March 31, 2019
HOLDING FAST, DRAWING NEAR, AND LOOKING TO JESUS
(9 of 30 in a series through Hebrews)
I don’t remember exactly what day or even what year it was. I know it was in the late nineties, and I know where I was sitting. I was in a room off the dining area at Union University, where some chairs had been lined up, listening to a visiting lecturer. The lecturer’s name was Bill Mounce, and I wanted to hear him because he was the author of the textbook from which I had learned Greek. But what he talked about that day wasn’t anything specifically about the importance of studying Greek (or Hebrew for that matter). Rather, he was talking that day about the importance of anchoring ourselves in what we know to be true about God. He spoke of God’s majestic power and sovereignty over all things. He spoke of God’s goodness and love. Honestly, I only remember parts of his lecture. But I do remember one thing he said specifically, and I’m not quite sure why that one part of his lecture stuck in my head so that I can call it to mind now twenty years later.
He was saying that we need to know what we believe now, before the tumultuous days of life come, rather than waiting until we’re in the whirlwind of suffering and trying to figure it out then. In other words, come to understand who God is now, in the light, rather than waiting till that moment where you feel like you’re in the midst of darkness and God seems silent. But specifically what he said that day was something like, “You need to come to understand what you believe about God’s sovereignty and goodness now and not wait until you’ve just lost your second child and been let go from your job right before Christmas.”
I think the reason it stuck with me is because it felt like too specific of an example to merely have been a hypothetical. It seemed like he was describing his experience. A few years later it was confirmed to me that Bill Mounce had been speaking of his own experience. I picked up his commentary on the Pastoral Epistles and opened to his dedication which reads, “To the women in my life: Robin, my wife and best friend; Rose and Rachel, who went on ahead to wait for me; and Kiersten, who stayed behind with her dad.”
How do you hold fast to your faith amidst that kind of suffering? I had a friend in school who went through something very similar, and he didn’t. His suffering rocked him to his core. Unlike Bill Mounce, my friend walked away from the faith after walking through the ordeal of losing a child. Thinking of such suffering, however, my friend nor Bill Mounce are exceptions in their experience of suffering, are they? This side of Genesis 3, we witness heartache of the most devastating nature. Even if I were to speak of the suffering I know of, limiting myself to members of this church, we would all likely be weeping by the end of it. And isn’t this oftentimes the basis of people turning away from Christ?
I mean, it’s one thing to say, “Hold fast to Jesus,” but someone might ask, “Does the person telling me this know what it’s like to lose a child, find out your spouse has been unfaithful, or experience abuse from someone you trusted and loved?” And when we hear those questions, it can feel like a trump card, especially if you don’t know what it’s like to walk through those experiences. Perhaps that’s what these early Jewish believers were thinking as the recipients of this letter to the Hebrews. It may well be that their allegiance to Christ had brought about devastating persecution. Maybe holding to their confession that Jesus is Lord meant they had no jobs, inability to provide for their families, or were being threatened. We know from chapter 10 that some had “endured a hard struggle with sufferings,” were “publicly exposed to reproach and affliction,” and had their property taken from them (10:32-34). This is legitimate suffering.
So if the author of Hebrews didn’t know exactly what it was like to be in their shoes, what can he hold out to them to encourage them in their struggle, their suffering, and their weakness? The answer is that he holds out to them one who does—Jesus, their great high priest. His argument is that if we consider who Jesus is, what he has done, and how he can relate to us, we’ll find ourselves strengthened to hold fast to our confession, even when we’re in a place of great weakness and struggle.
And I know that this position of feeling like we’re in a place of great weakness and struggle isn’t unique to these early Jewish believers. Many of you might feel the same way this morning. You may be looking around thinking, “I’m not sure anyone here quite knows what it’s like to face the struggle and pain that I’m facing.” And you may feel your grip slipping. You’re growing weak. We’ll let me invite you this morning to consider who Jesus is, what he has done, and how he can relate to you, as we look at Hebrews 4:14-16.
This text gives us two exhortations in the midst of our struggles. The first is found in the latter half of verse 14 as the author writes, “Let us hold fast our confession.” That’s not a new exhortation. He’s basically made that exhortation front and center throughout chapters 3-4. He has told us that we are God’s people “if . . . we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope” in 3:6, and he’s told us that we share in Christ “if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” in 3:14. But the new element he brings into this portion of his argument in 4:14-16 is that he tells us something about Jesus that should strengthen and support us in holding fast.
The other exhortation is in verse 16 where he tell us, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace.” And he follows that exhortation by telling us why we can do so. Therefore, this morning I want to make this sermon very simple and straightforward. I want to tell you a truth, give you two exhortations, and tell you how you can be strengthened to obey these two exhortations. So, let’s start with a truth: Jesus is our representative before the throne of God.
Jesus is our representative before the throne of God.
This is where our text starts. The author’s first words in our text are, “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God . . .” (v. 14). The reason, of course, that he begins with “since” is because he’s already noted that Jesus is our high priest. He mentioned all the way back in 2:17 that the Son “had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God.” So, this is ground he’s already covered. And lest we forget what a great high priest is, he’s going to remind us in 5:1 saying, “For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God.” In other words, a high priest is a man who represents us before God. Therefore, the Son became a man (the God-man) in order to become our representative before God. And the fact that our representative lived a sinless life, paid the penalty for our sin, and was raised from the dead to live forever is really good for us in that what is true of Jesus is true of us. Consequently, we’re credited with perfect righteousness, our sins have been paid for, and we will be raised from the dead and will live forever with God.
So, the reality that we have Jesus as our high priest representing us before the throne of God is the foundation for our exhortations. But, as I mentioned, he not only gives us exhortation but gives us reasons why we should be strengthened in obeying them. So, with the foundational truth of Jesus as our high priest, let’s take the exhortations and reasons one at a time. First, we see that we should hold fast to our confession because Jesus is able to sympathize with our weaknesses.
We should hold fast to our confession because Jesus is able to sympathize with our weaknesses.
One of the lies that the devil can hurl at us in our times of struggle and weakness (perhaps feeling the draw to turn from Jesus) is that no one knows what we’re going through. We feel alone. We want to withdraw and suffer in isolation because, well, it seems there is no other way. And if there’s one we think that must not understand, it’s our God. Now, by that, we don’t mean that he’s less than omniscient. Of course, God—being God—knows all things. So, in that sense he knows what we’re going through. But how can he know what it’s like to ache in my soul because of my loss, or abandonment, or disappointment. After all, he’s not experienced this. He’s God.
And the Bible’s answer to that is to tell us once more to consider Jesus, the God-man. In order to be our great high priest, Jesus (according to 2:17) was made like us in every respect. Jesus is human in every sense of what he means to be human. Therefore, the author of Hebrews writes in verses 14-15, writing, “Let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
Jesus knows what it’s like to walk where you’re walking. But, you say, I’ve been betrayed by someone I loved deeply. Brother or sister, Jesus was betrayed by one of his own followers who handed him over to death. But we might say that our sorrow is so deep. Jesus tells us in the garden that his sorrow was so deep he felt like it was going to kill him. But we might say that we feel alone or not understood. Jesus lived his who life amidst a people who didn’t understand him. The religious scribes of the day thought he was possessed by a demon, and his own family though he was out of his mind (Mark 3:21-22). But we might say that the path we’re on is a hard one. The path chosen for Jesus required obedience to the point of death, even death on a cross. But we feel alone. When Jesus’ sorrow was crushing to him, his friends wouldn’t even stay awake at his side, ran away when he was arrested him, and denied knowing him when he was being run through a sham trial. But, we say, death is imminent. He faced death, hated it, sinlessly cried out against it, and succumbed to it.
Brothers and sisters, we have a high priest who knows exactly what it’s like to be beset with weaknesses and struggles. He can sympathize. He’s not saying, “Hold fast because your struggles aren’t really as bad or as deep as you think they are.” He’s saying, “Your struggles are deep, and I know exactly what that’s like.” He even knows what it’s like to have the enemy telling him constantly not to trust his Father in light of all the struggle he’s going through. Yet, the text reminds us that Jesus has been tempted as we are yet without sin.
In other words, though he knows the weaknesses we’re beset with, he held fast through them. He held fast through the struggle. He held fast through the suffering. He kept entrusting himself, his soul, and his life to his Father through it all. And that’s the one who represents you and me. He knows from the inside what it’s like to be where you are right now. So, don’t turn away from Jesus is in the midst of your weakness, struggle, and suffering. Turn to him. Hold fast to him. He may be the only one who knows the weight of what you’re facing. Hold fast to your confession because our high priest knows our struggles and weaknesses and sympathizes with us. That’s the first exhortation and reason to obey it. The second we see is that we should approach God in prayer with boldness because he’s eager to help us.
We should approach God in prayer with boldness because he is eager to help us.
One other lie that the enemy often bombards us with is that God is at best reluctant to help us in our weakness. Perhaps we had a father or authority in our life who answered our confession of weakness by despising and belittling us. Consequently, we can think that our God would look at our weakness and tell us that we should be able to do things on our own, without his help or aid. We should have the wisdom, strength, and ability, and to ask him for help is like attempting to talk a person who is busy and uncaring to give you time, attention, and aid. But that’s not what is presented in this text. In verse 16 the author of Hebrews writes, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Now, let’s spell out precisely what he’s saying here. First, his exhortation is to draw near to the throne of grace, which is an exhortation to run to the Lord in prayer. Approach God. This is a drastic change, of course, from the Old Covenant realities that these Jewish believers are feeling drawn to. If we remember, the Lord came to the people of Israel on Mount Sinai, but even in that setting, only Moses was supposed to speak with the Lord, and then he could come down from the mountain and communicate to the people what the Lord had said. Even if the people approached the mountain, the Lord warned them that they would die.
Now that Jesus serves as our great high priest, however, representing us before the throne of God, we are invited to approach the throne of God with boldness. Run toward him like a child who knows he is loved by his father, who will pick him up and hug him as he approaches him. We’re invited to approach the throne of God in prayer, and we’re exhorted to be bold, knowing that the Lord wants us to run to him.
But it gets even better. We’re told to approach the throne of God with boldness so “that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” And if we think about this, it’s a powerful declaration.
Let’s first recognize who is the ultimate author of v. 16. Throughout the book of Hebrews, the author has stressed that God is the author of Scripture. When he refers to the Old and New Testament Scriptures in verses 1-4, he refers to the Scriptures as God speaking. When he has an opportunity to say, “David says,” when quoting from Psalm 95 (which David authored), he instead says, “The Holy Spirit says.” He wants us to see that though men wrote the Scripture, they were carried along by the Holy Spirit so that they wrote precisely what God wanted written. The Bible is God’s very word.
Consequently, when we hear the exhortation to approach the throne with boldness so that we might receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need, we need to hear this as the very words of God. This is God telling us to approach him in order that we might receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. This is God telling us that he is eager to lavish mercy and grace on us so that we might be helped to endure in times of weakness, struggle, and suffering.
So what this means is that if you see God as a reluctant Father who doesn’t want to help or is resistant to help, even when he’s willing, your view of God is not biblical. And Hebrews 4:14-16 isn’t the only time we see this picture of our God. In James 1:5, for example, we’re told, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.”
What that verse tells us is that to the one who asks God for wisdom, God not only gives wisdom, but he gives it generously and not begrudgingly. He gives it happily. He gives eagerly. The same is reflected here in Hebrews 4:16. This is who our God is. Far from wanting to hold us at a distance, make us work to gain a hearing with him, or have to be won over to help us, he is the one telling us to approach him with boldness because he stands ready and eager to give us mercy and grace to help us in our time of need. Thus, the one who exhorts us to hold fast is the one telling us that he’ll give us every mercy and grace to make sure we have strength to hold fast.
So, this morning, I know you may be in a time of great weakness, struggle, and suffering. But, first, know that your representative before God knows exactly what you’re going through, and he sympathizes with you. And also know that you can run to God in your weakness, for the one who sympathizes with you if the one who is eager to lavish on your mercy and grace to help you in this time of need. And if you ever doubt that he is willing to help or loves you or you simply feel unworthy, remember what he did when we were utterly unworthy of his love or care or help. While we were his enemies, God sent his Son, and Jesus lived, died, and was raised for us. And if that’s who our God is, why would we ever hesitate to run toward him for mercy and grace? May we even do so now as we come to the table. Amen.