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.

Psalm 22:1-15 – Responding to Trouble

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
    and by night but find no rest.

Yet you are holy,
    enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
    they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
    in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

But I am a worm, and not human;
    scorned by others, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me;
    they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
“Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
    let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”

Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
    you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
    and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
Do not be far from me,
    for trouble is near
    and there is no one to help.

Many bulls encircle me,
    strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
they open wide their mouths at me,
    like a ravening and roaring lion.

I am poured out like water,
    and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
    it is melted within my breast;
my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
    and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
    you lay me in the dust of death. (New Revised Standard Version)

Christians readily recognize the beginning question of this psalm. Jesus asked it from the cross (Matthew 27:46). Today’s psalm is a heartfelt lament, an affirmation of trust, a call for help, and vow to praise.

Lament

Grieving and lamenting is neither selfish nor sinful. It is necessary. God did it. Job did it. Jesus did it. And the psalmist did it – repeatedly, I might add. So, we ought to do it. It’s biblical. Part of our hard-wiring as humanity is to lament our significant changes and losses in life.

Some folks believe it sacrilegious to challenge, complain, and/or yell at/to God. However, God is big enough to handle our contentions. There are times in life when God seems very distant and aloof, as if the Lord is not paying attention to our plight and pain.

Three of Job’s friends heard of all the trouble that had fallen on him. Each traveled from his own country—Eliphaz from Teman, Bildad from Shuhah, Zophar from Naamath—and went together to Job to keep him company and comfort him. When they first caught sight of him, they couldn’t believe what they saw—they hardly recognized him! They cried out in lament, ripped their robes, and dumped dirt on their heads as a sign of their grief. Then they sat with him on the ground. Seven days and nights they sat there without saying a word. They could see how rotten he felt, how deeply he was suffering. (Job 2:11-13, MSG)

Asking “why?” can come from a belligerent heart, or it can arise as a genuine heartfelt expression of hurt, anger, and wondering. One thing us humans need to become comfortable with is that it is okay to not be okay. Not everything needs to be fixed, even though we would like it to.

Yet, if we don’t understand what the heck is going on, and where God is in it all, pouring out a passionate cry is both legitimate and encouraged.

Affirmation of Trust

It helps when we have a track record of God working in the past. Even if that doesn’t include personal experience, we have an entire human history of God’s dealings with individuals and groups of people concerning deliverance, care, and help.

If we have been in the habit of affirming our faith in God through daily prayers and weekly worship, then trust comes more reflexively and organically.

Be merciful to me, O God,
    because I am under attack;
    my enemies persecute me all the time.
All day long my opponents attack me.
    There are so many who fight against me.
When I am afraid, O Lord Almighty,
    I put my trust in you.
I trust in God and am not afraid;
    I praise him for what he has promised.
    What can a mere human being do to me? (Psalm 56:1-4, GNT)

One of the reasons I like saying the ancient Creeds of the Church together with God’s people is that it affirms and deepens my existing faith. To know that millions of Christians throughout the past two-thousand years, as well as the believers around me today, openly confess and affirm their faith with these words, helps strengthen me for the hard times to come.

Call for Help

One of the best prayers we could ever pray is “Help!” For many people, asking for help is a humbling affair. It smacks of weakness, perhaps even neediness – as if it’s a sin to not always be strong or be dependent on another.

Scour both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible and you will not find weakness or dependence to be sin-worthy. It’s just the opposite. Delusions of independence and strength are signs of misplaced pride which believes we ought to be able to handle any situation. God wants us to ask for help when we need it.

The wicked are too proud to ask God for help. He does not fit into their plans. (Psalm 10:4, ERV)

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. (Matthew 7:7, NIV)

I will do whatever you ask for in my name, so that the Father’s glory will be shown through the Son. If you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it. (John 14:13-14, GNT)

If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. (James 1:5, NLT)

Vow to Praise

Whenever we go through difficult times and come out the other side, it is important to tell our story. The sharing of stories deepens our faith, as well as edifying others. And then, down the road, when another event upends our life, we can recall the faithfulness of God in the past.

Whom have I in heaven but you?
    And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart
    and my portion forever.

 Those who are far from you will perish;
    you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
But as for me, it is good to be near God.
    I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge;
    I will tell of all your deeds. (Psalm 73:25-28, NIV)

There will be pain and suffering. There will also be victory and glory. The ways in which we engage the seasons of hardship will determine the trajectory of our spiritual lives.

Times change. God is forever the same. May we tether ourselves to eternal mercy. Amen.

Psalm 70 – Wednesday of Holy Week

Christ in the Garden of Olives by French artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)

God! Please hurry to my rescue!
    God, come quickly to my side!
Those who are out to get me—
    let them fall all over themselves.
Those who relish my downfall—
    send them down a blind alley.
Give them a taste of their own medicine,
    those gossips off clucking their tongues.

Let those on the hunt for you
    sing and celebrate.
Let all who love your saving way
    say over and over, “God is mighty!”

But I’ve lost it. I’m wasted.
    God—quickly, quickly!
Quick to my side, quick to my rescue!
    God, don’t lose a minute. (MSG)

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that today’s psalm is a plea from a desperate person in a desperate situation of life and death. Help is needed, not in some future time, but immediately!

I don’t know if you have ever been in such a stressful and dangerous situation in which all you could say is “Help! Help me!” The abject feeling of helplessness is palpable and just plain awful. The sense there is nothing you can do to improve your circumstance other than some sort of merciful divine intervention is more than unnerving. Its downright hard to breathe, let alone trying to cry out for rescue.

It seems the psalmist was in a position where there were people getting a twisted sense of joy over the misfortune of others. Its as if they were delighting in the confusion and vulnerability of those unable to stop what is happening.

In the throes of such stress and danger the psalmist wants the evil turned back on the wicked. He wants such persons off his back – to have God hunt them like they are hunting the poor and needy who have no ability to resist.

It makes sense this psalm is short, just a few verses. Long prayers aren’t necessarily better. Prayers can be short, especially when it is a frantic cry for God’s help. There is nothing in Holy Scripture that dictates how long or short prayer ought to be. “Help!” just might be one of the best prayers we can pray. One little word. That’s all it takes.

It also makes sense to me that this is an honest prayer. When in the throes of some horrible situation, all pretension goes out the window. Honest heartfelt prayers are the best kind of prayer. If we are hurting badly enough, boldness comes quickly to the tip of our tongues. I once had a kidney stone (which was extremely painful!). I walked in a bent over position into the Emergency Department of a hospital and yelled at the first staff person I saw, saying, “I want help, NOW!

To confess our great need to a God who listens might just be the best kind of theology we could ever express. In such a terrible place as the psalmist was, there is no thought to keeping up appearances. There is only an unfiltered expression of need. Our prayers can be earnest and urgent.

Prayer can be short, honest, and urgent because emergent situations require it. So, what do you do when you feel desperate? How do you handle your emotions? Where do you go for help?

In this Holy Week we are reminded that Jesus looked to the Father for help. In the worst of circumstances – facing ridicule, torture, and a horrible death – the Lord Jesus let the psalms shape his own prayers of desperation while under severe stress and duress:

“The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.” (John 13:18; Psalm 41:9)

“They hated me without a cause.” (John 15:24; Psalm 69:4)

“I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” (Matthew 26:38; Psalm 42:5-6)

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Psalm 22:1)

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46; Psalm 31:16)

There is a God who understands our plight. Jesus, the pioneer of our salvation, has gone before us in the way of suffering and knows what it is like to experience the agony and anguish of evil’s weight. He is our great high priest, the one who can intercede effectively and compassionately for us in our great times of need:

 Now that we know what we have—Jesus, this great High Priest with ready access to God—let’s not let it slip through our fingers. We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. So, let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help. (Hebrews 4:14-16, MSG)

May you find in Jesus the help you so desperately need. Amen.

Psalm 121 – My Help

Mountain landscape

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
    from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
    who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore. (NRSV)

This is my favorite psalm.  I have read and mulled it over so many times that it is almost second nature for me to draw from its rich theological statement about God when times are difficult.  This is a psalm designed for worship – to be used by God’s people through song and prayer.  A community without Psalm 121 near to its heart is a group of people in danger. Yet, with it, there is a continual sense of security, confidence, and hope.

Psalms are meant to be spoken aloud and repeated. So, here is another version:

I look to the hills!
Where will I find help?
It will come from the Lord,
who created the heavens
and the earth.

The Lord is your protector,
and he won’t go to sleep
or let you stumble.
The protector of Israel
doesn’t doze
or ever get drowsy.

The Lord is your protector,
there at your right side
to shade you from the sun.
You won’t be harmed
by the sun during the day
or by the moon at night.

The Lord will protect you
and keep you safe
from all dangers.
The Lord will protect you
now and always
wherever you go. (CEV)

This beautiful majestic psalm can be used for any and every occasion.  So, I often use it within hospital visits, counseling in a wide array of situations, and for my own personal edification.  It seems to me that one cannot possibly overuse this psalm.  The psalm was originally used for ascending the hill into Jerusalem, anticipating meeting with God.  Just like a lover who looks forward to meeting his beloved and thinking about how wonderful she is, so the psalmist looks with adoring affection on the God he is about to encounter.

I Lift My Eyes to the Hills

Here is yet another version of this wonderful psalm:

I look up to the mountains—
does my help come from there?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth!

He will not let you stumble;
the one who watches over you will not slumber.
Indeed, he who watches over Israel
never slumbers or sleeps.

The Lord himself watches over you!
The Lord stands beside you as your protective shade.
The sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon at night.

The Lord keeps you from all harm
and watches over your life.
The Lord keeps watch over you as you come and go,
both now and forever. (NLT)

The psalm is rich with a theology of grace, watch care, and loving attention.  This is a God who is powerful and merciful, a God able to help and desiring to do so.  In a world which seems so often distant and unaffected by the divine, this is a psalm to utter repeatedly in every situation of life so that the truth of the Lord is grafted deep into the soul.  In each unwanted circumstance the psalm can be spontaneously used as an immediate prayer, and with every anticipated event it can provide the words to address the most pressing of needs.  Let the words resonate within you as people created in the image of God, connecting with him on both the cerebral and visceral levels of your life in this last version:

I will lift up my eyes to the hills—
From whence comes my help?
My help comes from the Lord,
Who made heaven and earth.

He will not allow your foot to be moved;
He who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, He who keeps Israel
Shall neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
The Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
Nor the moon by night.

The Lord shall preserve you from all evil;
He shall preserve your soul.
The Lord shall preserve your going out and your coming in
From this time forth, and even forevermore. (NKJV)

 Amen.