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.

1 Samuel 17:55-18:5 – True Friendship

As Saul watched David go out to fight the Philistine, he asked Abner, the commander of his army, “Abner, whose son is this young man?”

“I really don’t know,” Abner declared.

“Well, find out who he is!” the king told him.

As soon as David returned from killing Goliath, Abner brought him to Saul with the Philistine’s head still in his hand. “Tell me about your father, young man,” Saul said.

And David replied, “His name is Jesse, and we live in Bethlehem.”

After David had finished talking with Saul, he met Jonathan, the king’s son. There was an immediate bond between them, for Jonathan loved David. From that day on Saul kept David with him and wouldn’t let him return home. And Jonathan made a solemn pact with David because he loved him as he loved himself. Jonathan sealed the pact by taking off his robe and giving it to David, together with his tunic, sword, bow, and belt.

Whatever Saul asked David to do, David did it successfully. So, Saul made him a commander over the men of war, an appointment that was welcomed by the people and Saul’s officers alike. (New Living Translation)

“One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood.”

Seneca (5 B.C.E.-65 C.E)

We may have numerous acquaintances; social media friends; friends we do activities with; family friends and cousin friends; and even some good close friends. However, there are few, maybe only one or two people, who are so close as to be your best friend and a kindred spirit.

That person is the one whom you know always has your back; is the first person you call in the middle of the night in an emergency; and is the confidant you can say anything to, and they won’t freak out about it. They will always shoot straight with you and are your biggest encourager and fan. There is nothing they would not do for you.

I hope you have such a friend because they are rare gems. Such relationships typically begin by hitting it off well together. Usually, some event or particular place brings two people to a point of discovering they have such commonality of thinking and a commitment to living a certain way that their hearts are immediately drawn to each other. This is exactly what happened to Jonathan and David.

Before Jonathan and David’s friendship emerged, Jonathan (King Saul’s son) took it upon himself to step up and step out in single-handedly taking on the Philistine army. Jonathan faced them with only his armor-bearer behind him, climbed a cliff to other side where the Philistines were, and attacked all by himself. One guy deliberately went against an entire army. 

While six-hundred Israelite soldiers were hiding, too afraid to face the enemy, Jonathan took it upon himself to act. It was not a rash action but a decision of faith:

Jonathan said to his young armor-bearer, “Come on, let’s go over to the fort of these uncircumcised men. Maybe the Lord will act on our behalf. After all, nothing can stop the Lord from saving, whether there are many soldiers or few.” (1 Samuel 14:6, CEB) 

Jonathan passionately believed the Lord was with him and would achieve the victory. Indeed, God sent a panic throughout the Philistine camp when Jonathan acted. The result was a complete rout.

David had his own act of faith with the Philistine giant, Goliath. While everyone in the Israelite camp was fearful of the larger than life enemy, David saw him through the eyes of faith, and stepped up to challenge someone twice his size. 

It just so happens, that on that day, Jonathan had a front row seat to the entire event. It was immediately after David killed Goliath that Jonathan knew this was a guy with remarkably similar sensibilities. David possessed Jonathan’s same passion for God; same zealous faith that takes enormous risk; same heart for God’s people and God’s name. They clicked – and became kindred spirits, as if knowing the one of them was to know the other.

It was true friendship at its absolute best. Jonathan had David’s back. There was nothing he would not do for him, and vice versa. So, he made a covenant with David. And it turned out to be a lasting commitment neither of them ever regretted. 

Jonathan did not make the covenant with David just to buddy-up with the new popular person. No, Jonathan is a timeless example of one who was humbly unselfish. He gave up his robe and his weapons to David. This was a magnanimous gesture. Jonathan believed David was the next true king, so he gave his kingly objects to him.

As the king’s son, Jonathan stood in line to be the next king. In fact, everything we know about Jonathan informs us he would likely be a darn good king. Yet, Jonathan recognized David was a more worthy candidate than himself. So, he gave up his right to the throne and handed over his symbols of potential kingship.

Jonathan delighted in David’s success. He joyfully watched David become a great warrior and successful leader. Jonathan was always the first one to give David a pat on the back and do whatever was needed in supporting him. 

Jonathan didn’t mind that David upped him on the battlefield and commanded ever larger numbers of soldiers.  Jonathan could have pulled rank on David as the king’s son – but he never did, because he honestly believed his friend was the real king.

“If Christ Jesus dwells in a person as his friend and noble leader, that person can endure all things, for Christ helps and strengthens us and never abandons us. He is a true friend.”

St. Teresa of Ávila

In the New Testament, we see a person with the same spirit and devotion as Jonathan. John the Baptist was out in the wilderness being a literal wild man. And he gained quite a following. All kinds of people went out into the desert to be baptized by John and to be his disciples. Yet, John recognized that he himself was not the true king. Concerning Jesus, John said:

“This is the one I told you would come! He is greater than I am because he was alive before I was born.” (John 1:15, CEV)

“I am not the Messiah…. I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” (John 1:20, 23, NIV)

“Though his ministry follows mine, I’m not even worthy to be his slave and untie the straps of his sandal.” (John 1:27, NLT)

“I have seen and testified that this one is God’s Son.” (John 1:34, CEB)

John never became jealous, envious, or concerned that his cousin Jesus was greater than himself. In fact, he celebrated it:

“I am so happy that he is here. He must become more and more important, and I must become less important.” (John 3:29-30, ERV)      

John was focused on God. He therefore was able to respond rightly and humbly to Jesus, the true king. 

Jonathan was focused on God, and so was able to respond rightly and humbly to David, the true king.

Jesus is both king and friend. Jesus can be your kindred spirit, the one who always has your back. You can call, and he will be there. And we can delightfully watch Christ increase while we decrease. His success is our success. 

Divine friendship is possible. God’s people can enjoy incredible unity because Jesus has gone before us – he has won the victory over sin, death, and hell on our behalf. By faith we step out and act with the knowledge God is with us.

Jesus said, “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15, NKJV)

**Above wood sculpture of Jonathan and David by Olen Bryant (1927-2017)

The Beatitudes of Jesus: An Introduction

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:1-12, NIV)

The human brain is hard-wired, in such a way, that it works its best when healthy rhythms of giving and receiving occur. God created us to thrive and flourish when we pay attention to particular ways of being with one another as people.

Jesus used the term “blessed” not in a financial sense, as if having lots of money is what it means to experience blessing. The word “blessed” means to have God’s stamp of approval, his favor, with the emotional and spiritual response of joy or happiness. 

Real and lasting joy comes from a right relationship with God, defined according to what Jesus says – different from the false righteousness of the religious establishment which is based on outward appearance rather than inner attitudes. We need to know how to relate to our God, instead of simply conforming to an outward form of Christianity that everybody is doing.

Our entire selves are blessed when we engage in consistent rhythms of practicing humility before the Lord; sitting with grief; putting ourselves in another’s shoes; seeking right relationships with both God and others; pursuing mercy, purity, and peace-making in all our affairs; and allowing persecution to form us in ways the good times cannot.

Jesus preached the Beatitudes to clarify what it means to be approved by God. He wanted to gain true disciples who follow God for the right reasons. The crowd was following Jesus physically, but not necessarily spiritually. They all followed for different reasons: for healing, curiosity, or a genuine desire to be a disciple. So, Jesus sat them down to communicate what a true follower and disciple is.

Imagine we are part of the crowd originally hearing Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).  The world in which the people lived, and the religious system which they took for granted, was highly restrictive. 

In order to approach God, enter the kingdom, and be a good citizen, one had to be Jewish, male, a faithful Law-keeper, physically whole, healthy, and able; and, if not wealthy, able to make a good living. 

Yes, this reality meant that Gentiles, women, those who struggled to keep the Law, the diseased and disabled, and the poor had no shot whatsoever in the kingdom of God. To be blessed and have God’s stamp of approval on your life meant you were a healthy and wealthy Jewish man who practiced a legalistic form of righteousness. 

Not a single one of us here would have any shot at the kingdom of God. Yet, we have heard something about this guy, Jesus. There seems to be something very compelling about him. We go seek him out, sit down on a mountainside and hear him say the most refreshing and scandalous words we have ever heard…

God approves of the spiritually bankrupt who realize they’ve got no leverage to make any deals. They shall be given the riches of God’s grace.

God approves of those who grieve over personal sin and lament the presence of sin in the world. They are the ones who will experience God’s forgiveness and comfort.

God approves of the powerless and those who use their authority to champion others. They will inherit God’s power and take up authority to command dark forces and put them in their place.

God approves of those who have a voracious appetite for right relationships and doing everything for the right reasons. Their growling spiritual stomachs will be stuffed with God’s righteousness.

God approves of those who liberally extend grace to others, being always considerate of everyone’s needs, showing neither prejudice nor favoritism. They shall receive God’s grace at the end of the age when Christ comes to judge the living and the dead.

God approves of the spiritually clean who have bathed in the waters of divine mercy. They will see Jesus face to face.

God approves of those who facilitate and negotiate peace. Because that is precisely what God’s children do.

God approves of those who are persecuted for living by these counter-cultural Beatitudes. They have an inheritance that will never perish, spoil, or fade.

Grant us, Lord God, a vision of our world as your love would make it: a world where the weak are protected, and none go hungry or poor; a world where the benefits of abundant life are shared, and everyone can enjoy them; a world where different races and cultures live in tolerance and mutual respect; a world where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love. And give us the inspiration and courage to build it, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 20 – There Is Help from Heaven: Just Ask

I pray that the Lord answers you
        whenever you are in trouble.
    Let the name of Jacob’s God protect you.
Let God send help to you from the sanctuary
    and support you from Zion.
Let God recall your many grain offerings;
    let him savor your entirely burned offerings. Selah
Let God grant what is in your heart
    and fulfill all your plans.
Then we will rejoice that you’ve been helped.
    We will fly our flags in the name of our God.
    Let the Lord fulfill all your requests!

Now I know that the Lord saves his anointed one;
    God answers his anointed one
        from his heavenly sanctuary,
    answering with mighty acts of salvation
        achieved by his strong hand.
Some people trust in chariots, others in horses;
    but we praise the Lord’s name.
They will collapse and fall,
    but we will stand up straight and strong.

Lord, save the king!
    Let him answer us when we cry out!
(Common English Bible)

Sometimes, the connection between our present situations and the past biblical historical context is readily apparent; and sometimes it’s not so clear. In the crucible of life, and the struggles of daily living, we might too quickly pass over the grace, relevance, and truth of God’s Word to us. 

The psalms are both prayer and worship directed to God. Many of those prayers are for oneself. Others, like today’s psalm, are intercessions for others. It is my sincere and ardent desire that you will experience a good life, even when that life has a bevy of challenges, stresses, and difficulties baked into it. And so:

May the Lord answer you in the stress of your life.

May the name of the ever-living, ever-present God protect you.

May the Lord send you help from the holy habitation, and give you support from heaven itself!

May God almighty remember all the ways you have given and served.

May the Lord be pleased with everything you have sacrificed on behalf of divine purposes and plans.

May God grant your heart’s deep longing and carry out every good plan you conceive.

May we together shout for joy when you overcome incredible pressure, and in the name of God throw a big ol’ party because of answered prayer!

May the Lord bring to fruition every one of your prayers.

I have supreme confidence God’s people shall be delivered. The Lord will answer from heaven with the full force of saving power. Some put their ultimate trust in military might. Others place faith in financial security. But the people of God trust in the name of the Lord our God.

We may collapse and fall. There might be obstacles galore. Stress and pressure may be our constant companions. No matter. We get up and stand again with confidence. The Lord will save us. God will answer when we call.

For the Christian, all God’s good promises are realized in Jesus. Ultimate help and deliverance come from Christ. Even more, Jesus came to give victory to all people. Consider the following New Testament expressions of salvation’s opportunity for everyone:

Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him would not be lost but have eternal life. (John 3:16, ERV)

This Jesus is the stone you builders rejected; he has become the cornerstone! Salvation can be found in no one else. Throughout the whole world, no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved. (Acts 4:11-12, CEB)

God made a promise to our ancestors. And we are here to tell you the good news that he has kept this promise to us. It is just as the second Psalm says about Jesus,

“You are my son because today
    I have become your Father.”

God raised Jesus from death and will never let his body decay. It is just as God said,

“I will make to you
    the same holy promise
    that I made to David.”

And in another psalm, it says, “God will never let the body of his Holy One decay.” When David was alive, he obeyed God. Then after he died, he was buried in the family grave, and his body decayed. But God raised Jesus from death, and his body did not decay. My friends, the message is that Jesus can forgive your sins! The Law of Moses could not set you free from all your sins. But everyone who has faith in Jesus is set free. (Acts 13:32-39, CEV)

“The God who made the world and everything in it, this Master of sky and land, doesn’t live in custom-made shrines or need humans to run errands for him, as if he couldn’t take care of himself. He makes the creatures; the creatures don’t make him. Starting from scratch, he made the entire human race and made the earth hospitable, with plenty of time and space for living so we could seek after God, and not just grope around in the dark but find him. He doesn’t play hide-and-seek with us. He’s not remote; he’s near. We live and move in him, can’t get away from him! One of your poets said it well: ‘We’re the God-created.’ Well, if we are the God-created, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to think we could hire a sculptor to chisel a god out of stone for us, does it?”

“God overlooks it as long as you don’t know any better—but that time is past. The unknown is now known, and he’s calling for a radical life-change. He has set a day when the entire human race will be judged, and everything set right. And he has already appointed the judge, confirming him before everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:24-31, MSG)

There is help from heaven. It is available to us – if we but ask…

*Above art by Stushie Art of Psalm 20:4