Hebrews 4:12-16 – Jesus Is Our Great High Priest

Jesus, the Eternal High Priest, by Joan Cole

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 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.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (New International Version)

Church Persecution and Christian Suffering

The book of Hebrews was originally a sermon preached to a group of believers who had come to Christ out of Judaism. From the book of Acts, we know there were thousands of Jewish Christians who were dispersed from Jerusalem when Stephen was martyred.  A great persecution broke out, and many believers fled west to places like Galatia, Ephesus, Greece and Rome. 

The Jewish believers were immigrants in a foreign land, looking to practice their faith without harm. Yet, their experience was anything but ideal. These followers of Christ found fellow ethnic Jews in the places where they went, yet those Jews had no use for these people that they believed were in some sort of aberrant cult.

What is more, the surrounding Gentile culture did not understand Christianity, at all, and many of those who held to pagan religions bought into rumors, such as, that Christians were cannibals who ate at what’s called the Lord’s Table.

So, here we have a situation where these displaced Christians had no respect from both Jews and Gentiles. As a result, they had a difficult time carrying out business because no one trusted them. They were essentially alone in the world. 

Losing Their Grip

Initially, they embraced their identity as Christians and held up quite well under the stress. However, over time, their resolve began to slowly erode. The followers of Jesus began to question their adverse situation. 

They began listening to their fellow Jews throw doubts on their faith. The hard life was not improving, maybe even becoming worse.  Eventually, the church came to a point where they began re-considering their whole way of life as Christians, and their faith commitment started slipping. The Christians actually considered leaving the Church and Christianity and going back to their old life in Judaism.

The Message of Hebrews

It was at this point that a vigorous believer in Jesus came to town, saw the situation of the church, and preached a spirited message to them. The preacher called them to hold tight to their commitment – to see Jesus afresh and anew as superior over all the Old Testament, as the fulfillment of all the promises of God. 

So, then, throughout the book of Hebrews we have this wonderful explanation and exposition of how to make sense of Jesus and the Old Testament, and of what Jesus really means to the church. Throughout his sermon, the preacher occasionally paused his teaching and gave the people a stiff warning about falling away from Christ. He called the church to be bold and confident in Christ, to stand up to the suffering, and to confront their temptations so that they would persevere in their commitment to Jesus Christ for the rest of their lives.

God’s Word and Work

We pick up the teaching and the exhortation in chapter four. Hebrews 4:12-16 is composed of two distinct sections that are paired together for a reason.  Verses 12-13 give us a graphic visual of the penetrating work of God’s Word, of the reality that God can get deep inside us. The next section, verses 14-16, lays out God’s response to our being under divine scrutiny – that there is grace and mercy available because of Jesus, our great high priest who is superior to every priest of the Old Testament to the point of being the last and permanent priest forever! 

These verses are bound together because we all need to struggle with the tension between God’s Word to us, and our words to God; between God’s judgment that opens our souls on a spiritual operating table, and God’s grace which jumpstarts our broken hearts. Our most fundamental need is for God’s mercy in Jesus Christ.

The Christian Life

It is important that our outer lives and our inner lives match each other. Whenever the two are out of sync, we come under the judgment of God’s Word. These early Hebrew Christians had slowly drifted from the truth so that their inner and outer lives did not line up well.

Some of them still performed the outward duties of being a Christian yet were inwardly despising their hard situation. A growing vacuum developed on their insides as they slowly started letting go of Jesus as their object of devotion. Their hearts began to harden because of their hard lives. 

On the other hand, there were other Hebrew Christians who began drifting in a different way. Inwardly, they tried to maintain their devotion and commitment to Christ. Yet these believers began compromising their outward life to match the culture around them. In both cases of hardening inwardly, and of compromising outwardly, they each shared the situation of drifting away from their original commitment to Christ.

Even today, it is a real temptation to try and avoid suffering, to grow weary of our present circumstances and look for a way to get out from under the pain and find a quick fix.  Whenever we find ourselves in such a situation, the remedy is to be reminded that we must continue to hold firmly to the faith we profess because of who Jesus is.

15th Century Orthodox icon of Christ the Great High Priest

Jesus As Permanent High Priest

Jesus is our great high priest. In the Old Testament, among the twelve tribes of the ancient Israelites, the tribe of Levi made up the class of priests. One of those Levites, always a descendent of the original Levite priest, Aaron, had the task of once a year entering a place called the Holy of Holies, which was at the center of the Temple, to offer a bloody sacrifice on behalf of the people, to atone for their sins from the previous year.

Jesus is our great and ultimate high priest. He did not enter the temporary sacrificial system to deal with sins for only a year. Jesus not only took on the role of high priest, but became the sacrifice, as well. As a result, we now have a thorough and permanent forgiveness of sins through Christ. So, the Hebrew Christian who considered going back to an old outdated system needed to be brought back to his senses and embrace again the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus. 

As they considered Jesus, the believers needed to remember that Christ was not so far removed from them that the church could not relate to Jesus. Rather, Jesus is able to sympathize with each and every trouble, trial, and temptation we face because he faced the very same kind of sufferings. 

The only difference between Christ and his followers is that Jesus did not succumb to the trouble, but persevered and secured for us deliverance from sin, death, and hell. Jesus is the One who deserves every bit of our commitment, allegiance, and devotion. Christ is the One whom we are to worship inside and out.

Approaching God with Boldness

Let us then approach Jesus with confidence, with boldness, knowing that with him there is mercy and grace. Jesus not only suffered for us in the past; he also suffers with us now, in the present. We, as believers, are in union with Jesus. Christ is our great high priest, the One intimately involved in every nook and cranny of our lives. He knows what you and I are going through and is ready to give grace to help right now. 

Approaching Jesus has nothing to do with being good enough to do so. Coming to Jesus is about grace. Whenever we drift from Jesus and are confronted with God’s Word cutting us to the heart, the end result is not wrath or judgment; the result is mercy and grace.

Like the early Hebrew Christians, we all face situations out of our control that wear us down and cause us to become weary. In our tired state, we can be tempted to let our commitment to Christ slide in some small way. Over time, the small compromises of faith can snowball into a big slide away from God. 

Yet, Jesus is not sitting in heaven frustrated or confounded. God is not looking for a reason to punish people. It is just the opposite. Jesus, the Son of God, our great high priest, is looking for a reason to give grace and help us in our time of need. Christ is waiting for us to approach the throne of grace with confidence. Right now, Jesus is alive. He is scanning the world and the church, looking to extend mercy to those who need it. 

Asking for Help

We must avoid a spiritual hardening of heart which estranges us from approaching Jesus. Every one of us needs help. We are not God. We have weaknesses. We have confusion. We have limitations of all kinds. We need help.  And every one of us has something else: guilt and shame. At the bottom of our hearts, we feel undeserving, and so, avoid coming to Jesus. Yet, we need with family, loneliness, work, health, finances.

So, what to do? I can try to deny it all and be a superman who doesn’t need any help. I can try to drown it all with alcohol. I can be obsessive and compulsive about controlling events and/or people. I can simply succumb to discouragement. Here is what God declares: Jesus Christ became a High Priest to shatter despair with hope, to rescue that drowning person and that anxious individual.

God planned for a High Priest, a Savior, a Redeemer, and a gracious Helper. You and I are not trapped. We have Jesus. 

The book of Hebrews is all about a call to commitment – an invitation to come to Jesus.  And it is the most important invitation you will ever receive. Let us approach the throne of grace with confidence….

This is the confidence we have in approaching God: That if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.  And if we know that he hears us – whatever we ask – we know that we have what we asked of him. Spirit of God, lead us into your will. Help us in all things. Fill our hearts and lives to overflowing with divine mercy and grace so that what comes out of our mouths and the actions we do are compassionate, kind, and good, through our great High Priest, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Hebrews 4:1-11 – Enter God’s Rest

Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. For we also have had the good news proclaimed to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because they did not share the faith of those who obeyed. Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said,

“So I declared on oath in my anger,
   ‘They shall never enter my rest.’”

And yet his works have been finished since the creation of the world. For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: “On the seventh day God rested from all his works.” And again, in the passage above he says, “They shall never enter my rest.”

Therefore, since it still remains for some to enter that rest, and since those who formerly had the good news proclaimed to them did not go in because of their disobedience, God again set a certain day, calling it “Today.” This he did when a long time later he spoke through David, as in the passage already quoted:

“Today, if you hear his voice,
    do not harden your hearts.”

For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience. (New International Version)

“I’ll rest when I die” was a phrase one of my congregants used to say whenever he was encouraged to stop moving for a while and rest. He is now gone, having died at a relatively young age. It is common in American culture to define rest as almost optional. Many people feel guilt when they sit still, living with the belief that unless they are constantly busy and doing something that they are lazy or selfish.

The kind of rest the author of Hebrews was talking about was not just a future time of finally sitting in some kind of celestial recliner after a life of constant work. Rest is available now; and it’s encouraged.

Today we have the opportunity to enter into God’s rest for us. The ones who had the good news preached to them before didn’t enter rest because of disobedience. It is not just contemporary people who have a problem with Sabbath; rest itself has had a rather unrestful history.

It seems to me we need to ask ourselves why we have this tendency to interpret “rest” as only occurring after a lot of hard work has happened. 

If Sabbath rest has relevance to us now, perhaps our cultural model of work-is-greater-than-rest is really to be reversed as rest-is-greater-than-work. Consider this: God created humans on the sixth day. God rested on the seventh day. So did Adam and Eve. That means the first people rested before they even had a chance to begin working the garden God created.

Maybe instead of inventing new ways to overfill our schedules and erase any margin from our day to day existence, we ought to create ways of ruthlessly eliminating hurry from our lives. 

It could be that our world’s many ills and woes come more from our inability to rest than anything else. God not only calls us to an active Christian life; God calls us to rest, too.

In our daily work-a-day world we poke, prod, push, cajole, and finagle to move forward and get our way on all kinds of things. To separate ourselves from our typical routine is akin to an addict’s withdrawal. Some folks are tired, cranky, and negative all the time. Methinks it is because we find all kinds of reasons to not rest, and even when we do we’re still trying to impose our will on God.

What Christians need most is simply Jesus – to know Christ, be with him, and experience the depths of our wondrous and gracious union with the Lord. And that cannot happen, at least not fully, unless we practice rest.  To rest means to relinquish all our plans and agendas to God for a time and just come into the divine presence and enjoy one another.

Our compulsions for performance and perfection are the real culprits to rest. We want to do everything right.  We long to pray right, talk right, be right and live right instead of coming to Jesus like a little child who needs him. 

Perhaps we are so profoundly discontent with so many things because we are not really content in Christ. Maybe the best or right prayer to pray is that we all be content together no matter the circumstances. Only then might we find our burdens are light.

Jesus modeled the life of rest for us. If there was anyone who did not need to pull away and rest, it was Jesus, and yet, he continually did so. So, if Jesus created a sacred space to commune and enjoy the Father, then how much more do we need a Sabbath rest and a place to do it? 

Jesus rested to connect with his heavenly Father. There was no multi-tasking or juggling other responsibilities. There was simply the radical pursuit of intimate rest.

If we do not rest and intentionally practice times of Sabbath, then we are expressing our confidence that money, hard work, and individual talent are really all we need, rather than God.

Rest is only secondarily about refueling our depleted resources; it is primarily about connecting intimately with Jesus and a good gracious Father. Just as we need a special room and a certain bed for sleep, so we need a particular place and a certain time set aside to pray and enjoy God.

Real spiritual and biblical rest only “works” when we realize we don’t have it all together – that we are helpless and need Jesus. Apart from Jesus, the blind man cannot see, Lazarus remains dead, and I am lost in my sin. I cannot “do” life without Christ in me and with me.

As long as we try and manufacture results instead of relying on the Lord for refreshment and renewal, rest will be elusive. Enjoy Jesus today, my friend, and leave the results to God.

God of the Sabbath rest, just as you rested on the seventh day, help me to alter my life in such a way as to engraft new avenues of rest into my busy schedule. In doing so, may I connect with you more deeply and find greater health and fulfillment in myself and my relationships. To the glory of Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen.