Vince Lombardi, famed coach of the Green Bay Packers, is renown for his pep talks and quips that urged his players to dig down deep and press on for victory. On one occasion he said this,
“The good Lord gave you a body that can stand most anything. It’s your mind you have to convince.”
The book of Hebrews was written to some Hebrew Christians who were being persecuted. And in this book he is seeking to get them to persevere through the rigors by convincing their minds. He seeks to impress upon them how precious Christ is. He shows them that Christ is superior to all and worth dying for.
This is really the key for us too. How is it that we are going to persevere in our day? It is only if we are fully convinced that Jesus really is supreme.
Take, for instance, the story JC Ryle once told of the first martyr under Queen Mary. John Rogers was his name. He was he was being led out to be burned a French Ambassador remarked that Rogers looked as bright and cheery as if he were going to his wedding day.
How could someone face martyrdom with that kind of attitude? Well, it is only if his mind is convinced that Christ is the greatest, most precious thing on earth.
This is the key to our perseverance in the faith as well. We will face the rigors of opposition only if we are convinced that Christ is supreme, and really worth dying for.
Again, that is the purpose of this book. Its purpose is to show us that Christ is supreme and the only thing worth dying for.
So far in our study we’ve seen how Jesus is greater than the angels and greater than Moses. In our passage today, we turn to deal with another stellar figure from the OT: the High Priest. The high priest was one of the preeminent figures in the OT because of all the pomp and ceremony that surrounded him. He has a special function in the life of Israel and he wore special apparel that set him apart and distinguished him from the rest of the people in Israel.
Our passage through, begins by telling us that “We have a great high priest.” And it goes on to show us just how great our great high priest really is. And our passage gives us 5 reasons why Jesus is a greater high priest. Jesus is superior because of where he has gone, who he is, what he endured, what he lacks, and what he provides.
Why is Jesus a greater high priest? He is greater because of where he has gone.
I. Where he has gone
In the first verse it says that Jesus “passed through the heavens.”
This is, of course, in contrast to the ministry of the other high priests Israel had known. Aaron and all his successors all labored on earth in the temple or the tabernacle.
Now, this topic of Jesus going into the heavens will be dealt with in more detail in chapters 9 and 10. But it is mentioned here as something of an introduction. He’s wishes to highlight Jesus’ superiority by reminding us that, unlike Aaron and the temple priests, Jesus actually entered the very presence of God.
So the difference between Christ and Aaron is analogues to the difference between making a telephone call and standing personally before the one with whom you are trying to connect. Or, perhaps a better analogy would be to say that the difference is like difference between playing house and actually being grown-ups who have a house.
The priests on earth were, in a very real sense, playing “house.” They went into the Tabernacle or the Temple year after year to perform their sacrifices. But theses edifices were not the real dwelling place of God. They were shadows and crass mockups of the real place of God’s presence. Even though the temple and the tabernacle were said to be the dwelling place of God, he only dwelt there in a minute or symbolic way. So the men who entered the Holy of holies were never really entering the presence of God in the truest sense of it.
But Jesus isn’t playing house. He entered the heavens, and as a result, he really and truly entered the God’s presence—something no man could ever do.
Why is this important? It is because now stands in the presence of God acting as our mediator. You might say that God the Father has as a constant reminder that our sins are forgiven because Jesus is interceding for us and bearing the scars of his sacrifice.
Charles Wesley once wrote a hymn that reflects on this idea. In reflecting on Jesus’ ascension and his passing through the heavens, he wrote
Arise, my soul, arise. Shake off your guilty fears;
The bleeding sacrifice in my behalf appears:
Before the throne my Surety stands,
Before the throne my Surety stands,
My name is written on his hands.
He ever lives above, for me to intercede,
His all redeeming love, his precious blood to plead;
His blood atoned for every race,
His blood atoned for every race,
And sprinkles now the throne of grace.
Not one high priest could ever be as great as Christ because Christ goes where no earthly priest has ever been able to go.
Jesus is greater not just because of where he has gone, but he’s a greater priest because of who he is.
II. Who he is
Look at verse 14. Look at what it says there about Jesus. The author identifies exactly who it was who passed through the heavens. He says it was “Jesus, the Son of God.”
He’s distinguishing Jesus here from every other high priest that ever lived by pointing out that Jesus is divine. Now this is a good thing to keep in mind, at least for two reasons.
The first is simply to recollect the reverence that Jesus demands. The Jews probably boasted in their high priest. But the author here really puts them in their place by reminding them that Jesus is not even on the same plane. He draws our eyes up, in other words, to make sure we don’t simply think we are comparing apples to apples. Jesus is unique because of his deity and he is due reverence because of it.
My friend once was in Cleveland and she had gone in to a run of the mill corner convenience store to grab a few things for her road trip. She got in line behind a tall-ish fellow to check out. But of course, you know how it is when you are waiting in line in such circumstances. You look around at all the bubble gum displays, and you marvel at how much a candy bar costs nowadays. You just kill the time by doing all those mundane things. When it was finally her turn to check out, she said the cashier let out a huge sign and started fanning herself. My friend of course was taken by surprise and she asked, “Is everything ok?” The cashier responded, “That was Lebron James!” And she went on and on about how she couldn’t believe that she had come face to face with him and had the opportunity to do the check out for Cleveland’s greatest basketball player. She was about to faint because of the encounter.
My friend just laughed and laughed because, to her, this guy was just another joe checking out in a corner convenience store. Here, she had been elbow to elbow with Lebron James. And all the while she was more enamored with the bubble gum wrappers.
But it all boils down to this: She didn’t recognize who he was, and so she didn’t have the same reverence for him as the cashier did.
That’s kind of what we have going on here. The author is saying, “Let’s not treat Jesus Christ like any other high priest who might be in line at the Circle K. Let’s be sure you understand that this one ranks far above all other priests because he is very God of very God.”
But there’s another reason why the identity of Christ is brought out here. It helps us understand the full implication of Christ’s representation of us before God.
You remember, that’s what priests did. They represented the people to God and they interceded for them. They came before the Lord in order to ask for God’s favor to be given to the people. And that is what Jesus does. And his being Son of god is what makes his priestly work superior in that sense.
Sometimes my kids will be out playing with the other kids in the neighborhood. And sometimes they will want to do something. Maybe they will want to go over to the field or get the hose out and spray it. You know what they do? They nominate one of my kids to come ask me. They say, “Go ask your dad if he will take us to the field.” Why do they do that? Why do they send one of my children on that mission? It’s because he knows that their relation to me gives them a distinct advantage.
And who else has a closer relation to God the Father than the Son? Who is more apt to secure God’s favor on your behalf? Is it some guy who wears a funny hat or God’s own Son?
I think it is pretty obvious then, who is greater.
His being a greater high priest is not just owing to where he has gone and who he is. He is also greater because of what he endured.
III. What he endured
Look at verse 15. It says, “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.”
The author here is pointing out that Christ is not so far removed from us that he cannot identify with us. You might get the feeling from what has been said so far that he can’t. He’s off in the heavens and he is divine, so how can he relate to us? He doesn’t seem to have any real connection to me on any real human level.
But the author writes to say that that’s not true. He does connect with us. As a matter of fact, he can empathize quite well because he has endured all the same temptations and trials we have. He is not just the lofty Son of God, but he was the incarnate Christ; the one who took on flesh and lived right here on earth in the midst of all its miseries. And in his earthly life he experienced the full range of human life.
That’s why it says He is able to sympathize with. I like that word; the Greek word is sunpathos. It literally means “the same feeling.” Jesus, because of his incarnation, is able to feel what we feel because he has experienced it personally himself.
We’ve all had the experience of “pain” when we see someone get the wind knocked out of them. It’s because we’ve all had that experience at some point. We can sympathize because we’ve all had the wind knocked out of us at some point.
And this verse is telling us that Christ can have pity on us because he himself has been touched with the same kind of pains, the same kinds of afflictions, the same kinds of temptations.
I actually like the illustration Kent Hughes uses in his commentary. Hughes says that if you have two pianos in a room and a note is struck on the one, the same string vibrates on the other piano, even though no one has touched it. It is called sympathetic resonance.
And Hughes says that Christ has sympathetic resonance. When we are struck, there is something in Christ that resonates. There is a pity that he feels because he has felt it too.
And again, this is all owing to his humiliation and incarnation. In becoming man he experienced every point of human weakness. Hunger, sorrow, grief, rage, scorn. You name it, he felt it.
And, let’s be frank, he felt the most extreme forms of it. In being the Incarnate Son of God he was tried and tempted unlike anyone else.
We usually think of his being tempted as contained to that one time in the wilderness when Satan came to him. But that is not in the least bit true. He knew the enticement of temptation because he faced it every moment of his life. After the transfiguration, when Peter said, “Let’s stay up here on this mountain” do you not think that that was a temptation to Jesus? Did not the safety and security of that mountain entice him? Sure it did. At the bottom of that mountain was a cross.
And make sure you see that it says that he was tempted in all points as we were. Do not miss that part of this text. He was tempted in every respect as we were. So there is not one way in which he cannot identify with us.
Some people like to think that Jesus did not experience everything. How can he identify with me since he was never divorced? He obviously wasn’t in that situation. But keep in mind that he knows what betrayal and abandonment feels like. He was abandoned by his closest friends, which is the very essence of divorce, isn’t it? So he knows how it feels and he can sympathize.
Well, he never felt drunkenness before. You are right. But don’t you think that he had the desire to escape the problems of this world? As he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, he wanted to escape. And isn’t that the reason why most people drink? It is to escape their problems? He might not have ever been a lush, but he certainly can identify with the core of that problem.
So, here again we see the excellence of Christ. He is a man who endured much, and therefore he is able to sympathize much. He certainly can sympathize more than some obscure high priest.
At the end of verse 15 it goes on to say that Jesus was without sin. “He was tempted in every way, ‘yet he was without sin.’” It is noting here not just what he endured, but also what he lacked.
IV. What he lacked
Jesus is a greater high priest not just because of what he endured, but what he lacked. Jesus never once sinned, and that makes him greater than all the other priests.
This is something that will be highlighted later on in our study. The author will come back to deal with how the priests had to offer sacrifices for their own sins in chapter 10. But he mentions it here as something of an introduction.
Theologians have typically expanded on this verse by saying that Jesus was not only without sin, but there was never a chance that Jesus could sin. This is a doctrine that theologians call “the impeccability of Christ,” and it is a deduction from his being divine. Jesus maintained an impeccable record because, as the Son of God, he was not able to sin.
The messiah needed to be God in order to sustain the onslaught of temptation and remain guiltless. But as God, there was no way for him to fall prey to temptation. We know from another Scripture that “it is not possible for God to lie.” God cannot go against his nature. So too for Jesus in his earthly life. It was not possible for him to defy his divine nature. So he couldn’t sin. And all his life was then without sin.
Now, many people will then conclude that Christ’s sympathy is not real because of this. They will say that since he was divine—and since he couldn’t fall into temptation, he didn’t really know what the temptation was like.
But we shouldn’t think that his impeccability eased or erased the allure and the enticement of the temptation. He did have a human nature, after all. And every temptation would have had a real draw to it. The appeal would have been the same to him as it is to you.
You can think about it this way. A man who wears a bullet proof jacket into a shoot out, theoretically, cannot be killed. But if a bullet hits him, he’s still going to feel the impact of it. He won’t die. The bullet won’t pass through him. But he’s still going to feel himself get slugged.
That’s kind of a good analogy. Christ, as divine, couldn’t fall into sin. But when the temptation came, he certainly felt it. He knew its power and still was impacted by the enticement of it.
Actually, it would have been worse for him. He would have experienced the infinite degree of it because it ever danced before him!
How easily we fall into temptation. The enticement hardly begins to warm before we succumb to it. But Christ had to continually deny himself the satisfaction of it. And that would have made his temptation infinitely beyond our experience.
So if you say, “He can’t identify with my situation.” There may be some truth to that! He cannot identify with your puny experience because his experience was far beyond what you could ever imagined.
I am speaking facetiously, of course. He does sympathize. He certainly can identify with you in your weaknesses. And his being without sin makes him a greater priest.
But all this really culminates in what he provides.
V. What he provides
Look at verse 16. “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.”
Everything that has been said here has been leading to this point. By his passing through the heavens and being without sin he has become the perfect means of atonement. By this sacrifice Jesus has provided a way for sinners like us to draw near to God.
In the ancient times, the entrance into the holy of holies had a sign that read “Employees only.” Most all the people of Israel were banned and not allowed to come close to it. Only the high priest was allowed to enter, and that only once a year. There was no sense of access for them.
As a matter of fact, they were threatened and told not to draw near. Think about how God appeared on Mt. Saini. You may remember that God told them to stay back. If they even came near the foot of the mountain their lives would be in jeopardy.
But with Christ, everything changes. He allows us to draw near to God. He opens the door to grant us access to God. And this verse says we can with confidence draw near. I actually like the other translations a bit better when they say, “Let us come boldly before the throne of grace.” That gives you the real sense of the depth of access that we have.
I mentioned before how the word confidence means freedom of speech. We have boldness to come to God because we are not encumbered with fear or interpretation. Instead we can pour out our hearts and show him our need for his grace and mercy.
All my children know that when I’m in my office and the doors are closed, they are not supposed to bother me. They know that this is work time for me and they are to leave me alone. But it never fails that something will happen and our three year old will start wailing. She may get hurt or get in trouble with mommy, and she’ll immediately head for my office. She’s still in that phase of life where she doesn’t understand what those closed doors mean. And she will barge right in wailing both lungs blaring.
I could yell at here and turn her away. But I know that won’t do any good. That will only make the situation worse. The best thing I can do is simply turn to her and begin to comfort her.
That’s the kind of access that Christ provides for us. The only real difference is that God is not as begrudging as I may be with my daughter. When we come to him, wailing and pouring out our hearts, he welcomes us with love and grants us the mercy and grace we need.
 JC Ryle, At the Pulpits of Liverpool.
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.