February 9, 1997
Any priestly work on earth is rendered obsolete by the permanent work of Jesus Christ on our behalf: He alone could stand in our place, for He alone victoriously endured every temptation and paid the penalty for our sin. Alistair Begg helps us recognize the supremacy and beauty of Jesus the Great High Priest. This reality should give us confidence to draw near to the throne of grace and hold firmly to the faith God has gifted to us.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Can I invite you to take your Bible and turn with me to Hebrews once again, and to chapter 4? We decided that we would frame our worship this evening in such a way that we would come first to the Scriptures, and then around the Lord’s Table, and then that we would end the day in praise and in song. And so we turn again to the portion of Scripture that we were sitting under this morning.
We said that here in chapter 5, in the first ten verses, we had something of a commentary on the nature of priesthood. And we began by noticing the qualities that were required in high priests: that they would be “selected from among men,” that they would “represent them in matters relat[ing] to God,” that they would “offer gifts and sacrifices,” that they would be “able to deal gently” with the ignorant and the wandering, and that they would be “called by God.” We then went on to note how, in verse 5 and following, the writer then makes it clear that the Lord Jesus Christ more than amply fulfills these aspects of priesthood. And what he goes on to do is to underscore the validity of the priesthood of the Lord Jesus Christ—that he is able to sympathize because he has identified with us in our humanity, and he has, in verse 7, “offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death.” Now, it was at that point that we left it, and so we need just to consider verses 8 and 9 and 10, and then retrack to 4:14, 15, and 16.
Just in the same way as we should not be unsettled by this notion of the phrase there in verse 5, “Today I have become your Son,” as if somehow or another it was calling in question the eternal sonship of Christ, so in the same way, I don’t want you to be put off by this notion of Christ being referred to as one who has “learned obedience.” The fact of the matter is that we tend to learn obedience by facing the unpleasant consequences of our disobedience. And as parents, we will sometimes say to our children, “Well, if you can’t learn on the basis of my positive instruction, then you’re going to learn on the basis of the negative input that you receive.” And so, when we come to a phrase such as this, we’re tempted to believe, then, that it would be that Christ moved from disobedience to obedience. But clearly that is not the case. Jesus was not moving from a life of disobedience to one of obedience, because he was on the path of obedience from the very outset of his life.
So it must mean something other than that. And I think quite obviously, when you think about that, it means nothing more than this: that the Lord Jesus learned by his sufferings just what obedience to his Father involved in practice—that he who was obedient by his very nature learned the significance and the implications of that obedience as he walked the path of his everyday life. And in the conditions of his earthly pilgrimage, it was true to say that there was this learning of the significance and the implications of his obedience.
Similarly, in verse 9, there is another potentially unsettling phrase where it refers to the Lord Jesus as he who “once” was “made perfect,” and becoming perfect, “he became the source of eternal salvation.” In each case, the answer is largely the same. We should not think that he was not a son and became a son, because the Bible teaches us clearly his eternal sonship. We should not think that he was moving from disobedience to obedience, since he walked the very path of obedience all through his life. Nor should we think that he was moving in any sense from imperfection to a fresh and new experience of perfection.
One commentator puts it like this: “There is a perfection that results from having actually suffered; [and] it is different from the perfection that is ready to suffer.” So Christ was possessed of the perfection that was ready to suffer, and he then entered into a perfection that resulted from having actually suffered. I found it helpful to think of this notion of perfection in terms of being perfectly fitted to the office of high priest. And in the path that he was to walk throughout his life, he was entering into the discoveries of the implication of his obedience, and in this experience, he became fully qualified to be the Savior and High Priest of his people. And that is the emphasis of the writer here in these verses.
And as a result of that, it tells us in verse 9, in the second half, that “he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him”—the only “source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” It’s interesting—although not surprising, in light of what we have already seen—that the writer should describe the believers in terms of their obedience. Because, after all, he has been laboring to make the point that it is by our obedience and by our removing ourselves from unbelief that we reveal the reality of the change that has been performed in our lives as a result of God’s grace.
We shouldn’t be tripped up by this. It is not to say that by our obedience we are saved, because we know that Christ alone is the author of salvation; but it is to say that the reality of our salvation is attested to by our walk of obedience. I want just to say that again; I want to say it as many times as I have to till the penny finally drops for us. It is not that by our obedience we are saved, but it is that the reality of our salvation is attested to by the walk of obedience. So in other words, he says, he has become the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, because those who obey him are the ones who by their life and testimony point to the transforming power of his grace. Those who disobey him and who live in constant unbelief—no matter what they may say—give no visible, effective evidence of the reality of the change which God by his grace brings about. And Jesus himself made that clear: John 14:15, “If you love me, you will obey what I command,” so that our obedience will give testimony to it.
Now, when you think about this in relationship to 4:11, you can see how important it is: “Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of” what? “Their example of disobedience.” And so the writer issues a compelling challenge to the individuals who were beginning to waver in their profession. John Brown of Haddington, Scotland, in an earlier generation, said of this verse, “There is, there can be, no salvation through Christ to men [and women] living and dying in unbelief, impenitence, and disobedience.” And F. F. Bruce, in a pithy little statement, said, “There is [surely] something appropriate in the fact that the salvation which was procured by the obedience of the Redeemer should be made available to the obedience of the redeemed.”
Now, if you look at verse 10 and then look forward to verse 11, you can see two things: one, that we’re going to come back to this matter of Melchizedek; and two, an honest statement in verse 11: “We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you[’re] slow to learn.” So for those of us who were feeling a little overwhelmed this morning and were wondering if the writer understood—he understands perfectly. He says, “There’s actually a lot more that we could do and say about this. It’s frankly quite hard to explain.” And then he’s going to say something a little daunting for us: the problem is not so much in the realm of the explanation as it has to do with the laziness and waywardness of the listeners.
Now, that’s where we’re going, but let’s now just backtrack to the final little paragraph here in chapter 4. We introduced it; we said we have in Christ a Great High Priest. We said, “Well, what are the requirements of a high priest? What were they?” We looked at that in verses 1–4. We then said, “Well, what is the validity of the high priesthood of Jesus Christ?” and that is given to us essentially in verses 5–9. Now, says the writer, “therefore, since [in Jesus] we have [this] great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.”
Now, the background to this, you see, is surely that some people were saying, “What is this Christian thing? It doesn’t seem much of a religion. After all, you don’t seem to have very much. When we hear about what our forebears had going on in their day, they had a lot of sights and sounds and smells; they had a lot of robes and bells and paraphernalia. And from what we can see from the gatherings of these first-century Christians, you don’t even have a priesthood. You don’t have any of the necessary requisites of what would make up a bona fide religion.”
And interestingly, thousands of years later, that is exactly what people still say when they come into buildings just like this. It’s a strange Sunday if someone doesn’t say to me, “But you don’t have anything!”
I say, “I’m sorry?”
“No, you don’t—where’s your altar? You don’t have an altar.”
“Oh, yes,” I tell them, “we do have an altar.”
“Do you have it hidden?”
“Well, no, we don’t have it hidden.”
“Well, where is it?”
“Well, it’s in Hebrews 13.”
“But we’re only at chapter 4.”
“Well, you’ll have to wait.”
“Don’t you have a priesthood?”
“Oh, we’ve got a wonderful priesthood. We’ve got a Great High Priest.”
“You do? Who is this?”
“None other than Jesus, the Son of God.”
You see, and people’s minds are so programmed by external and earthly things when it comes to the experience of religion that it is deeply unsettling for many of them to have nothing really very much at all except a Bible and the indwelling power of the Spirit of God. But that was the experience of these first-century Christians. The church grew in the first four hundred years, without any form of mass evangelism and without any church buildings. Now, that’s not to say that you shouldn’t have mass evangelism or you shouldn’t have church buildings, but it is simply to acknowledge what was the case.
Well, says the writer, “we have a great high priest.” And while the earthly priest, as we’re going to see, may have gone through the curtain and into the most holy place, our Great High Priest, Jesus, “has gone through the heavens”—verse 14—and has appeared on our behalf before the Father. So instead of being upset at the apparent absence of the Great High Priest, the implication is we ought to be absolutely thrilled at his absence—his apparent absence, that is. Because he is physically absent from us now in order that he might be experientially present with us by the Holy Spirit, and in order that he, as the risen and exalted High Priest, may bear our needs before the Father at his throne in heaven itself. He is dealing with God on our behalf.
That’s why we love to sing the song, “Jesus is King and I will extol him, [and] give him the glory, and honor his name,” and those lovely lines that we sing: “We have a Priest who[’s] there interceding, pouring his grace on our lives day by day.” While many of us have not fully understood the implications of that, we’ve sung the words, and we’ve said, “Well, I’m sure that that is probably true, otherwise we wouldn’t be singing it.” Well, once we get a few more verses and chapters into Hebrews, every time we sing it, you’ll say, “I’ve got that one nailed. I understand that now. I know about this Jesus. He is not only my Prophet and my King, he is my Great High Priest.”
And the very greatness of his priesthood lies in the fact that he has offered himself for our sins once and for all. That’s in verse 7:27; we need simply to anticipate it in order to make the point. There’s just so much wonderful stuff to which we’re coming. Take it from 7:23: “Now there have been many of [these] priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office.” So one died, and another one had to be put in his place. Now look at this in verse 24: “But because Jesus lives forever”—because of his eternal sonship—“he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him.” Why? “Because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his … sins, and then for the sins of the people.” Why? Well, he tells us: “He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.” In other words, any earthly priesthood is rendered obsolete on account of the work of Christ, our Great High Priest.
And that is why, you see, Christian ministry, and those of us who have been called of God and set apart to the privilege and responsibility of the gospel ministry, have not been set apart as an order of sacrificing priests. You see, it doesn’t make any sense to set apart an order of sacrificing priests once you understand that our Great High Priest has offered up the one great sacrifice for sins. Christ’s priesthood leaves no room for any sacrificial offering for sin, either in heaven or on earth. And therefore, those who are called to be ministers of the gospel make the offer of propitiation—that is, an atoning sacrifice for sin—make the offer of propitiation not to God on behalf of men, which is this way … which, you see, distances me from you and puts me in a rarefied place on your behalf, so I offer to God a propitiation on your behalf. No. For Jesus, as our Great High Priest, upon the cross has offered one propitiation for sin. Therefore, what do we do? Well, we actually come from God, and we offer to men and women propitiation on God’s behalf. So it’s totally the reverse, you see. These are not two parallel tracks; these are two totally opposite ways of doing business, if you’ll pardon me. In one system, the man stands to offer something to God on behalf of the people. In the other, he stands before the people to offer them something on behalf of God. There’s all the difference in the world, loved ones. All the difference in the world.
Now, let’s wrap this up by noting just a couple of points of application, because we must conclude. What the writer is doing here is, he is establishing the supremacy of Jesus: he is the Great High Priest; he is not a mere mortal. He is “Jesus the Son of God,” verse 14. And also, he is making clear and enabling us to derive encouragement not simply from the supremacy of Jesus but also from the sympathy of Jesus. And this is the wonder of verse 15. It’s a familiar verse to many of us, and understandably so. We find ourselves hastening to it, I’m sure.
When Christ took upon himself human nature, he became subject to its limitations and its trials. We saw something of that in 2:17: “For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God.” And so his sympathy with the sinner in his trial does not depend upon the experience of sin; clearly, it cannot, because Jesus is without sin, as the writer tells us. But it depends upon the experience of the temptation to sin, which the sinless—and which only the sinless—can know in its full intensity. So the sympathy of the Lord Jesus is not a sympathy from a distance. It is a sympathy from the immediacy of his having walked our earthly road, having experienced the intensity of temptation.
Many of us are discouraged simply that we face temptation. Some of us come to a Lord’s Day like this, and we’re frankly embarrassed because of the magnitude of the magnetism of the pool of temptation in our own lives. And we need to realize at least two things. One, that it is not wrong to be tempted. That temptation in and of itself is not sin. That the experience of being tempted is not sin. For Christ, who was sinless, still endured the reality of temptation. It is in the yielding to temptation that we sin.
And I’ve never forgotten—’cause it was drummed into me as a boy in Sunday School in Scotland—the children’s hymn that went,
Yield not to temptation,
For yielding is sin;
Each vict’ry will help you
Some other to win;
Fight manfully onward,
[And] dark passions subdue;
Look[ing] ever to Jesus,
He will carry you through.
Ask the Savior to help you,
Comfort, strengthen, and keep you;
He is willing to aid you,
He will carry you through.
Now, when you’re a fourteen- and a fifteen- and a sixteen-, seventeen-, eighteen-, nineteen-year-old boy, that’s a good hymn to know! And when you’re a thirty-five-, thirty-six-, thirty-nine-, forty-one-, forty-two-, forty-three-, forty-four-, forty-five-year-old man, it’s still a good hymn to know. And there isn’t a day goes by but that the truth and reality of that hymn, which is grounded in the wonder of the great high priesthood of Jesus, saves and keeps.
You see, this is not an honors course in theology. If you needed an honors course in theology to understand temptation and to be able to stand back from it, where would most of us be? In a worse state than we are tonight. But it is enough for a child to understand. Jesus is able to sympathize with us because he’s been tempted far more than we are. We don’t ever feel the strongest pull of temptation; the reason is, we give in too soon. We’ve never known what temptation is like in all of its strength, because we give in long before it reached its intensity. Only he who has never responded to its intensity has known the amazing magnetism of temptation. And that is what Jesus lived with all of his life. Temptation took him to the very brink on every occasion, such that none of us have ever known, because we’ve capitulated long before the fires were turned up. Faced with the temptations that we face, he yielded to none of them.
And therefore, on the basis of this truth, the writer urges action on two fronts. Let me point them to you, and we are concluded.
First, he says, in light of all of this material—one—verse 14, “Let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.” Isn’t it interesting how he uses the plural here? This is not an exhortation to them, but he includes himself in it. He says, “Now, we all should be doing this.” This is a pattern. He does it all the time: 4:1, “Let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it.” He said, “We’re all in this together.” In the same way, as we’re about to see in verse 16, he says, “Let us then approach the throne of grace.” In chapter 6:1, “Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings.” And you can go through the whole of the book looking for the times that he says, “Let us.” All the “lettuces,” if you like; for those of you who are into gardening, there are a number of “lettuces” in Hebrews, and you can go through and you can find them.
Now, the implication is simply this: that if we are to ensure that we do not slip away as a result of laziness or neglect, we must hold firmly to the faith we profess. What is the faith we profess? Well, that Jesus is our Great High Priest. So the fact of the high priesthood of the Lord Jesus is vital to ensuring that we do not drift away. That’s why it’s so very important for me to spend the day underpinning for each of us the significance, the nature, and the necessity of the priesthood of the Lord Jesus—because this truth will help us.
Charitie Lees Bancroft, who lived in the middle of the nineteenth century into the first quarter of the twentieth century, wrote an amazing hymn on the strength of this, which I quote to you with great frequency. And it begins,
Before the throne of God above,
I have a strong and perfect plea,
A great High Priest whose name is Love,
Who ever lives and pleads for me.
My name is graven on his hands.
My name is written on his heart.
I know that while in heav’n he stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart.
Nobody can come to me and say, “Hey, you, get out of here!” Why? ’Cause I’m gonna say, “I’m with him. He brought me. He bought me, and he brought me. And he keeps me. So you can’t tell me to get out of here.”
When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look, and see him there,
Who made an end to all my sin.
You see, how do I hold firmly to the faith that I profess? I remind myself of what it means to have Jesus as a Great High Priest.
Because the sinless Savior died,
My sinful soul is counted free;
For God, the just, is satisfied
To look on him and pardon me.
One with himself I cannot die.
My soul is purchased by his blood!
My life is hid with Christ on high,
With Christ, my Savior and my God.
Loved ones, let us ask God to write these truths in our hearts so that we might hold firmly to the faith that we profess. And that means more than simply holding firmly to the truth of who the Lord Jesus is in his priesthood. It means holding on to what the Bible teaches about all of the world. It means going into the book of Genesis and saying, “Here is God’s explanation of the origin of the universe, and though the world may laugh at it and people may disdain it, I believe it.” It means understanding and believing all that God has said regarding sin and death and eternity and salvation, and saying, “You know what? I’m gonna hold firmly to the truths in this book.”
And then finally, let us not only “hold firmly to the faith we profess,” but in verse 16, “Let us … approach the throne of grace with confidence.” I don’t know that I’ve ever been before a throne, in actuality. I suppose in traveling around I’ve seen one or two that had to do with historical factors, but I’ve never gone before a throne, and I’ve a sneaking suspicion that if I were to get the summons to go before Her Majesty’s throne—at least, my Majesty’s throne—that I’m not sure that I would go with confidence. I think I would go with fearfulness.
But he says, “Here’s the way to come before the throne of grace with confidence.” In the Old Testament, the high priest represented sinful and weak human beings before a holy God, and now, he says, Jesus is representing us and making it possible for us to go forward with confidence, because it is a throne of GRACE: it speaks of “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.”
And what happens at that throne? Well, he says, at that throne we can “receive mercy,” which we badly need to deal with the sins of yesterday. And we can “find grace,” which we sorely need to meet the needs of today. “Let us then approach [this] throne of grace with confidence.”
You see, when we are most aware of the trouble that faces us, when I am most aware of my weaknesses, when I am embarrassed and shamed by my failures, where am I going to go? I mean, quite honestly, where are you going to go? Are you gonna go to a psychiatrist—the great high priests of the late twentieth century? You gonna go to your friends? Depending on how they’re feeling, they may condemn you, they may cajole you. They may be like Job’s comforters: they may say, “Well, the reason you’re in the predicament you’re in is because you’re a lousy sinner, and if you cleaned your act up and sorted a few things out…” and you drag your sorry tail out of there saying, “Boy, I wish I’d never gone in there to talk to her. I wish I’d never gone there to talk to him.” Who you gonna go to? You’re gonna go to the Great High Priest.
Standing somewhere in the shadows you’ll find Jesus,
And he’s the only one who cares and understands.
And standing somewhere in the shadows, you will find him,
And you’ll know him by the nail prints in his hands.
Don’t you think that you would feel confident enough to go before one who died in order that we might hold firmly to the faith we profess, and in order that regularly and humbly and confidently we might come into the presence of a God who welcomes us, by means of a Christ who understands us? What a wonderful thought!
And eventually, in eternity, there will be nothing else to plead—except when we stand before him, we will be able to say, “I come on the basis simply of the promise of your Word that in resting and believing in the provision of your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, as my Great High Priest, he has borne my sin, he has carried my punishment, his stripes have made me whole. And I’m glad that you are a God who welcomes me. And I thank you, Lord Jesus, that you are a Christ who understands me. And I pray that you will help me, then, to dispense the same kind of welcome and the same kind of understanding to my brothers and sisters who struggle with me on the journey through life.”
Let us pray together:
O Lord our God,
[We] cannot tell why he, whom angels worship,
Should set his love upon the sons of men,
Or why, as Shepherd, he should seek the wanderers,
To bring them back, [we] know not how or when.
But we thank you, in the Lord Jesus Christ we have one who is our Great High Priest. And he who has suffered and borne our sin and our rebellion in his own body on the tree has offered to us the privilege and responsibility and opportunity of gathering regularly and consistently, in the breaking of bread and in the drinking of our cup, to remind ourselves of the truths which today we’ve been grappling with and trying hard to understand. So stir our hearts as we prepare to gather round your Table, and as we pray in the name of Jesus, our Great High Priest, and for his sake. Amen.
 Hebrews 5:5 (paraphrased).
 Leon Morris, Hebrews, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 12, Hebrews through Revelation, ed. Frank F. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 50.
 John Brown, An Exposition of the Apostle Paul to the Hebrews, ed. David Smith (Edinburgh: William Oliphant, 1862), 259.
 F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 105.
 Wendy Churchill, “Jesus Is King” (1982).
 Horatio R. Palmer, “Yield Not to Temptation” (1868).
 Charitie L. Bancroft, “Before the Throne of God Above” (1863).
 E. J. Rollings, “Standing Somewhere in the Shadows” (1943). Lyrics lightly altered.
 W. Y. Fullerton, “I Cannot Tell” (c. 1920).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.