The writer of this letter has been teaching us that the one who is Son is greater than the prophets; and he’s greater than the angels; and he’s greater than Moses; and he’s greater than Joshua. He’s greater than the prophets, because while God spoke through them at many times and in various ways, he has spoken his final and definitive word in his Son who is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact imprint of his being. And he’s greater than the angels, because while God revealed his law through them, nevertheless the angels were made to worship and serve the Son who is the Only Begotten Son of God and the Eternal God who made all things.
And he’s greater than Moses, because while Moses was faithful as a servant in God’s house, the one who is Son was faithful as a Son over God’s house. He’s not part of the house, as Moses was, but he’s the builder of the house. And when the writer referred to God’s house, he means the church: all of God’s people.
And the Son is greater than Joshua, because while Joshua was able to lead the Israeltes into the land of Canaan where they enjoyed a kind of rest, all who believe in the Son, and who continue to believe in him, without turning away because of an sinful, unbelieving heart, will be brought into God’s eternal rest, which is everlasting life in the presence of God.
And so, the one who is Son is greater than all these others who were so important to the religion of Old Testament and to the old covenant which God made with his people in the days of Moses when he spoke to them through prophets and when he gave them his law through angels and when he gave them Moses and Joshua to lead them out of Egypt and into Canaan. What God did through them was marvellous, but what he has done by his Son is so much better.
And do you remember why the writer was comparing the Lord Jesus to what had gone before? It’s because the people who read this letter originally were suffering for their faith; and they were being tempted to abandon their faith in Christ and to return to the old covenant religion of the Old Testament. And so, the writer wrote to appeal to them and to warn them. We must pay more careful attention to what we have heard about the Son and our salvation so that we do not drift away. Fix your thoughts on Jesus, because he is the apostle and high priest whom we confess who was sent from God and who brings us to God. See to it that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns you away from the living God. Encourage one another daily. Hold firmly to the end. Let us be careful not to fall short of entering God’s eternal rest. Do not harden your heart, but make every effort to enter that rest.
The writer appealed to his first readers and he warned them so that they would not abandon the faith. And just as they should not abandon the faith, neither should we, but we must stand firm in the faith and keep trusting in Jesus Christ who is the Only Begotten Son of God and our Saviour.
Today’s passage is the start of a new section in the book of Hebrews which begins with today’s passage and which ends at verse 25 of chapter 10. And the theme of this part of the book is on how the one who is Son is greater than the Old Testament priests. Now, the writer has already referred to Christ’s role as priest. Back in verse 3 of chapter 1, he said that the one who is Son provided purification for our sins. That’s priestly language and he means the Son offered up to God the perfect sacrifice to cleanse us from our sin and guilt. And then, in chapter 2, he referred to the Son as the one who makes men holy. That’s priestly language too. As our priest, he makes us holy. He sanctifies us. And in verse 17 of chapter 2, the writer refers to the Lord Jesus as a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God who made atonement for the sins of his people and who is able to help us when we’re tempted. And then, in chapter 3, the writer described Jesus as the apostle and high priest whom we confess.
So, he’s already referred to the Son’s role as our priest. However, he really gets into this idea in the next part of his letter which opens with verse 14 of chapter 4 which says: ‘Therefore, since we have a great hight priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.’ And then, this section of the book ends in the middle of chapter 10, where he says: ‘since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith’. So, this part of the book of Hebrews is all about how Jesus the Son of God is a better high priest than the Old Testament high priest.
It occurred to me that I should really have preached on Hebrews immediately after we finished the book of Deuteronomy. From 2013 until 2020 I preached successively through the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Genesis and Deuteronomy tells us that God chose a people for himself to dwell with him in the Promised Land. Exodus and Numbers make clear that his chosen people were sinners who sinned against him continually. But then, right in the middle of the first five books is the book of Leviticus which shows us that God provided a way for his chosen, but sinful people to dwell with him. They could dwell with him, because God appointed priests to serve him in the Tabernacle and to offer up sacrifices for the sins of the people so that God would not destroy them, but pardon them. And those first five books of the Bible, and especially the book of Leviticus, tell us a lot about the work of the priests. And it might have been helpful to study Hebrews after studying those things when those things were fresh in our memories. But I’ll try to remind you of some of those things as we make our way through this part of the book of Hebrews.
And already in verse 14 we have a comparison with what went before. The writer tells us that we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens. And, you see, it’s likely that our writer has in mind what we read in Leviticus 16 about the great Day of Atonement. If the book of Leviticus is at the centre of the first five books of the Bible, then Leviticus 16 is at the centre of Leviticus. And it tells us about that special day every year when the high priest was allowed to enter the Most Holy Place in the Tabernacle, which was regarded as God’s throne room on earth. And the high priest entered the Most Holy Place with the blood of a bull and with the blood of a goat. And he sprinkled the ark of the covenant with the blood to make atonement for the Tabernacle itself and for himself and for the people. In other words, the blood was used to cleanse them and to wipe away the stain of their sin. So, that was the great Day of Atonement.
And the point I want to highlight is that the Old Testament high priests only ever entered an earthly tabernacle, which was only a copy of the true heavenly tabernacle. The Old Testament high priests entered an earthly copy, whereas Jesus the Son of God, our great high priest, has gone through the heavens. He’s entered heaven itself, where God sits enthroned and where he’s surrounded by worshipping angels. The Old Testament priests entered the earthly temple, whereas our great high priest has entered heaven itself.
And so, why would we abandon our faith in him and go back to the religion of the Old Testament, and to the old covenant and to earthly copies, when Jesus the Son of God has gone into the true tabernacle to stand before God on our behalf? Instead of abandoning the faith, let’s hold firmly to the faith we profess. Let’s hold fast to our confession. And he’s just what we need, isn’t he? He’s just what we need, because he’s not a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses. In other words, he is able to sympathise with our weaknesses. And the word translated ‘sympathise’ doesn’t only mean he’s able to feel for us. Someone sends us a sympathy card after a bereavement to say that they’re sorry for our loss and they want to express their condolences. And it’s good to receive those sympathy cards. But sometimes we want more than sympathy, don’t we? Sometimes we need someone to help us. And the word translated ‘sympathy’ here really means ‘help’.
We have a great high priest who is able to help with our weaknesses. And he’s able to help us because he himself has been tempted in every way, just as we are. The writer is probably still thinking about the way his readers had been suffering for their faith. And it was becoming too much for them. They felt overwhelmed. And they felt they couldn’t cope any more. And so, because of their suffering, they were being tempted to give up the faith. But our great high priest was tempted in every way just as we are. That is, he was tempted in every way we are tempted.
Not so long ago, on Wednesday evenings, we were studying the attributes of God. What is God like? And one of God’s attributes is his impassibility, which means he’s not affected by anything outside of himself and he cannot suffer. We cannot hurt God in any way. And since there’s no difference between the three persons of the Trinity, then this means the Son of God cannot suffer in any way and he does not have any weaknesses. He’s omnipotent, isn’t he? He’s all-powerful. That was another attribute of God which we studied. But, of course, what we mean is that he cannot suffer in his divine nature. He cannot suffer as God. But the Son of God became one of us when he took to himself a human nature like ours. And as one of us, he experienced the same weaknesses we have, because he got tired and he got hungry and he got thirsty and he was able to bleed and he suffered pain just like us. And so, he knows what it’s like to be human. He knows what it’s like to be you; and to suffer the way that you suffer.
However, whereas our weakness often leads to sin, his weakness never led to sin. He never once disobeyed his Father in heaven, but he remained obedient to his Father in all things. And so, as the one who remained obedient in the midst of weakness and suffering and temptation, he’s able to help us. If he had sinned when he suffered and was tempted, then how could he help us? But since he remained sinless, he’s able to help us in our fight against temptation and sin.
And since our great high priest has gone into heaven, then we can approach the throne of grace with confidence. That’s in verse 16. The writer means we can pray to God, who is seated on his throne in heaven. And the writer is perhaps thinking back to what happened in the days of the Old Testament, because when those earthly priests entered the earthly tabernacle, they did so with fear and trembling, because they all remembered what happened to Aaron’s sons who tried to approach the Lord without the right sacrifices; and God’s wrath burned against them and they died. And when the Old Testament high priest entered the Most Holy Place, he carried a plate of burning incense which produced a smoke screen to prevent the priest from seeing the Lord, because no one could see the Lord and live. And so, those Old Testament high priests approached God’s throne in fear and trembling. But now, we can approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, because our great high priest has made peace for us with God; and we can come to God in prayer to receive from him the mercy and grace we need in our time of need.
This is what we need to hear, isn’t it? Every day we’re reminded in one way or another of our own weaknesses, because our life here on earth is a life of troubles and trials; and we often suffer and we struggle and we feel our weakness and we wonder how we can keep going, because life is often hard and difficult. It’s too much for us. And when we suffer and struggle, we can be tempted to sin, can’t we? Obedience is hard. Faithfulness is hard. Perseverance is hard. It would be so easy to give up and choose the easy way of disobedience and faithlessness. But the Lord has not left us on our own, because he has given us a merciful high priest who has made peace for us with God and who is able to help us with our weaknesses, because he was tempted as we are tempted, and yet he overcame every temptation and did not sin. And he’s able to help us.
The writer has much more to say about our great high priest. And what he does in the following verses is this: In verses 1 to 4 of chapter 5 he tells us what is true for every high priest. So, he’s thinking about high priests in general. And then, in verses 5 to 10, he shows that what is true of high priests in general is true of Jesus Christ in particular. And this is what he says about high priests in general.
Verse 1: every high priest is selected from among men and appointed to represent them in matters relating to God. In particular, they’re to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. That’s the work of the high priest. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest sacrificed what were known as sin or purification offerings and burnt offerings. The sin or purification offering was for cleansing from sin. The burnt offering was a ransom to pay for their sins. They offered these to God and on behalf of the people. And God was prepared to accept the offerings and pardon the people.
Verses 2 and 3: Every high priest is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray. When he refers to people who are ignorant, he’s not talking about people who didn’t get much of an education so that they are ignorant about maths and science and history and that kind of thing. He’s referring to people who sinned in ignorance. That is, people who did wrong, without knowing it. But when they realised they had done wrong, they were heart-broken and conscience-striken. And the high priest is able to deal gently with them. Instead of condemning them, he is kind to them. And he’s kind to them, because those Old Testament priests were subject to weakness and they too were sinners. And so, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest not only sacrificed offerings for the people, but also for himself. Since he was aware of his own sinfulness, he was humble and gentle towards the people.
Verse 4: No-one takes this honour upon himself, but he must be called by God, just as Aaron was. And so, in Leviticus 8, we read how God gave instructions for Aaron and his sons to be set apart from the rest of the people to serve as priests in the Tabernacle. And the office of the priest was to be passed down through the generations of that family. God appointed who should be priest.
And so, every high priest offered sacrifices for the people. Every high priest was to deal gently with the people. Every high priest had to be called by God. So, in verses 1 to 4 the writer tells us what is true for every high priest. And then, in veres 5 to 10, he shows that what was true of high priests in general is true of Jesus Christ in particular. And he takes the same three points and deals with them in reverse order.
And so, verses 5 and 6: Christ our great high priest did not take this honour upon himself. He did not take upon himself the glory of becoming a high priest. He didn’t appoint himself, even though he’s the Son of God. But God the Father called him to it. And the writer quotes from two places in the Old Testament. The first quotation is one we’ve come across before. It’s from Psalm 2:7 where God the Father said to his Son:
You are my Son;
today I have become your Father.
You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
The writer to the Hebrews uses Psalm 2 to refer to the eternal relations between God the Father and God the Son; and how the Father eternally begets his Son and the Son is eternally begotten from the Father. And do you remember the significance of the word ‘beget’. When you make something, you make something which is different from yourself. So, God made the world in the beginning; and the world is not the same as God. But when you beget someone, you’re begetting someone which is the same as yourself. So, humans beget other humans. And so, when we say God the Father begets the Son or when we say the Son is begotten from the Father, we’re saying they are the same as one another. The Father did not make something different from himself. The Father begat a Son in his likeness, in his image. The Son is not different from the Father, but he’s the same as the Father. He’s a repetition of the Father.
And then the writer quotes from Psalm 110 where God the Father said to his Son:
You are a priest forever,
in the order of Melchizedek.
Now, we’ll get to the significance of Melchizedek on another Sunday. For now, we need to see what the writer is saying to us. And he’s saying to us: Remember the one who is Son? Remember I said he’s the Only Begotten Son of God the Father and he’s not different from the Father, because he’s the same as the Father? Remember what I said about him? Well, God the Father appointed his Son to be our great high priest. Our high priest is the Son of God. And God the Father appointed him to this position.
Verses 7 and 8: The NIV says, ‘During the days of his life on earth’. However, a better translation is: ‘In the days of his flesh.’ And the word ‘flesh’ signifies his weakness. Though he’s the Son of God, he became one of us. And since he became one of us, and was subject to the same weaknesses as us, then he’s able to do what every priest needs to do. He’s able to deal gently with us and to sympathise with us and help us in our weakness. And when he was on the earth, he needed to seek his Father’s help in prayer just like us. And he offered those prayers with loud cries and tears. So, he wasn’t a block of wood that cannot feel, but he feels everything we feel. And have you ever prayed with loud cries and tears? Well, your great high priest has done the same. And the point is that he is like us and he shares our sorrow and suffering and our troubles and trials. We don’t want a priest who is cold and unfeeling, but we want one who understands us.
And the writer says that he prayed to the one who could save him from death; and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Well now, God did not save him from dying, but he saved him from death, didn’t he? Though it was the Father’s will for him to drink the cup of wrath and to die in our place, God the Father heard his cries and delivered him from death by raising him from the grave. And it says that God heard him because of his reverent submission. And then, in verse 8, he says he learned obedience. In what way did he learn obedience? After all, there was never a time when he did not obey. But he learned obedience in the sense that he learned the cost of obedience through suffering. When we suffer, we’ll do almost anything to get relief. And that means we’re often ready to disobey our Heavenly Father to avoid more suffering. And when the soldiers came to arrest the Lord Jesus, he could have disregarded his Father’s will and saved his life. That’s perhaps what we would do. But he remained obedient to his Father even though it cost him his life.
And so, the writer is highlighting our high priest’s reverent submission and obedience. And the point is: he became one of us and suffered as one of us and was tempted like one of us. And so, he understands our weaknesses and troubles and he’s able to sympathise with us and deal gently with us. But more than that: in the midst of suffering, he remained obedient. And he’s therefore able to help us to obey.
And verses 9 and 10: Just as high priests are appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins, so our great high priest became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. The writer says he became perfect. He’s referring once again, not to moral perfection, but to Christ’s vocational perfect. He is perfectly qualified to be our great high priest. And as our perfectly qualified high priest, he’s able to provide us with eternal salvation. The Old Testament priests had to offer the same sacrifices over and over and over again, because the blood of bulls and goats which they offered to God could not take away the sins of the people. But Christ offered to God the perfect sacrifice for sins. No further sacrifice is required. No further payment must be made. And the salvation he won for his people will never lose its effectiveness. Its power to save will not diminish over time. The blood of his sacrifice is like a fountain which will never run dry, but it lasts forever.
Well, our time is up. But let me say this in closing: The blood of his sacrifice is his own blood, because our perfect high priest offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins. He gave up his life to pay for our sins and he shed his blood to cleanse us. And no matter how often you sin, and no matter how great or small your sins may be, his blood is able to cleanse you from all your guilt.
And so, just as he’s better than the prophets and angels and Moses and Joshua, so he’s better than the old covenant priests.
And the writer says we’re to obey him. And what does the Son command you to do? He commands you to trust in him as the only high priest who is able to provide you with eternal salvation.