Pastor Richard Phillips, in his commentary on Hebrews, shares the story of a young Christian woman. She told him that, while at work, one of her colleagues had belittled Christianity as merely 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 come and tell me that Christianity is the easy way!” Phillips adds, “She was right.”1 Right indeed. If Christianity is such an easy way then why did the author of this epistle write and exhort the believers to persevere? Truth be told, following Christ is a challenge. These readers knew this. Some were facing ostracism from family and friends, the threat of unemployment and some would soon face physical persecution for their faith.
Again, If you are looking for an easy way, then forget about Christianity. Jesus made this clear when He repeatedly told His would-be followers that they must take up their cross if they would be Christians. They must forget about the wide and popular path and choose rather the narrow way. He forthrightly warned them, “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33). There is nothing easy about it. Nevertheless, the rest that Christ offers is more than worth the temporal hardships our faith requires. It was this appreciation of what the gospel offers that motivated the writer to spend some 26 verses (3:7—4:13) exhorting his readers to “enter that rest” (4:1, 11). They must be resolved to rest.
As the writer (who obviously had a pastor’s heart) comes to the end of this section, he concludes with another exhortation that his readers resolve to rest (v. 14). But at the same time, he introduces a theme that will capture our attention through chapter 10; namely, he emphasises the High Priestly ministry of Jesus. In fact, what he is saying is that our resolve to rest is dependent upon this intercessory ministry of Jesus. His High Priesthood is both the reason and the resource for our requirement to be resolved to rest.
This morning we will study these verses with a view to increasing our resolve to rest in the gospel, to rest in Jesus Christ. To live out such a resolution will require that we appreciate Jesus Christ as our High Priest. Let’s do so by looking at this passage under four headings.
Consider Your Profession
The writer exhorts his readers, “Let us hold fast our confession” (v. 14b). Without belabouring the point, we must appreciate that we who have professed Christ as our Lord and Saviour have the responsibility to “hold fast” to that profession. The term speaks of forcefully laying hold of something, and in this case it refers to our responsibility to tenaciously cling to our confession of faith.
The writer carried a burden for his readers. He was passionate that they remain passionate in their profession of faith. Some of them were behaving restlessly as they were being tempted to return to old covenant rituals (see chapter 12). They were restless in their relationships out of fear of reprisal if they openly identified with believers (see chapter 13). They were restless because of guilt over their sins (see chapters 8—10). And no doubt they were restless as they faced an uncertain future (see chapter 12).
The writer exhorts them that they need not be restless—if, that is, they hold on to Christ. This was the major reason for his insistence on the supremacy of Christ over angels, over Moses, over any and all prophets (1:1-2), and over Joshua. His greatness is the assurance that rest can be found in Him. And now, in v. 14, the writer sums up all that he has said by picking up the theme introduced in 2:17 of Jesus Christ as the High Priest of His people. It is this High Priestly ministry of Jesus that is the fundamental key to our rest. He is our Priest who gives to us the rest we so sorely need; He is, in fact, our Place of Rest. This is what Christians profess.
Christians confess and profess that Jesus Christ is God’s faithful Apostle and High Priest (3:1). We persevere in this profession of faith. We resolutely cling to this confession and as we do so we experience the wonderful spiritual rest of Christ.
Because Jesus has reconciled us to God, we are assured of His love and so our song becomes, “Jesus I am resting, resting, in the joy of what thou art.” This was the favourite hymn of the great missionary to China, J. Hudson Taylor. He knew something of what it meant to resolve to rest in Jesus. His son wrote of him,
Day and night this was his secret, “just to roll the burden on the Lord.” Frequently those who were wakeful in the little house at Chinkiang might hear, at two or three in the morning, the soft refrain of Mr Taylor’s favourite hymn [“Jesus, I am resting, resting in the joy of what Thou art”]. He had learned that for him, only one life was possible—just that blessed life of resting and rejoicing in the Lord under all circumstances, while He dealt with the difficulties, inward and outward, great and small.2
Taylor’s spiritual secret was to resolve to rest, and he could do so because he knew “the joy of what thou art.” If we will have the same resolve to rest then we too must know the joy of what Jesus is. This passage informs us of where Jesus is and what He is doing because of who He is.
Consider His Location
The second thing we must consider if we will resolve to rest is Jesus’ heavenly intercession. The writer speaks of the fact that “we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God” (v. 14).
A Heavenly Intercession
The assumption of the writer is that his readers have been paying attention to what he has been communicating. He says, “seeing then” or “since then” (ESV), implying that what he has written before has been treated with great seriousness. He now will draw further exhortations from it. “Seeing then that God’s Word makes it clear that our only hope for real spiritual rest is to be found in Jesus take great comfort in the reality of the heavenly intercessor.” In other words, “the author proceeds to reinforce his exhortation to enter the rest with a reminder of the character of our High Priest.”3
The author grounds his exhortation concerning our resolve in the person and work of Jesus. He begins by informing us of His location. Jesus’ position (“through the heavens”) is the guarantee of our rest and serves as motivation for our resolve to continue to rest in Him. But His location is due to His person. He is our “great High Priest” who is “Jesus the Son of God.”
The first word in the Greek text is “having,” which means that this word is in the emphatic position. We are told emphatically that we have a heavenly Intercessor and that He is Jesus, the “great High Priest” and that He is “the Son of God,” the one who has gone “through the heavens” to represent us. He is the one who gives us rest. As Raymond Brown comments, “The ascension of Christ was not just a dramatic end to the earthly ministry of Jesus. It was God’s visible act of vindication, exaltation and glorification. The fight is over. The victory has been won. The work is complete.”4 This is why His location is a place of rest, and this place is the believer’s place (see Ephesians 2:6, etc.).
Up until now we have been told of the “Son” but now, for the first of many times, His identity is clearly articulated as “the Son of God.” To a Jew, this would be understood as a statement of His deity. If you are going to find rest then you had better make sure of the identity and the character of the one who is offering it.
The writer makes it quite clear that there is no need for a human priest. He makes it clear that the one in whom we find rest is well-situated to give us rest; in fact, this High Priest is “great.” Literally, He is a “mega” High Priest. None other compares.
All the Way Through
When Jesus claimed to be the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6), He was not being hyperbolic. He is literally the way to peace with God because He literally is with God. This verse reiterates this truth. We need to understand the significance of this phrase that Jesus has gone “through the heavens.”
The Hebrews saw the space above them as consisting of several layers of heaven, with the abode of God being the third heaven (see 2 Corinthians 12:1-4). So what the author is saying is that Jesus has gone through all of these “heavens” to live in God’s heaven. His location speaks of His uniqueness; in fact, it speaks of His deity. But there is another Hebrew symbolism here.
The High Priest was permitted once a year (on the Day of Atonement, Leviticus 16) to go through the holy place (in the tabernacle), through the veil into the most holy place. He would do so carrying the blood from the bull and the goats that had been sacrificed. Dressed only in his priestly linen undergarment, he would make his way through the outer court, then through the entrance into the holy place.
As he entered, he would be reminded of heaven by the colours in the ceiling tapestry, into which were woven cherubim. He would then face the veil of the tabernacle separating the holy place from the most holy place. This “doorway,” also embroidered to symbolise heaven (including cherubim), separated the “second heaven” from the “third heaven.”
The High Priest would then enter the most holy place through the veil. He was, figuratively, now in third heaven in the very presence of God, symbolised by the ark of the covenant.
Over the ark was a covering of pure gold (Exodus 25:17), which was called the mercy seat. It sat securely over the ark (a wooden box, overlaid with gold), which contained the covenant Moses had received on Sinai. On each end of the mercy seat were golden cherubim. This was actually a pretty frightening scene. After all, the entire scene was one in which God’s wrath was threatening.
The cherubim were fierce-looking guardian angels. These were not the cute little naked cherubs we see on Valentines cards. They were lion-like guardians of the glorious throne of God. The gold ark was symbolic of God’s very throne. That is why the high priest on the Day of Atonement was required by biblical law to wear bells on the fringe of his garment. The Law warned that if the high priest was not wearing these bells, he would die. The bells served as an announcement that he was entering God’s presence. After all, who would be so arrogant as to barge into the presence of a king? And this throne room was that of the King!
The high priest would put the blood on the mercy seat and upon his exit from the tabernacle all would know that God’s wrath had been propitiated and therefore God was at peace with His people for another year. The throne of God, which threatened judgement, had, by a sacrificial substitute, become a throne of grace. Sin had been atoned for and rest could be theirs. All of this is the symbolism behind our passage.
Our High Priest, Jesus the Son of God, has not only gone through the veil of the temple but in fact has gone all the way through to the actual abode of God in the heavens. Indeed He is a great High Priest.
But consider some other symbolism with reference to the high priest and how Jesus is so much greater. The High Priest on the Day of Atonement was required to be impeccably dressed (white linen only). This symbolised two things.
First, it pictured the simplicity of the priest’s humanity. The high priestly garments were of such colour and splendour that they spoke of royalty. But on the Day of Atonement the high priest was stripped to his white undergarments. He was entering as a man. That is, he was no different than those he represented: He was a human being. He too needed atonement. The incarnation was the supreme act of identification wherein our High Priest identified with us. He was God. And, thank God, He was therefore sinless. Jesus became the God-Man.
Second, the whiteness of the linen spoke of righteousness and sinlessness. When Jesus Christ entered the heavenlies, He entered the same way that He left the heavenlies: as the sinless God-Man. His impeccable righteousness separated Him once and for all from every other high priest.
All of this should help us to appreciate the emphasis in this verse on Jesus going “through the heavens.” He fulfilled every point of the high priestly picture on the Day of Atonement. Christians can rest because of our heavenly Intercessor. It is for this reason that we are exhorted, “Let us hold fast our confession.”
Those who hold on until the end will be saved. As our High Priest, He helps us to hold on. We must “cling tenaciously to” such a glorious Christ.5
Appropriation or Apostasy?
Apostasy takes on different forms. We perhaps can most easily identify the apostasy that shakes its fist in the face of God while denying either His existence or the salvation that He offers through His Son. We have probably all known people who at one time confessed Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour only to later turn away from Him completely. Some, in fact, have gone so far as to deny His existence along with a rejection of the Bible as being God’s Word. This is obvious apostasy.
But there is a more sinister and subtle kind of apostasy, the kind that exists in the church and even on the membership role. Such apostates confess Christ as Lord with their mouth, but in works they deny Him. They either rarely ever darken the doors of “their” church or, if they do, they are careless about what is being proclaimed. They may have made a profession of faith many years ago, and may even have served in the church in various—very public—capacities, yet in the end they have shown no lasting fruit. And as a result, they are fit only to be burned under the holy and eternal wrath of God (John 15).
It is to such potential apostates that the writer to the Hebrews is addressing his concerns.
I say all of this to emphasise that we must recognise our responsibility to hold on. It is true that Christ holds on to us (Jude 24-25) but don’t miss the point made in this verse that we are to forcefully lay hold of Him. Again, the point that is being made here is that, with such a great, transcendent High Priest, we have every encouragement to lay hold of Him. With such a glorious High Priest interceding for us, we have every encouragement to openly profess our faith in the Saviour, regardless of the varied forms of opposition to such a profession of faith.
Learn more about your High Priest and you will understand what Hudson Taylor meant: “Jesus, I am resting, resting in the joy of what thou art.”
Contemplate His Compassion
The third thing to consider is the compassion of our High Priest: “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathise with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (v. 15).
What has been said in v. 14 is now practically applied in v. 15. Having Jesus as our High Priest interceding for us in heaven is wonderful, but perhaps the thought of our Lord’s transcendence might discourage us from taking the desired solace that it is intended to promote. After all, He is so gloriously great that we might be tempted to think that He cannot relate to our temptation. This verse gives the lie to such thinking. William Lane puts it well, “Although Christ is the transcendent Son who is now enthroned in the Father’s presence, he is related by experience to a humiliated and suffering community. The way that led to glory was that of complete solidarity with the human condition.”6
In other words, Jesus, our great High Priest, really did identify with us and He still does. This is all building towards the full exhortation in v. 16, which tells us to come to His throne with full confidence in His sympathies. In other words, we must be persuaded of His sympathies if we will take comfort in His sympathies.
The word “sympathise” means “to suffer with” or “to endure alongside.” Again, it carries the idea of compassion. It carries the idea of experiencing the same sufferings as another. It is a likeness in hardship. It speaks of being able to relate to what another is going through. This particular word is used only elsewhere in 10:34 where it is translated as “having compassion on” and again in 1 Peter 3:8 where again the idea of “compassion” is prominent.
The verse contains a double negative in order to emphasise the sympathies that Jesus has for His own. The implication may be twofold.
First, as already noted, there is a tendency for us to doubt the compassion of Jesus in the light of His transcendent character. As Bruce helpfully notes,
His transcendence, however, has made no difference to His humanity. . . . Christians have in heaven a high priest with an unequalled capacity for sympathizing with them in all the dangers and sorrows and trials which come their way in life, because He Himself, by virtue of His likeness to them, was exposed to all these experiences.7
Second, this double negative may be suggesting that until Jesus Christ, God’s people never had a priest who could truly sympathise with our weaknesses. Now, that on the surface seems like a very strange statement. After all, all of those who served as high priest before the arrival of Jesus were sinners like the ones they served. In fact, the author makes the point later that they had to offer sacrifices for their own sins as well as for the sins of the people they were representing. In contradistinction to this, Jesus was “without sin.” How can it be implied that Jesus is in fact more sympathetic than a fellow struggling sinner? For two reasons: First, no one has ever felt the full power of temptation as did Jesus: and second, no one has ever loved you like Jesus.
No one has ever felt the power of temptation as did Jesus. We have addressed this matter in a previous study, but we need to do so again. We are tempted to think that, because Jesus could not sin, this necessarily weakened the temptation that He felt.8 But actually the opposite is true. Someone who drops out of a marathon at 30km does not know what it feels like to endure through the final 42km of the marathon. As Westcott puts it, “He who falls yields before the last strain.”9 Yet Jesus persevered through the very last strain. What a Saviour!
But there is another reason for the emphasis through the use of the double negative. To be frank, we doubt that He loves us this much. After all, since He is so holy, we feel ashamed when we are tempted—especially when we fail—and so we need the positive encouragement from this negative language. The writer wants us to believe that Jesus really cares. He truly sympathises. He too experienced what we experience.
Now, it needs to be stated that this verse does not imply that Jesus experienced every temptation that we do. For example, He was not married and so did not face temptations unique to married couples. He undergo the unique temptations of women. However, in all respects, due to human weakness, He was tempted.
For instance, He was tempted to loneliness, discouragement and weariness. He dealt with the failure of others. He was misunderstood and misrepresented and tempted in that regard. He was tempted as a lover of God in the midst of a God-hating world. He was tempted to “prove” Himself (see Matthew 4) and even faced the same temptations we do with reference to facing death. In short, He has been through it all and can relate to the powers of such temptation. He truly sympathises with us!
We must be persuaded that His sympathies are not emotionally distant but are rather sympathies accompanied by an infinite love.
Tragedy and despair have led to the writing of some of the most inspiring hymns. Charles Weigle was an itinerant evangelist and songwriter. One day, after preaching at a gospel crusade, he came home to find a note from his wife. The note said that she did not care for the life she led being an evangelist’s wife and she was leaving him. The next few years were a time of despair for Weigle. He later said that he became so despondent that there were even times when he contemplated suicide. He even wondered if anyone really cared for him. After a time, his faith was again restored and he became active for the Lord again. During this time he wanted to put to paper a song that would share the feelings he had experienced during his despondent days. From a broken heart came the hymn No One Ever Cared For Me like Jesus.
I would love to tell you what I think of Jesus,
Since I found in Him a friend so strong and true.
I would tell you how He changed my life completely.
He did something no other friend could do.
All my life was full of sin when Jesus found me.
All my heart was full of misery and woe.
Jesus placed His strong and loving arms around me;
And He led me in the way I ought to go.
Every day He comes to me with new assurance.
More and more I understand His words of love.
But I’ll never know just why He came to love me,
Till someday I see His blessed face above.
No one ever cared for me like Jesus.
There’s no other friend so kind as He.
No one else could take the sin and darkness from me.
O how much He cares for me.
This song was birthed both out of great agony and a great appreciation of the gospel truth that he had a High Priest who loved him immensely. Find hope in such a Saviour today. He identified and He continues to identify with His own.
Commune with Him in Prayer
Finally, v. 16 exhorts us to commune with our High Priest in prayer: “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (v. 16). This is a helpful invitation.
Having seen that we have a High Priest in heaven who intercedes for us, and having come, I trust, to a greater appreciation of the hope that we can glean from the one who identifies with us in our weakness, the author now draws these truths together in an exhortation for us to lay hold of the help that we need—the help that Christ offers. In fact, the help that we need is help to lay hold of Christ. Here, we are told that Christ provides such help.
In v. 14 we have been exhorted to cling tenaciously to our profession of faith. We are not to waver in our love for and loyalty to Christ. We are told why: because Jesus is our great High Priest, who identifies with all that we suffer. But now, in v. 16, he points out that we need help to hold on. And that help is offered by our High Priest. In other words, we come to our High Priest in order to get help from our High Priest to continue to cling to our High Priest! We are invited to cast ourselves completely in dependence upon Him. And when we do so then we find ourselves strengthened to hold on. We find ourselves strengthened to rest. Simply, this verse exhorts us to regularly commune with our Lord in prayer.
We are to continually come to the throne of grace to secure the mercy and to discover the grace that we require in our time of need. And, by the way, that “time” is all the time! We are therefore to be a people characterised by prayer.
In considering this matter hear these convicting yet helpful words from Raymond Brown: “When we do not give time each day to earnest and believing prayer, we are saying that we can cope with life without divine aid. It is human arrogance at its worst. . . . To be prayerless is to be guilty of the worst form of practical atheism.”10
This verse is an invitation to come to the Lord and to speak freely to Him about what we are going through. It is an invitation to come and seek help. How foolish we are for not heeding it!
When Satan tempts us to despair and tells of all our guilt and sin, we ought not to argue with him. As Luther confessed, we are indeed guilty. At such time, let Jesus do our arguing; let Him plead our case. Confidently come to Him asking Him for grace to help you to persevere with joyful confidence. As Bruce reminds us, “thanks to Him the throne of God is now a mercy seat.”11 You no longer need to live in terror before the Lord, for before the throne of God above, you have a strong and perfect plea, a great High Priest whose name is Love, who intercedes and pleads for you. It should be unfathomable that we do not pray more!
We must come to a greater realisation of our weakness and therefore of our need for help from the Lord. Perhaps, however, our problem is equally that we do not believe. Perhaps we have lost sight of His immense love for us or we have persuaded ourselves that He has His favourites and that we are not among them. But regardless of the particular doubts, away with such nonsense! We are to cast all of our care upon Him, knowing that He does care for us. Peter tell us so (1 Peter 5:7)—and he should know! Consider him as an example.
In Luke 22:31-32 the Lord Jesus tells Peter in a passionate repetition of his name, “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you that your faith should not fail; and when you are returned to Me, strengthen your brethren.” The sifting process in the ancient world consisted of a process of shaking and stomping until the wheat was separated from the chaff. The Lord was telling Peter that he would undergo a severe testing of his profession of faith. When the sifting came, it appeared that he completely failed. He denied the Lord three times.
Yet we know the end of the story. Peter went out and wept bitterly. The Lord, after His resurrection—after He had he passed through the heavens—came to Peter and restored him (see John 21:15-19). And of course, it was then Peter’s privilege to strengthen the brethren, beginning in the upper room in Acts 1 and wonderfully exemplified on the Day of Pentecost (see Acts 2:14ff). He continued to do so for the rest of his life.
What I want for us to see is the intercessory ministry of Jesus, our High Priest in your life. Satan desires to have us, but we belong to Jesus. He has purchased us with His blood. Do you really think that He will let you go? He will not! Our sovereign Lord allows our faith to be tried, but He will not allow it to ever completely fail.
The story is told of a pastor who was visiting a church member on her deathbed. He asked he if she was sure that she was saved, and she replied that she was. He kept pressing her to be sure, and asked her why she was so confident. Eventually, she replied, “You taught me that I am a member of the Body of Christ so I am confident I cannot be lost.” She said that she considered herself a finger on Christ’s body, and that He would not therefore let her go.
Clearly Peter fell—hard. He no doubt learned an important lesson. He learned the danger of trusting in himself rather than in his Lord. Someone once said that all of our prayers are in the end “prayer failures.” This was clearly true in Peter’s case.
You will recall that, when Jesus went to the garden to pray, Peter fell asleep and the Lord rebuked him (along with James and John): “Could you not pray with me for one hour? Pray that you enter not into temptation for the spirit is willing but he flesh is weak” (see Matthew 26:40-41; Luke 22:40, 46). Peter had earlier boasted that, even though all might forsake the Lord, he would not. Yes, Peter was resolved. But his was a fleshly resolve. What he needed—and what we need—was a Christ-centred resolve. Regular prayer is a huge and effective means to that end.
We are exhorted to resolve to rest in Christ. But this resolve must be empowered by Christ. What I mean is that we must prayerfully resolve to faithfully follow Him. We must have a resolve that flows from communion with Christ. Our resolve must be one that finds its dependence on Christ. Our resolve must be born out of trust in Jesus.
In a sermon on this text Joel Beeke makes the wonderfully encouraging observation that Jesus is very much in full control of this matter of the sifting of the Christian. After all, Jesus said to Peter, “when you have returned.” It was a foregone conclusion that Jesus would successfully intercede for Peter and therefore he would “return.” Take comfort in the interceding ministry of Jesus. And since He is praying for you, does it not make good sense for you to meet Him at the mercy seat to pray together with Him?
Finally, note that Jesus gave a command to Peter that, once he “returned,” his assignment was to strengthen the brethren. As mentioned, Peter indeed would do this and would do so in many ways. He strengthened them at Pentecost and upon the conversion of Cornelius. Again we see his strengthening ministry in his two inspired epistles. Fundamentally, Peter was encouraging them to be resolved to rest. We are to do the same. When the Lord responds to our prayers and encourages us, we must encourage others. As a church let us help one another to resolve to rest.
As we bring this to a close let me simply encourage us to be resolved to hold firm to our confession of Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour. But to do so means that we must avail ourselves of meeting for prayer at the mercy seat. As Phillips reminds us, “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.”
And so let us come confidently; let us come to speak plainly—not arrogantly, but rather in humble boldness. We have been invited by the King. This demands that we enter with proper demeanour but also with great expectations. As Bonar said,
Thou art coming to a King;
large petitions with thee bring.
For His grace and power are such;
none can ever ask too much.
Such a consideration will indeed motivate us to be resolved to rest.
- Richard D. Phillips, Hebrews: Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2006), 145. ↩
- Dr. And Mrs. Howard Taylor, Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), no page number. ↩
- Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 12:45. ↩
- Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 94. ↩
- A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 6 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1960), 5:365. ↩
- William L. Lane, Hebrews: Word Biblical Commentary, 2 vols. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 1:111. ↩
- F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 85. ↩
- The phrase “without sin” literally means that Jesus is separate from sin. Being born of a virgin, being conceived by the Holy Spirit, Jesus had no sin nature like we do, and being God He never could have sinned. ↩
- Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 86. ↩
- Brown, The Message of Hebrews, 96-97. ↩
- Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 87. ↩