on the cross for us, and what do we have to show for it? We have failed him again and again. How could a true follower of Christ be such a sinner? Maybe he tried his best to save us but our hearts are too hard. Maybe he did go to the cross with joy for what we would become, but now that he sees how little progress we have made, how could he rejoice over us?
I know. Those have been my thoughts as well. Satan accuses me of my failures and unfortunately Satan is accurate. But here is where Satan is not accurate – when he claims that my High Priest either cannot or will not make atonement for me; when he claims that my Savior failed on the cross in regard to me, or that he no longer desires to intercede for me. It is then that I know Satan is true to who he is – a liar.
For me, for us, to fear that we will not receive mercy before God is to express not doubt in ourselves but in our Lord Jesus Christ. When I realized that, I learned to back off. However humble it may seem to say that I “hope” to be saved or that I “hope” God still approves of me, it is actually a statement of utmost arrogance. Am I prepared to say, “You did your best Jesus, but it wasn’t good enough? I am too tough of a case for you. I know you went to the cross for me, but my sins are too great for you; my hardened heart is too much for you to overcome.” I don’t have the nerve to go there. If God’s Word says that Jesus passed through the heavens and offered his own blood of the mercy seat, God’s throne; if God’s Word says that my Lord is sympathetic toward me because I am a sinner – who am I to doubt? And if God’s Word bids me to come with confidence – a confidence that is placed in Jesus to be true to his calling as High Priest – how can I disobey and not enter into the Sabbath rest of Jesus Christ?
No, with confidence I must now draw nigh. Before the throne my Surety stands. My name is written on his hands, as are yours who call upon him.
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