Our compassionate high priest

by Scott Grant

Hebrews 4:14-5:10

'The Scarlet Letter'

In Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter," Hester Prynne, who was found to be guilty of adultery, was forced by the townsfolk to wear a scarlet "A" across her breast, branding her as an adulteress. Nevertheless, she attracted an interesting following. Hawthorne writes:

"But, in the lapse of the toilsome, thoughtful, and self-devoted years that made up Hester's life, the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world's scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too. And, as Hester Prynne had no selfish ends, nor lived in any measure for her own profit and enjoyment, people brought all their sorrows and perplexities, and besought her counsel, as one who had herself gone through a mighty trouble. Women, more especially, - in the continually recurring trials of wounded, wasted, wronged, misplaced, or erring and sinful passion, - or with the dreary burden of a heart unyielded, because unvalued and unsought, - came to Hester's cottage, demanding why they were so wretched, and what the remedy. Hester comforted and counseled them, as best she might."

Because of her acquaintance with sin, Hester Prynne became one who could sympathize with the plight of others. Others - the sinners, the downtrodden, the broken-hearted - recognized this in her and flocked to her door.

In Jesus, we have someone who is somewhat like Hester Prynne - able to sympathize with our human plight, though he was without sin. As we shall se, because he was without sin, he is able to sympathize all the more. We should flock to the door or Jesus, so to speak. And we should cling to him, because in Jesus we have a high priest who was appointed by God to be sympathetic with our human plight.

In Hebrews 2:17, the writer said that Jesus was a "merciful and faithful high priest." In Hebrews 3:1-4:13, the writer treated the faithfulness of Jesus. In 4:14-5:10, he treats the mercy of Jesus.

Cling to Jesus (4:14-16)

Hebrews 4:14-16:

(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. (15) 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. (16) 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.

The writer calls Jesus a "great high priest." In calling Jesus a great high priest, the writer is showing Jesus to be superior to any other high priest. What makes him great in this context is that he has "passed through the heavens." The high priest of Israel, on the annual Day of Atonement, would pass through the spheres of the temple, finally penetrating the veil separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place to appear before the ark of the covenant, the Lord's throne on earth. In his ascension after his resurrection, Jesus passed through heavenly spheres, those separating God from man, and appeared before the Lord's throne in heaven. He is thus "exalted above the heavens" (Hebrews 7:26).

The writer calls him "Jesus the Son of God," a name and title illustrating that Jesus is a different kind of high priest. As we saw earlier, the title "son" means king (Hebrews 1:2, Psalm 2:7, 2 Samuel 7:14). Jesus is a priest who is also a king - the king, who reigns from heaven.
Because Jesus is a great high priest, because he is a priest who is also the king, we should "hold fast our confession." The writer has been quite insistent on this point, using almost identical wording (3:6, 14) and other exhortative phrases to motivate us to cling to Christ and not abandon our faith. The motivation here for clinging to Christ is that he is first of all our great high priest who has appeared before God in heaven for us.

But that's not all that makes him great. Verse 15 begins with the word "for," and what follows further explains the greatness of our priest and offers further motivation for holding on to our faith in him. That motivation is this: Jesus is not unable to sympathize with our weaknesses. In stating Jesus' ability to sympathize in negative terms, the writer invites us to envision what it would be like not to have such a high priest - what it would be like if we abandoned Jesus. But we do have such a priest.

Jesus is able to sympathize, or, literally, "suffer along with." He sympathizes with us in our "weaknesses," a word that is connected with temptation in this verse and in Hebrews 5:2. He sympathizes with us, then, when we are suffering under temptation. He can sympathize with us because he himself has been tempted "in all things." Every temptation that Jesus faced and every temptation that we face relate to one temptation, really: the temptation to reject God. If we are tempted to disobey God's word, we are tempted to disobey him, and if we disobey him, we have decided that what he says is wrong and that he cannot be trusted. Jesus faced that temptation from beginning to end, from the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11) to the cross (Matthew 27).

He was tempted, yet he was "without sin" - he did not yield to the temptation. We may be inclined to think, "He doesn't know what I go through; he didn't sin." But the fact that he didn't sin means that he knows what we go through. Only one who has not yielded to temptation can know the intensity of it. Someone who gives up in the first mile of a marathon doesn't know how difficult it is to run a marathon. Jesus is the only one who's run a successful marathon against temptation, so to speak. He knows how hard it is. He knows more than we do. Way more. All of hell's fury was unleashed against him. How encouraging it is to know that in Jesus, we have someone who suffers with us, who identifies with us, who knows how we feel, who knows how hard it is to follow God.

The knowledge that we have such a sympathetic high priest, then, gives us confidence to approach God. "Therefore," because we have a great high priest who has appeared before God in heaven for us, because we have a high priest who knows how we feel, let us "draw near with confidence to the throne of grace." What is the purpose of drawing near to God in this case? It's in order that we might "receive grace and fine grace to help in time of need."

What need do we have? We have "weaknesses," areas of our lives in which we are prone to disbelieve God. Certainly, we need help to resist temptation, but that's not the point here. A priest doesn't help someone resist temptation; a priest helps someone who has yielded to temptation. The help we need before God is forgiveness. We need to receive mercy. We need to find grace. The presence of Jesus, our great and compassionate high priest, assures us of God's mercy and grace. We need the assurance, despite our weaknesses, despite our proclivity to disbelieve God, despite our sinful actions based on our sinful beliefs, that God is merciful, that his grace is available - that all, somehow, is still well with the Father. Jesus gives us that assurance.

Therefore, we can and should draw near to God when we feel the burden of guilt, and we should do so, amazingly enough, "with confidence." When we are feeling the weight of our sin, the last place we might want to be seen is in front of God's throne. Feelings of guilt and nearness to God don't feel like natural companions. We're inclined to run the other way, not draw near to God, and certainly not draw near with confidence. If we are to draw near, we're certainly inclined more toward fear than confidence. Fearing punishment, we distance ourselves from the throne.

But consider how the writer describes the throne. It is not the throne of judgment or condemnation, but the throne of "grace." God's earthly throne was in the Most Holy Place, on the "mercy seat" on the ark of the covenant, between the cherubim (Exodus 37:9, 1 Chronicles 13:6). The Lord's heavenly throne is also a throne of grace and mercy for those who have made Jesus their high priest. Instead of running from God when feeling the weight of sin, we have every assurance that we can and should approach God with confidence so that we may receive assurance of forgiveness.

Lest we doubt this, the Father shares his reign with his Son, who is also our compassionate high priest, who sympathizes with us because he has been there. The Father knows from the Son how hard it is. This doesn't give us an excuse for sin; it gives us someone who weeps with us, someone with whom to appear before God. It gives us confidence that his appearance is effective. He faced the fulness of temptation, the worst of it, yet he didn't yield. He faced everything we did, and more. He is truly our representative. He gives us help - assurance of mercy, grace and forgiveness.

So, this is what we have. This is the high priest we have. The writer exhorts us to "hold fast our confession," our belief in Jesus. After seeing the nature of Jesus' priesthood, why would we want to abandon faith in him? Where else will we find such compassion, such mercy, such grace? Jesus, our compassionate high priest, is worth clinging to. Who else enables us to draw near to God with confidence? Apart from Jesus, how can we be sure that God's throne is the place of mercy and grace, not judgment and condemnation?

If we find something valuable, something of worth, isn't our tendency to cling to it, to hold on to it? My most treasured possession, though it would fetch nothing on the open market, is my Bible. The notes I have written in it over the past 10 years are the product of countless hours of study. I don't own anything else I wouldn't care to lose. Last week I left the church and was driving down Middlefield Road and I saw something fly by my window. "What was that?" I thought. As I turned around, I was horrified. My Bible was tumbling down Middlefield Road. I had left it on the top of my car and forgot about it as I drove off. I stopped my car immediately, and I sprinted to the Bible, beating the next wave of traffic. It was a little torn and tattered, but intact. My reaction to losing it demonstrated the value I attached to it. Well, Jesus, the one who takes us blameless to the throne of grace, is our most treasured possession. Cling to him.

In Hebrews 5:1-10, the writer expands upon the theme of the compassion of our high priest (5:2-3, 7-9). This theme is interwoven with another theme: the appointment, or calling, of our high priest by God (5:1, 4-6, 10). Jesus was called by God to be a high priest, and he was called by God to be a certain kind of high priest - filled with compassion and sympathy. These themes are emphasized by invoking the historic role of a high priest in Israel (5:1-4) and by the actual experience of Jesus (5:5-10). For the purposes of clarity, we will disentangle these two themes and consider them separately, never forgetting that they are related.

Jesus is sympathetic (5:1-10)

Hebrews 5:1-10:

(1) For every high priest taken from among men is appointed on behalf of men in things pertaining to God, in order to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins; (2) he can deal gently with the ignorant and misguided, since he himself also is beset with weakness; (3) and because of it he is obligated to offer sacrifices for sins, as for the people, so also for himself. (4) And no one takes the honor to himself, but receives it when he is called by God, even as Aaron was. (5) So also Christ did not glorify himself so as to become a high priest, but he who said to him,

"You are my Son,
Today I have begotten you";

(6) just as he says also in another passage,

"You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek."

(7) In the days of his flesh, he offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the one able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his piety. (8) Although he was a Son, he learned obedience from the things which he suffered. (9) And having been made perfect, he became to all those who obey him the source of eternal salvation, (10) being designated by God as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

The high priests of Israel could sympathize with the plight of their brothers because they were human and also faced temptation. Their humanity, in fact, qualified them to "offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins." They were "taken from among men" and were thus able to "deal gently with the ignorant and misguided." The high priests, being men, were "beset with weakness," or subject to weakness - meaning, subject to sin. Because they were guilty of sin, they had to make offerings for their own sins in addition to those of the people (Leviticus 16:6).

The writer intends for us to understand the correspondence between the high priests of Israel and our great high priest, but he does not mean to imply that the correspondence is exact. Later, he will tell us that Jesus did not have to offer a multitude of "gifts and sacrifices," but made a "once-for-all" offering (7:27, 9:10, 10:10). Jesus was never subject to weakness, or sin, and therefore did not need to offer any sacrifice for his own sins (7:27). Like the other high priests, however, he does make an offering for sins (one offering). Although he was not "beset" with sin, he is able to sympathize with our plight because of his exposure to temptation.

So, from the historic precedent of the high priests of Israel, a precedent established by the Lord in is word, we can see that Jesus was "taken from among men," being one of us; that he offered a sacrifice for the sins of the people; that he is able to "deal gently with the ignorant and misguided"; and that he is sympathetic concerning our sinful state. The thread through all these actions and abilities is sympathy, or compassion.

Jesus, obviously to a greater degree than the other high priests, deals with us "gently." We're all fragile creatures. In this world, we get treated roughly. We're beaten, reprimanded and often devastated. We assume God gives us the same treatment - that he is stern, demanding and exacting, ready to crack the whip at the least indiscretion. But look at Jesus. He deals with us gently. He knows how difficult it is for a human to believe God, so he deals with us and our sin gently, with a heart full of compassion. Our problem may be that we don't think he deals with us gently. We may think he's harsh like everyone else, but he isn't.

He deals gently with those who are "ignorant and misguided." That would be us. Ignorance and susceptibility to misguidance go hand in hand. One who is ignorant is easily misled. To a certain degree, we are all ignorant - the truth of God and who he his hasn't permeated our being to its fullest extent. Thus, we can be led away from God, away from dependence on him. When that happens, and when we feel the weight of our inability, we have a high priest, a great and compassionate high priest. His ability to sympathize is best illustrated by his own life, to which the writer refers in verses 7 through 10.

The writer speaks of "the days of his flesh," which would be the days of Jesus on earth. When he walked on the earth, he "offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to him who was able to save him from death." This is likely a reference to the experience of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, where he was "very distressed and troubled," where his soul became "deeply grieved to the point of death," where his sweat "became like drops of blood" and where he asked the Father to "remove this cup from me" - meaning, the death of the cross (Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:44). But Jesus also prayed in the garden, " ... yet not what I will, but what you will" (Mark 14:36). The Father did not remove the cup. The Father, who was able to save him from the cross, did not. But the Father heard him, as the writer of Hebrews says. The Father heard that the Son was willing to drink the cup if that's what the Father wanted. Jesus was heard by the Father because of his "piety," a word that would better be translated "awe" - as in awe of God. How could anyone offer up a prayer that expressed a willingness to endure the cross, which meant separation from the Father, unless he was in awe of the Father and found him absolutely trustworthy? The cross wasn't Jesus' preference, but it was what he received from the Father.

Do we know something of this? Do we know something of receiving from the Father that which we didn't prefer? If we do, we have a friend in Jesus. He knows all about suffering as life takes an awful turn for the worse. He knows all about wanting and not getting. He knows more than any of us. He knows all about groping for God in the dark. As we grope, as we question, as we doubt, he is with us each step of the way. He is sympathetic, compassionate.

He was a Son, God's Son, the king, but he suffered. This is no ordinary king, living a life of privilege while his subjects suffer. This is a king who does something about the suffering. This is a king who suffers himself. This is a king who is also a priest.

He learned obedience from his suffering. How is it that Jesus "learned" obedience? Certainly, he was never disobedient. Learning something doesn't necessarily imply prior failure. In this context, he learned obedience to his call as a priest. Apart from suffering, obedience isn't tested. Jesus was tested. The greater the suffering, the greater the obedience. He was obedient, right down to the end, when he refused to come down from the cross, though it was in his power to do so.

The fact that he suffered simply qualifies him all the more for his role. Suffering increases the capacity for compassion, sympathy and mercy. Jesus suffered more than anyone; Jesus is more compassionate than anyone. Thus he was "made perfect." Again, this does not imply that Jesus was ever imperfect, that he at one point dabbled in sin. It means that Jesus, because of his obedience through suffering, was consecrated, or qualified, to be our great high priest (2:10-11).
He thus "became to all those who obey him the source of eternal salvation." His obedience to the Father and his fidelity to his call as a high priest, calls for our obedience to him. Those who "obey" Jesus are obviously not those who never sin. If that were the case, if those who obey Jesus are those who never sin, why would they need a high priest? No, for the writer of Hebrews, the obedience he calls for is equated with faith (Hebrews 4:18-19). Those who believe in Jesus, who accept his sacrifice on their behalf, are saved by him.

Jesus is not only our sympathetic high priest, he was called by God to be so.

Jesus was called (5:1-10)

Like the high priests of Israel, Jesus was "appointed" (5:1). Like Aaron, the first high priest, he was "called by God" to be a high priest (5:4-5, 10). But the writer will point out, here and elsewhere, that in many ways Jesus was unlike Aaron and the other high priests. The distinction is illustrated through the two quotes from the Psalms, in verses 5 and 6.

The writer used the first quote, the one from Psalm 2:7, earlier, in Hebrews 1:5. As we saw in that part of our study, the Lord was originally addressing the Davidic king of Israel. He was "begotten" when he was enthroned. Jesus was enthroned when he ascended to the Father (Acts 13:33). So, what is this talk about the enthronement of a king doing in the middle of talk about a priest? Again, it's to show that Jesus was also a king - a kingly priest. That means our priest is sovereign and that there is no question as to the effectiveness of his mediation.

Psalm 110, which the writer quotes from in verse 6, originally united the concept of king and priest. The first three verses concern the Davidic king, who the Lord addresses in verse 4 as a priest. Jesus is "a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek." In Chapter 7, the writer will have much more to say about Melchizedek, a figure from the Old Testament who was in some ways a foreshadowing of Christ, so we'll save that discussion for then. For now, it's enough to note, as the writer does, that the significance of the priesthood of Christ is that it is an eternal one. The point of Hebrews 5:6 is that Jesus, the priest who is also a king, is also an eternal priest.

His mediation is not only effective, it is everlasting. What we have in Jesus, we have forever.
The larger point of Hebrews 4:1, 5:4-6 and 5:10 is that Jesus was appointed, or called, by God to be a priest - an unquestionably effective and everlasting high priest. In the broader context of the entire passage, Jesus was called by God to be an effective and everlasting high priest who is compassionate. Verses 5 through 7 are actually one sentence. Verses 5 and 6 focus on the calling of Christ, and verse 7 focuses on his capacity for compassion. The three verses taken together bring home the point that Jesus was called by God to be compassionate. Compassionate. Called by God. Effective. Eternal.

In that Jesus was called by God, in that he did not "glorify himself so as to become a high priest," he did not offer himself up as the solution. We have a problem. Our problem is guilt. No one denies the problem. Even those who say that guilt is not real but imaginary can't deny the problem. Different solutions to the problem are offered. The popular secular answer is to dismiss guilt as something imposed by parents, the church and culture; to address the problem by examining its roots; and to overcome the illusion of guilt with positive self-esteem. Solutions such as these are offered up by psychologists. Jesus did not offer up a solution. He was called by God. He is God's solution. We need something - we need someone - we can trust with this huge problem of ours. We can trust Jesus. He is God's authoritative answer to the problem of guilt. He deals with it compassionately, effectively and eternally. If we have a big problem, don't we want to find the right solution? Jesus is it.

Cling to Jesus

So, now that we see Jesus a little more clearly, why would we want to go anywhere else? No one else is this compassionate. No one else is authoritative. No one else can deal with our sin compassionately and authoritatively. Cling to Jesus, because in him we have a high priest who was appointed by God to be sympathetic with our human plight.

- SCG, 9-7-97