Hebrews 4:14-16


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Hebrews 4:14-16

Review

In the section just completed, the preacher has warned his hearers not to imitate the wilderness generation of Israel who failed to obtain salvation and eternal life for want of a true and living faith.  He now begins a new section, demonstrating Christ’s superiority to the Aaronic priests of Israel.  He has already, remember, shown Christ to be superior to the OT prophets, to the angels, to Moses, and now he will show him superior to the high priests of Israel’s worship.  Remember, all of these comparisons, are to the point:  these folk to whom he is writing this sermon, under pressure from their Jewish culture, are beginning to entertain a view of things more congenial to first century Judaism than to true Christianity, and, in particular, to views of Jesus Christ that are not faithful to his stature as the one and only savior of sinful human beings.  The Jews, of course, thought that the Levitical priesthood and its ceremonies were God’s definitive provision for the salvation of mankind.  Christians know that they were only an instrument and also a prefigurement of that true provision made in the life, death and resurrection of the Son of God, the true and eternal high priest.  The section extends from 4:14-10 but we will take only the opening verses this evening.

v.1       He now picks up the thread of his earlier statement that Jesus the Messiah is the high priest of his people which he made in 2:17-3:1.  That is typical of this author’s style:  he mentions something in anticipation of taking that thought up in greater detail later in his discourse.  For example, in the early verses of chapter 5 he will mention that Jesus is a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.  But he won’t work out what that means until he returns to that thought in chapter 7.  Here he also reminds us of what he has already said about the exaltation of the Lord Jesus who, after being made a little lower than the angels, is now crowned with glory and honor (2:9).

v.2       In 2:18 he had briefly mentioned that the Lord’s own experience of suffering has equipped him to help his people when they suffer.

After the stern warnings of the previous section, the preacher now changes his tone and offers encouragement and comfort for believers who have discovered that the life of Christian faithfulness in this world is beset with difficulties and that temptations to unbelief are many and powerful.

We must hold fast to Christ, he says.  Our salvation depends upon it.  The issue is as serious as that.  But Christ is not unmindful of the difficulties we face.  He understands them better than we do and, what is more, and more consoling, is that he feels their force.  He faced those difficulties himself and had to resist the very same temptations we must resist.

Now we dealt at some length, several Lord’s Day evenings back, with the reality of the Lord’s human life and experience.  We spoke of the mystery of this reality:  that Jesus Christ lived the life of a true, authentic man, and walked with God and put on holiness as a human being must, without any assistance whatsoever from his divine nature.  He was no superman; he was a real man.  He had to believe, as we must, what God had said in Holy Scripture.  He had to live by faith and trust his heavenly Father to be true to his word.  He had to face temptations as we must, not knowing what the next day would bring or how particular circumstances would work out.  He knows how to help his people in times of trial not because he is omniscient but because he faced the same problems we face and was victorious in every case.  He suffered many afflictions but by faith he overcame the world.  He did perfectly what we have to do.  He has been there before us.  That is the point.  He does not know our situation because he is God, he knows it because he is man and has lived our life the way we must live it.

Take, for example, the experience of loneliness, a crushing burden for many people and the source of many temptations to sin, to unbelief, to despair, to anger and resentment.  But if there is a temptation and a sorrow that Jesus knows inside and out, it is that of loneliness.  He was alone even when he was in a crowd of friends, because no one understood his life or his calling or the burdens he bore.  No wonder, though his body craved sleep, he would take hours away from his night to commune with God.  He needed to talk to someone who understood and he needed help he could get nowhere else. And then he knew the punishing culmination of loneliness when left, one after another, by all his close friends, until he found himself facing his enemies entirely alone.

As the poet has it:

                        Not even the tenderest heart, and next our own,

Knows half the reasons why we smile or sigh.

Thou knowest our loneliness,

No stranger Thou to all our solitude.

And, now, seated on the throne in heaven, this perfect understanding of our situation, this personal sympathy with it, this fellow-feeling, is joined to omnipotence and the Lord can act on our behalf to help us as he knows we need help.

And as we are told in v. 15, he has been there “in every way.”  Obviously there are many specific temptations that Jesus did not face.  He never had to deal with the peculiar temptations of old age, for example.  Unmarried as he was and remained, he never was tempted in exactly the same way that husbands and wives are in married life.  Similarly he never had children.  He was never wealthy.  And so on.

But, nevertheless, such was the total experience of temptation that he had in this world, such were the many and varied temptations that he faced, that it is true to say that he was tempted in all the ways that men and women, boys and girls are tempted.  What is more, he knows temptation far better than we do because all of his were the sharpest kind of temptations, those that must be born to the bitter end.  Temptation for us is so often dulled and domesticated, we become comfortable with it and accepting of it, it is not the terrible struggle for us that it should be, because we fall prey to it, we surrender to it, we even welcome it so often.  But Jesus never did.  He never sinned.  He never welcomed a temptation.  He never grew comfortable with temptation.  And that means that he bore every one of his temptations out to the bitter end.  All of his temptations were searing and white hot.

Now verses 15 and 16 are lovely and contain beautiful sentiment and wonderful hope.  We memorize them among the first verses we are put to memorize when we are children, as is right.  But their familiarity and their beauty may blind us to the fact that it takes real faith, sturdy faith to believe what we are told here in verses 15-16.  It is not obvious that these statements are true, certainly not to the naked eye.

Jewish writing in the second half of the 20th century made much of the disappearance of God, the necessity of rejecting even his existence precisely because of the holocaust and what a believer would have to regard as God’s abandonment of his people to their enemies, his refusal to extend to them grace to help in time of need.  Now we as Christians can say many things in answer to that charge and that unbelief.  We can speak of God’s judgment or of his impenetrable ways.  We can speak of Judaism’s unbelief and the long history of God’s abandoning her to her enemies on account of that unbelief.  And, much more and most of all, we can rise to the defense of God and his ways by pointing out that God the Son underwent a holocaust of his own precisely for the salvation of his people.  In full view of Christ and the cross there can be no thought of God abandoning his people or of his not understanding or caring about their woes. All of that we can say.

But, the fact is, even among Christians, even among the most devout followers of Jesus Christ, it can be very hard to believe that at the throne of grace there really is to be found grace to help in time of need.  It can be very difficult to believe that Jesus Christ really sympathizes with us in our infirmities and our sorrows.

In A Grief Observed, which I mentioned to you this morning, C.S. Lewis, reflecting on the agony of his loss and bereavement upon the death of his wife, his personal devastation like nothing he had ever experienced, wrote this:

            “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God.  The real

danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about him.  The conclusion I

dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like.

Deceive yourself no longer.”  [10]

And then this later in the work.

“The terrible thing is that a perfectly good God is in this matter hardly less formidable than a Cosmic Sadist.  The more we believe that God hurts only to heal, the less we can believe that there is any use in begging for tenderness.  A cruel man might be bribed – might grow tired of his vile sport – might have a  temporary fit of mercy, as alcoholics have fits of sobriety.  But suppose that what  you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good.  The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting.  If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless.  But is it credible that such extremities of torture should be necessary for us?  Well, take your choice.  The tortures occur.  If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one.  If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary.  For no even moderately good Being could possibly inflict or permit them if they weren’t.  Either way, we’re for it.”  [36]

In how many ways are Christian people driven to thoughts like that.  Life is full of punishing disappointments and terrible loses and desolations.  It does not turn out the way we had hoped in so many ways.  And, then, when we are so terribly at a loss, nothing changes.  We go to Christ, to the throne of grace, and plead for help and it seems as if no help comes at all.

We expect, perhaps naturally enough, that “grace to help us in our time of need” would mean some immediate relief, the making good on what we lack, the granting of the desires of our heart.  But often it is not so.   The loved one is gone and will not come back.  The thing we most want in life never comes.  The struggle continues unabated. Where is the sympathetic high priest?  Where is his tender concern that springs from his having gone through the same waters?   If we were omnipotent, so we think, would we not intervene and bring the suffering of our child, our servant, our brother or sister to an end?

And, yet, the most remarkable thing is that in the full acceptance of these facts, Christians continue to believe in the mercy of Christ, continue to believe that their prayers have been heard, continue to draw consolation from the fact that they have a merciful high priest who has been touched with the feeling of our infirmities.  I tell you, it is the great story of this world, how God’s people draw comfort from Christ when the entire world is telling them it does not exist, when their own experiences remain sorrowful and painful to a great degree, when they cannot see, hear, or feel that Christ has heard their prayers and granted the relief that they have sought from him at the throne of grace.  Great multitudes of the world’s finest people have been absolutely sure that they have been the beneficiaries of Christ’s sympathy even though their sorrows and difficulties have hardly been removed.  This is the power and the life-preserving effect of true faith in Jesus Christ.  This is the evidence of his working in our hearts and lives.  This is the proof that his promises are true and will never fail.

Now hear me.  I am not saying that the Lord does not often, wonderfully, surprisingly, magnificently, even immediately come to the rescue of his children in times of trouble and lift them up, provide for all their wants, grant them the desires of their hearts, annihilate their sorrows.  He does.  He often does.  He has for me and I know he has for you.  He often proves vv. 15-16 in the most obvious, outward, and unmistakable ways.

But, what I am saying is that the greater proof of the truth of his love and sympathy lies here:  when the outward circumstances do not change and the agonies continue and yet the believer knows that Christ is there; his love and sympathy surround him or her, are underneath like everlasting arms.

It was so in Lewis’ case.  As the small book continues we come across this:

            “I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted.

Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face?  … Perhaps your own

reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.”  [38]

And, then:

            “’She is in God’s hand.’  That gains a new energy when I think of her as a

sword.  Perhaps the earthly life I shared with her was only part of the tempering.”

[50]

And again:

            “When I lay these questions before God I get no answer.  But a rather special

sort of ‘no answer’.  It is not the locked door.  It is more like a silent, certainly not

uncompassionate gaze.  As though He shook his head not in refusal but waiving

the question.  Like, ‘Peace, child, you don’t understand.” [55]

And then the final paragraph.  Surely Lewis found grace to help in his time of need.

            “How wicked it would be, if we could, to call the dead back!  She said not to me

but to the chaplain, ‘I am at peace with God.’  She smiled, but not at me.  Poi si

            torno all’ eterna fontana.

Those last words of that little work are a quotation from Dante in the Italian: “then she turned back to the Eternal Fountain.”   They are spoken of Beatrice, when, in one of the final cantos of the Paradiso, she finally and forever turns away from the poet, whom she has guided to heaven, toward the glory of God.  It is Lewis’ literary way of confessing his faith in the fact that there, in the presence of God, his wife, whose departure in death has been such a desolation to him, is now lost in the rapture of God.

Remember, in Hebrews, the concentration falls on heaven and how all that we believe Christ for will only come to us there and then.  For Father’s Day my daughter and son-in-law gave me a book of covenanter poetry.  One of the most famous of the poems devoted to that time of struggle by those devout Christian people is known as “The Covenanter’s Night Hymn.”  I read only a selection.

                        Jehovah!  Though no sign appear,

Through earth our aimless path to lead,

We know, we feel Thee ever near,

A present help in time of need –

Near, as when, pointing out the way,

For ever in thy people’s sight,

A pillared wreath of smoke by day,

Which turned to fiery flame at night.

                        O Salem, city of the saints,

And holy men made perfect!  We

Pant for thy gates, our spirits faint

Thy glorious golden streets to see;

To mark the rapture that inspires

The ransomed, and redeemed by grace;

To listen to the seraphs’ lyres,

And meet the angels face to face!

                        Father in heaven!  We turn not back,

Though briers and thorns choke up the path;

Rather the tortures of the rack,

Than tread the wine-press of thy wrath.

Let thunders crash; let torrents shower;

Let whirlwinds church the howling sea;

What is the turmoil of an hour

To an eternal calm with Thee?

Or, to put it another way, if Christ keeps us holding on to him, no matter our afflictions and troubles, we have received most profoundly and wonderfully and surely grace to help us in our time of need.  For, in him, we have received the sure and certain hope of a soon coming eternity of endless and boundless joy!