June 11, 2017
Some lessons we can learn in a classroom, but other lessons must be learned through experience and through growing in maturity. One of those lessons is the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is simply that sense of pity that we have for another who is going through a hard time. It is valuable and has its place, but empathy is more valuable. Empathy comes when someone shows sympathy because they have been in shoes that are very similar to those who are suffering.
It is a powerful thing indeed to be able to empathize with someone and not just to say, “I am sorry and I grieve for you,” but to say, “I am sorry because I too have walked through difficult times like yours.”
Pastorally, one of the things that I always pray for is that when God pulls us through a difficult time (some of you have already heard me say this) is that God will use you to help another person through a time such as what you have been through. In fact I believe that helping another person through a time of crisis is part of the healing process for you. This is because after a long period of looking inward, it forces you to look outwardly.
And with this in mind, verse 15 is one of those verses that both brings me a great deal of comfort and is one that I have gone back to many times when counseling others through times of difficulty. For here we have a reminder that we have a Savior that not only can sympathize with us, but that can show us empathy — he does know what it is like to face that which we face.
“Jesus has been tested and tried as we all are, but without sin.”
And, on a related note, this is valuable not only as an encouragement but it insists on a principle. You see, sometimes people will say that you must choose the lesser of two evils — sin in this way to avoid sinning in another way — lying, for example, of prevent murder.
Yet, if it is possible for us to be caught in a catch-22 such as this, having to sin to avoid a greater sin, then this language about Jesus in Hebrews 4:15 is utterly false, for we are told that Jesus had no sin and if he was tested in every way that was common to man…then what of this catch-22?
So, if he was tested in every way common to man, and he did not sin (as the scriptures teach), then in every test that we face, there must be a way to either resist sin or to escape from it (which is the heart of what Paul is teaching in 1 Corinthians 10:13).
So, no excuses to sin, no room for a situational ethics…these things do not belong in the Christian life. God calls us to strive to live righteously in the strength of the Holy Spirit and we must strive to do so faithfully and without any fancy wordplay or exceptions…or perhaps, in the words of the 20th century philosopher, Horton, “I meant what I said and I said what I meant…an elephant is faithful 100%.” That is what God calls us to be, folks.
Thus far, the book of Hebrews has been largely about principles — namely, how the Old Testament is fulfilled in Christ.
*Chapter 1 deals with how Revelation finds its meaning in Christ and that Jesus is greater than the angels and the prophets.
*Chapters 2&3 deal with Jesus being a better covenant mediator than Moses and a better Tabernacle.
*Chapter 4 asserts that Jesus’ Sabbath is better than the Old Testament Sabbath
But here in these three verses get intensely pastoral, dealing with the nature of the High Priest that we look to.
As an aside, what was the High Priest’s job in the Old Testament?
In short, it was to intercede for the people through prayer and sacrifice. How important it is, then, to have a High Priest — an intercessor — who can relate to us in our time of need.
An Idol cannot do that. Mohammed is dead; Buddha is dead…they cannot do that. And even in his life, Buddha didn’t really care about anyone but himself. Angels cannot do that — the unfilled ones don’t know what it is like to be tested to the breaking point and the fallen ones don’t know what it is like to resist sin. Your philosophy and your good works cannot intercede for you or relate to your condition.
What then is left? To whom shall we appeal if we cannot appeal to Jesus? Without Jesus we are utterly without hope.
Verse 14 begins this way: “Therefore, having a great High Priest, who passed through the heavens” (that is the ascension and the entrance into the Holy of Holies)
We will come back to this idea of the Holy of Holies later in the book, but note that there were essentially three parts to the Temple: the courts, the Holy Place, and the Holy of Holies. The third of these places is where the High Priest would go, once per year, with the blood of the sacrifice of Atonement — Yom Kippur.
So, we have this great High Priest who has passed into the heavenly Holy of Holy Places with the blood of our sin offering. Who is this High Priest, the author essentially asks…the Son of God.
And then me makes this important statement: “Let us hold onto the confession.”
We might have expected the author to say, “Let us worship Him” or “Let us rejoice in Him,” but no, he says, “Let us hold onto the confession.”
You might have noticed, if you are reading along with the ESV, NASB, or the KJV, they have inserted the word “our”, making it “our confession” as it seems a more natural read. While it is a more natural read, I think that the awkwardness of the Greek text is intentional, making a point that there is one singular confession that applies to all people of all time — essential truths which one must hold to if one is to be considered a Christian.
The problem today is that too many people all have their own confessional standards, making it confusing for the novice as he or she negotiates the realm of spiritual ideas.
In our case, for example, we look to the Heidelberg Catechism as our primary historical statement of faith. It is supplemented by our Constitution’s Doctrinal Basis and further informed by various historical Reformed confessions like the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Belgic Confession, the Synod of Dordt, etc…
The ultimate test or standard of a confession is the Bible; sadly, many of the confessions that people hold to are anything but consistent with the Bible and exhibit as much variety and creativity as the English language will allow. Many are based on one’s situations, one’s experiences, and one’s preferences and as a result, are not consistent with the Biblical witness.
To imply a singular confession implies that every Christian throughout history holds to the same essential truths of the faith, that God is not confused about himself, and that his self-revelation is clear. Sadly, many churches in America reflect a nature of confusion and not one of thoughtfulness.
In fact, the word that we translate as “confession” here, in Greek is the word, homologia, homo meaning “the same” and logia referring to sayings or principles. It was a term commonly used in ancient times to speak of one’s oath of allegiance to a master. So, our confession of faith, in a real sense, is like an oath that we take to be loyal to Christ…so our loyalty to Christ, our oath of allegiance, contains principles and truths about who that Christ is, based on scripture not based on preferences.
But, what is the connection between Jesus as the High Priest and us holding to our confession? Verses 15-16 offer an explanation:
“For we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize” (perhaps empathize here…literally the Greek word means “to suffer along with”)
“For we do to have a High Priest who is unable to suffer along with us in our weakness, but he has been tried in the same way as us all, but without sin.”
Whatever it is that you face, whatever trial or tragedy you must endure, know that Jesus can empathize with you and he will suffer alongside of you…yet at the same time, we are left without the excuse, “It’s not my fault, I couldn’t help myself and had to sin.”
Further, it is not just Christ who suffers alongside of you, but Christ’s church…whatever the trial you face.
So, lift your prayers to Him, believer, but at the same time, the author cautions us to hold fast to our confession so that our prayers are in essence delivered to the real “Jesus” of the Bible.
For example, Mormons claim to believe tin Jesus, but their Jesus is a being who was created and then earned the right to divinity…in fact, for them, the Father himself was a created being. Jews and Muslims recognize Jesus as a human prophet, but not as God himself, which leads us to ask with CS Lewis…so which is he, Liar, Lunatic, or Lord? You see, Jesus claimed to be God, not just a human prophet. For example, 85 times in the Gospels, Jesus refers to himself as “The Son of Man” which is a reference to Daniel 7:13, the “One like the Son of Man” being a reference to divinity. But a Liar is hardly a good man or a good prophet. We measure insanity by looking at the distance between the way a person looks at the world around them and the way the rest of the world sees things. The farther the gap, the greater the insanity. And as far as gaps go, claiming to be God if you are not, is a pretty far gap. But a Lunatic — an insane person — is hardly a great prophet. You are left with Lord…that Jesus is who he says he was. A good man and a wise teacher, but not God, is not a rational option based on what Jesus taught.
Probably, though, one of the more destructive views that has hit the church in the 20th century was that of dividing “Jesus the man” from the “Jesus of the Bible.” Thus, people say, “I’m a follower of Jesus, but I’m not a Christian because the church corrupted Jesus’ teachings.” Of course, without the church you would know nothing of Jesus’ teachings.
At the heart of it, what people are really saying is that they don’t like the church as an institution and they don’t like taking everything the Bible teaches about Jesus, so they pick and choose based on preference. But God did not give us the Bible to pick and choose from as if these were mere human words. Were they human words things would be different.
Most of you know that I like to quote from CS Lewis, but I pick and choose from Lewis because I think Lewis was wrong about some things. He has an excellent way of saying things, but I am not bound to his words because he is human, fallen and sinful and thus in error. Or, you might word it, I am a Christian, not a Lewisarian.
The Bible, though, as the Word of God is divine and without sin or error and thus presents itself to us authoritatively as an “all-or-nothing proposition.” We don’t get to pick and choose. We must be loyal to “The Confession”, not a profession we prefer.
That leads us into verse 16: “So, let us approach with boldness the throne of Grace.”
Why is it important to submit to God’s word as a Christian? It is because Jesus is more than a High Priest…he is a High Priest with a throne, which means he fills the office of King. And while a High Priest cannot make demands on you, a King can demand your obedience.
Now the language of the Throne of Grace is an allusion to the Mercy Seat on the Ark of the Covenant…on which the High Priest would sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice of Atonement…the earthly one anticipating the greater one upon which Jesus is enthroned.
And what is it that we will find there? Mercy and Grace…literally the author of Hebrews refers to this as a “suitable remedy.”
In other words, what do we most need in our times of trial? Divine Mercy and Grace.
What we most need is not to have our fortunes restored, nor is it to have our beloved restored to life and into our arms. And what we most need is not to have our temptations to sin or addiction removed. What we most need is the mercy and grace of God so that we might trust in His will and sovereign design for our lives.
If we allow ourselves to think otherwise, we might fall into the trap of thinking that God owes us comfort, wealth, health, or prosperity…we might think, “I’m behaving myself, God owes me…”
But God does not owe us anything but Hell. And those who would tell you otherwise are telling you a lie that comes from the pits of Hell and will rob you of the mercy and grace that you most need as your suitable remedy.
Let me offer an example. I trust that we all know people who have been miraculously delivered from some sort of sin…for the purpose of conversation, a drug addiction. We give God praise for that.
But whose testimony do you respect more, the one who has been miraculously delivered from addiction, or the one who says, “I was a drug addict for 20 years and every day of my life I face the temptation to fall back into that world and lifestyle. But I know that would not honor Jesus, so every day I struggle, but rely on the mercy and grace of God to sustain and keep me from my tendency to fall into sin…that is my suitable remedy. And I trust God’s promise to Paul that His grace is sufficient for me and His power is made perfect in my weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
Is not the latter the testimony we most respect? Suffering and trial should not frighten us; undergoing suffering and trial without Christ should frighten us. Regardless of what our temptation toward sin or the trial we face, may our witness be that the mercy and grace of God will sustain us as a suitable remedy and that we have a High Priest who will suffer alongside of us during such times as this.