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.
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.
14. Seeing then that we have, or, Having then, &c. He has been hitherto speaking of Christ’s apostleship, but he now passes on to his second office. For we have said that the Son of God sustained a two-fold character when he was sent to us, even that of a teacher and of a priest. The Apostle, therefore, after having exhorted the Jews obediently to embrace the doctrine of Christ, now shews what benefit his priesthood has brought to us; and this is the second of the two points which he handles. And fitly does he connect the priesthood with the apostleship, since he reminds us that the design of both is to enable us to come to God. He employs an inference, then; for he had before referred to this great truth, that Christ is our high priest; but as the character of the priesthood cannot be known except through teaching, it was necessary to prepare the way, so as to render men willing to hear Christ. It now remains, that they who acknowledge Christ as their teacher, should become teachable disciples, and also learn from his mouth, and in his school, what is the benefit of his priesthood, and what is its use and end.
In the first place he says, Having a great high priest, Jesus Christ, let us hold fast our profession, or confession. Confession is here, as before, to be taken as a metonymy for faith; and as the priesthood serves to confirm the doctrine, the Apostle hence concludes that there is no reason to doubt or to waver respecting the faith of the Gospel, because the Son of God hath approved and sanctioned it; for whosoever regards the doctrine as not confirmed, dishonours the Son of God, and deprives him of his honour as a priest; nay, such and so great a pledge ought to render us confident, so as to rely unhesitantly on the Gospel.
14 As the full glory of our Savior is increasingly revealed, the author now suggestively brings together in the phrase “Jesus the Son of God” two titles that have so far occurred only separately (the divine title “Son [of God]” in 1:2, 5, 8; 3:6; the human name “Jesus” in 2:9; 3:1). The statement that Jesus has “gone through the heavens” may seem to suggest a temporary visit; TNIV has rightly substituted the less literal “ascended into heaven,” since it is Jesus’ penetration right into heaven itself that is emphasized by the choice of the verb “gone through”; cf. his “going through” the curtain into the inner sanctuary in 6:19–20 (and cf. also 9:11–12, 24). Perhaps our author already has in mind the ritual of the Day of Atonement, when the high priest penetrated behind the curtain into the Holy of Holies. By contrast, our high priest has gone right through into heaven itself, and that is where he is now enthroned at God’s right hand.
14 With admonition is coupled positive encouragement. Jesus has already been presented to the readers as “a merciful and faithful high priest” (2:17), and they are now shown how he is the one from whom they can receive all the strength they need to maintain their confession and resist the temptation to let go and fall back. “Jesus, the Son of God” is not disqualified by his divine origin from sharing in his people’s troubles and sympathizing with their weakness. He himself endured every trial that they are likely to undergo, but remained steadfast throughout, and has now “passed through the heavens” to the very throne of God. In him, then, his people have a powerful incentive to perseverance in faith and obedience.
“The heavens” through which Jesus passed are the heavenly regions in general; we need not try to enumerate the successive “heavens” involved and determine whether he is envisaged as passing through three or seven of them. The plural “heavens,” as regularly in the New Testament and Septuagint, reflects the Hebrew word used in the Old Testament, which is always plural. What is emphasized here is his transcendence; he is “exalted high above the heavens,” as we are told later in the epistle (7:26), or, as it is put in Eph. 4:10, he “ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.” It is because he has been so highly exalted that he is such a “great” high priest;63 there is already the implied contrast here (which is brought out in explicit detail later) between him and the earthly high priests of Aaron’s line, whose highest privilege was to pass once a year through the inner veil into the holy of holies in a material and temporary sanctuary, there to appear for a few moments before God on behalf of their people. With him as their permanent helper, the people of Christ might well hold fast the “confession” in which he played a central part.
14 With a resumptive “therefore” the pastor offers a twofold appeal to his readers: “Retain your confidence in Christ by making use of the grace he provides.” The “therefore” itself goes back to 2:18–3:1 in particular, with its first mention of Jesus as High Priest, but at the same time it presupposes everything that has been said to this point. In typical “pastoral” style, the writer uses the inclusive “we” throughout, thus identifying himself with his readers and with all who are called to be God’s faithful people. “We” as the people of God have this great High Priest.
The basis of this first appeal is the “high priest” that the people of God “have.” The adjective “great” sets the tone for this verse. Everything in this description is used to emphasize the immeasurable superiority of this High Priest. In the Greek Old Testament great priest is equivalent to high priest. Thus there is redundancy in the expression “great high priest”: one might say, “great great priest” or “high high priest.”8 This redundancy underscores the unspeakable greatness of this High Priest, who is far superior to the Levitical priests because he is “powerful to save.” The pastor reinforces Christ’s high-priestly superiority by adding in terse, compact form, “who has gone through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God.”
This High Priest is so great because he has “gone through the heavens” and sat down at the right hand of God (1:3). Just as the Aaronic high priest went through the veil into the earthly Most Holy Place, so Christ has entered into the very presence of God in heaven itself (9:1–10:18). “Who has gone through” translates a Greek perfect participle and signifies the continuing validity of Christ’s having entered God’s presence. The access to the Father that he has obtained is a present and continuing reality for his people!
Christ, however, was able to enter God’s presence as our High Priest only because he was the eternal “Son of God” who became the fully human “Jesus”13 and offered himself to “provide purification for sins” (1:3). In 7:1–25 the pastor will explain how Christ’s divine sonship empowers his high priesthood, while in 8:1–10:18 he will show how “Jesus’ ” sinless humanity and self-offering provide access into God’s presence. Christ’s full identification with humanity and his divine sonship are the basis upon which he surpasses every other mediator.
Since this High Priest alone can meet our needs, “let us,” the people of God, “hold fast to our confession.” In saying “hold fast,” the writer urges tenacious endurance in Christian profession. The NIV translates the Greek word rendered “confession” (cf. 3:1) by “the faith we profess” (cf. 3:1). This term refers first of all to the content of our confession, the substance of “the faith” we profess—belief in the uniqueness and saving efficacy of Jesus Christ; and, secondly, to our public profession of that faith. The pastor is going to explain Christ’s high priesthood to his readers in order to fortify their belief in Jesus as God’s Son and fully effective High Priest so that they will continue to live a life that professes faith in him.
A truth to encourage you (4:14–16)
The Christian faith is built on the facts of history—hence the stress in early apostolic preaching on the resurrection of Jesus, including the facts of the empty tomb and the long list of witnesses to his appearances (see 1 Cor. 15:5–8). This letter majors on the subsequent truth of the ascended Lord ‘who has gone through the heavens’ (4:14). Yet the exalted Lord remains the Jesus of history, of the cradle, the carpenter’s shop and the cross. So he can fully sympathize with our humanity, even with our frailty.
Sometimes we assume that those who have fallen into a particular sin are best able to understand and help others, after repentance, of course. But Scripture suggests that those who have known the full force of a particular temptation and yet stood firm are the best counsellors, if they retain the humility which comes from grace. The Gospels remind us of the reality of the testings of Jesus throughout his life, brought to a climax in Gethsemane, ‘yet [he] was without sin’ (4:15). He supremely stood firm, at great cost, and stands with us now in our testing moments. It may well be significant that the High Priest, always seated in heaven, is only seen once as standing, and that is in Acts 7:56 as Stephen goes to his Christlike martyrdom.
These facts should stimulate our faith. So in these verses, the writer brings a double exhortation. He calls us to ‘hold firmly to the faith we profess’, and then challenges us to a new spirit of boldness (4:16). Christians are called to be bold in their witness to others (e.g. 10:23) but here and elsewhere (e.g. 10:19) this boldness is to be seen in the spirit of prayer. We can come to ‘the throne of grace’ (4:16) because of Christ’s death and resurrection. Sometimes the reluctance to pray and the timidity of our requests for ourselves and others suggests a lack of gratitude for this access into God’s presence. We may be critical of the formality and deadness of prayers in other religions. Yet all too often their devotees put us to shame in their dedication and regularity.
4:14 / The fact that Jesus is a great high priest will enable the readers to remain true; the exhortation implies their tendency to waver. Great here suggests the uniqueness of this particular possessor of that exalted office. This indeed is no ordinary high priest. He is the man Jesus, but also the unique Son of God, the one who has gone through the heavens. This last clause may be an allusion to Christ’s presence in the spiritual or “heavenly temple” where his priestly work is accomplished (cf. 6:20; 9:11–12). At the same time, there may also be a deliberate allusion to Psalm 110:1, a strategic verse for our author that is also associated with Christ’s priestly work (see 8:1–2). Similar language is found in 7:26, where Jesus the high priest is said to be “exalted above the heavens,” with which may be compared Paul’s reference to Christ as the “one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe” (Eph. 4:10). Thus a number of themes concerning Jesus previously introduced are now brought together again and associated with the title of high priest: his humanity, his unique sonship, his exaltation, and as we are about to hear, his consequent ability to help Christians under testing. The faith we profess is literally “the confession” as in 3:1 (cf. 10:23).
Ver. 14.—To the interposed minatory warning of the three preceding verses now succeeds encouragement, based on the view, which has been now a second time led up to, of Christ being our great High Priest, who can both sympathize and succour. The passage answers closely in thought to the conclusion of ch. 2, and might naturally have followed there; but that, before taking up the subject of Christ’s priesthood, the writer had another line of thought to pursue, leading up (as has been explained) to the same conclusion. The οὖν at the beginning of ver. 14 either connects κρατῶμεν (“let us hold fast”) with the verses immediately preceding—in the sense, “The Word of God being so searching and resistless, let us therefore hold fast,” etc.,—in which case the participial clause ἔχοντες, etc., is a confirmation of this exhortation (so Delitzsch); or is connected logically with the participial clause as a resumption of the whole preceding argument. Certainly the idea of the participial clause is the prominent one in the writer’s mind, what follows being an expansion of it. And the position of οὖν suggests this connection. It is to be observed that, after the manner of the Epistle, this concluding exhortation serves also as a transition to the subject of the following chapters, and anticipates in some degree what is to be set forth, though all the expressions used have some ground in what has gone before. Having then a great High Priest who hath passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. The rendering of διεληλυθότα τοὺς οὐρανοὺς in the A.V. (“is passed into the heavens”) is evidently wrong. The idea is that Christ has passed through the intermediate heavens to the immediate presence of God—to the sphere of the eternal σαββατισμὸς. In his use of the plural, τοὺς οὐρανοὺς, the writer may have had in his mind the Jewish view of an ascending series of created heavens. Clemens Alexandrinus, e.g. speaks of seven: Ἑπτὰ οὐρανοὺς οὕς τινὲς ἀρίθμουσι κατ᾽ ἐπανάβασιν. Cf. also “the heaven and the heaven of heavens” (Deut. 10:14; 2 Chron. 6:18; Neh. 9:6), and “who hast set thy glory above the heavens” (Ps. 8:1), also “the third heaven,” into which St. Paul was rapt (2 Cor. 12:2). Cf. also Eph. 4:10, Ὁ ἀναβὰς ὑπεράνω πάντων τῶν οὐρανῶν, ἵαν πληρώσῃ τὰ πάντα. The conception of the phrase is that, whatever spheres of created heavens intervene between our earth and the eternal uncreated, beyond them to it Christ has gone,—into “heaven itself (αὐτὸν τὸν οὐρανὸν);” “before the face of God” (ch. 9:24). From this expression, together with Eph. 4:10 (above quoted), is rightly deduced the doctrine of Christ’s ubiquity even in his human nature. For, carrying that nature with him and still retaining it, he is spoken of as having passed to the region which admits no idea of limitation, and so as to “fill all things.” The obvious bearing of this doctrine on that of the presence in the Eucharist may be noted in passing. (It is to be observed that “the heavens” in the plural is used (ch. 8:1) of the seat of the Divine majesty itself to which Christ has gone. It is the word διεληλυθότα that determines the meaning here.) The designation, “Jesus the Son of God,” draws attention first to the man Jesus who was known by that name in the flesh, and secondly to the “more excellent name,” above expatiated on, in virtue of which he “hath passed through the heavens.” The conclusion follows that it is the human Jesus, with his humanity, who, being also the Son of God, has so “passed through.” There may possibly (as some think) be an intention of contrasting him with Joshua (Ἰησοῦς, ver. 8), who won the entrance into the typical rest. But it is not necessary to suppose this; vers. 8 and 14 are at too great a distance from each other to suggest a connection of thought between them; and besides Ἰησοῖν occurred similarly at the end of ch. 3:1, before any mention of Joshua. The epithet μέγαν after ἀρχιερέα distinguishes Christ from all other high priests (cf. ch. 13:20, Τὸν ποιμένα τῶν προβάτων τὸν μέγαν). The high priest of the Law passed through the veil to the earthly symbol of the eternal glory; the “great High Priest” has passed through the heavens to the eternal glory itself. As to ὁμολογίας, cf. on ch. 3:1†. In consideration of having such a High Priest, who, as is expressed in what follows, can both sympathize and succour, the readers are exhorted to “hold fast,” not only their inward faith, but their “confession” of it before men. A besetting danger of the Hebrew Christians was that of shrinking from a full and open confession under the influence of gainsaying or persecution.
14 The fearful prospect of judgment that is held out to the community in vv 11–13 is balanced by the reminder of the high priestly ministry of Jesus in the heavenly sanctuary. In the description of Jesus as ἀρχιερέα μέγαν, “a great high priest,” the term μέγαν is a qualification of excellence (cf. 1 Macc 13:42, “Simon the great high priest [ἀρχιερέως μεγάλου] and commander and leader of the Jews”; Philo, On Dreams 1.219). His greatness is expressed in the language of transcendence. He has passed through the heavens (διεληλυθότα τοὺς οὐρανούς) to the presence of God (cf. 9:24). The implied reference to the heavenly sanctuary provides yet another dimension to the discussion of the place of rest in 4:1–11. Jesus’ high priestly ministry is the guarantee that God’s people will celebrate the Sabbath in his presence.
The encouragement of Jesus’ high priestly ministry underscores the reasonableness of the exhortation to continue to hold fast to the confession (v 14b). The use of the verb κρατεῖν, “hold fast/cling to,” supports the conclusion that ὁμολογία, “confession,” has reference to a specific formulation of faith that had once been accepted and openly acknowledged by the members of the community. In this context the designation of Jesus as τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ θεοῦ, “the Son of God,” is almost certainly an echo of that confession (so Bornkamm, TBl 21  190, 192–94, 201–2; Neufeld, Earliest Christian Confessions, 135–37). The description of Jesus as “high priest” is not itself taken from the confession but serves to interpret it (see on 3:1). The appeal for adherence to the confession has the function of promoting the faithfulness of the community at a time they were displaying a lack of concern for spiritual integrity and steadfastness (cf. 2:1; 3:6b; 10:23). It appropriately concludes the unit introduced in 3:1, in which the faithfulness of Jesus as high priest establishes the context for calling the members of the congregation to faithfulness (see Comment on 3:1).
The purpose of introducing Ps 95:7b–11 in 3:7–19 was to exhibit the severe consequences of unbelief and rebellion. Israel at Kadesh, at the point of attaining the goal of the Exodus and pilgrimage through the wilderness, rebelled against God and refused to trust the word of promise. Their subsequent forfeiture of the promise and death in the desert is brought forcefully before the hearers to warn them of the danger of a calloused disposition and apostasy. The generation in the desert provided the writer with a warning paradigm.
In 4:1–13 the note of warning is sustained by specific reference to Israel’s unbelief and disobedience at Kadesh (vv 2, 6, 11) and by a pattern of exhortation that exposes the peril of an indifferent community (vv 1, 11–13). But the warning is tempered by the encouragement that the promise of entering God’s rest has not been revoked. The failure of the Exodus generation to enter the promised rest did not abrogate the reality and accessibility of that rest. The issue of entering God’s rest must be faced by each generation. The continuation of the interpretation of Ps 95:7b–11 in 4:1–11 permits the writer to develop a theology of rest.
The notion of rest within the Scriptures is one of expanding horizons. For Israel at Kadesh, and in the Hexateuch generally, the promise of rest connoted entrance into Canaan. But the review of Israel’s failure to enter God’s rest in Ps 95, long after the conquest and settlement of the land under Joshua, indicated that those events did not exhaust the divine intention. They represented only a type of the rest promised to the people of God.
Already in 3:12–19 a typological interpretation of Ps 95:7b–11 had suggested that Israel at Kadesh stood in relation to the Christian community as type to antitype. The argument developed in 4:1–11 is more complex. The expression “my rest” in Ps 95:11 called to mind God’s primordial rest announced in Gen 2:2. The state of completion and harmony experienced by God after his creative labor is the archetype and goal of all subsequent experiences of rest. The rest intended for the people of God was prefigured in the Sabbath rest of God. The theology of rest developed in 4:1–11 takes account of the pattern of archetype (God’s primal rest, v 4), type (the settlement of the land under Joshua, v 8), and antitype (the Sabbath celebration of the consummation, v 9). The prophetic announcement of another day in which the promise of entering God’s rest would be renewed in Ps 95:7b–8a addressed the community in their situation and supported an eschatological understanding of God’s rest. It anticipated the consummation when the completion of work and the experience of rest would provide the setting for a Sabbath celebration marked by festivity and the praise of God (v 9). The task of the community is to enter that rest through faith in God’s word of promise and obedient response to the voice of God in Scripture (vv 11–13).
The reference to Jesus in his office as high priest in v 14 is not an afterthought, but the intended conclusion of the entire argument. The crucial issue for the community is whether they will maintain their Christian stance. The issue was posed conditionally in 3:6b, and more pointedly in 3:14. It was raised again forcefully in v 14 in the exhortation to hold fast to the confession that identified Christians as those who had responded to the message they had heard with faith (cf. v 2). The ministry of Jesus in the heavenly sanctuary as a faithful high priest in the service of God gives certainty to the promise that God’s people will celebrate the Sabbath in his presence if they hold fast their initial confidence.
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