Let’s look today at this wonderful promise given to us in Hebrews 4:14-16…
14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 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. 16 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.
There are two exhortations here: (1) “let us hold fast our confession” and (2) “let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace.” Both exhortations are based on this wonderful reality that we have a better high priest who made complete and final payment of our sins so that we are completely forgiven.
“Let us hold fast” means “don’t move away from Christ” (a negative) and “let us draw near” means move ever closer and closer to Christ. Run to Him, go to Him.
The author of Hebrews is encouraging his readers not to quit on Jesus Christ, but to persevere no matter what the cost. Failure to endure trials is the mark of the seed sown on rocky soil. Jesus explained that this seed represents those who, “when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; and they have no firm root in themselves, but are only temporary; then, when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they fall away” (Mark 4:17). Endurance is one mark of genuine saving faith (Heb. 3:6).
The word “since” at the beginning of verse 14 shows that what the author has said about Jesus as our “great high priest” serves as a reason for the exhortation to “hold fast.” If we really understood the deep and wonderful ramifications of who Christ was, our pioneer into the very presence of a holy God, then we would not fail to “hold fast” to Him.
Physically, the word krateo, in “hold fast,” is used of grasping a person, such as when the women grabbed hold of the resurrected Jesus (Matthew 28:9), or the lame man who clung to Peter and John in Acts 3:11. In that sense it betrays a sense of urgency and desperation.
Picture someone holding on for dear life as their raft goes down the raging rapids of the Snake River, like my mother did in 1986. Or when you’re swept off a paddle boat in a swollen river and hang on to a slippery tree for dear life, like my nephews did. Or when you’re holding on to a mountain ledge with all your might so you don’t fall into the valley below. That’s what our author is encouraging us to do with Jesus Christ, to hold on to Him for dear life!
In this context it refers to determined commitment to do whatever is necessary for one’s own protection. In Hebrews it is used to encourage us to hold on to hope (6:18; 10:23), our confidence (3:6, 14; 4:16) and the confession of faith (here and at 10:23).
The “confession” or “profession” of faith may be thought of as the act of standing before a congregation to indicate one’s initial commitment to Jesus Christ. We make a public declaration of faith in baptism, but that profession is often put to the test when persecution arises. They were in danger of turning away from that profession.
Paul links “believing with the heart” and “confessing with the mouth” in Romans 10:9-10. Both are needed. Just because someone says with the mouth that “Jesus is my Savior” doesn’t necessarily mean that they are truly saved, unless they have also believed with the heart. Our writer has been encouraging his readers that their perseverance in that which they professed to believe was their only hope of salvation. They must continue to believe and continue to live out their profession of commitment to Jesus Christ.
It is important that we publicly confess our faith in Jesus Christ, but the reality lies in what we believe in our hearts.
Today, in our individualistic, privatistic world, we often neglect the salutary benefit of public confession of the truth we hold. When we are going through hard times, we need to confess Christ as our “apostle and high priest”—to own his magnificent ministry as our own—to clutch it close! We ought not to limit our confession to congenial company alone. There are times to confess him in unfriendly surroundings. Such confession may be just what our soul needs. Confess and embrace your High Priest! (R. Kent Hughes, Hebrews)
Are we willing to pay the price?
Martin Luther did.
On April 18, 1521, Martin Luther stood for the second day before Emperor Charles V at the diet being held in Worms. The diet anticipated hearing his answers to the two questions that had been put to him the day before: First, was he the author of the twenty-five works that had been gathered there, and second, would he now recant of the false teachings in them? Luther readily acknowledged the authorship of the works and then tried to engage in a discussion of what were the false teachings in his works. This ploy did not work, and he was informed that he was the theologian and knew full well the heresies that he had taught.
He showed that remarkable courage again in the bold words with which he concluded his address:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason—for I believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves—I consider myself convicted by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. [Here I stand; I can do no other.] God help me. Amen.
His profession of the adequacy of Jesus Christ’s work on the cross and justification by faith is what got him in trouble with the Catholic Church. But he stood his ground, even though it could cost him dearly.
Notice that this is a command, an exhortation to act. He is not saying, “Since we have a great high priest…we will inevitably hold fast our confession.” Perseverance in faith is not inevitable. We must energetically “hold fast” to Jesus Christ.
How can we possibly maintain our confession when it may cost us so much? Only by running in prayer to our Savior. The basis for our ability to “hold fast” to Christ and “draw near with confidence” is found in verse 15.
In order to tighten his friends’ grip on their confession of Christ, the writer seeks to enlarge and elevate their understanding of the tenderness of this divine priesthood:
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.
Hold tight to your confession of Jesus, he urges, because he is capable of unparalleled understanding and sympathy.
This was an incredible revelation in its ancient setting. The Stoics believed that the primary attribute of God was apatheia, the inability to feel anything at all. They reasoned that if he could feel, he could be controlled by others and therefore would be less than God. The Epicureans believed that God dwelled in intermudia, the spaces between the worlds, in complete detachment. The Jews, of course, had a far more accurate picture of God. But before Jesus came it was incomplete, for he revealed the revolutionary Fatherhood of God—daring to address him as “Father” and calling his followers to do the same (Matthew 6:9).
But the assertion that their Messiah entered the world in order to suffer, and therefore sympathize with our sufferings, was an absolutely staggering thought!
To do that, the “Son of God” (v. 14), though completely and fully divine, had to take on human flesh. As he said back in chapter 2, verse 17, “he 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, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”
He is fully God, but also fully man. He was a real man, with flesh and blood, experiencing all the needs and desires, yes, and temptations that we all face. ”He was ignorant and was taught. He walked like a baby before he walked like a man. He thought and talked like a baby before he thought and talked like a man. This is why our text asserts he is able ‘to sympathize with our weaknesses.’ He lived with a human body, mind, and soul—with all their limitations, except for sin” (R. Kent Hughes, Hebrews)
Notice how our author phrases this. By saying “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,” what he really means is the positive state, “we do have a high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses.”
But why put it in the negative?
Possibly because they were thinking this way. They were thinking that this Jesus who is a “great high priest” who is now in heaven would be so detached from us, so distant, indifferent towards the needs and worries and fears and weaknesses and trials of ordinary people like you and me.
But no, our author says, He’s not that kind of high priest. Let me tell you what He’s really like and why you can trust Him and why He can be counted on to understand your deepest struggles and pains.
Jesus added humanity to deity and lived among us. He came to our neighborhood and experienced all the temptations we have faced.
David Guzik points out that the fact that Jesus has been here among us makes a difference in the depth of his sympathies:
“When you have been there, it makes all the difference. We might hear of some tragedy at a high school, and feel a measure of sorrow. But it is nothing like the pain we would feel if it were the high school we attended.” (https://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/hebrews-4/)
Rather than being removed from our human experience because of his exalted position, he associates with our weaknesses because He took on human flesh.
That he is compassionate and sympathizes with us does not refer to his sharing our experience of sin. Temptations, yes, but not sin. But the fact that He has shared our temptations and weaknesses means that he is compassionate to the point of helping us.
“Weakness” is a general word that could range from physical weaknesses to moral weaknesses and in this context refers to our propensity to sin. It refers to the feebleness of resolve that allows temptation to lead us into sin. It can refer to things like tiredness, hunger, aloneness, that all can make us more vulnerable to temptations.
Christ was tempted, but did not sin. Notice three things about Jesus’ temptation.
First, he was tempted “in all things.”
Although the expressions or tools of sin have changed the past two millennia (Jesus wasn’t exposed to online pornography or couldn’t have embezzled funds through electronic bank fraud), yet the essential nature of temptation hasn’t changed. He still experienced the temptations of lust and greed.
Expressions of temptation change over time, but the essence never does.
“In every way” doesn’t mean that He experienced every individual temptation we do (although he did experience many kinds). He did experience the essential temptations that cover whatever we may experience in life. There is no category of sin that Jesus did not face. He faced “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions” (1 John 2:16).
John Piper points out that Jesus can sympathize with us in our allurements to sin, because he was tempted —
- to lie (to save his life)
- and to steal (to help his poor mother when his father died)
- and to covet (all the nice things that Zacchaeus owned)
- and to dishonor his parents (when they were more strict than others)
- and to take revenge (when he was wrongly accused)
- and to lust (when Mary wiped his feet with her hair)
- and to pout with self-pity (when his disciples fell asleep in his last hour of trial)
- and to murmur at God (when John the Baptist died at the whim of a dancing girl)
- and to gloat over his accusers (when they couldn’t answer his questions)
Jesus knows the battle. He fought it all the way to the end. And he defeated the monster every time. So, he was tested like we are and the Bible says he is a sympathetic High Priest. He does not roll his eyes at your pain or cluck his tongue at your struggle with sin.
The one sin that may have been uppermost in the mind of our author was the sin to break one’s commitment to God when under severe suffering. Jesus didn’t do that either. In Hebrews 5:7-8 we find that he “learned obedience from what he suffered.” For Jesus, the ultimate temptation would have been to get around his death some way and turn his back on His Father’s will. But He didn’t do that. He obeyed His Father to the end.
Jesus could sympathize with the temptation to turn and run in the face of evil. He felt the same urge, but declined it. He can thus help us when we face this very challenge (cf. 12:2-3). Thus, we are told to “hold firmly to our confession (of faith) and “draw near to the throne of grace” to get those divine resources we need for the battles against temptations, just as Christ did in the Garden.
Second, Christ was “tempted as we are.”
We don’t need to turn to psychologists to understand us. Jesus experienced the full force of every kind of temptation we have faced, to the full. Therefore, He can understand and sympathize with us.
Some believe that Jesus doesn’t really know temptation because He didn’t give in to temptation. However, as C. S. Lewis points out, his experience of the struggle of temptation was even greater than ours—who give in so quickly and easily.
As C. S. Lewis explained:
A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means—the only complete realist. (Mere Christianity, pp. 124-125)
Thomas Constable adds:
As an illustration of the thoroughness of Jesus’ temptations, imagine a large boulder on the seacoast. Since it does not move it experiences the full force of every wave that beats against it. Smaller pebbles that the waves move around do not receive the full force, because they yield to the force of the waves. Similarly Jesus’ temptations were greater than ours because He never yielded to them. By the same principle a prizefighter (Jesus) who defeats the champion (Satan) endures more punishment than other contenders who throw in the towel or are knocked out before the end of the fight.
Jesus knew depths and pains we can never know, precisely because he did not sin! No human was ever tempted like Jesus was! “Because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (2:18).
Think of this in terms of pain. There is a degree of pain which the human frame can stand–and when that degree is passed a person loses consciousness so that there are agonies of pain he cannot know. It is so with temptation. We collapse in face of temptation; but Jesus went to our limit of temptation and far beyond it and still did not collapse. It is true to say that he was tempted in all things as we are; but it is also true to say that no one was tempted as he was. (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series, Hebrews, 42)
He can understand and sympathize because He shares our humanity. Did you know that if you have two pianos in the same room, when you strike a note on one piano, the same note will gently respond on the other piano, though no one has touched it? This is called “sympathetic resonance.” When a chord of pain or temptation is struck in the weakness of our human heart, it resonates in His!