The verses that precede this passage are awesome with the prospect of a two-edged sword and an all-seeing God. But now, against this sombre backcloth, the writer to the Hebrews sets his recurrent and glorious theme of Christ the Saviour.
The reversion is brilliant, as he sweeps our gaze from the trembling sinner to the source of all help. ‘Seeing then that we have a great high priest … let us hold fast our confession’ (4:14). The dark foreboding of the preceding passage is scattered by the light of grace.
It is not that the dangers have vanished, or the warnings lost their force, but rather that the way of escape from apostasy and unbelief is so gloriously revealed. What is that way? A person, Jesus Christ the righteous. As Isaac Watts rejoices:
Jesus my great high priest
Offered his blood and died;
My guilty conscience seeks
No sacrifice beside:
His powerful blood did once atone,
And now it pleads before the throne.
The writer’s theme is ‘mercy and … grace’ (4:16). All who are tempted to dally with unbelief; all whose consciences are dull or fearful; all who tremble at the wrath of God; let them behold Christ as their intercessor-king!
According to prophecy, this exalted Saviour is a ‘priest on his throne’. He ‘shall bear the glory’, shall ‘rule on his throne’, and shall establish ‘the counsel of peace’ between a needy people and their holy God (Zechariah 6:13). To that ‘throne of grace’ we are bidden come.
A great high priest
‘Seeing then that we have a great high priest’, begins the writer (4:14). The words signify a close relationship; being closely joined, or even clinging, to this high priest. Access to Christ is not just some background resource, to be used or neglected as we choose. The identity that Christ has established with his people is both real and practical. Christ’s self-identification with believers avails them mightily in their hour of need.
Not only is Jesus a faithful high priest, but one also who is ‘the Son of God’, who is ‘great’, and has ‘passed through the heavens’ (4:14). Here, then, the writer begins to weave together the several offices of Christ.
Earlier in the epistle, his glorious Sonship and atoning work have been separately described, as has his leadership as the ‘apostle … of our confession’ (3:1). Now, however, these roles and offices of Christ are assembled to provide an awesome portrait of omnipotent grace.
Christ is king
As Zechariah makes clear, Christ uniquely combines the offices of high priest and king. The Mosaic priests stood to minister, but this high priest, his work complete, sits upon a throne.
Nor is his kingship of any ordinary kind, for he is ‘Jesus the Son of God’ who has ‘passed through the heavens’. The latter phrase is a metaphor; Christ has passed from mortal sight, through a curtain or veil and into a heavenly place. It signifies three things.
Firstly, Christ has ascended to take his rightful place of ‘all authority’ upon the throne of God and of the Lamb (Acts 1:9; Matthew 28:18; Revelation 22:1). His divine priesthood is of an entirely different and greater order than that of Aaron and his sons.
For what does a priest do, but intercede between man and God? Yet this priest is both man and God! He perfectly joins the supplicant to the one supplicated. Christ’s enthronement, therefore, while it hides him from our sight, does not distance him from us. Rather, it creates an unbreakable chain between the believing sinner and the holy God of heaven.
The holy of holies
Secondly, passing ‘through the heavens’ refers not only to Christ’s ascension and enthronement, but also to his having entered the true ‘holy of holies’, the ‘more perfect tabernacle not made with hands’ (Hebrews 9:11-12).
Under the old covenant, on the day of atonement, the high priest would pass through the veil and enter the holiest-of-all to make atonement for the people with the blood of an animal sacrifice.
This annual ritual symbolised the work of Christ, who has entered the heavenly sanctuary once for all, bearing a perfect and permanent offering, his own shed blood. Enthronement and atonement! Separately, they speak of Christ’s surpassing power to save. Together, they show why ‘he is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through him’ (Hebrews 7:25).
Thirdly, he has ‘passed through the heavens’ as our fore-runner and representative (Hebrews 6:19-20). We who believe shall surely follow him into the glory prepared for his people, the immediate presence of the triune God.
This being the case, urges the writer, ‘let us hold fast our confession’ (4:14). As professing believers, his readers had confessed their faith in Christ, who alone atones effectually for their sin. His righteousness imputed to them is the whole ground of their hope and confidence for time and eternity.
To abandon this confession, therefore, would be to abandon hope. Whatever threats or inducements may tempt them to turn back, they dare not do so.
Today, as then, believers are continually assailed and tempted to ‘let go’ rather than ‘hold fast’. Persecution, false teaching, love of the world, and many other distractions, can cause Christians to lose heart and relax their grip on Christ.
Were it possible, even the elect would be deceived (Matthew 24:24). But, of course, it is not possible for the elect to abandon Christ, because Christ cannot abandon his elect!
Tenacity in the face of trials or persecution is never easy, and encouragement is always welcome. The call to hold fast can, of itself, rouse the soul to greater reliance on the great high priest.
The more clearly we see him enthroned on high, interceding for us, the more firmly will we be able to hold fast. But the encouragement does not stop there! The exhortation is backed by a further, most tender, assurance.
‘For’, continues the writer, ‘we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathise with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted [tested] as we are, yet without sin’ (4:15). Christ has passed through the heavens, but he is still ‘touched with the feeling of our infirmities’.
Here is strong encouragement. Enthroned as he is on high, and engaged in the business of the heavenly sanctuary, Christ nevertheless still draws near to help his children in their weakness here on earth.
Support and comfort
It is not simply that Christ, having experienced testing and temptation during his earthly life, knows how we feel. That is itself a gracious truth, but the verse implies more.
It tells us that Jesus actively succours his people in the midst of their trials, graciously upholding them and strengthening them in their time of need. There is more than sympathy available; there is support! ‘The eternal God is [our] refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms’ (Deuteronomy 33:27).
He renders this support and comfort, of course, through the person and power of his Holy Spirit (John 14:16-18). The Spirit has been given to Christ’s people expressly as their ‘helper’ and ‘comforter’ (John 14:15-18).
He ‘also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered’ (Romans 8:26).
Many today have lost sight of this great truth and live their Christian lives in almost total ignorance of the Holy Spirit’s ministry in them and to them. Perhaps the excesses and unbiblical teachings of the modern charismatic movement have frightened believers into ignoring the present work of the Spirit in the heart and in the church.
But a neglect of experimental theology is not new. It always characterises periods of church history when lifeless orthodoxy prevails. The New Testament provides the corrective.
It is by the Spirit that we are ‘born again’ and translated from death to life (John 3:6-7). God’s gift of faith is imparted by the Spirit, and by that same faith the believer receives the Spirit in conscious awareness (Ephesians 2:5-9; Galatians 3:2).
The Holy Spirit reveals the glory of Christ to the believer, and teaches him all things (John 16:14; 14:26). The Spirit ‘bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God’, crying ‘Abba, Father’ in our hearts, confirming the reality of every believer’s adoption (Romans 8:16-17; Galatians 4:6-7).
God strengthens us ‘with might through his Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith … to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God’ (Ephesians 3:16-19). The indwelling Spirit bears fruit in our lives to the glory of God (Galatians 5:22-25; John 15:8). And much more could be added to this list.
To summarise, then, the throne-gift of Christ’s help and sympathy is actualised in our experience by his Spirit. It is the believer’s right and privilege to live in the conscious experience of this reality.