Our Great High Priest
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need. (4:14–16)
The Holy Spirit continues to appeal to Jews who have heard the gospel and turned from Judaism but have not yet trusted Christ. He has been saying, in effect, “You know your dissatisfaction with Judaism and with your own lives. You know the superiority of Jesus to prophets, angels, and Moses, and the dangers of not trusting Christ and of your need for Him. What is keeping you from making the final decision?” Hebrews 4:1–13 was an urgent appeal not to delay in accepting God’s salvation, His perfect rest, in Jesus Christ.
Until now the appeal has largely been negative: if you do not believe, you will be doomed—forever apart from God and His rest. God’s Word has been shown in its all-seeing and judgmental role, as a two-edged sword (4:12).
The danger of hell is certainly real, and any preacher—especially when trying to reach the unsaved—is not true to the gospel if he avoids this truth. Because it is true, and because it is so terribly important, it must be preached and taught. Avoiding it is not only being unfaithful to God’s Word but also being unfaithful to the needs of the unsaved. To cry “Fire!” in a crowded building where there is no fire is not only against the law but extremely cruel and dangerous. But not to cry “Fire!” when a building is in flames is even more cruel and dangerous. Done in the right spirit and way, warning unbelievers of the dangers of hell is one of the greatest kindnesses we can show them.
The Positive Message
The message now turns to the positive side of the gospel. Salvation does more than keep us out of hell, immeasurably more. Many people have a caricature of fundamentalism, or evangelicalism, as having no message but “fire and brimstone, hell and damnation.”
Salvation not only saves from spiritual death, it brings spiritual life. It should be sought not only because of what will happen to us if we do not accept it, but because of what will happen to us if we do. What happens to us when we accept it is based on who Jesus is. If there were no other reason in the universe to be saved, who Jesus is would be reason enough. Coming into a living relationship with Him is the greatest experience a person can have. To walk in the fellowship of the living Christ would be a glorious thing even if there were no hell to escape. So we have reason to receive Jesus Christ and enter into God’s rest not only because of fear of His judgment but because of His beauty, not only because of His wrath but also because of His grace, not only because He is a judge but because He is also a merciful and faithful High Priest.
Three things make Jesus our great High Priest—His perfect priesthood, His perfect Person, and His perfect provision. Because He is perfect in these aspects, He is God’s only true High Priest. All others, no matter how faithful, were but symbols of His priesthood.
His Perfect Priesthood
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. (4:14)
Throughout the book of Hebrews the high priesthood of Jesus Christ is exalted. In chapter 1 He is seen as the One who has made “purification of sins” (v. 3). In chapter 2 He is “a merciful and faithful high priest” (v. 17) and in chapter 3 He is “the Apostle and High Priest of our confession” (v. 1). Chapters 7–9 focus almost exclusively on Jesus’ high priesthood. Here (4:14) he is called a great high priest.
The priests of ancient Israel were appointed by God to be mediators between Himself and His people. Only the high priest could offer the highest sacrifice under the Old Covenant, and that he did only once a year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). All the sins of the people were brought symbolically to the Holy of Holies, where blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat as a sacrifice to atone for them. As no other human instrument could, he represented God before the people and the people before God.
As we learn from Leviticus 16, before the high priest could even enter the Holy of Holies, much less offer a sacrifice there, he had to make an offering for himself, since he, just as all those whom he represented, was a sinner. Not only that, but his time in the Holy of Holies was limited. He was allowed to stay in the presence of the Shekinah glory of God only while he was making the sacrifice.
To enter the Holy of Holies, the priest had to pass through three areas in the Tabernacle or the Temple. He took the blood and went through the door into the outer court, through another door into the Holy Place, and then through the veil into the Holy of Holies. He did not sit down or delay. As soon as the sacrifice was made, he left and did not return for another year.
Every year, year after year, another Yom Kippur was necessary. Between these yearly sacrifices—every day, day after day—thousands of other sacrifices were made, of produce and of animals. The process was never ended, never completed, because the priesthood was not perfect and the sacrifices were not perfect.
Jesus, our great High Priest, after He had made the one-time, perfect sacrifice on the cross, also passed through three areas. When He passed through the heavens, he went through the first heaven (the atmosphere), the second heaven (outer space), and into the third heaven (God’s abode; 2 Cor. 12:2–4). Jesus went to where God Himself, not simply His glory, dwells. This is the holiest of all holies. But Jesus did not have to leave. His sacrifice was made once for all time. The sacrifice was perfect and the High Priest was perfect, and He sat down for all eternity at the Father’s right hand (Heb. 1:3). “I glorified Thee on the earth, having accomplished the work which Thou hast given Me to do. And now, glorify Thou Me together with Thyself, Father, with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was” (John 17:4–5). He had made the perfect atonement for sin, the purpose for which He had come to earth. And the work was completed when He entered heaven and presented Himself in the Holy Place (Heb. 9:12).
Our great High Priest did not pass through the Tabernacle or the Temple. He passed through the heavens. When He got there He sat down, and God said, “I’m satisfied. My Son, Jesus Christ, accomplished the atonement for all sins for all time for all those who come to Him by faith and accept what He did for them.” The appeal of 4:14, therefore, is for yet uncommitted Jews to accept Jesus Christ as their true High Priest. They should demonstrate that their confession is true possession by holding fast to Him as their Savior. This emphasizes the human side of the believer’s security. True believers hold fast, as God holds them fast.
The End of Jewish Priesthood and Sacrifices
Jesus was crucified less than forty years before Jerusalem was destroyed in a.d. 70. With it was destroyed the Temple, the only place where sacrifices could be made. From shortly after the time of Christ, therefore, no Jewish sacrifices have been made—even until the present time. Consequently, there has been no need for a Jewish priesthood since that time. Yom Kippur is still celebrated as a holy day, the highest holy day, but no priests are involved and no sacrifices are offered—because there are no priests to make the sacrifices and no temple in which to offer them.
The End of All Ritualistic Priesthoods and Sacrifices
No Christian priesthood was established by Christ or the apostles. Peter refers to the church, that is to all believers, as a “holy priesthood” and “a royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:5, 9). Christians, as God’s redeemed, are types of priests, in the general sense that we are responsible for bringing God to other men through preaching and teaching His Word and for bringing men to God through our witnessing. But no special order of priesthood or system of sacrifices is either taught or recognized in the New Testament. All claims of special priestly mediation between God and men—in offering forgiveness for sins, making atonement for sins by supposedly repeating Christ’s sacrifice through a ritual, or any other such claim or practice—is entirely unbiblical and sinful. It is open defiance of the finished work of Jesus Christ.
Any formal religious priesthood on earth now implies that the final and perfect atonement for sin has not yet been made. It is equal to the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, whom the earth swallowed because God was so angry at their wicked presumption (Num. 16). There is absolutely no place in the economy of Christianity for a priesthood. Any that is established is illegitimate and a direct affront to the full and final priesthood of Jesus Christ Himself.
We have our perfect and great High Priest and He has already made, once and for all, the only sacrifice that will ever need to be made for sin—the only effective sacrifice that could be made for sin. Any other priest who attempts to reconcile men and God is a barrier rather than a mediator. By faith in Jesus Christ any person can enter directly into God’s presence. When Jesus died, the veil of the Temple was torn from top to bottom. Access to God was thrown wide open to anyone who would come on His terms.
His Perfect Person
For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. (4:15)
At the end of verse 14 our great High Priest is again identified as Jesus, the Son of God. Here together are His human name, Jesus, and His divine title, Son of God. These two parts of His nature are also reflected in verse 15.
Most people seem to think of God as being far removed from human life and concerns. Jesus was the very Son of God, yet His divinity did not prevent Him from experiencing our feelings, our emotions, our temptations, our pain. God became man, He became Jesus, to share triumphantly the temptation and the testing and the suffering of men, in order that He might be a sympathetic and understanding High Priest.
When we are troubled or hurt or despondent or strongly tempted, we want to share our feelings and needs with someone who understands. Jesus can sympathize with our weaknesses. The phrase “No one understands like Jesus” in the well-known hymn is not only beautiful and encouraging but absolutely true. Our great High Priest not only is perfectly merciful and faithful but also perfectly understanding. He has an unequaled capacity for sympathizing with us in every danger, in every trial, in every situation that comes our way, because He has been through it all Himself. At the tomb of Lazarus Jesus’ body shook in grief. In the Garden of Gethsemane, just before His arrest, He sweat drops of blood. He experienced every kind of temptation and testing, every kind of vicissitude, every kind of circumstance that any person will ever face. And He is at the right hand of the Father right now interceding for us.
Jesus not only had all the feelings of love, concern, disappointment, grief, and frustration that we have, but He had much greater love, infinitely more sensitive concerns, infinitely higher standards of righteousness, and perfect awareness of the evil and dangers of sin. Contrary, therefore, to what we are inclined to think, His divinity made His temptations and trials immeasurably harder for Him to endure than ours are for us.
Let me give an illustration to help explain how this can be true. We experience pain when we are injured, sometimes extreme pain. But if it becomes too severe, we will develop a temporary numbness, or we may even faint or go into shock. I remember that when I was thrown out of the car and skidded on my back on the highway, I felt pain for awhile and then felt nothing. Our bodies have ways of turning off pain when it becomes too much to endure. People vary a great deal in their pain thresholds, but we all have a breaking point. In other words, the amount of pain we can endure is not limitless. We can conclude, therefore, that there is a degree of pain we will never experience, because our bodies will turn off our sensitivity in one way or another—perhaps even by death—before we reach that point.
A similar principle operates in temptation. There is a degree of temptation that we may never experience simply because, no matter what our spirituality, we will succumb before we reach it. But Jesus Christ had no such limitation. Since He was sinless, He took the full extent of all that Satan could throw at Him. He had no shock system, no weakness limit, to turn off temptation at a certain point. Since He never succumbed, He experienced every temptation to the maximum. And He experienced it as a man, as a human being. In every way He was tempted as we are, and more. The only difference was that He never sinned. Therefore, when we come to Jesus Christ we can remember that He knows everything we know, and a great deal that we do not know, about temptation, and testing, and pain. We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses.
This truth was especially amazing and unbelievable to Jews. They knew that God was holy, righteous, sinless, perfect, omnipotent. They knew His divine attributes and nature and could not comprehend His experiencing pain, much less temptation. Not only this, but under the Old Covenant God’s dealings with His people were more indirect, more distant. Except for special and rare instances, even faithful believers did not experience His closeness and intimacy in the way that all believers now can. Jews believed that God was incapable of sharing the feelings of men. He was too distant, too far removed in nature from man, to be able to identify with our feelings and temptations and problems.
If comprehending God’s sympathy was hard for Jews, it was even harder for most Gentiles of that day. The Stoics, whose philosophy dominated much Greek and Roman culture in New Testament times, believed that God’s primary attribute was apathy. Some believed that He was without feeling or emotions of any sort. The Epicureans claimed that the gods live intermundia, between the physical and spiritual worlds. They did not participate in either world, and so could hardly be expected to understand the feelings, problems, and needs of mortals. They were completely detached from mankind.
The idea that God could and would identify with men in their trials and temptations was revolutionary to Jew and Gentile alike. But the writer of Hebrews is saying that we have a God not only “who is there” but one “who has been here.”
Weaknesses does not refer directly to sin, but to feebleness or infirmity. It refers to all the natural limitations of humanity, which, however, include liability to sin. Jesus knew firsthand the drive of human nature toward sin. His humanity was His battleground. It is here that Jesus faced and fought sin. He was victorious, but not without the most intense temptation, grief, and anguish.
In all of this struggle, however, Jesus was without sin (chōris hamartia). He was completely apart from, separated from, sin. These two Greek words express the absolute absence of sin. Though He was mercilessly tempted to sin, not the slightest taint of it ever entered His mind or was expressed in His words or actions.
Some may wonder how Jesus can completely identify with us if He did not actually sin as we do. It was Jesus’ facing sin with His perfect righteousness and truth, however, that qualifies Him. Merely experiencing something does not give us understanding of it. A person can have many successful operations without understanding the least bit about surgery. On the other hand, a doctor may perform thousands of complicated and successful operations without ever having had the surgery himself. It is his knowledge of the disease or disorder and his surgical skill in treating it that qualifies him, not his having had the disease. He has great experience with the disease—much greater experience with it than any of his patients—having confronted it in all of its manifestations. Jesus never sinned, but He understands sin better than any man. He has seen it more clearly and fought it more diligently than any of us could ever be able to do.
Sinlessness alone can properly estimate sin. Jesus Christ did not sin, could not sin, had no capacity to sin. Yet His temptations were all the more terrible because He would not fall and endured them to the extreme. His sinlessness increased His sensitivity to sin. “For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart. You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin” (Heb. 12:3–4). If you want to talk to someone who knows what sin is about, talk to Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ knows sin, and He knows and understands our weakness. Whatever Satan brings our way, there is victory in Jesus Christ. He understands; He has been here.
Dr. John Wilson often told the following story. Booth Tucker was conducting evangelistic meetings in the great Salvation Army Citadel in Chicago. One night, after he had preached on the sympathy of Jesus, a man came forward and asked Mr. Tucker how he could talk about a loving, understanding, sympathetic God. “If your wife had just died, like mine has,” the man said, “and your babies were crying for their mother who would never come back, you wouldn’t be saying what you’re saying.”
A few days later Mr. Tucker’s wife was killed in a train wreck. Her body was brought to Chicago and carried to the Citadel for the funeral. After the service the bereaved preacher looked down into the silent face of his wife and then turned to those who were attending. “The other day when I was here,” he said, “a man told me that, if my wife had just died and my children were crying for their mother, I would not be able to say that Christ was understanding and sympathetic, or that He was sufficient for every need. If that man is here, I want to tell him that Christ is sufficient. My heart is broken, it is crushed, but it has a song, and Christ put it there. I want to tell that man that Jesus Christ speaks comfort to me today.” The man was there, and he came and knelt beside the casket while Booth Tucker introduced him to Jesus Christ.
We have a sympathetic High Priest, whose priesthood is perfect and whose Person is perfect.
His Perfect Provision
Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need. (4:16)
The One who understands us perfectly will also provide for us perfectly. “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13). Jesus Christ knows our temptations and will lead us out of them.
Come to God’s Throne of Grace
Again, the Holy Spirit appeals to those who are yet undecided about accepting Christ as their Savior. They should not only keep from going back into Judaism, but they should hold on to their confession of Christ and, finally—and necessarily—go on to draw near with confidence to the throne of grace.
Most ancient rulers were unapproachable by the common people. Some would not even allow their highest-ranking officials to come before them without permission. Queen Esther risked her life in approaching King Ahasuerus without invitation, even though she was his wife (Esther 5:1–2). Yet any penitent person, no matter how sinful and undeserving, may approach God’s throne at any time for forgiveness and salvation—confident that he will be received with mercy and grace.
By Christ’s sacrifice of Himself, God’s throne of judgment is turned into a throne of grace for those who trust in Him. As the Jewish high priests once a year for centuries had sprinkled blood on the mercy seat for the people’s sins, Jesus shed His blood once and for all time for the sins of everyone who believes in Him. That is His perfect provision.
The Bible speaks much of God’s justice. But how terrible for us if He were only just, and not also gracious. Sinful man deserves death, the sentence of justice; but he needs salvation, the gift of grace. It is to the very throne of this grace that any person can now come with confidence and assurance. It is the throne of grace because grace is dispensed there.
How can anyone reject such a High Priest, such a Savior—who not only permits us to come before His throne for grace and help, but pleads with us to come in confidence? His Spirit says, “Come boldly all the way to God’s throne that has been turned into a throne of grace because of Jesus. Come all the way up, receive grace and mercy when you need it—before it is too late and your heart is hard and God’s ‘today’ is over.” The time of need is now.
What a High Priest we have. He sympathizes and He saves. What more could He do?
The Throne of Grace
Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb. 4:16)
The Christian life is like a sailing vessel. This illustration helpfully relates the requirements of following Jesus Christ with the resources he gives to do them. God’s commands are like the rudder that determines the ship’s direction. Important as that is, however, the ship does not have power to move until a strong wind comes and fills the sails. In the Christian life, that strong wind consists of the resources that are found in the gospel.
The writer of Hebrews is concerned with relating requirements and resources because he writes not just as a theologian but as a pastor. He later describes his letter as “my word of exhortation” (Heb. 13:22). Exhort his readers he does, often sternly and always urgently, but he also is careful to explain the reasons for his commands, as well as to offer the resources to do them.
The end of Hebrews 4 concludes the long exhortation that began in chapter 3, in which the author charges his readers to press on in the faith, not hardening their hearts in the face of difficulties. To meet this requirement, so far he has articulated two key resources. First, he mentioned Christian fellowship and encouragement. This is needed, he says, so “that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13). Another key resource is the Word of God, which imparts life to us and stirs us up in the faith (Heb. 4:12–13). The pastor now directs us to a third resource: prayer, through which we come before God’s very throne to receive the mercy and grace we need to press on.
If the Christian life is like a sailing vessel, then the requirements in the Book of Hebrews are like the rudder that points and directs our lives. The commands are essential; without them we would founder upon the shoals and sink. However, as vital as they are, they do not actually move the ship. They provide no power to press ahead. For this we need the great resources that are ours in Christ—resources like fellowship, God’s Word, and prayer. These are the wind that puts air into our sails and gives us power to move along the course God has charted. In Hebrews 4:14–16 the writer reminds us that we may approach God with confidence because of the redeeming ministry of the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ, our great high priest. The message here has three points, which we may set forth as a requirement, a reason, and a resource.
A Requirement: Hold Firmly to the Faith
The writer begins this passage by restating the requirement that this letter continually stresses, namely, the command to persevere in the Christian faith. He writes, “Let us hold fast our confession” (v. 14). This is not only a necessary requirement, but also an extremely difficult thing to do.
A young Christian woman once told me how a colleague at work had belittled Christianity as an escape from the difficulties of real life, an easy route chosen by the weak. “An escape!” she replied. “An escape! You try to live as a Christian, you try to wage war against the desires of the flesh, you try to live as an alien in a strange land, and then you come and tell me that Christianity is the easy way!” She was right! If what you are looking for is a lazy man’s detour through life, if you are looking to avoid serious challenges and to follow the well-worn lanes, then Christianity is not for you. This was Jesus’ teaching: “For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:13–14).
This is the stark reality of the Christian faith. To follow Christ is to seek treasures not here on this earth, not here in this life, but treasures in heaven. Christians, of course, acknowledge earthly blessings and enjoy them in good measure. But we are people who have set our hearts on the heavenly rest. We have stepped onto the spiritual battleground, with enemies like the flesh, the world, and the devil. We accept that this is the time of our labor, the time of sacrifice and willing self-denial for the sake of our discipleship to Christ; the day of reward will wait until the life that is to come.
In verse 14 the writer says it is “our confession” that we must hold fast. The early church employed theological formulas to express the faithful’s confession, like the Apostles’ Creed. This reminds us that there is truth content to our profession of faith and that this content is vitally important. Some people say that they are against creeds, but creeds are simply summaries of biblical teaching. The Latin word credo means, “I believe.” It matters what we believe; there is content we cannot let go of without letting go of salvation in Christ: things like who Jesus is and what he has done to save us from our sins. J. C. Ryle explained:
A religion without doctrine or dogma is a thing which many are fond of talking of in the present day. It sounds very fine at first. It looks very pretty at a distance. But the moment we sit down to examine and consider it, we shall find it a simple impossibility. We might as well talk of a body without bones and sinews. No man will ever be anything or do anything in religion, unless he believes something.… No one ever fights earnestly against the world, the flesh and the devil, unless he has engraven on his heart certain great principles which he believes.
So it is for our Christian confession, to which we are required to hold fast as if our lives depend upon it—for they do.
A Reason: Christ’s Ministry as High Priest
The writer of Hebrews goes on to give us a reason for our perseverance, and it is a doctrinal point he gives. What is it that motivates Christian people to enter into a life of struggle and strife, holding fast to the confession? The reason is set forth in verse 14: “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.”
The reason behind our perseverance is the person and work of Jesus Christ, who as the Son of God and as our great high priest has secured our salvation ahead of us. Jesus and his saving work are set forth here as the antidote mainly to fear: fear of failure, fear of falling away, and even the fear of drawing near to God that paralyzes so many Christians.
Many Christians struggle in their relationship with God, especially when it comes to prayer. The reason for this is felt by the writer of Hebrews, and it is expressed in what he has said in the preceding verse: “No creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13).
Anyone with any spiritual awareness is made very uneasy by the thought of God’s searching gaze. Remember the scene in the garden after Adam and Eve had first sinned. In their original state, before they fell into sin, they were “naked and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25). With no sin to condemn them, they delighted in the gaze of their loving Creator. But after the fall, they hid their shame even from one another, pathetically sewing on fig leaves for garments. Even more, they dreaded the presence of God, fleeing and hiding from him as he approached.
This is how many Christians feel in their relationship with God. The thought of his gaze chills their bones. They are willing to do anything but deal with God himself, skulking around the edges of his light rather than drawing near to him. They struggle to pray and seldom do unless forced by circumstances. It is this paralyzing fear that the writer of Hebrews now addresses. As Philip Hughes explains: “Sinners are no longer commanded to keep their distance in fear and trembling, but on the contrary are now invited to draw near, and to do so with confidence.”
The reason for this change is the saving work of Jesus Christ to reconcile sinners to God. In particular, two aspects of that work come into view here: He has made propitiation for us in the heavenly tabernacle, and he now ministers on high with sympathy for our weakness.
When God discovered Adam and Eve’s sin, he punished them by barring them from the garden and cursing them. But God then took the initiative in restoring them to fellowship with himself. Genesis 3:21 tells us, “The Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.” God sacrificed an animal in their place and clothed them with the garment of the innocent substitute he had provided. That is a wonderful picture of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away our sin and whose perfect righteousness is imputed to us.
When the writer of Hebrews speaks of Jesus as our high priest—and with this passage his priesthood becomes the dominant theme in this letter—what he emphasizes is Christ’s atoning work by dying upon the cross. He sets up a comparison between, on one hand, what Jesus did by dying and rising from the dead and then ascending into heaven and, on the other, the ceremonial office performed by Israel’s high priest.
Once a year, the high priest entered the inner sanctum of the tabernacle to make atonement for the sins of the people. First offering a sacrifice for his own sins and then cleansing himself with water, the high priest—and he alone—one day a year and that day only—entered into the very presence of God. There in the holy of holies he saw the ark of the covenant, with the golden angels on top with their upswept wings, gazing down upon the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, God’s law, which the people had broken by their sins. To avoid punishment, the high priest brought blood from the animal sacrifice, which he sprinkled upon the mercy seat, the tray for the blood which interposed between God’s piercing gaze and the tablets of the law. When the blood was offered, God’s wrath was propitiated, that is, it was turned away from the people’s sin.
Israel’s priests pointed forward to Jesus, the great high priest. He is great because of his divine nature. He is the Son of God, and his shed blood is sufficient to satisfy God’s wrath forever. He is great because his sacrifice achieved a finished atonement, unlike the ones offered by Aaron, which had to be repeated daily. He is great because he is not a sinful man going into the holy of holies only once a year, and needing to come back again the next. Instead, he has gone through the heavens into the true tabernacle, the heavenly throne room of God, and offered his shed blood once-for-all. This is the contrast implicit in verse 14. Unlike Aaron, who was denied entry into the Promised Land because of his sin, and unlike the high priests who followed Aaron who were themselves sinners and could not offer the true sacrifice, Jesus has entered the land of rest, heaven itself, and has finished our redemption.
Because Jesus is our high priest, we are reconciled to God. This means that we can approach him freely. We do not have to hide from him; we do not have to flee like Adam in the garden; the veil barring us from God’s presence is torn because of the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross. We may now, as the writer of Hebrews so greatly wants us to see, approach boldly into the presence of God that once was barred by our sin.
The mercy seat was the place where sinners might approach the holy God in safety and with confidence. This is what God said to Moses in the wilderness: “There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you” (Ex. 25:22). This is where we meet safely and peacefully with the Lord our God, at the place made safe by the blood offered by our high priest, Jesus Christ.
The second aspect of Christ’s priestly ministry is the sympathy he bears for us in heaven. Hebrews 4:15 tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” This is a point the author has made before, so it must be an important one. The Lord you serve, the Savior to whom you look, is not aloof from your trials, but feels them with intimate acquaintance. He is not disinterested or cold to what you are going through; he came to this earth and took up our human nature precisely so that he might now be able to have a fellow feeling with us. Therefore, he is eminently able to represent you before the throne of his heavenly Father, pleading your cause, securing your place, and procuring the spiritual resources you need.
That is the reason you must not give up, because Christ is there in heaven bearing human flesh, having endured what you are going through now—and more—yet without himself falling into sin. His righteousness represents you before God’s throne and grants you access to the Father; his prayers plead for your sustenance and intercede on behalf of your needs. “Here am I, and the children God has given me,” Jesus declared upon his arrival in heaven (Heb. 2:13 niv). He has opened the way for you, established your place where he is, and now he prays for your spiritual provision and protection to the Father who is certain to receive his every petition.
Jesus explained all this to his first disciples in the upper room on the night of his arrest. They did not fully understand as he spoke of what was to come, but they picked up enough to know that he was leaving. Jesus comforted them, saying, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1–3).
Yes, there would be hardships and troubles. The writer of Hebrews has assured us of this by comparing our earthly pilgrimage to Israel’s journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land. But Jesus assured his disciples: “I will not leave you as orphans.… Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:18–19). What a great reason this is for hope, and what strength it gives to persevere!
A Resource: The Throne of Grace
Our requirement is to hold firmly to the faith we profess. Our reason to strive on is the high-priestly ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ. His ministry reconciles us to God and opens heaven’s treasure chest of grace. This makes possible the great resource of prayer, to which the writer now turns: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).
What does it mean to approach the throne of grace? It means to come to God in prayer on the basis of Christ’s high-priestly ministry; that is, his propitiating sacrifice and present intercession. The language here is striking and clear. By telling us to come before God’s throne, the author reminds us that it is the place where blood has been offered for us, the mercy seat where God calls sinners to meet with him. But we are also reminded that it is to a king that we come; we come to the royal throne of the King of kings.
In a great sermon on this text, Charles Haddon Spurgeon worked out some of the implications for our own approach to God in prayer. The first is that we must come in lowly reverence. If we show great respect in the courts of earthly majesty—in the White House, for example, or Buckingham Palace—then surely we will come with even greater reverence before the throne of heaven. There is no place for pride or vanity here, and if our eyes could see what really is before us spiritually, we would tremble at its awesome majesty. Spurgeon writes, “His throne is a great white throne, unspotted, and clear as crystal.… Familiarity there may be, but let it not be unhallowed. Boldness there should be, but let it not be impertinent.”
Second, we should come with great joy. Why? Because of the favor that has been extended to us in so high a privilege. What have we merited but rejection from God’s presence and incarceration in his prison? Instead, we find ourselves received as favored children, invited to bring all our requests to the King of heaven.
Next, our prayers should include enlarged expectations, as befitting the power and goodness of the King to whom we come. Combined with this must be submission to his wisdom and will. As the apostle Paul reminds us, he is “able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (Eph. 3:20). We honor him when we come with great and large requests, but also with contentment in his sovereign will. By faith, we gladly accept what he pleases to give, in the manner he chooses to give it, knowing that he is wise far above us and that he works out all things for our good (Rom. 8:28).
Finally, and this is the special point being made by the writer of Hebrews, we should come to God with confidence. We come knowing that we will be favorably received, knowing that we can speak freely, knowing that this is a throne of grace toward us. Why? Because of the High Priest who has gone ahead, securing access for us by his blood and interceding prayers.
We cannot overestimate the importance of such confidence. Many Christians struggle with prayer. We tremble as with stage fright, as if the light from God’s throne exposed us in naked shame, when in fact it reveals the radiant robes that have been draped around us, the righteousness of Christ given to all who trust in him. This is the key to prayer—to praying often, to praying openly, to praying boldly and freely and with gladness of heart—to know that we come clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ, invited by his own saving ministry, purchased by his precious blood, and anticipated by his sympathetic intercession. This is the secret to lively and happy prayer.
Yes, it is a throne to which you come, but that throne is a throne of grace. This means that when you come, your sins are covered by the blood of Christ, and that your faults are looked upon with compassion. Your stumbling prayers are not criticized, but are received with kindness. Moreover, Jesus’ priestly ministry secures the Holy Spirit’s help. The apostle Paul writes in Romans 8:26, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” God’s Spirit helps us to pray, and he graciously interprets our prayers in the ears of the heavenly Father.
Furthermore, because it is a throne of grace to which we come, God is ready to grant our requests. He is glad to provide our needs, to give us strength to persevere through trials. He says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). So we are not afraid to ask of God, we who are so needy in this life. Why do we come? One commentator explains, “Man needs mercy for past failure, and grace for present and future work.… Mercy is to be ‘taken’ as it is extended to man in his weakness; grace is to be ‘sought’ by man according to his necessity.” And so, as Hebrews exhorts, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).
A Place for You
God requires us to persevere in faith through the trials of this Christian life. He gives us a great reason to press on—the saving work of our great high priest, who is able to save us to the uttermost. He has gone ahead of us to open the doors and unlock the treasures of God’s mercy and grace. Prayer is a great resource God gives us, one that we must not neglect if we are to grow strong in the faith and persevere through difficulties. Prayer brings us to a throne of power and authority, but also a throne of grace to all who are in Christ. Therefore, let us draw near to God with reverence, with joy, with great expectations, and especially with the confidence that belongs to the sons and daughters of the King of heaven and earth. Spurgeon provides us a fitting conclusion, about the difference God’s grace makes for us:
I could not say to you, “Pray,” not even to you saints, unless it were a throne of grace, much less could I talk of prayer to you sinners; but now I will say this to every sinner here, though he should think himself to be the worst sinner that ever lived, cry unto the Lord and seek him while he may be found. A throne of grace is a place fitted for you: go to your knees, by simple faith go to your Savior, for he, he it is who is the throne of grace.