25 Jul Jesus: A merciful High Priest
Introduction: Save us from the time of trial
- A friend of mine, in fact the person who was most humanly influential in leading me to Christ, was one of the most energetic, vibrant, committed focused Christians I knew. Ben’s love for God, his contribution at church, and his care for people were evident in his life, and known by many, And then he was struck down by that terrible affliction, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It robbed him of 10 years of his life. For the whole of his 20’s, he was basically incapable of relating to other people, he simply had no energy for anything or anyone. He would try to enter conversations and it would like a black hole, sucking all the life out of the situation. He slept more hours than he was awake, he moved from job to job and then to no job, and the light burned very dimly in his life. And he hated God for it. He came deeply to resent the fact that he had suffered like this, and while so many of his friends enjoyed their twenties to the hilt, he was confined to a couch in front of the TV at best, and his bed more often. And now in his 40’s he gives no thought to God at all.
- Jesus, followed by the writers of the New Testament, has a word for this sort of thing – it is the Greek word pairosmos. It’s a word with a bit of room in it. Jesus uses it in the prayer he taught us, what we now as the Lord’s Prayer – Lead us not into temptation, lead us not into pairasmos. Sometimes the word means temptation to sin, the tug on our souls to do that which is wrong by God and wrong by others. On the other hand, sometimes the word means something one step back from that, what we might call a trial, a testing, a situation of difficulty or suffering, darkness and dreariness. And the fact that the word has both these senses about it is not accidental, because it is often the case that trials are the occasions of temptation.
1. What do we learn from our trials?
- of course, trials come in all sorts of ugly and deadening shapes and sizes. A child rebels and you don’t know whether your son or daughter will be able to navigate with any degree of stability the shoals and sharks of life; and so you’re tested. You endure a financial disaster, and what once seemed secure and locked down is now dreadfully shaky and uncertain; and you’re tested. You cherish a dream for years, looking forward to the day when it is going to come true, and then one day you realise that not only has it not come true so far, but that it is never going to happen, not this year, not next, not the year after; the dream dies, and so does a part of you, and you’re tested. You’re tested, and when your heart aches with hurt or loss, when you are tired with a weariness that sleep does not refresh, when all you can see is the mountain ahead of you and no capacity to climb it, the option first to question God, then to demand of God and finally to hate God is very powerfully present. There is a profound spiritual dynamic going on here. It is what the author of the letter to the Hebrews calls our weakness, the human condition of sinfulness, that we experience the valleys of life, the trials of bad and sometimes terrible circumstances, and as a result experience the temptation sin, to turn our backs on the God who made us and sustains us and calls us, and give in to that temptation.
- the trials that the first readers of our letter were facing were severe, brutal and immediate. They have been robbed of their goods in the past, and now they face the prospect of losing not just their possessions, but their lives as well. They are being tested, and as is always the case, the trial is proving to be a moment of temptation, and some are teetering on the brink of caving in, of giving up and letting go of their confession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. After all, surely if he understood, surely if he knew what we were going through, surely if he had the slightest sense of my pain, he would do something – wouldn’t he? And so our pastor writes to these Hebrew Christians, tempted to go the easy, politically approved route of returning to the religion of the their forebears, Judaism, and does what by now is no surprise to us – he shows them Jesus. We’re going to pick it up in chapter 5, and verse 7:
2. What did Jesus learn?
7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. 8 Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; 9 and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him,10 having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
- the point of reference from which we take our bearings in relation to Jesus is the days of his flesh, the time when Jesus was as vulnerable and hurtable as we are. He suffered. We see something of this in the gospel accounts – the rejection of his people, and even his own family at one point, who regarded him as deranged; the constant threat to his life, as his enemies maneuvered to arrest and murder him; and ultimately of course, the success of their plans, as Jesus gives himself over to them, is whipped and beaten and scoureged and crucified, degraded and humiliated as a detestable terrorist, this one who was the Son of the living God. In this, Jesus is tested, trialed, pairasmosed in every way that we are – physically, emotionally, relationally, spiritually, he felt the full weight of the testing, and understood in the depths of his soul the tug of the temptation. There is no dimension of trial, no texture of temptation that we experience that he did not experience. He knows it all from the inside – except that he never gave in, he did not sin. That weakness is never ascribed to him.
- instead what he did do was to offer up prayers and supplications – requests, desperate urgent requests like let this cup pass from me, don’t make me have to go through this, I don’t know if I can bear this – with loud cries and tears, to the one who he knew was able to save him from death. Notice three things about this:
- somehow, the spiritual dynamic that operates for Jesus is almost the exact reverse that so often operates for us. For Jesus, the experience of even the most sever trial which brought with it the most severe temptation to turn his back on his Father, rather than leading him into sin away from God, instead led him into a spiritual intensity of connection with God. Jesus’ relationship to the Father didn’t somehow float 6 inches above the earth, untouched by the things going on and around and to him – no, what you see here is prayer, supplications, loud cries, tears – this is the texture of his relationship to the Father, precisely as the overflow of a soul being pairasmosed, tested, tempted, pushed, examined. Our pastor summarises it by saying that even though Jesus was the Son of God, the one through whom and for whom all things were created, the heir of all things, the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, he still had something to learn – he learned obedience through what he suffered, because obedience is the kind of thing that can ever be learned in a class room, it is always and only learned in heat of the battle and the midst of He learned obedience and so he cried out to God – ‘yet not my will but yours be done.’
- How did it work like that for him? Why was it that the trials which tempted led him towards God rather than away? See what our pastor tells us – because he offered those prayers and shed those tears before the one who was able to save him from death, who heard him because of his reverent submission. Jesus knew that what was happening to him didn’t change who the Father was – he was and is and always will be the one who is able to save us from death. The double meaning here I’m sure is deliberate – yes, God was the one who was able to save Jesus from death; and yes Jesus was heard because of his reverent submission. But of course, that included rather than avoided the cross; it was not from the cross that Jesus was saved, it was through the cross; he was saved from death, but only after death.
- Which leads then to the third point, this is designed precisely to comfort the original readers, whose own possible martyrdom was on the horizon in an all too pressing way, that in the midst of their trials, trials which were tempting them to let go of their profession of faith and the confidence and pride that belong to hope, they can walk in the footsteps of Jesus; that they too can offer up prayers and requests, with loud cries and tears, to the one who is able to save them from death, knowing that they will be heard in their reverent submission, even if they way God saves them from death is like the way he saved Jesus from death, by mighty resurrection.
- Of course this doesn’t somehow make suffering good, whitewash over the agony of the soul, suffering, trials, death, pain – these are all still alien intruders in God’s good world. No this doesn’t justify suffering, but it does show us what to do in the midst of suffering, to see Jesus not turning away from the Father in the midst of pain, but precisely because of the pain turning to the Father, as the only one ultimately who can do anything about it.
- But there is one more step in the argument that we need to get. It makes good sense that a Son should cry out to his Father, that’s what Fathers are for. But who are we to come before God, what right do we have? And the answer is, every right in the world, not by nature but by grace, because Jesus is not just an example to us, but a source of eternal salvation for us; not just a Son to God, but a high priest for us.
- remember that this is where the letter has been driving for the past 3 At the end of chapter 2, we are told that Jesus is a faithful and merciful high priest in the service of God. Chapters 3 and 4 explored what it meant that Jesus was faithful, and how his faithfulness calls for our faithfulness; and now in chapter 5 the focus is on the mercy of our high priest, and how it calls for us to lean on his mercy.
- Now for us, the word priest has almost no positive resonance. The thought that somehow in the very core of your being you are sufficiently morally and spiritually repulsive that you need someone acceptable to fill in for you and stand in your place and represent you is almost unhearable, but that’s exactly what’s at stake in the idea of a priest. To be honest, that either goes to show just how well we have understood that Jesus is our great high priest, faithful and merciful and therefore we’re in need to no other and get a little hot under the collar when someone seems to assume they can function as one; or perhaps even more likely, it might be that we have so slim a grasp on the holiness of God and the utter unholiness of our own souls that it would never even occur to us that someone could possibly have a problem with us, and if they did, that would be their issue not ours. We live in a world tragically incapable of calling a moral spade a shovel, and utterly insistent on lowering the bar to give false comfort to our souls. People endlessly behave in selfish, greedy, immoral, loveless ways, and that’s just how they treat other human beings, let alone total spiritual disinterest in God. At a trivial but telling level, I was talking to our church neighbours on Friday afternoon, who have to share a driveway between the 4 of them – grown adults, except that they were behaving like spoilt bratty children who won’t share their toys, and yet they all want to tell me that they are good people. They’re not, and neither are you or I, we are unclean, unholy, spiritually filthy and have no need greater than the need for a priest, a great and merciful and faithful priest in the service of God on our behalf.
- And unless you get that, really get that, you’ll never understand Jesus, you’ll never really see what he has done for you, and you certainly won’t get Hebrews. For the original hearers, that Jesus was a high priest carries with it a barb in the tail – that they don’t need to go to Judaism to obtain a high priest, they have a great high priest in Jesus. And his legitimacy is beyond doubt – see how our author is at pains to make to make this clear in 5.1:
Heb. 5:1 Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; 3 and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. 4 And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.
- three things are said about the garden variety high priest. He is not self appointed, but God appointed; he is in charge of things pertaining to God, which means specifically that he makes offerings of sacrifices to God for sins; and that he is sympathetic, able to deal gently with people and so represents them to God with care And our author is careful to show that Jesus fulfills all three criteria, v. 5:
5 So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; 6 as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” 7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. 8 Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; 9 and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him,
- can you hear how Jesus fulfills the criteria. He is our high priest because he did not glorify himself, but was glorified by God in being appointed; he offered up prayers and supplications, and ultimately his own life for our sins; and his days were the days of flesh, he suffered, and walked with us in the valley of the shadow of death. And having done the job to the very end – that is, having been made perfect, complete – he has therefore become the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.
Conclusion: The throne of grace
- right here is the secret of finding that our trials do not lead us to sin, at this point is the secret of learning obedience from our sufferings. On the one hand, we have the example of Jesus, which shows us that we should pours our hearts out to God; and at the same time, we have the achievement of Jesus which means that we can pour our hearts out to God, that we have a place of love before the throne of God, that his throne is for us not a throne of judgment, not a throne of fear, but a throne of grace.
Heb. 4:14 Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
- this is the only instruction in the whole section – in our time of need, when things are hard or even terrible, when trials press very sore upon us and tempt us to doubt God or even rage against him, then let us do what Jesus did, and let us do it because of what Jesus did – let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace. I have never been near any throne, but my guess is that your typical throne is not characterized by grace but by fear and bodyguards and power and threat. But not God’s throne – it is for us a throne of grace, pure, beautiful, soul nurturing grace, amazing grace, grace enough to get us through even the most profound of trials and hardest of tests and deepest of sufferings.
- I don’t know the trials you are experiencing at the moment. I know for some in our church community, they are extremely hard pressed. Soul numbing grief, desperate loneliness, decade long disappointment, rank confusion that life could be turning out this way are all features of some people’s lives. What I do know is this. Trials are the normal course of life for human beings this side of glory – it is in pain that we were born, it is by the sweat of our brows that we live, and then we die. Of course, that’s not the whole story, but nor is the story whole without recognising that there just is no such thing as a trial free, test free life. And with those trials and that suffering will come temptation, temptation to turn your back on the one who knows you and loves you and saves you and has reserved a place for you in glory. The temptation to harden your heart and become bitter towards God may come with ferocious force that stands in front of you as clear as day; it might come to you with head shaking subtlety, so that you hardly even realise what’s happening, until you look back on the last weeks and months and find that you have barely prayed to God or given him thanks or met with his people for worship at all. And the question our pastor puts to each of us today is this: what are you going to learn from suffering when it comes your way? Will you be like Jesus, and ensure that the spiritual dynamic at work in your soul is such that you learn obedience through what you suffer, that you live all of life before God in reverent submission, and so when it is your time of need, you approach the throne of God and find it to be a throne of grace, a source of mercy and overflowing generosity, because you have there someone who has been there before you, in every respect tested as you are being tested, and so walks with you in love.
- Think about the last time you experienced massive trials or dissapointments. What happened and how did you deal with it?
- What impressed you the most about how Jesus faced his trials?
- You cannot learn obedience in the classroom. What does it say about the importance of trials?
- God’s throne for us is a throne of grace. Discuss the implications of it.
- Why is it very hard for us to offer prayers and supplications in our trials and how does the gospel enable us to do it?
- Spend time to pray with one another.