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Sermons » 13/05/2012 (9.30am / 11.15am)
Jesus Our High Priest
- Hebrews 4
A sermon preached by David Holloway
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In our series of studies in the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, we have reached chapter 4 verse 14 and we will be looking at 4v14-5v10. And after some words of introduction my headings are, first, BACKGROUND; secondly, JESUS OUR HIGH PRIEST; and, thirdly, OUR RESPONSE.
We left off last Sunday with the reminder that God’s word is all discerning and as verse 13 says:
Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Heb. 4v13)
So all masks are off before God. But if Hebrews aims to be a letter of encouragement for hard pressed Christians being opposed and persecuted for their faith (which it is), that is hardly good news.
It is not good news to be told that God can see all your sin and weaknesses and inadequacies and failures. Facing the reality about yourself can be very depressing. That is why so many try to avoid it and shut their ears to God’s analysis.
But that is foolishness in the extreme. For the gospel – the good news about Jesus – is about the reality of God but then also about his resources available for forgiveness and to help make good your failures. And that vital part of the gospel is here in the last verses of chapter 4 and the first verses of chapter 5 where the writer writes of the “priesthood”. But you say, “that sounds a bit dull and obscure.” Maybe! However, understood, it is profoundly encouraging.
So first, some BACKGROUND
Each New Testament writer has his own special way of bringing out important aspects of the person and work of Jesus Christ. And unique to the writer to the Hebrews is his teaching on Jesus as our “great” high priest; and this does strengthen and encourage you. His readers so needed that strengthening and building up. They were under considerable pressure and in danger of drifting away from Jesus Christ. They were being opposed for their faith and some, undoubtedly, lived in fear for their lives.
Are you being opposed in any way for your faith? If so, there is much to learn from this passage. But you need to know something about “priesthood”.
In the ancient world priesthood was accepted as a necessary part of life. Everywhere men and women took it for granted that you couldn’t approach the gods. They were too holy. So you needed the priest to help you relate to your god.
With the value of hindsight, we can now see that this was, and is, a pointer to the truth of Paul’s teaching in the letter to the Romans. There he says that everyone has some idea of God, however confused or misconceived. He says people deduce from the created order something of God’s greatness and deity or, as he puts it, “his eternal power and divine nature” (Rom 1v20). But then, he tells us, some tried (and try) to give shape to their misconceptions and make their own gods. So they “worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator”.
And such distortions of the truth give rise, says Paul, to immorality even though people know something of God’s moral law.
The point, however, is this. All have some awareness of God’s power and holiness but it can be distorted and then suppressed. It happened in the ancient world. And it happens today through a progressively decadent media, value free education and laws [or the proposing of laws] privileging immorality. So the power and righteous deity of God has become a quite foreign concept to so many. And to many today the ancient reactions of people who believed in the true God, that you read about in the Old Testament, seem so bizarre.
I’ve just had to dispose of an old flakey chunk of asbestos. The precautions you have to take in packaging asbestos for removal by the local authority are so strict.
That is because without due care asbestos can be a killer. Multiply that to the nth degree in terms of danger and that is something of how ancient people considered the holiness of God or his otherness or separateness (which is what “holiness” means). And for the ancient Jews that “otherness” was marked by God’s moral or righteous character.
So the writer to the Hebrews following the Old Testament, describes God as “a consuming fire”. For such is God’s hostility to human sin. That is because sin – ignoring God and his word – has produced (and produces) suffering for billions. So Hebrews chapter 12 verse 28 says, “be thankful” for God’s goodness, but …
“… worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb. 12v28)
And the priesthood in the Jewish ancient world, through offerings and sacrifices of various sorts, aimed to help people worship God acceptably. Chapter 5 verse 1 says that the priest, especially the high-priest …
… is appointed to represent [people] in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. (Heb. 5v1)
True, there were bad priests as well as good ones. But the letter to the Hebrews celebrates the fact that there is now a “perfect” priest, who has made it absolutely safe to approach God. Chapter 5 verses 8-10, referring to Jesus, say:
Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek. (Heb. 5v8-10)
Well, that is something of the background to the concept of “priesthood”. And you must keep it in mind as you try to understand the essence of this remarkable section of the letter to the Hebrews.
So secondly, let’s consider JESUS OUR HIGH PRIEST
You are told right away that Jesus is, verse 14, a truly “great high priest”. He is not any old high priest, but a great high priest. And his priesthood is superior to any other priesthood for four reasons.
First, verse 14, he is
A great high priest who has gone through the heavens. (Heb. 4v14)
This is key. In chapter 1 verse 3 of Hebrews you are introduced to Christ as the one who,
... after he had provided purification for sins, … sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. (Heb. 1v3)
And that is paralleled with a statement in chapter 10v12 that …
“… when this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.” (Heb. 10v12)
His sacrifice of himself on the Cross was fundamental to his mission and priesthood for us and for our salvation. That offering for all time, in our place, of himself was the one perfect sacrifice for sins. So it is where, from your side, you start the Christian life.
An old children’s chorus puts it so well: “At Calvary’s cross is where you begin when you come as a sinner to Jesus.” It means you can be forgiven and be right with God and worship him acceptably. If there is anyone here who has never yet trusted Christ for forgiveness? Why not do that this morning? But you need to realise that Christ’s is an empty cross. You must realise that there is more than the cross and where you begin.
For Christ is now seated “at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven” – “at the right hand of God”. This is a truth God’s people need to remind themselves of regularly. Especially when things are not going well, you need to remember that Jesus Christ is now at the throne of the universe. And one day everyone will have to acknowledge that fact. This is the message of the Ascension of Jesus that we celebrate this week. And don’t get hung up, as some do, on the mechanics of the Ascension.
The Ascension was the last of the series of Resurrection appearances of Jesus to the Apostles. It seems to have been an event not unlike that on the Mount of Transfiguration where a cloud also enveloped Jesus. But the glorious truth of the Ascension is that Christ is now seated at God’s right hand. Of course, this is metaphorical language. It is using human language to describe a reality that is beyond our finite comprehension. Nor are modern people unique in realising that. Augustine in the fourth century AD, when writing of Christ’s sitting at God's right hand, said:
“The expression indicates not a posture of the members, but judicial power, which the majesty never fails to possess.”
But that is for real! So we can say, and have just said, in the Creed,
“[Jesus] ascended into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.”
Do you think that this world is out of control, or that your world is? It isn’t. That is the wonderful truth of the Ascension and the Session (as this “sitting” of Jesus is called). He is Lord and in control. That is hard reality. So every apparent difficulty in your circumstances occurs, or happens, only with his permission. And somehow it is for your good (at least long term), if only you will trust him.
Who needs to be reminded this morning of the truth that Christ is our great high priest because he is risen and ascended and at his Father’s right hand?
The second reason why Jesus Christ’s priesthood is superior to all others and is truly great is because it is the priesthood (verse 14) of “Jesus the Son of God.”
Some critics say you don’t get the developed doctrine of the Trinity and the incarnation in the New Testament – that God is one God in three persons and Jesus is both God and man. It is all made up later. But that is not true. For the later developed doctrine is simply stating in more detail what is in the New Testament by implication and in outline. Here, for example, you have Jesus, for the first time in the epistle, described as “the Son of God”. But then in chapter 5 verse 8 you read:
“Although he was a Son [note the word ‘although’ – that is to say you wouldn’t expect what follows to be true of a divine Son … although he was a Son] he learned obedience from what he suffered [the divine Son suffered as a human man]” (Heb. 5v8)
This is all of a piece with chapter 1 where we read that God who spoke in ages past is now speaking through his Son, who, we are told, was the agent in creation and even now the upholder of it. But verse 3 of chapter 1 says:
“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory [a phrase ensuring his community of nature with his Father] and the exact representation of God’s being [a phrase ensuring the distinctness of his person].” (Heb. 1v3)
So Christ’s priesthood is superior to all other priesthoods because it is the priesthood of Jesus the Son of God, the incarnate Lord (God come in the flesh).
Thirdly it is superior because Jesus Christ is “not … unable [and so able] to sympathize with our weaknesses,” (v 15).
You might think that because Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the incarnate Lord, and now in control of the universe, he is distanced from your situation. But no! He can sympathise with your weaknesses. Is there some big problem in your life – some temptation or some other form of trial? Well, Jesus Christ totally understands. And what is the reason? Answer: he is (v 15) …
… One who has been tempted in every way, just as we are - yet was without sin. (Heb. 4v15)
Being “tempted in every way” means he knows about all the different types of temptation and trial. So he knows about your temptations and trials. Each type of temptation and each type of testing situation Jesus went through. And it was worse for him, because he didn’t give in to temptation. Jesus sympathy for sinners does not come from his experience of sin. It comes from him alone knowing more than any one else the strength of temptations or trials. Only a sinless person, so only Jesus, can know their full intensity. Other people give in before then – often much earlier. Those cynical words of Oscar Wilde prove the point: “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.”
So Jesus Christ totally understands and is able “to sympathise with our weaknesses”. This is another reason why he is our great high priest.
And the fourth reason is that he “was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek” (5v10).
More will be said about Melchizedek (a word meaning “king of righteousness”) later in Hebrews chapter 7. For the moment it is enough to know that Melchizedek was a strange figure in the Old Testament who was both a priest and a king.
Also here we need to note that Jesus Christ is certainly a “valid” High Priest of that order of Melchizedek. Like Aaron and the Jewish High Priests Jesus is not self-appointed but (chapter 5v4), was “called by God” and verse 10, “designated by God”. And chapter 5 verse 7 says he proved his submission and obedience in the Garden of Gethsemane.
So he is not some self-appointed cult leader like Pastor Moon (of the “Moonies”) and seeking honour for himself. His is a valid, not a spurious, high priesthood. But his greatness is that, like Melchizedek, he is a genuine priest and a king.
So that brings us finally to OUR RESPONSE
What should it be? It should be twofold. Look back to chapter 4 verse14 and the last part of the verse:
Since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. (Heb. 4v14)
When you find life hard you can so easily be tempted to drift spiritually, then compromise with the world, and then give up altogether. This was the danger for the first recipients of this letter. But the writer to the Hebrews says, “don’t drift but hold on!” True - holding firmly to Jesus Christ and the faith you profess will not always be easy. But because Jesus is the great high priest – far above all – and the Son of God, how important it is that you do hold on. For he is the truth. In him is where true reality is seen and begins. And believing and obeying him (or not) has consequences for now and eternity.
But note, this is not just a call to endure with gritted truth. The word “profess” suggests “open witness”. So the writer is saying, “don’t let circumstances destroy your faith; instead, go on the front foot and advertise your faith.” As one commentator puts it: “Hold it fast and hold it forth.” Attack, in this case peaceful attack, is always the best form of defence.
But perhaps you are saying, I’d love to do that, but I am simply not strong enough spiritually or mentally. Well, that relates to the second aspect of our response. For in the light of our having a sympathetic great high priest you read in chapter 4 verse 16 these words:
Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Heb. 4v16)
We are to do this because it is hard holding firmly to the faith we profess. But you have great resources in the mercy and grace of God. And you don’t need to fear, because your great high priest understands all your doubts and hesitations. So you can freely ask for God’s mercy for your failures and for his help and “grace … in … time of need” and for his Holy Spirit to strengthen you.
That means prayer. But (isn’t it true) prayer is so often the last thing we do in many difficult situations. Yet it is quite amazing what happens when people pray. And you need to pray individually and corporately.
How we need to pray for the Jubilee invitation services and party and Clayton Academy and our Gift Week and so many other things that provide opportunities but are fraught with difficulties. However, you are not to “approach the throne of grace” any old how. You are to approach it “with confidence.” Yes, because our God is a holy God who is a consuming fire there should be a sense of awe. But because our “great” high priest has opened a way for us to approach him, it should not be a paralysing sense of awe. Remember, Jesus said, “when you pray say ‘Father’.”
I must conclude. I do so with two observations.
First, Psalm 110 verse 1 says:The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’ (Psalm 110v1)
But that is the most quoted Old Testament verse in the New Testament. So how important, therefore, this truth (now a reality) must be.
Secondly,, Christ’s high priesthood not only encourages our praying, Hebrews 7v25 says the risen and reigning Jesus “always lives to intercede for his people”.
So if you trust him, be assured that he is now praying for all his people, including you.
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