As we take up these studies again after a month’s pause, it will help us to remind ourselves where we are in the argument of this sermon against apostasy. Hebrews is an extended exhortation on the absolute necessity of a persevering faith in Jesus Christ. Writing to Jewish Christians who are now being tempted to return to the Judaism whence they came, to make peace again with their Jewish spiritual culture and, no doubt, family members and friends whom they offended when they became Christians, this preacher is reminding them, point by point, that the contemporary Judaism that they left to become Christians does not lead men and women to heaven. It is, instead, a religion that amounts to a corruption of the gospel, a corruption not at all unlike the false views of salvation so often embraced by Israel through her history. And, lest someone think us anti-Semitic, we are quick to say that such false views of salvation have been entertained by multitudes of so-called Christians in the centuries since. That is what makes Hebrews so timeless. It speaks to a danger to which God’s people are always exposed. Indeed, one of the reasons why Hebrews was such an important source for preaching in the era of the Reformation was because the church of that era had made precisely the same mistake that the Jewish church had made: viz. substituting a confidence in ceremonies for a true and living faith in Jesus.
Most recently in the argument of the sermon the author has pointed out that the true gospel was preached to Israel, in particular at the time of the exodus and wilderness, but it was of no benefit because it was not mixed with true faith. And what happened in those ancient days, has happened again. The Judaism of the first century had much of the appearance of the ancient religion, but it lacked true and living faith in Christ, who was and had always been God’s definitive provision for the salvation of his people. And that lack of faith was demonstrated by the fact that Judaism in those days really did not look for such a Messiah as God sent to them. It thought more of angels than it did of the Messiah; it thought more of Moses than it did of the Messiah. It had no place for a Redeemer who would die for the sins of the world. It was content with the outward forms of its faith because it had largely lost a true understanding of what salvation required. No wonder then that the Jews, by and large, rejected the Messiah when he came among them demanding their absolute loyalty and love and declaring that he and he alone was the way, the truth, and the life. No, this preacher is telling them, you won’t get to heaven – and that is the real issue, always and only the real issue – you won’t get to heaven believing as most Jews believe any more that the generation of Israel in the wilderness obtained God’s salvation. You must be Christ’s follower. That is the argument of this sermon and will be to the end of it.
As we said last time, 4:14 begins a new section in which the preacher will demonstrate that Christ is not only superior to the angels and to Moses, which he has already demonstrated, but also to the Levitical priests. This is important because these Jewish Christians were being tempted to think, as their non-Christian Jewish neighbors thought, that the Levitical priesthood was enough, that the ceremonial rites of Judaism were sufficient to take away their sins. They didn’t need living faith in Christ when they had the sacrifices and the temple. The people in Jeremiah’s day, remember, thought the same thing. There are, in fact, a lot of similarities between this sermon and the sermons in the book of Jeremiah!
When one doesn’t have faith in Christ for one’s peace with God, one must always and will always trust himself or herself to something else. The Israelites in the OT were always found making this mistake: trusting the outward ceremonies of the Mosaic law (if not the idols of nearby nations) instead of the reality to which those ceremonies were intended to point. As this author has already said, in 2:17-3:1, the true high priest of God’s people was not Aaron and is not some descendant of Aaron. By the way, the Essene Jews – we have said that the Judaism that is addressed in Hebrews seems very like that of the Essene variety – were very interested in re-establishing a pure priesthood. They regarded Israel’s then current priesthood, under the control of the Sadducees, as impossibly corrupt and had largely withdrawn from the worship of the temple in Jerusalem as a result. They were looking for the day when they would have their own men in control of the Jewish priesthood. But, what is clear is that they did not see the Levitical priesthood as a foreshadowing of the life and work of the true high priest, the high priest who can truly help the people of God is not Aaron or his descendants, who is Jesus Christ.
v.16 The Greek word used here for “approach” is the word often used in the LXX for the priest’s approach to God in the sacrificial ritual (e.g. Leviticus 21:17, 21). This is sometimes taken to prove that believers in the NT have the same access to God that only priests had in the OT. But that is not this author’s point here nor his viewpoint in general. In 11:6 he uses the same word to describe that approach to God that believers in the OT enjoyed as well. Rather his point is that believers must rely not on the sacrifices and ceremonies themselves but on Jesus in those sacrifices, a point he will return to in chapter ten.
v.1 Now, in the next section, vv. 1-10 of chapter 5, the preacher takes care to establish for his readers, people, remember, who are steeped in the Levitical regulations, that Jesus, though not a descendant of the tribe of Levi, is in every way fitted to be the believer’s great High Priest.
In vv. 1-3 he makes the point that, as a representative of men to God, a priest must have fellow-feeling, true sympathy for those he represents. As one who offers sacrifices for sin, he must know the power of sin and have first-hand experience of battling sin. In the Levitical ritual, this was emphatically expressed in the requirement that even the high priest must offer sacrifice for his own sins (Lev. 16:6). Second, in v. 4, he notes that the high priest must be appointed to the office, he cannot take it for himself. He must have God’s appointment. Then, in reverse order, the author demonstrates that Jesus meets those requirements. First in vv. 5-6 that he had divine appointment to his office and, second, in vv. 7-10 that he has a proper sympathy for and understanding of those he represents to God.
v.6 Jesus was identified as the “Son of God” already in the opening verses of the sermon, 1:1-5, and there too Psalm 2:7 was cited as it is here in v. 5. There too the Son was said to have provided purification for sins on behalf of his people, which is what a priest does. In any case, this citation again demonstrates that Jesus has been declared the Son of God and the next citation will show that he has been appointed priest by God the Father. Both the citations are designed simply to prove that Jesus Christ has his appointment directly from God. (It is too complicated a point to make here, but Psalm 2 has more to do with Christ’s kingship than with his priesthood. Psalm 110 is about the priesthood of the Messiah. But, remember, Melchizedek was both a king and a priest! The two offices are also combined in the life and work of Jesus Christ.) Both texts from the OT are important messianic passages, often used in the NT to demonstrate Christ’s credentials. The Lord Jesus, if you remember, made use of Ps. 110 in asserting his claims to be the Messiah. Both of the texts prove that Jesus received his commission from God the Father. He did not seek this for himself, it was laid upon him as a charge. In the Gospels, you remember, this point is made over and over again by the Lord Jesus himself: he didn’t take this assignment to himself, seeking his own glory; it was given to him by his Father and he was in the world to give glory to his Father, not to obtain it for himself. By the way, Psalm 110, cited in v. 6, has also been cited already, in 1:13.
v.7 It is not only a reference to Gethsemane, but the allusion is unmistakable. But, his whole life was like that. Gethsemane was only a concentration.
v.9 This is by no means the only place in the Bible where faith in Christ is described as an act of obedience. We might expect to have read: “the source of eternal salvation for all who trust in him, or believe in him.” Here, instead, those who are saved are described as those who obey him. There are a number of texts like this one in the Bible, both in the OT and the NT. In Jeremiah 7:23, for example, the Lord says to Israel: “Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people.” And you get the same way of speaking a number of times in the NT. It is possible to speak this way, of course, because true faith carries obedience with it and always expresses itself through obedience. But, more than that, faith, depending upon the Lord, is itself an act of obedience. It is an answer to God’s summons. We are called upon to do it, summoned to do it and when we do it we are not only believing but obeying. Taking the entire teaching of the Bible together, faith and obedience are not precisely the same thing, though each of them has the other in it. But, we say that faith is not works – in the sense that we are justified by faith and not by works – not because there is no obedience in faith, for there is; but because that obedience is not regarded as the basis of our right standing with God. Our righteousness comes from another, Jesus Christ. Faith is the means by which we lay hold of another’s righteousness, but that faith, if it is true and living faith, is obedience to a summons and carries obedience of life with it.
Every person who hears the gospel is obliged to believe it. It is a summons, a command from God. You must obey. You must believe in Christ. Anything else is rebellion and disobedience. The gospel is not only an invitation to be saved by faith in Christ; it is a command to be obeyed.
v.10 It is true that Jesus did not sin and never had to offer sacrifice for his own sins as the high priest of Israel did, but it is also true that he had to battle with sin and temptation, even more than any other man ever had to battle. He was tempted more severely than any other man before or since. He knew the sorrow and the pain and the confusion of sin even though he never committed a sin. And his suffering and his obedience in suffering renders Jesus perfectly able both to sympathize with and to help his people in their temptations and their sufferings.
We spoke at length about this before, so I won’t belabor the point here: but, the Lord’s dependence upon prayer, his cries and tears, his being heard because of his submission to God, his learning things as he grew up into complete spiritual manhood, all of this reminds us of how completely, how authentically the Lord Jesus lived the life of a true human being. He was not a superman. He was a real man and had to live his life as a human being must. Jesus succeeded in his life and work because he prayed so faithfully, because he learned the Scripture so faithfully, because he struggled so manfully against sin, because he took his hard-won lessons to heart. He was also God, to be sure; but his deity and his humanity were completely separate and remained so in that single glorious personality. Mystery of all mysteries to be sure; but essential for us to believe.
The point about Jesus being a priest of the order of Melchizedek is mentioned here and then dropped. But, it will be taken up in detail again in chapter 7. For that reason, we’ll leave that idea for later. It is typical, as we have seen, for this author to introduce an idea and then take it up in detail at some later point. He did this with Christ’s priesthood in chapter 2 which he is elaborating now in chapter 5.
These folk were being tempted to sin. They were struggling with doubts about Jesus Christ and their Christian faith. They needed help to stand firm. And the preacher pointed them to Christ and encouraged them to believe that Jesus knows what it is like to be tempted and knows how to help them. He has given them argument and will give them more. He has warned them and will warn them again and again before this sermon is completed. But, they need more than argument and warning: they need direct, personal, sympathetic, powerful, and wise counsel, direction, assistance, support, understanding, and intervention. And only one can give them that: Jesus Christ himself. You see, this preacher knows that there is no better antidote to a wavering confidence in Jesus Christ than simply to turn to Christ again oneself, to look again to Christ, to find the help you need in Christ, to see Christ once again in his glory as your Savior.
Look, he says to them, Jesus knows your struggles, he knows what you are going through, he understands the pressures of human life, the pull of family and spiritual culture, the bitterness of reproach by others, the sting of criticism, even the threat of loss of property and life. He knows all about that, he knows what it feels like, and he is able to help you. It is your glory as Christians to be able to make a direct approach to the throne of grace and find help there for yourself.
While in Colorado this summer, I listened to a scintillating series of lectures on the Psalms by Prof. Bruce Waltke. In one of those lectures he gave a detailed interpretation of Psalm 4. I wish I could take time to give a survey of that psalm after the treatment Dr. Waltke provided, but, for our purposes this evening, I want to draw your attention to vv. 3-5 of Psalm 4. Now this is a psalm, like so many in the Psalter, produced by a crisis in the life of the king and his people. It is a psalm of David and, apparently, it concerns a time of drought. There are a variety of clues in the psalm that it is drought that has brought about the crisis, but I’ll not take the time to point them out. In any case, the situation that was created was not so unlike that faced in Hebrews. As we read in Ps. 4:2, there was, at least among David’s advisors, a loss of confidence in Israel’s God, a temptation to turn to another religion instead. And as an antidote to this spreading doubt, this wavering faith, David in his psalm strings together seven – that number is surely no accident – seven imperatives. The NIV doesn’t have seven because in v. 4 it gives for its translation: “In your anger do not sin.” But according to normal Hebrew usage it would be translated: “Tremble and do not sin,” two commands, not one.
What are we to do when doubt begins to rise in our hearts? David tells us:
- Know the Lord has set apart the godly for himself
- Do not sin
- Search your hearts
- Be silent
- Offer right sacrifices
- Trust the Lord
Tremble means, surely, to fear the consequences of getting this wrong, of disobeying and dishonoring the Lord. Later in Hebrews, though already to a degree, these Jewish Christians are going to be warned of the terrible consequences that befall those who betray the Lord. Do not sin means to take special care at a time of testing in your life not to give yourself over to sin because sin will blind your mind and heart and you will be much less likely ever to see the truth of things. There will be a good bit of this warning in Hebrews. When people give themselves over to doubts about their faith, lurking nearby is often the desire to do those things that their faith forbids them to do. Doubt is often a highway to sin. The heart makes it an excuse to sin. Search your heart means to be honest with yourself about your motives and about what is really going on here. Is it truly a seeking after truth, or, if the truth be told, do you want something that God has not given you or forbids you to have? What is really at work in your doubts: Envy? Anger? Disappointment? Frustration? Fear? How does the situation look to you when you are absolutely frank with yourself about yourself. No doubt if these Jewish Christians addressed in Hebrews were really honest with themselves, they would admit that more than anything else their doubts were the result of the fact that their Christian life had become hard going. They hadn’t any real reason to doubt the truth of the gospel but they were feeling that life would be easier if they didn’t have to follow Christ. Be silent means to inspect and listen to your conscience. The Lord has given a witness within you. Be honest with the witness of your own heart as to the truth about God and his Word and his ways. Fact is, these Jewish Christians knew very well the truth of the Gospel and had had that truth proved to them in powerful ways. As we read in 2:4 they had had it confirmed before their very eyes with miracles of various kinds. They knew that God himself stood behind the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the kind of thing one can forget in the press of life, but once one is silent and inspects his own conscience the truth becomes clearer again. Offer right sacrifices means to continue to offer worship to God. If you want to be sure of God and salvation, then seek him in prayer and read his Word. Gather with the Christians in the house of the Lord on the Lord’s Day. Stay under the hearing of the Word. That is what someone does who really wants to know the truth. If you want to be reprobate, if you want to grow comfortable apart from God, if you want to be sure that the Christian gospel is not true, then read pornography; but if you really want to be sure of your peace with God, go where God may be found and do the things that you know please him. Doubt often breeds a completely different attitude. People come to feel that they must have intellectual satisfaction, must have all their questions answered before they can commit to Christianity and to Jesus Christ. I warn you that at the judgment day such people will be last seen straining to untie some particular knot as they slip away to hell. God must be taken seriously and his Word must be as well and no one does that who thinks it is right to stand in judgment of that Word and of God himself. Trust the Lord means what it says: do not count on yourself to sort all of this out; look to the Lord to make things clear and to show you the truth of things. Isaiah says the same thing to those who are confused and uncertain: “Seek the Lord, while he may be found; call upon him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord and he will have mercy on him…” That is precisely what the preacher is telling his hearers here in Hebrews 4 and 5. “Turn to the Lord…”
Now of that list of seven imperatives, the first has pride of place: “Know the Lord.” Here in Psalm 4 it is precisely “Know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself.” That is, know the truth about the Lord and about his relationship with his people. Consider the theology you have been taught in the Word of God. Take it to heart. That is the first step. Don’t forget the truth that has been revealed to you.
Well, that is what this preacher in Hebrews is saying: don’t forget the truth about Jesus Christ. Don’t forget what you know about him. Don’t forget what he has revealed to you about himself. Remember what he suffered for you; remember his victory over sin; remember his divine appointment, prophesied centuries ago in the ancient Scriptures, remember his sympathy and love. Take this truth to heart and then see how things look to you. Take this truth to heart and then, in the strength of that truth, turn to the Lord yourself again and find in him and from him the help that you need.
The writers of the psalms always based their prayer on what they knew to be true of the Lord. They set out that knowledge as if it were a kind of legal brief and they argued their case based on what they knew to be true. This man is encouraging his readers to do the same: tell the Lord you are in trouble, that your doubts are rising. But remind him that he is the sympathetic high priest of his people, that he understands your sufferings and confusions and disappointments, that he knows how to deliver you from temptation having been tempted so terribly himself. Tell him that you know that he was appointed by no one less that God the Father to be king and priest for his people and that, therefore, you have nowhere else to turn. Write your prayer out if you have to get the case right, the argument clear. The Psalms are very often passionate prayers, but they are also artfully, carefully written. They were not outbursts, they were thought out, carefully written, artfully constructed. You are being given the argument here in Hebrews 4 and 5, now turn it into a prayer, as you are invited to do in 4:16 and pray with confidence, you have every reason to be confident, having the high priest you have.
So often our problem is that we forget what we know, what we have been many times convinced of. The man in Psalm 73, remember, was also beset by doubts; he was beginning to drift away, as these people to whom Hebrews was sent. And what was his rescue, his deliverance? He remembered. He did what David advised in Psalm 4, he continued to offer sacrifices, that is, he went to church, and there, suddenly, he remembered what he knew about God and about salvation and about heaven and hell and suddenly everything in his faith was back to normal again.
And you and I need the same lesson. We know much about Christ, but we forget it much of the time. That truth, that glorious truth about our Savior and salvation is often not present to our mind. We forget about his own experience of our life, his sympathy and understanding. We forget about his love and mercy. We forget about his power to deliver us from temptation. We forget about his promise to hear and answer our prayers. We forget about how he himself prayed and was heard by his heavenly father, about how perfectly he understands the life, the struggle, but also the power of prayer. And so we do not pray or pray half-heartedly. We don’t come boldly to the throne of grace to obtain help in our time of need. What these verses are in Hebrews 4 and 5 are an invitation to meditation, to serious thinking about the Lord Jesus, to remembering truth about him that cannot help but encourage us to pray, to pray confidently, and to obtain by prayer the grace we need.
We are being told here to turn to the Lord and we are being given reasons why we should turn to him and to no one else. But if we don’t take those reasons to heart, if we don’t turn them over in our mind, if we don’t meditate on them, they will do us little good. Meditation is an important art of the Christian life. In the Hebrew poetry of the OT the parallels to “meditate” – those words, synonyms or near-synonyms that are set side by side with “meditate,” and so will tell us what is meant by meditation – are such words as remember, ponder, calculate, inquire and investigate. Remember, in Exodus and Deuteronomy, the people of God were told to bind the law of God – a term that means much more than merely commandments, it means the Word of God, the message of salvation as well as the commandments – on their foreheads and wrists and to write them on the doorframes of their houses and on their gates.
It was not, of course, a command to make and use phylacteries – little boxes with slips of paper on which are written a text or two of Scripture and worn on the forehead and the wrist by Jewish men at prayers. That missing of the point is precisely what went wrong with Judaism. Rather to speak of binding the law of God on the head and the wrist is a metaphorical way of saying that the truth of God’s revelation, the Word of God, must be taken into the head and must be reflected in one’s actions. Our life, in other words, first internally and then externally must be constantly related to what we have been taught to be truth in the Word of God and the gospel of Christ.
The preacher here is telling you to bind the truth about Christ’s priesthood on your foreheads and your wrists. And how do you do that? By mulling that truth over, by considering what it means, by taking it to heart, and making it the basis of your actions, and first of all, by making it the basis of your prayers.
So much of the Christian life, and so much of Christian confidence and assurance and boldness reduces to this: that what we know to be true about Jesus Christ is taken to heart and made the basis of our actions. Ask yourself whether you have been doing that in regard to Christ’s priesthood, and, if not, begin to do it and see what difference it makes when time after time you come to Jesus Christ, knowing him to be the great high priest, and, appealing to his priesthood, you find mercy and grace to help in your time of need.