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 57 – Prayer and Praise in the Middle of Trouble

Above the Heavens by painter Melani Pyke

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
    for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
    until the destroying storms pass by.
I cry to God Most High,
    to God who fulfills his purpose for me.
He will send from heaven and save me,
    he will put to shame those who trample on me.
God will send forth his steadfast love and his faithfulness.

I lie down among lions
    that greedily devour human prey;
their teeth are spears and arrows,
    their tongues sharp swords.

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens.
    Let your glory be over all the earth.

They set a net for my steps;
    my soul was bowed down.
They dug a pit in my path,
    but they have fallen into it themselves.
My heart is steadfast, O God,
    my heart is steadfast.
I will sing and make melody.
    Awake, my soul!
Awake, O harp and lyre!
    I will awake the dawn.
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
    I will sing praises to you among the nations.
For your steadfast love is as high as the heavens;
    your faithfulness extends to the clouds.

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens.
    Let your glory be over all the earth. (New Revised Standard Version)

One thing we all share about the human experience is that, sooner or later, someone or a group of people will let us down. 

On top of that, many have experienced, or will experience, some sort of abuse and victimization from another person or group – leaving one scarred by trauma. What’s more, there are those who have even had their very lives at risk because someone intentionally sought to actually kill them. That is the company David found himself in when King Saul, and when his son Absalom, sought to do away with his life.

To David’s credit, he never retaliated and did not try and turn the tables by putting a hit out on either Saul or Absalom. Instead, David cried out to God. And we get to listen in on the prayer. Today’s psalm is David’s prayerful reliance upon the God in whom he put all his trust and praise. 

The entire basis of prayer is to let God be God. So, how do we exactly do that?

When the storms of life assail us, calloused persons trample on us with impunity, devious individuals set traps for us, and greedy organizations prey upon us, we refuse to respond in kind. Instead, we deliberately praise God and rely on divine protection, praying to the Lord and steadfastly holding to our confidence that if God is for us, nothing can be against us.

That advice may seem like some sort of pie-in-the-sky rot of ginning up positive thoughts when there is nothing positive to be seen in the experience. Indeed, we must never, and I repeat, never invalidate another’s experience nor our own, when those experiences are hellish.

Yet, there is also always hope. There are two unshakable truths which are constant and never diminished by any adverse circumstance: God is present. And God loves.

If we know nothing else, and all else seems to be descending into the abyss of tragedy, the twin towers of divine presence and attention stand tall as the strongest sentinels over our dilapidated situation and struggling faith.

Letting God be God means not trying to exercise control over things we have no control over – but affirming that the Lord is willing and capable of handling our worst. It could be that we are stuck in the belly of whale because, without our knowing, there are sharks surrounding us who cannot get to us.

Our perspective of matters is, at best, severely limited. It is much better to place faith in the God who sees it all with an expansive eye which misses nothing.

One of the best things about the psalms is that they are a wonderful collection of prayers we can adopt for our own. Not only can we use them for ourselves, but we are also obliged to do so. If anyone has been in an adverse situation so deep that it feels like having ambled into a pride of lions, it is quite likely that the experience leaves one with no adequate words to say. It’s as if you are paralyzed with fear. 

So, let the psalm say for you what you cannot even begin to utter yourself. The Word of God is not meant to sit on a coffee table or rest on a shelf; it is meant to be opened and used for prayer. Allow it to do its intended purpose.

Who knows? Perhaps your faith in the mercy of God and your praises lifted to God will give rise to settled confidence and peace so that you can rest secure even when all around you is going to hell.

Be merciful to me, O God, for in you my soul takes refuge.  Even though I feel the slash of people with tongues as swords, my heart is steadfast and will exalt your name above the heavens.  Let your glory be over all the earth!  Amen.

Daniel 6:1-28 – A Time and a Place for Prayer

Daniel in the Lions Den by John August Swanson

Darius decided to appoint one hundred twenty chief administrators throughout the kingdom, and to set over them three main officers to whom they would report so that the king wouldn’t have to be bothered with too much. One of these main officers was Daniel. Because of his extraordinary spirit, Daniel soon surpassed the other officers and the chief administrators—so much so that the king had plans to set him over the entire kingdom. As a result, the other officers and the chief administrators tried to find some problem with Daniel’s work for the kingdom. But they couldn’t find any problem or corruption at all because Daniel was trustworthy. He wasn’t guilty of any negligence or corruption.

So, these men said, “We won’t find any fault in Daniel, unless we can find something to use against him from his religious practice.”

So, these officers and chief administrators ganged together and went to the king. They said to him, “Long live King Darius! All the officers of the kingdom, the ministers, the chief administrators, the royal associates, and the governors advise the king to issue an edict and enforce a law, that for thirty days anyone who says prayers to any god or human being except you, Your Majesty, will be thrown into a pit of lions. Now, Your Majesty, issue the law and sign the document so that it cannot be changed, as per the law of Media and Persia, which cannot be annulled.” Because of this, King Darius signed the document containing the law.

When Daniel learned that the document had been signed, he went to his house. Now his upper room had open windows that faced Jerusalem. Daniel knelt, prayed, and praised his God three times that day, just like he always did. Just then these men, all ganged together, came upon Daniel praying and seeking mercy from his God. They then went and talked to the king about the law: “Your Majesty! Didn’t you sign a law, that for thirty days any person who prays to any god or human being besides you, Your Majesty, would be thrown into a pit of lions?”

The king replied, “The decision is absolutely firm in accordance with the law of Media and Persia, which cannot be annulled.”

So they said to the king, “One of the Judean exiles, Daniel, has ignored you, Your Majesty, as well as the law you signed. He says his prayers three times a day!”

When the king heard this report, he was very unhappy. He decided to rescue Daniel and did everything he could do to save Daniel before the sun went down. But these men, all ganged together, came and said to the king, “You must realize, Your Majesty, that the law of Media and Persia, including every law and edict the king has issued, cannot be changed.”

So, the king gave the order, and they brought Daniel and hurled him into the pit of lions.

The king said to Daniel: “Your God—the one you serve so consistently—will rescue you.”

A single stone was brought and placed over the entrance to the pit. The king sealed it with his own ring and with those of his princes so that Daniel’s situation couldn’t be changed. The king then went home to his palace and fasted through the night. No pleasures were brought to him, and he couldn’t sleep. At dawn, at the first sign of light, the king rose and rushed to the lions’ pit.

As he approached it, he called out to Daniel, worried: “Daniel, servant of the living God! Was your God—the one you serve so consistently—able to rescue you from the lions?”

Then Daniel answered the king: “Long live the king! My God sent his messenger, who shut the lions’ mouths. They haven’t touched me because I was judged innocent before my God. I haven’t done anything wrong to you either, Your Majesty.”

The king was thrilled. He commanded that Daniel be brought up out of the pit, and Daniel was lifted out. Not a scratch was found on him, because he trusted in his God. The king then ordered that the men who had accused Daniel be brought and thrown into the lions’ pit—including their wives and children. They hadn’t even reached the bottom of the pit before the lions overpowered them, crushing all their bones.

Then King Darius wrote the following decree:

To all the peoples, nations, and languages inhabiting the entire earth: I wish you much peace.I now issue this command: In every region of my kingdom, all people must fear and revere Daniel’s God because:

He is the living God.
    God stands firm forever.
His kingship is indestructible.
    God’s rule will last until the end of time.
He is rescuer and savior;
    God performs signs and miracles in heaven and on earth.
Here’s the proof:
    He rescued Daniel from the lions’ power.

And so, Daniel was made prosperous during the rule of Darius and during the rule of Cyrus the Persian. (CEB)

“If your day is hemmed in with prayer, it is less likely to come unraveled.”

Cynthia Lewis

When Daniel learned about King Darius’ decree, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had always done. (Daniel 6:10).

It was Daniel’s regular habit of prayer which gave him the strength to ignore the king’s edict. Daniel was kept safe, not by being saved from the lions’ den, but in the lions’ den. Daniel is our best model in the Bible of one who consistently prayed, no matter the situation. Two characteristics of Daniel’s prayer stands out: a planned approach to prayer; and perseverance in prayer.

We need a plan for prayer.

Daniel had an intentional plan for prayer. He also prayed spontaneously throughout his life – all the time. That, however, was not his bread-and-butter daily life of prayer. Daniel had set times in which he prayed three times a day. 

I am not insisting we all ought to pray at the set times of 6am, 12pm, and 6pm, as Daniel did every day (although that is good biblical plan to emulate!). Yet, I will insist there needs to be some planning behind carving out time for prayer every day. We need to approach prayer with the same deliberate discipline we approach anything else – like housework, writing a paper, sports practice, or getting work accomplished on the job.

Prayer is the way we escape the gravitational pull of our fleshly lives and enter God’s orbit. It takes much planning, energy, commitment, and focus. And it is all worth it.

We need a set time and a set place to pray. Just as we set aside a special room in our house for sleeping (bedroom) and a particular place to sleep (bed) so we need a sacred space just for prayer. We understand the value of a good night’s sleep. So, we plan to go to bed at night and arise in the morning. In the same way, we must arrange a time and place for prayer. The value we place on prayer is demonstrated by our planning for it.

We need perseverance in prayer.

Daniel was a teenager when the Babylonians came to Jerusalem, tore down the wall, and took the best young people of the city into captivity. When the lions’ den event unfolded, Daniel was an old man of about 80 years old. For over sixty years, Daniel prayed three times a day, every day, without fail. His prayers were consistent and sustained. He never gave up. 

The reason Daniel always opened his window and prayed toward Jerusalem is that he was praying consistent with God’s promise. The exiles would someday return to Jerusalem. So, Daniel looked out his window every day, three times a day, praying repeatedly for God’s help and peace.

Daniel was so consistent about prayer that when the jealous rascals in the king’s service went after him, it did absolutely nothing to deter him from his usual routine. Daniel maintained his focus without being sidelined by all the drama. He kept up his regular practice of prayer in the same place at the same time. It is interesting his enemies knew exactly when and where Daniel would be praying every day, and they set their trap according to that knowledge.

Daniel was incredibly calm in facing the lions because of his planned, deliberate, and consistent practice of prayer. Daniel’s ability, confidence, courage, and lack of worry was not simply because he was some extraordinary person. Rather, he had decades of practiced prayer which equipped him for just such an encounter.

Daniel’s posture in prayer was consistently on his knees. It reminded him of his true position, not as a high mucky muck in the kingdom of Darius with all its rights and privileges, but as a humble servant in God’s kingdom with all its joy and responsibility.

Considering Daniel’s example of prayer, it would be wise for us to do some solid planning. Identify and set aside a dedicated space for prayer. Arrange your schedule so that prayer is a priority. You’ll be glad you did!

Our Beloved Father, dwelling in the heavenly realms,
    may the glory of your name
    be the center on which our lives turn.
Manifest your kingdom realm,
    and cause your every purpose to be fulfilled on earth,
    just as it is in heaven.
We acknowledge you as our Provider
    of all we need each day.
Forgive us the wrongs we have done as we ourselves
    release forgiveness to those who have wronged us.
Rescue us every time we face tribulation
    and set us free from evil.
    For you are the King who rules
    with power and glory forever. Amen. (Matthew 6:9-13, TPT)

Hebrews 4:14-5:4 – What is Your View of God?

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

Every high priest is selected from among the people and is appointed to represent the people in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. That’s why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people. And no one takes this honor on himself, but he receives it when called by God, just as Aaron was. (NIV)

Metaphors matter. How we view, imagine, and picture God influences the way we live.

Recently, I met with a young man who was severely distressed, depressed, and had attempted suicide several times in the past several months. After listening to his story, I asked him a question: “How do you see or picture God?”  Without hesitation, he answered, “God is my CO (Commanding Officer).”  He went on to portray and picture General God who gives commands and of good soldiers who obey what’s expected of them. 

As a soldier, you would never walk up to your CO and vent all your feelings. You wouldn’t have a dialogue.  There would be no extended conversations. In the throes of trying to deal with emotional trauma, General God isn’t a metaphor that’s helpful.

Today’s New Testament lesson reminds and invites us to consider Jesus, the Son of God. Christ is pictured as our great high priest. A priest is a person who intercedes for you with God. He stands in the gap and effectively communicates your needs, desires, and feelings to a gracious and loving God.

When you are too emotionally tired to face another day, Jesus our great high priest, has our back and is graciously present with us.

Soldiers don’t have confidence to approach General God with their abject weakness or their ongoing temptations. There is only the giving and receiving of orders and strategies to be implemented. Far too many Christians have such an understanding of God and think there is something wrong with them when they cannot live up to be the kind of soldier that would make others proud.

Grace and mercy, however, are found through the confidence of approaching our great high priest. It is Jesus who thoroughly, completely, and mercifully has a first-hand understanding of what you are dealing with and is able and desirous to help.

As our permanent high priest, Jesus is uniquely positioned to hear us, empathize with our situation, and care for us in ways which truly aid us.

It’s easy to get discouraged. It takes no effort to find yourself on the outside of happiness and on the inside of a black hole. Living in this broken world can sting and hurt like hell. Yet, we have a Savior who has brought deliverance from hell by taking on hell itself.  Jesus, the pioneer of our salvation, knows better than anyone what brokenness feels like. Christ absorbed all the sin of the world on the cross. 

Jesus is presently, this very moment, sitting at the right hand of the Father in heaven, awaiting your approach with merciful eyes, a compassionate heart, and listening ears. Jesus is our risen and ascended Lord. Christ is so much more than a military officer. Jesus is our ample and able great high priest. He is awaiting you now….

Ascended and living Lord Jesus, you are my colossal high priest. You live to intercede for me. What a privilege!  May you strengthen my nascent faith today and bolster my confidence as I consider your grace and mercy in this messed-up world. Thank you for your kindness, empathy, and ability. Amen.