The Danger of Dullness, part 3 (Hebrews 5:14)

The author of Hebrews was writing to a community, likely a mixture of Christians and non-Christians, mostly Jewish by race, some of whom had not progressed beyond basic teachings and were in danger of moving back into Judaism.

Let’s read again Hebrews 5:11-14

11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

Our focus today will be on verse 14. “But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”

Notice the two things that are involved here.  First, there is “solid food,” what Fuller calls “the strong meat” of God’s Word.  It is those who are developing spiritual maturity that can enjoy such food.  Babies tend to play in solid food while maturing children and youth enjoy eating it.

What is “solid food”?  It is those doctrines that we find throughout the Scripture.  Here, the writer is speaking of the importance of the high priestly ministry of Jesus Christ—grasping it mentally and valuing it with one’s heart.  In Galatians the “solid food” was the wondrous doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.  In Ephesians it might be getting a handle on the doctrine of election.  These things are solid food.

But we make a mistake if we think that solid food is just a matter of knowledge—of knowing things others do not, of knowing things at a deeper level.  Yes, we must have knowledge.  Our faith is built on facts.  But right knowledge must lead to right practice—orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy. 

We must first distinguish truth from error, then good from evil.  Tim Challies, in his book The Heart of Discernment, says:

Discernment has both a theological and a moral dimension… The first category where we need to exercise discernment is that of truth and error in relation to what we believe about God.  The second category is that of right and wrong in relation to how we act.  The first category relates to truth and discernment and the second to God’s will and discernment.  These are two broad categories in which we need to exercise spiritual discernment.

To go from being babies to being mature Christians, we need “practice.”  This growth is produced and promoted by using our spiritual “senses” or “faculties.”  Infants have these senses, but they do not know how to use them to full advantage.  The proper use of our spiritual faculties enables us to distinguish between “good and evil.”  It is precisely here that the Hebrews had failed so lamentably.

“A child is easily imposed upon as to its food [though some mothers may object to that!].  Its nurse may easily induce it to swallow even palatable poison.  But a man, ‘by reason of use,’ has learned so to employ his senses as to distinguish between what is deleterious and what is nourishing” (Dr. J. Brown).

The immature are more easily deceived, tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine, every fad; they are “naïve” according to Proverbs.  This is why people warn small children not to talk to strangers, because they know they can easily be lead astray.  They cannot distinguish between a person who is a safe and legitimate source of truth and one who has bad intentions.

The word “practice” refers to the development of regular habits.  F. B. Meyer notes that we sharpen our senses by using them.  He says, “When I was in the tea-trade, my sense of touch and taste and smell became acute to discern quite minute differences. We need a similar acuteness in discerning good and evil.”

David Guzik identifies these spiritual senses:

i. We have a spiritual sense of taste: If indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious (1 Peter 2:3).  Taste and see that the LORD is good! (Psalm 34:8)

ii. We have a spiritual sense of hearing: Hear and your soul shall live (Isaiah 55:3).  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches (Revelation 2:7).

iii. We have a spiritual sense of sight: Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things from Your law (Psalm 119:18).  The eyes of your understanding (heart) being enlightened (Ephesians 1:18).

iv. We have a spiritual sense of smell: He shall be of quick scent in the fear of the LORD (Isaiah 11:3, RV margin).  I am full, having received from… you, a sweet-smelling aroma (Philippians 4:18).

v. We have a spiritual sense of touch or feeling: Because your heart was tender, and you humbled yourself before the LORD (2 Kings 22:19).  The hardening of their heart; who being past feeling, have given themselves over to licentiousness (Ephesians 4:18-19).

One’s “senses” are “trained” by the exercise of the truths of God’s Word—putting them into practice in our daily choices.  Understanding and obeying God’s Word develops the believer’s capacity to “discern good and evil” (which could stand also for “truth and error”).

By the way, only a Christian worldview allows for the categories of “good and evil” or “truth and error.”  Postmodernism has ushered in the “post-truth” age where everything is a matter of person opinion, where truth exists along a continuum.  Truth is subjective; it is relative.”

Tim Challies speaks to our motivation for discerning truth from error and good from evil.  He says:

God’s holiness lies at the very heart of the need for discernment.  Our passion for God’s holiness, our desire to keep ourselves pure from sin, will motivate our practice of discernment.  The greater our understanding of God’s holiness, the greater will be our understanding of the importance of discerning truth from error.  We will desire to cast off all that is wrong so that we can be unsullied, unspoiled by sin.

We are told in v. 14 that what is needed is “training” that comes from “constant practice” in learning how to discern between good and evil and between truth and falsehood.  And the only way that will ever happen is when you actively pursue God’s revealed truth and in doing so have your spiritual senses sharpened.  You must engage regularly with God’s revealed truth so that your moral mind will gradually undergo refinement and you will begin to understand and discern and evaluate what is good and true.

Unless we train our spiritual senses, our discernment, by regular interaction with God’s truth, we will unconsciously and unwittingly have our minds “conformed to the world” around us.

In other words, the kind of living that redounds to the glory of God is that which is honed by the study and practice of God’s truth.  “The pathway to maturity and to solid biblical food is not first by becoming an intelligent person, but becoming an obedient person” (John Piper).

Practice at anything is difficult.  Athletes know this; artists know this.  We all know that developing skill in anything takes many, many hours of practice.

Jascha Heifitz, a world renowned violinist, once said, “If I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.”

Practicing anything is hard work.  Perhaps this is what causes us so much resistance to the biblical command to become students of the Scripture.  “Do your best [give it your very best effort, no half-heartedness here] to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).  The only way we can possibly rightly handle the word of truth and be unashamed in our teaching of it is to do our best at understanding it. 

Paul also told Timothy, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17).  To become teachers, as Hebrews 5:12 says we ought, we must first be diligent in study, which means hard work and consistent practice.

Thomas Hewitt comments on Hebrews 5:14 and how one gains the discernment that comes with maturity.  He says, “It is gained by the regular exercise of the spiritual faculties in the Word of God and in the doctrines of the Christian faith, for there is no easy way to spiritual maturity.  From this position those of full age can discern between both good and evil; they have an exact, or right, judgment in all things.  When different viewpoints are placed before them they can at once distinguish the good from the evil, the right from the wrong.”

In the case of these Hebrews, it means that they needed to discern the preferability of pursuing the superior Jesus Christ and His new covenant rather than returning to Moses and the Old Covenant.

In his book How to Stay Christian in College, J. Budziszewski, says this about discernment:

[Discernment is] a mental sense of smell that helps you notice when “something smells fishy”…How can you sharpen this mental sense of smell?  How can you develop discernment?  First, you need to have a spirit of obedience to Jesus Christ.  If your spirit is in rebellion, your nose will be in rebellion too.  Second, you need to study the Word of God and other Christian literature.  We’re talking about a mental, not physical, sense of smell.  In order to develop it you have to use your mind.  Third, you need to practice smelling. Smell everything. Your power of discernment is like a muscle.  Use it or lose it.  Fourth, you need to be accountable to other believers in a healthy Christian fellowship.  If you try to learn to smell by yourself, your mental sense of smell will be eccentric.  You’ll be like someone who takes a deep whiff of dung and says, “Ah, roses!”

Getting ready to feast on all of God’s Word, even the more difficult parts, isn’t really an intellectual change first.  Rather, it is really a moral challenge first.  If you want to eat the solid food of the Word you must want to submit to it and learn from it.

The startling truth is that, if you stumble over Melchizedek, it may be cause you watch questionable television shows.  If you stumble over the doctrine of election, it may be because you still use some shady business practices.  If you stumble over the God-centered work of Christ in the cross, it may be because you love money and spend too much and give too little.  The pathway to maturity and to solid biblical food is not first by becoming an intelligent person, but becoming an obedient person.  What you do with alcohol and sex and money and leisure and food and computer have more to do with your capacity for solid food than with where you go to school or what books you read.

Because of their laziness, they were unable to distinguish between “good and evil.”  They couldn’t distinguish the voice of God from the voice of Satan.  They were like babes are in the natural world, unable to discriminate between what is wholesome and what is hurtful; therefore they were unable to see the difference between what was right under the Judaic economy, and what was now suited to Christianity and the gospel.

The mature are those who have come to trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  Again, this has similar wording, but is a different context than 1 Corinthians 3.  The context here is of Jews who want to go back to the law, like in Galatians 3 and 4.

Genuine believers are able to discern the truth of the Word of God.  1 Corinthians 2:6-7 says, “Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away.But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.”

This is the food that the writer is referring to in Hebrews 5:14.  An unbeliever does not accept the things of God because they are foolishness to him (1 Cor. 2:14), but to those who are believers (mature), they are given the ability to understand and believe in the Word of God (1 Cor. 2:10-13).

The point in Hebrews 5:14 and 1 Corinthians 2:14 is exactly the same: the immature unbeliever is unable to discern, to appraise, spiritual things, but the mature believer, because of the work of the Holy Spirit, is given spiritual perception, understanding and discernment.

The Holy Spirit is warning the Hebrews not to stop short of salvation.  We need that same warning today.  Do not fool yourself into thinking that you are saved just because you go to church, or have had some “experience” or have experienced a moral reformation of your life.  All of those things are things that Christians do, but you can do those things and have no genuine spiritual life.

Examine yourself to see if you are “sluggish” in your faith.  You have likely heard the gospel so many times you could be a teacher, but do you still need to hear the ABCs?  Has it not sunk in yet?  If not, give yourself no rest, but fly to the cross and embrace Jesus Christ as your Savior.

God wants you to believe unflinchingly in Jesus Christ.  God wants you to go deeper in your understanding of Jesus Christ and what He has done for you.

Because the writer does go on in Hebrews 7 to talk about Melchizedek, it seems that he expects them to mature spiritually and to move on to believing in Jesus Christ for their righteousness.

But that hasn’t happened with some of them yet.  His heart is heavy and he speaks quite forcefully in chapter 6, begging and exhorting them to move on to maturity.

The warning of Hebrews 5:11-14 is clear.  The need for maturity and discernment is evident.  The Holy Spirit inspired this passage and has preserved it for us (as with all the rest of Scripture) for “teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16b, 17).  The idea that study, Biblical education and doctrine are superfluous to our Christians lives, or even harmful, is creating a generation of perpetual infants.

The author of Hebrews entreats, “let us press on to maturity” (Hebrews 6:1).  Pressing on to maturity is God’s answer to the problem of perpetual infancy.  Hebrews 6 contains a vivid and frightening warning against apostasy.  A failure to press on to maturity creates a severe danger to those who do not heed this biblical call.

God will give grace to help us obey the Spirit’s call to grow up.  If we respond to it in obedient faith, we will be equipped for the work of the ministry and can be sure that God will use us in these perilous times.

So what can be done to overcome this spiritual lethargy and to grow out of spiritual infancy? A couple of things are worth noting.

First, be sure that you have actually understood the “basic principles of the oracles of God” (v. 12).  There’s nothing wrong with them.  You have to start somewhere.  You must learn the alphabet before you can read.  Start at the ground level and slowly work your way to maturity. 

For these Hebrews, the “basic principles of the oracles of God” referred to the Old Testament.  They did need that foundation.  But they needed to move beyond it.  They must move beyond it.

For us, we do need the gospel.  That is the foundation of our spiritual lives.  And it’s not so much that we have to move beyond it.  We really need to move deeper into it.  But in moving deeper it does involve a greater theological understanding of Jesus Christ—who He is and all He’s done for us.

Second, don’t despise the “milk” of God’s revealed truth.  It is, after all, still God’s revealed truth!  Let the milk of God’s word have its way in your heart and mind.  But don’t settle for it!  You weren’t built or redeemed to live on such a minimal diet. 

Third, begin to dig deeply into the meat or “solid food” of God’s word.  Read good theological books.  Find a mentor who can direct your steps.  Ask for recommendations from those who have already walked down this path.  Hang out with others who share your passion for the “solid food” and will encourage you in your pursuit of it.  Memorize the word.  Pray the word.  Sing the word.  Preach the word back to your own soul.

Fourth, be consistent and faithful in exposing yourself to the teaching and preaching of God’s Word and to corporate worship and to prayer, both with others and alone.  Don’t distance yourself from the Lord’s Table.  Refuse to let anything take precedence over it.  Immerse yourself in community.  Make yourself accountable to other Christians and be honest when they ask you how you are getting along in life and in your marriage and in your relationship with God.

Fifth and finally, examine your hearing! Ask yourself: “Am I listening well?  Am I studying and exploring what I hear?  Am I increasingly fascinated by God and the revelation he has made of himself in Jesus?  As we make our way through the book of Hebrews, am I finding that Jesus really is better?  Is he increasingly beautiful and more satisfying to my soul?  Or do I find myself losing interest?  Is my spiritual hearing growing dull?” (These five application points are adapted from Sam Storms.)

The Danger of Dullness, part 2 (Hebrews 5:12-14)

The author of Hebrews was writing to a community, likely a mixture of Christians and non-Christians, mostly Jewish by race, some of whom had not progressed beyond basic teachings and were in danger of moving back into Judaism.

So we read in Hebrews 5:11-14

11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

They had “become dull of hearing,” which is further explained by the fact that they needed “again” to be taught “the basic principles of the oracles of God.”  These people had had enough time under Christian teaching so that they “ought to be teachers” by now.  But instead of progressing in their faith, they were still needed to be taught, still needing “milk, not solid food.”

What about you?  Maybe you’ve been a Christian for years now.  Can you teach someone else?  Can you sit down with another person and disciple him, or her, in the basics of faith?  Can you explain deeper truths to them?

People give all kinds of excuses for not being a student of the Scriptures.  And believe me, you must become a diligent student before you can become a teacher!  Paul told Timothy, a young minister, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

This passage allows no excuses.  Edwards illustrates, “It becomes one who is called to be a soldier, to excel in the art of war.  It becomes a mariner, to excel in the art of navigation.”  And then of Christians he write, “So it becomes all such as profess to be Christians, to devote themselves to the practice of Christianity, to endeavour to excel in the knowledge of divinity.”  Are you so devoted to the practice of Christianity that you seek to “excel in the knowledge” of God’s Word?

This is not just for paid preachers and academic theologians, but for every member of the family of God!

It reminds me of a story of a lady who had been a teacher for 25 years.  When she heard of a job opening that would mean a promotion, she applied.  However, someone who had been teaching for only one year was hired instead.

She went to the principal to ask why.  The principal said, “I’m sorry, but you haven’t had 25 years of experience as you claim; you’ve hand only one year’s experience 25 times.”

I hope that isn’t true of you.

But the shocking reality is that not only were they incapable of being teachers, they had the need to be taught all over again!  Because they had never truly accepted it and applied it, they had not gone forward, but backward.  “…You need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God” (Hebrews 5:12b)

This language is akin to Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthians when he told them that they were acting like babies.  There he was definitely speaking of Christians who were exhibiting definite signs of immaturity.  Here the writer is dealing with those whose understanding of Christ and the gospel was so weak, so dulled by neglect and apathy, that he perceived their need to start all over again!

Their spiritual comprehension corresponds to that of children in kindergarten who, unable to read or write, have to start at the very beginning learning their ABCs.  Instead of becoming teachers, and contributing to the spiritual growth of the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13), they “need someone to teach you again…”

The word “elementary principles” here at the end of verse 12 is the Greek word stoichea, referring to the very first lessons taught a child, literally his ABCs.  I believe these elementary principles likely refer to the list of doctrines he mentions in 6:1-2, which he there calls “elementary doctrines,”–“repentance from dead works and of faith toward God,2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.”

Paul illustrates the elementary principles in Galatians 4:3-5 when he says: “In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”

Which are defined in Galatians 4:10 as “special days and months and seasons and years.”

Thus, the “elementary principles” seems to refer to those principles and rituals of Judaism that were designed to point forward to Jesus and lead us to faith in Him.  They had been exposed to Christ, but had not yet crossed the line of believing in Christ.

It is as if they needed to be re-taught the fundamentals of the faith, and the fundamentals he is talking about are not even the Romans Road or the 4 Spiritual Laws; the fundamentals here are Old Testament concepts.  As Jews who had been taught the Gospel, they should have been completely prepared to embrace the all-encompassing supremacy of their Messiah over and above the old covenant, having their sins fully dealt with and thereby becoming the people that God had ultimately desired for them to be.  But since they were showing such laziness in committing to His supremacy, the author wonders if they even really understand the point of the old covenant (8:5; 9:11-28; Colossians 2:17) in the first place!

Had they not truly grasped these “elementary principles,” or were they merely unwilling to go beyond them?  Were they missing the point of these elementary principles, not seeing them as pointing forward to Christ, but seeing them as ending in themselves—that they were what was important to believe in, not the Messiah they pointed to?

The “oracles” to which the author of Hebrews refers is definitely not the gospel.  Those being addressed here are Jews, and to them the oracles of God refers to the Old Testament.  The word may refer to brief, easily remembered and understood sayings such as the ten commandments.  As A. T. Robertson states, “Logion is a diminutive of logos, divine oracles being usually brief…”  Hewitt says that oracle (logion) “…originally meant a ‘brief, condensed, divine saying.’” 

Our author’s point:  Babies never progress beyond simple, briefly stated basics of the faith.

The Old Testament laws, types and rituals pointed to Christ, but the Old Testament did not give them enough information to embrace Christ in His fullness.  They needed to go on in learning deeper truths about Jesus Christ in order to value Him as He ought to be valued.

Do you see the problem here?  It wasn’t the content of the teaching or the inability of the teacher to explain it, but rather they attitude of the students, who wouldn’t listen diligently and with faith.

It’s not that these baby Christians never go to meeting where teaching is present.  It is that they seek out teachings, teachers and churches that do not require them to think about theology.  Many consider “theology” to be a scornful term.  They claim that their own paster teaches more “practical matters.”  These often include inspiring stories, humor, pop psychology, motivational sayings, personal testimonies of spiritual experiences, “how to” seminars, or “touchy-feely” meetings of group encounter—anything but hermeneutically sound, theologically solid, biblical teaching that requires the hearers to think critically and labor in learning.

It is this more detailed, diligent study of the Scriptures that this present passage (5:11-14) urges as necessary for maturity and discernment.

Let me emphasize.  Our author is not denigrating the foundation was laid.  Everyone needs a solid foundation.  But…they should have built upon it by now.  They should be able to handle deeper truths and even pass what they have learned on to others.

Our author laments, “You need milk, not solid food.”  The sad reality is, if you don’t progress, you regress.  If you don’t move forward in your understanding and faith, you move backward.

We are either moving forward or falling back.  We are either climbing or falling.  We are either winning or losing.  Static, status quo Christianity is a delusion!  And going forward doesn’t happen automatically.  We have to be intentional about growing deeper into the basics and how to apply them to our lives.

He says, “You’re acting like babies.”  Our author assaults his friends with a grotesque image—adult infants who are still nursing.  Think of the tragic absurdity of full-grown men and women in diapers who are neither capable of, nor desire solid food and who sit around sucking their thumbs. Such full-grown infants amount to a huge disgrace and drain on the Church.  Obviously, the writer’s grotesque images are meant to shock and to motivate some of his hearers to pull their thumbs out of their mouths and say, “I’m no baby.” (R. Kent Hughes, Preaching the Word: Hebrews, pp. 148-149)

“Milk” here likely refers to the same thing as the “first principles of the oracles of God,” whereas “meat” likely refers to the teaching on the offices of Christ, in particular His priesthood, as suited to our needs and affections.

If you are a new believer, then it is expected that you are to be nurturing yourself on the milk of God’s word.  Peter recommends, “like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation.”  That is normal.  Milk is appropriate food for newborns.  But don’t stop there.  Like a little baby, develop an attitude for solid food.  As Peter goes on to say, “taste and see that the Lord is good!”

If you’ve been a believer for a few years, then it is normal to make progress in your understanding of the things of God.  With that progress comes greater assurance, strength for spiritual battles, resistance to temptation, insights for godly living, and the ability to discern the right choices and ways.  But if you are subsisting only on milk, then the writer’s assessment is that you are an “infant” when you ought to be “mature.”

Verse 13 gives us the reason why they could not benefit from the “solid food,” or “meat” of God’s Word: “for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.”  You are a child, proven by your lack of appetite for solid food.

Being a baby eating milk is fine, for a while.  But growth is expected.  There is nothing more delightful than a true babe, but nothing more depressing and sad than to see a child who should be growing to maturity still exhibiting signs of infancy.

While remaining an infant, one is “unskilled in the word of righteousness,” which more literally means “not experienced in the word of righteousness.”  It was less a matter of ability than attitude.

The phrase “word of righteousness” seems to be contrasted in this text to the oracles and basic principles mentioned earlier (v. 12).  It has typically been understood in two ways, the first of which is decidedly new covenant.  That is, “word of righteousness” is teaching about justification by faith.  This is the doctrinal aspect of the “word of righteousness.”  It was about the “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” (Romans 3:22).  This is our positional righteousness, credited to us due to our union with Christ.  Not only does justification mean that our sins are forgiven, our debt is wiped out, but also that the incredible reservoir of Christ’s righteousness is dumped into my moral bank account.

This is positional righteousness—the vast reservoir of righteousness credited from Christ’s active obedience to my account.

Philippians 3:9 speaks of Paul’s desire to be “found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”

Most new believers do not understand the full range of implications concerning our justification.  It is as one grows in the knowledge of our Lord and what He has done for us that we come to fully appreciate and glory in the richness of this truth.

Practical righteousness is the other aspect of the “word of righteousness.”  Jews would, of course, be interested in what could make them morally better.  They focused on their performance and whether God would be impressed with how they lived.

However, unless positional righteousness forms the foundation and background of any practical righteousness, that practical righteousness will be doomed to failure, no matter how sincere.  Practical righteousness divorced from positional righteousness is legalism.

In practical righteousness we face moral and ethical demands every day.  We experience a range of choices, decisions and options related to everything from what our eyes will see, what our ears will hear, where our feet will carry us, who we will be involved with, what our minds will dwell upon, what kinds of careers to pursue, and how to spend our resources.

When we become dulled in hearing the Word of God, then our ability to exercise discernment in these areas is dulled.

Some boundaries of God are obvious.  We are not to murder or steal or lie.  But to be able to practice righteousness in all of the other areas, the grey areas that are not clearly spelled out in Scripture requires having our senses, “trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”

The universal fact is, a nursing baby has little or no capacity to distinguish good from evil.  And while a growing child will have an increased capacity, it will necessarily be flawed.  Only the mature—those who understand the teaching about righteousness and who practice it—will be able to make discerning judgment on the continual moral issues that arise in life.

These “immature” are not, I don’t believe, immature believers, but rather Jewish members of the congregation who, having the Old Testament witness to Christ through the prophets, were not playing close enough attention to the New Covenant teachings of the apostles.

The word for “babe” in verse 13 is the same word that is used in Romans 2:17-21 to describe an unbeliever.  Paul says, speaking to Jews who know the Law, but have not believed the gospel, “But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth–  you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself?  While you preach against stealing, do you steal?”  So the immature are those who have not yet believed this revelation from God about Christ and therefore they have not believed the gospel.

Before the revelation of Christ came, they had been imprisoned by the law (Galatians 3:23).  But the Law itself was a good tool that pointed to Jesus Christ as the answer.  “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Galatians 3:24-26).

The mature are those who have believed in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, while those who are immature reject the gospel and are still under the law.

The aim of the author is to move these people on to maturity, a word used in Hebrews 10:1 and 10:14, but obviously in relationship to coming to genuine faith in Jesus Christ.  In other words, believing in Jesus Christ marks the maturity our author longs to see.

Hebrews 10:1 shows we can never become “perfect” or mature by means of the law.

“For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near.”

But through Jesus, we can be made perfect.  Hebrews 10:14 say “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”

This aim, of bringing them to the maturity of embracing Jesus Christ as their high priest and Savior, will be developed more fully in Hebrews 6:1-3.

The writer’s illustration is a picture of persons who have been content to know and practice only the most elementary lessons of their faith.  They are too lazy to do what is necessary to grow.

The Danger of Dullness, part 1 (Hebrews 5:11-12)

We sometimes idealize the early church as if going back there we could become perfect churches with no problems.  However, when you read the New Testament, you see that church after church had its own set of problems.  This letter of Hebrews was written to a church going through their own problems.

The writer of Hebrews hasn’t come right out and said what their problem was until now. But he has implied it.  There is definitely something wrong with the Christians he is writing to.

Some evidently were elevating angels above Jesus, the Son of God.  The author warned them in Hebrews 2:1 not to “drift” away from the gospel and to be careful lest they “neglect” this great salvation provided by Christ.  They had to be exhorted to “consider” Jesus (3:1) and not to abandon their original confession of faith in him (3:6, 14).  They were warned lest there be found in some of them an “unbelieving heart” that might lead them to fall away from the living God (3:12).  In Hebrews 4:1 our author appears concerned that some in this church might fail to enter God’s rest.  And in Hebrews 4:11 he urged them to strive to enter God’s rest lest some “fall by the same sort of disobedience” as those did in the Old Testament.

In all of these urgent admonitions you begin to get the impression: this writer is really concerned about some situation in the churches of his day.  But until now he has only given the cure, not the diagnosis. Now he tells us what’s wrong.

At the end of our last text in Hebrews 5, we learned that Christ was perfected through suffering and experientially learned what it meant to be obedient when that path was difficult.  These believers needed to follow Jesus’ example.  Jesus is the high priest they have been hoping for, yet you can almost hear our author sigh when he says “Concerning him [or concerning this—what I’ve just been talking about briefly] we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.”

And there is our first explicit diagnosis.  Here’s the disease he is working on in this letter: dullness of hearing.

This is what’s behind all those exhortations: Pay close attention!  Consider!  Don’t harden your heart!  Fear!  Be diligent!  Hold fast!  These are all doctor’s prescriptions for the disease of dullness of hearing.

And we need to ask ourselves:  Do I have this same disease?  Am I dull of hearing?

While this may not seem to be a serious problem, our author shows that it is quite critical and potentially dangerous.

11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

The words “dull of hearing (5:11) and “sluggish” (6:12) both come from the Greek nothroi and form an inclusion, marking 5:11-6:12 off as a distinct unit.  This Greek word occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. The first two warnings in Hebrews were against drifting (2:1-4) and disbelief (3:7-19).  Now this one speaks to the issue of “dullness” of hearing.  All of the warning passages in Hebrews involve negative actions in relation to the Word of God.

This word nothroi was used in extrabiblical literature to refer to a slave with ears “stopped up” by laziness, who was thus not instantaneously obedient to the call of his master.  It was a culpable negligence.

It here describes those who develop a “couldn’t care less” attitude to the study of holy Scripture, and have failed to give themselves to a regular, methodical, and painstaking study of its teaching and its relevance in everyday life.  (Raymond Brown, The Bible Speaks Today:  Hebrews, 104)

The central statement in this paragraph is that explaining Christ’s priesthood is difficult (“hard to explain”), but that the real issue is that they had “become dull of hearing.”  This passage shows that this is a serious and dangerous issue.  It will become even more serious as we move into chapter 6.

Our author presents it here as an issue of immaturity—a stage from which one must move on and grow to maturity.

Arrested mental or physical growth is a tragedy.  We all want our children to grow into maturity mentally, physically, socially…and this author wanted his readers to grow spiritually, realizing that the lack of spiritual growth is an even more crucial tragedy.

What is at issue here?  Is our author addressing Christians who needed to move further in their discipleship?  Or is our author addressing pre-Christians who needed to fully embrace Jesus Christ as their High Priest (or Savior)?

The Hebrews addressed in our text were in a strange position.  The author had just begun expounding on the truth of Jesus Christ’s high priesthood being superior to that of the Aaronic priesthood because it was “according to the order of Melchizedek” (5:1-10).  With abruptness, he stops in his tracks.

While he desired to feed them on the riches of this divine truth because he knew that they would gain needed assurance and courage in their faith, he knew he couldn’t go on without challenging their attitude towards learning.

There was much to say and it would prove difficult, but the reason he couldn’t go on is because “you have become dull of hearing.”

Apparently they had not always been “dull of hearing,” but at some point their eyes had glazed over and their hearts had become unreceptive.  This is not an auditory problem.  It was not that they couldn’t hear the words, but their heart was not receptive.

They were no longer eagerly receiving our writer’s teaching, like the Bereans, who “received the word with all eagerness” (Acts 17:11) or the Thessalonians, who “received the word of God” (1 Thess. 2:13).

When we read this word again in Hebrews 6:12, we can see what the opposite of this dullness is:

We desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, that you may not be sluggish [there’s the word for “dull” in our text], but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

And John Piper reminds us:

The opposite of dullness is diligence or earnestness to turn the message of hope into the assurance of hope; it’s the imitation of people who hear the promises of God and then respond with faith and patience.  So dull hearing doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with your physical ears. It means there is something wrong with your heart.   The heart is not eager and diligent to embrace the promises and turn them into faith and patience.  Instead, the Word comes into the ears and goes down to the heart and hits something hard or tough—or starting to get hard.  That’s dullness of hearing.  The promises come to the ear, but there is no passion for them, no lover’s embrace, no cherishing or treasuring; and so no faith and no patience and—if things don’t change—no inheritance of eternal life.  Which is why he wrote this book… It is an incredibly dangerous disease, this dullness of hearing (

Hopefully you and I will show the same interest.  When listening to sermons, do you take notes?  Do you talk about what was taught with others?  Do you identify some way to apply the sermon to your life? 

There is a general malaise when it comes to God’s Word today—little diligent pursuit of God’s Word.

There is little “reaching forth unto those things which are before” (Phil. 3:13) and, consequently, little growth in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord.  By the very law of nature, if we do not move forward, we invariably slip backward.

There are few who seem to realize that truth has to be “bought” (Proverbs 23:23), purchased at the cost of subordinating temporal interests to spiritual ones.  If the Christian is to “increase in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1:10), he has to give himself whole-heartedly to the things of God.

There is no such thing as standing still in Christianity.  Whether a believer marches forward or merely marks time depends much on his connection with God’s word.  God’s deep truths are not revealed to the casual, careless reader, but to the careful, constant one.  (Richard E. Lauersdorf, The People’s Bible: Hebrews, 53-4)

One of the characteristics of genuine Christian faith is an eagerness to listen to and learn from the Word of God.

F. R. Webber, in his massive three-volume A History of Preaching in Britain and America, tells us that one of the curious by-products of the Awakening was a sudden interest in shorthand. According to Webber:

Men and women studied shorthand in order that they might take down the sermons that were stirring the English-speaking countries.  This had happened once before in Scotland, and it made its appearance once more in all countries where the influence of the Awakening was felt.  It was not at all unusual to see men with a portable inkwell strapped about them, and a quill pen thrust over an ear, hastening to join the throng assembling on the village green (F. R. Webber, A History of Preaching in Britain and America , vol. 1 (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1952), p. 329).

But apparently this newness, this eagerness to hear good apostolic teaching, had worn thin.  Now, they were unable to hear.

“Dullness of hearing” is hearing without faith and without the moral fruit of faith.  It’s hearing the Bible or the preaching of the Bible the way you hear the noise of the train going by at night, or the way you hear Muzak in the dentist’s office or the way you hear recorded warnings at the airport that this is a smoke-free facility.  You do but you don’t.  You’ve have grown dull to the sound.  It does not awaken or produce anything.

A word of Jesus from Luke 8:18 is very important here.  When he had finished telling the parable of the four soils where the seed is the Word he says, “Therefore take care how you hear; for whoever has, to him shall more be given; and whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has shall be taken away from him.”  In other words, if you have the grace to hear (with faith and fruit), you will get more grace; but if you do not, even what you think you have will be taken away—namely, the Word.

You don’t want to be a “dull listener” to God’s Word.  If you are, it will condemn you, not save you!

The difficulty in communicating important biblical truth lies not so much in the complexity of the information or even in the writer’s inability to present it, but in the reader’s inability to process it.

The problem is that something in their hearts had changed.  They were now longer the eager-to-learn believers that he knew so well.  They had become “dull of hearing.”  The use of the perfect tense reveals that they had not always been dull of hearing, but that they had now become dull of hearing that it has continuing effects right up to the present time.  It had become a settled (and very dangerous) condition and must change.

If our author is addressing unbelievers who had been associating with this congregation and who possibly even had made professions of faith, their dullness would have come after having received some ministries of the Holy Spirit through the Word, having profited from the Word in some ways, but now they are growing numb to the truth, tired of it, weary of it.

These Hebrews being addressed in 5:11 seems to be like the seed in Matthew 13 that is sown in shallow ground.  It comes up quickly, it is excited in the beginning, but it has no roots.  When the sun comes out and persecution begins, they wilt and declare, “I’m going back to my old ways of worship.”

While I believe this passage is speaking to unbelievers, people who had been exposed to Christian teaching but were no longer progressing in it, we can still find application here for those of us who are Christians.

We should never become “dull of hearing.”  But it does happen at times.  When we neglect public worship and the preaching of God’s Word, we can become dull of hearing.  Second, we may become dulled when we start to take the Word of God for granted.  They say that “familiarity breeds contempt.”  Usually, it just breeds distraction and disinterest.  Finally, if we don’t obey God’s Word will become dull in our hearing of it.  James tells us how important it is to obey what we read (James 1:22).  Why should God teach me anything new if I refuse to obey what I already know.  If I’m not faithful in the little, I won’t be given more.

Here is possibly what was happening in this Hebrew congregation.  Some had joined the community of faith and had seemingly embraced the gospel but were now abandoning it, very likely due to persecution.  Those who remained, therefore, in an effort to win back those who were falling away, went back to teaching “elementary teaching.”  But this wasn’t satisfying anyone, and without moving on to solid food, more advanced teachings, others started losing interest in the deeper things of Christ.

The problem is that they were still spiritual babies.  Now, there is nothing wrong for babies to want milk or to grow from it.  That is quite normal.  What is abnormal, what showed they had a significant spiritual problem, is that by this time they should have grown beyond milk.  They were still stuck at the infant stage of their faith.

This writer had a reasonable expectation, voiced in verse 12: “by this time you ought to be teachers.”  It is unlikely that he means this in a literal sense, but is saying that everyone has had the opportunity to become more mature, to come to the place where they could have taught others.

In some countries, this is taken very literally.  If you are the first of your village or tribe to be saved, you were expected to then be the teacher and discipler of others.  You “got it first” so now it’s your obligation to teach others!

The reality is, if you have been a Christian for years, then you should be able to sit down with someone and teach them some basics of the Christian faith.

The problem is when people have been believers for 30, 40, even 60 years, and they are still the same people they were when they accepted Christ.  There is no real development after the first flush of salvation.  People like this, according to C. S. Lovett, are “touchy, lose their tempers just as easily, spend little time in the Word, they don’t witness for Christ and they are critical of others (C. S. Lovett, Lovett’s Lights on Hebrews, 121).

In reality, someone who makes no progress in their Christian understanding and obedience don’t really stay stuck; they regress.  They actually go backwards.  Our writer says they needed someone else to teach them, “again the basic principles of the oracles of God.”

They had to go back to basics.  They needed a remedial lesson.  They hadn’t gotten it the first time, so they had to repeat a grade.  It’s as if he says, “I almost feel it necessary to start all over again with you people and teach you the ABC’s of the Christian faith!”

Because they were taking a lazy, passive approach to the Word of God, they were stuck in spiritual infancy.  At first the Hebrew believers had listened attentively to the main things and had learned them, at least as well as things are learned initially.  And it was real learning.  But they hadn’t retained it, or hadn’t used it…so they lost it.

Jesus said regarding truth:

For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. . . . Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: “You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.” For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them. (Matthew 13:12, 14, 15)

What about you?  Are you eager hearing God’s Word, examining the Scriptures to see if what you were taught is true?  Are you applying it to your life?  Are you believing its promises?  Are you obeying its commands?  How you interact with the Word of God is the most important thing about you.

Overview of the Warning Passages, part 2

Coming to one of the most difficult passages in Scripture, one which has spawned off numerous different interpretations, we set out to answer four questions last week.  We are talking about Hebrews 5:11-6:20, in particular chapter 6, verses 4-6.

Why does God inspire difficult texts?  And we noticed that God puts them there to make us desperate for understanding, to encourage us to cry out to God for understanding, and then to wrestle hard and long with the Scriptures so that we can understand them.  Then we are better able to teach the Scriptures and our process for exegesis to others.

Then we looked at some general principles of interpretation, the most important of which is to seek the author’s intended meaning by examining the passage within its literary and historical/cultural context.

Then we started looking at the context, noting that it was written to a mixed group of believing and unbelieving Jewish Christians, that it is one of five warning passages in Hebrews—indeed, the central one, and then we saw it as part of a larger teaching on Jesus’ superiority as high priest because He came from Melchizedek, and finally, that this section alternates between pessimism and optimism and seems to be addressing two different groups.

As you move through this passage of Hebrews, there are many terms we will have to define.  Some of them, which at first glance seem to refer to “Christians” or believers in Jesus Christ, may equally apply to those who have taken some first steps into the Christian community and have had exposure to the Gospel message, have experienced some ministries of the Spirit and have adapted themselves to the Christian lifestyle, yet have not yet come into the fullness of a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Why do I say that?

Well, the fact that there are two groups of people being addressed here is evident.  Although Hebrews 5:11-14 is addressed to “you” throughout the passage, the author does distinguish between some who are “still infants” and those who are “mature.”

11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

So, Hebrews 5:11-14 speaks of those who have “become dull of hearing” and remain immature, as contrasted to those who have moved on to eat meat and can discern good and evil because of training,  There are obviously two different groups of people here.

Although the language expressing the continuum of immaturity to maturity, of eating milk versus eating meat, can obviously refer to the progress of a Christian from infancy to adulthood (cf. 1 Cor. 3:1-3 and 1 John 2:12-14).  Some of the language of the text could incline us to see the “immature” as pre-Christians who have been exposed to elementary teachings, yet have not moved forward and thus are in real danger of moving backwards, away from Christ and back into Judaism.

Then look at Hebrews 6:1-3

1 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do if God permits.

Here the author shifts to including himself in the picture, by saying in verse 1 “let us leave” and then in verse 3, “we will do so,” a feature which many commentators appeal to as a decisive indication that all who are being addressed are believers.  In fact, that could be true in these three verses.  Also, it was common in New Testament texts for the writer to include himself in with a group of people in order to identify with them and encourage them, while not necessarily showing that they were all at the same spiritual level.

Notice again that his concern is to “go on to maturity” (6:1), but specifically in this context that has to do with leaving “the elementary doctrine (or teachings) of Christ” and “not laying again a foundation” in some basic issues.  The list of six things in verses 1 and 2, although on the surface they could be addressing items of Christian instruction, could also possibly speak of items held in common with Judaism.  They needed to move beyond these basic teachings of Judaism and their rudimentary knowledge of Jesus Christ and grasp more about Jesus if they were to go on to maturity.  Also, it may be significant that in verse 1 the author speaks of “faith in God” and not “faith in Jesus Christ.”  These people had faith in God.

It is then at Hebrews 6:4-12 that we encounter the most difficult passage, and yet even in these verses we can clearly see a demarcation between two groups of people.

Notice that in vv. 4-6 the author is addressing a group of people in the third person, whom he calls “those” and “they.”

4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

Then, after a supportive illustration from nature with two types of ground in vv. 7-8, notice how the author addresses a different group of people by using the second person pronoun “you” in vv. 9-12 and says specifically concerning them that he is “sure of better things–things that belong to salvation.”  This group he identifies as clearly saved.

Going back to vv. 4-5 you will notice a list of five benefits “those” people had experienced (six if you include repentance).

The structure of the passage is like this… (from George Guthrie, NIV Application Commentary: Hebrews, p. 217).

The key statement is that “It is impossible to renew to repentance again” those who have experienced these things and then had “fallen away.”  Why?  Because they are “crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.”

Those five benefits in vv. 4-5 certainly sound like they would apply to Christians.  And it is true that anyone who was a Christian would have or could have experienced these things.  However, I hope you will notice that none of the typical language for salvation or conversion is present here.  They do not “believe in Jesus Christ.”  They do not “repent” of their sins.  None of the typical language like “justification,” redemption,” “reconciliation,” “born again,” “regeneration” or “converted” is used here.

While one could argue that the author nowhere uses this kind of vocabulary except for the word “saved” anywhere else in this book, therefore one shouldn’t expect it to be used here.  But it is still strange that none of that language is used to indication that these people are clearly saved, is being used here in this passage.

What we will do is to examine each of these beneficial experiences in vv. 4-5 as to whether they clearly identify them as Christians, or whether they identify benefits that anyone even associating with a Christian congregation and possibly being exposed to apostolic teaching could have experienced and their ministries, while yet coming short of actually being saved.

In other words, it is quite possible that these five benefits describe a pre-Christian experience, particularly those coming out of Judaism and being now exposed to Christian teaching.  Certainly true believers would have experienced these things, but possibly also all those who had yet to decide for Christ in that congregation.  So, in one sense both those who were genuine believers and those who had yet to make that decision for Christ could have experienced all these benefits, but only those who were not yet genuine believers in Jesus Christ were in danger of falling away.

Notice that in the structure of our passage, “having fallen away” is parallel in structure to all these benefits, showing that they not only had experienced the benefits, but these same people have experienced falling away, moving back to Judaism.

If that happens, it is “impossible” (v. 4), “to restore them again to repentance” (v. 6).  IF this is referring to the loss or forfeiture of one’s salvation, then this passage is saying that being saved again is impossible.  We’ll discuss that further when we get to these verses in chapter 6.  For now, I just want you to realize that IF this passage is saying that we can lose our salvation by falling away, then it is also saying that we cannot be “restored again to repentance.”

After giving a short illustration from nature which clearly distinguishes between two types of land (vv. 7-8), thus maintaining our understanding that two different groups of people are in view here, the author addresses the congregation again and says that we are “sure of better things–things that belong to salvation.” 

9 Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things–things that belong to salvation. 10 For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. 11 And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

Notice once again the change in pronouns from the third person “they” in vv. 4-6 to the second person “you” in vv. 9-12.  The author is concerned about some of “them” falling away, but is “sure” in “your case” that they have exhibited things “that belong to salvation.”  Here the author does mention salvation.  These people are clearly saved.

In other words, “you” I’m confident of your salvation.  But “them” I’m not so sure of and I’m warning them about the very real danger of falling away.

The idea of a mixed congregation in which there were true believers and professing believers existing side-by-side, experiencing many of the same blessings and expressing commitment to some of the same truths, is evident in several passages of Scripture.

Hebrews 3:16-19 already showed us that in ancient Israel, although they had all experienced God’s power and miracles, and having worshipped in a much more tangible way through the tabernacle and sacrificial system, yet most of them failed to enter the promised land because of disobedience and unbelief, or unbelieving disobedience.

1 John 2:19 clearly showed that some within the congregation had not truly been Christ followers.  “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.  But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”

And in Matthew 7:21-23 Jesus tells us that even those who ministered in marvelous ways may yet be unbelievers.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

Doesn’t it shock you that people who performed miracles and cast out demons “in Jesus’ name” are themselves cast out because Jesus “never knew [them].”  Notice Jesus did not say, “I no longer know you” because they had done something sinful, but “I never knew you” because they never truly believed in Him.

It is shocking not because they had lost a relationship they formerly had, but because they had deceived themselves into thinking that they had a relationship with Jesus that they never had.

That is scary, not because it shows we might possibly lose or forfeit our salvation, but because we can do all kinds of religious, even supernatural things, and still be outside the kingdom.

It is only by embracing the righteousness offered through Jesus Christ that we are brought into a relationship in which we know God (and more importantly, He knows us).

Demas and Judas are examples of two men who had been involved in ministry, spent time under excellent biblical teaching (especially Judas), and acted (at least from a human perspective) as if they were Christians, but their apostasy in the end proved they were not.

One group in Hebrews 6 is definitely saved and the author is confident of that and wants them to persevere for the sake of their confidence.  Look at verse 11, “And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness…”  Why?  Because they might fall away and no longer be saved?  No, but in order to “have the full assurance of hope until the end.”  Persevering gives us assurance.

They were secure in Christ and nothing could change that.  Our author will talk more about that in vv. 13-20, based on God’s faithfulness.  Notice how this hope is “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (6:19).

They were secure, but our authors wants them to be sure.

Eternal security is that objective reality that once united to Christ by faith, we have everything in Him.  Nothing can sever us from that union.

If you have genuinely embraced Jesus Christ as your Savior, turning away from your sin and transferring your trust so that you totally rely on Jesus Christ alone for your salvation, then you are secure in Christ.  You are dressed in His righteousness.  You are already glorified, according to Romans 8:30.  You can never be separated from His love (Romans 8:38-39) or come under condemnation (Romans 8:1).  Why?  Because you are “in Christ.”

That is your security.

Your assurance is the subjective feeling you have about that security.  Sometimes you feel more assured and sometimes less assured.  That’s normal.

Our assurance usually rises and falls based on the strength of our trust or our obedience.  Our security is based upon neither of those things, but rather the faithfulness of God.

Ideally, our assurance is built first upon the promises of God that He is faithful to His promises and powerful to keep us saved (1 Peter 1:5).  Also, it is built upon the testimony of God’s Spirit, allowing us to confidently address God as Father (Romans 8:17).

But what usually trips us up (and this is the third basis, not the first or second, of assurance) is our behavior.  There are times we know we are not acting like God’s children.  We know we have sinned.  And when we experience sin and doubts, we will not have full assurance as God desires.  But all we have to do is confess our sins, and Christ promises to forgive us (1 John 1:9).

Overview of the Warning Passages, part 1

Well, we’ve come in our study of the book of Hebrews to that infamous section of Hebrews that causes people a lot of problems with regard to the doctrine of eternity security.  I’m talking about Hebrews 5:11-6:20, in particular Hebrews 6:4-6.

This is the third of five warning passages in the book of Hebrews.  Our desire is to become confident in our understanding of it so that we can respond obediently to it and explain it to others who may struggle with it.

It is obviously a difficult passage which has given rise to many different interpretations.  In pursuing a clearer understanding of this passage, I want to do several things.

First, I want to look at the question.  Why does God inspire difficult texts?  Some passages of Scripture are easier to understand than others.  The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture holds that with study and the Spirit’s illumination we should be able to understand Scripture.  Yet clarity is not the same as simplicity, and not all texts are as simple and straightforward as others.  The conviction that we can understand Scripture is obvious even in the New Testament itself, where Peter could speak of some things in Paul’s letters “which are difficult to understand” (critically here Peter says “difficult,” not “impossible”) but which can nevertheless be approached with confidence — and it is possible to discern when they are being ‘twisted’ (2 Pet. 3:16).  Peter went on to affirm that Paul’s writings were just as authoritative as the rest of Scripture (2 Pet. 3:16b).  Augustine has written, “[The Bible is] shallow enough for a child not to drown, yet deep enough for an elephant to swim.”

In another context Wayne Grudem explains that…

Scripture affirms that it is able to be understood

but (1) not all at once

and (2) not without effort

and (3) not without ordinary means

and (4) not without the reader’s willingness to obey it

and (5) not without the help of the Holy Spirit

and (6) not without human misunderstanding

and (7) never completely.

Even verse 14 in Hebrews 5 concludes

14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

Second, I want to identify some general principles of interpretation to guide us.  First and foremost is that every text is part of a context—both literary and historical/cultural—which guides how we understand a passage.

Third, I want to examine the specific context of this passage, so that we don’t insert a pretext into it.  There is always a tendency for us to approach a passage from our own denominational or worldview background.

Fourth, I want to make some observations about the structure of the passage and identify some of the details of this third warning passage.

So, why does God inspire hard texts?

We believe that all Scripture is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16), thus He sometimes inspired difficult texts that are hard to understand.  Why did He do that?

As John Piper wrestled over Romans 3:1-8 several years ago, he meditated over why God would put hard texts in the Bible.  Why doesn’t he make everything clear?  Here are four reasons he came up with:

First, desperation.  God uses hard texts to create a sense of desperation and dependence in us.  We see this desperation and inability expressed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”  The “natural man” is certainly here not a Christian, but could describe anyone without the help of the Holy Spirit.  We cannot, naturally, that is, by ourselves, understand the Scriptures.  We are not only sinful, but finite.  God’s knowledge and ways are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8).  God wants us to acknowledge our dependence upon Him for illumination.

Second, supplication.  God wants us to consciously and intentionally turn to Him for help.  This follows from our sense of desperation and dependence.  Knowing we cannot understand Scripture without His help, we turn to Him.  We cry out, as the Psalmist, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from your law” (Psalm 119:18).  Seven times in Psalm 119 the Psalmist prays, “Teach me your statutes” (Psalm 119:12, 26, 64, 68, 124, 135, 171).  Or, as Psalm 25:5 says, “Lead me in thy truth, and teach me.”  By inspiring some texts that are hard to understand, God has unleashed in the world desperation which leads to God-glorifying supplication—crying out to God for His help.

Third, meditation.  Hard texts cause us to think hard, to labor over the text.  You might think that with praying to God we wouldn’t have to work hard to understand the text; that He would just magically bestow the answer to us.  But no, praying and thinking are not mutually exclusive alternatives, they are both needed.  We learn this especially from 2 Timothy 2:7, where Paul says to Timothy, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will grant you understanding in everything.”  Yes, it is the Lord, who gives understanding.  But he does it through our God-given thinking and efforts that we take, along with prayer, to think hard about what the Bible says.

Finally, education.  Because God has inspired a Book as the foundation of the Christian faith, there is a massive impulse to translate these Scriptures into the languages of every people group and to teach them to read.  And if God ordained for some of that precious, sacred, God-breathed Book to be hard to understand, then God unleased in the world not only an impulse to teach people how to read, but how to think about what they read.  Paul said to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:2, “What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.”  Impart understanding to others, Timothy, to enable them to teach others.  Education is cultivating the life of the mind so that it knows how to grow in true understanding.  That impulse was unleased by God’s inspiring a book with complex, demanding paragraphs in it.

Well, what John Piper said about Romans 3:1-8 could be applied to Hebrews 5:11-6:20, which we will be diving into over the next couple of months.  This is a difficult passage, causing many differing interpretations.

I hope to lead us through it, taking it apart and putting it back together again, so that we can understand it and interpret it within its own context so that we can be confident that we know what it means and how to apply it to our lives.

Let’s talk about some principles of interpretation.  This is called hermeneutics—the art and science of interpreting a piece of literature.  In our case, the Bible.  So what are some principles of interpretation?  What “rules” do we follow in trying to accurately understand the Bible?

First, Scripture must always shape our theology.  We cannot not come to Scripture from some theological or worldview framework.  What I mean by that is that it is impossible for us not to come to Scripture which some preconceived notions about what it must mean—based upon our upbringing, our learning, the culture around us.

But we must let the Scripture speak for itself as much as possible.  We must come to God, admitting that we come with our preconceived notions, asking God to guide us into truth even if it conflicts with our own thinking.

We must seek to understand the plain meaning of the text and allow that to fashion our theology and worldview.

The proper, natural sense of the passage as intended by the author is to be taken as the fundamental meaning of the text.  We must interpret it within its own context and seek to understand the meaning the original recipients would have understood as they read it.

The second basic principle of interpretation is that Scripture must interpret Scripture.  Since all Scripture is inspired by God it is cohesive and coherent and will not contradict itself.  The scope and significance of one passage will be brought out by relating it to other passages.  Clear passages of Scripture help us to interpret the less clear passages of Scripture.

For example, this text in Hebrews is hard to understand and it seems to argue against eternal security.  However, there are many other passages that very clearly and forcefully argue for eternal security, such as John 5:24; John 10:27-30; John 6:37, 39; Romans 8:1 and 38-39.  For example, John 6:37-39 (and this is Jesus speaking):

37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.

That is literally “no not cast out,” a double negative in Greek.  Double negatives are not good English, but excellent Greek.  It emphatically states that it is impossible for Jesus to cast out anyone the Father has given to him.

38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.

Notice that Jesus will “lose nothing (or no one) of all that he has given me.”  Rather, they will be raised up in the resurrection.

Another principle of interpretation is to look to the history of interpretations.  How have great Christian thinkers and theologians viewed these problematic passages?  What insights do these great hearts and minds give to contemporary readers of the Bible?

For example, here are some of the historical positions on how to interpret this passage, from the different denominational groups:

Augustine, for example, placed great emphasis on the connection between election and perseverance in grace.  Ultimately, the renewed heart cannot return to an unregenerate condition.  This position, Augustine asserted, was grounded in the immutable work of God.  In other words, he did not believe a true Christian could lose their salvation.

John Calvin built on Augustine’s foundation.  Calvin and John Owen agreed that Hebrews 6 describes the length to which an unregenerate person can experience God’s grace; yet, in the end, fall short of his profession.  In other words, they see Hebrews 6:4-6 referring to unbelievers.

Roman Catholicism affirms the belief that Christians may, through mortal sin, lost their standing in grace and finally, fatally fall away from a previously held faith.  The Council of Trent concluded that assurance of a secure standing in grace was presumptuous.  Thus, they would see Hebrews 6:4-6 as describing a Christian who falls away.

Early Arminianism failed to make definitive statements about the possibility of a genuine Christian falling from grace.  However, in time, Arminians came to affirm such a position.  John Wesley, for instance, rejected the notion of unconditional perseverance.  Some Baptists have affirmed a similar position, such as Dale Moody (not Dwight L. Moody) and Clark Pinnock.

A couple of other more modern approaches see it as hypothetical, taking the “if” at the beginning of verse 6 as conditional, meaning it may or may not happen.  The author is then presenting a case that couldn’t really happen, but is presenting it in such a way to warn them against remaining in an immature condition.

Another approach is to see the consequence of falling away as not the loss of salvation, but the loss of eternal rewards.

I would recommend the book Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews put out by Kregel Publishing for anyone who would like to explore this further.

Now, with some interpretative principles behind us, let’s look at the context of this passage.

First, we need to remind ourselves to whom this book was addressed.  First, since the readers are very familiar with the Old Testament and this book refers so often to the sacrificial system and the priesthood, we are confident that these recipients are primarily Jews who had grown up under Judaism.

While it is likely that some, or maybe even most of them had truly embraced Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord (remember, he calls them “holy brothers” in chapter 3, verse 1), there are very likely others who have experienced the teaching and fellowship and ministries of the church, but had not yet made a commitment to Jesus Christ.  Some of these seem to be in danger of moving back into Judaism because of the persecution the Christians were facing.

Our author is warning them against that danger—of going back to the law.  To him that would be an apostasy impossible to move back from.

It thus seems to be a mixed congregation, for Hebrews 6 speaks of “those” (in vv. 4-6) and “you” (in vv. 9-12).

Second, we need to remember that this is one of five warnings scattered throughout the whole book.

These five warnings (2:1-4; 3:7-4:13; 5:11-6:20; 10:19-39 and 12:14-29) are strategically placed throughout the book and generally provide two options with clearly defined consequences—do this and such-and-such will happen, do that and other consequences follow.  Whereas some warnings provide positive affirmations, all reveal a very unattractive and dire consequence is the readers choose incorrectly.

They also seem to be presented in a chiastic fashion.  A chiasm, after the Greek letter Chi, which looks like a big X, is a literary feature which lines ideas up as presented in the text in the shape of an X.  Thus, the elements at the beginning and end will be similar, and this will step down with each element until the middle elements, which seem to be the focus of the passage.

If this is a chiasm, with 2:1-4 and 12:14-29 invoking the important need to listen to and heed God’s message, and 3:7-4:13 and 10:19-29 directed towards trust and obedience to God’s message, then 5:11-6:20 is the heart of the passage.  Thus it is very important for us to interpret it correctly.

Third, we need to see this warning as part of a larger section of Hebrews, which is the central section and concern of the book, and that is about how Jesus is the superior high priest.  Our author introduces Jesus as the high priest of the Melchizedekian order in 5:10 and will pick it back up again after this warning section in Hebrews 7:1-28.  So, this is essentially a warning about rejecting Jesus as their high priest.  Notice that in 5:11 our writer mentions that he wanted to go on speaking on this subject, but could not because they were in danger of remaining in immaturity.

Now, let’s look at the structure and details of Hebrews 5:11-6:20.  This section actually consists of two major units (5:11-6:12 and 6:12-20).

The first unit explores the peril of immaturity, of not going on to maturity (5:11-6:12).  The tone of the four paragraphs in this unit alternates, notice, between pessimism and optimism:

5:11-14 is pessimistic in tone—“you have become dull of hearing.”

6:1-3, however, is optimistic in tone—”let us leave…and go on…if God permits.”

6:4-8 then goes back to pessimistic—“it is impossible to renew them again to repentance.”

And 6:9-12 turns back to optimism—“we are persuaded of better things concerning you”

This variation is designed to engage the attention of the hearers, to draw them in with both dire warnings and encouraging possibilities.

The second unit gives them a basis for perseverance, which is found in the very reliability and faithfulness of God’s promises to them (6:13-20).  This passage shows that perseverance has much more to do with God’s faithfulness to keep His promises than with our promises to be faithful to Him.

Thus, this pastor holds before them two options—peril or promise.  They may expose themselves to extreme peril by closing their ears to God, or they may find a basis for stability by listening to the voice of God expressed through oath and promise.

Jesus: Our Great High Priest, part 3 (Hebrews 5:7-10)

Jesus is our great high priest.  This is the point the author of Hebrews is making.  Israel had had a succession of high priests throughout their history.  These were men called by God to be priests and they had “acted on behalf of men in relation to God” (Heb. 5:1).  They had their weaknesses, which led them into sin and thus they could sympathize with the plight of their fellow men. But there is now a better high priest, Jesus Christ.  He also was appointed by God and He also suffered.  He did not sin, however, and thus His priesthood is more effective.

Starting at Hebrews 5:1

1 For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. 3 Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. 4 And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. 5 So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; 6 as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” 7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. 9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.

Today we want to focus on vv. 7-10 and here we can see how Jesus is perfectly suited to sympathize with our weakness.  His appointment to the superior high priesthood is not being conferred merely because of His special relationship with God as Son, but He also receives it by taking the path of suffering, obedience and endurance (just like they would receive their full salvation, that is glorification, through enduring suffering).

The phrase “in the days of his flesh” makes an overt reference to Jesus’ incarnation in general (a short, but important interlude between eternity past and eternity future), but the rest of vv. 7-8 focus on the more specific moments of Gethsemane and the cross.

We saw in vv. 1 and 3 that the Israelite high priests “offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” and “is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins” while here Jesus “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death.”

This possibly refers both to Jesus’ prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane that this cup of suffering pass from him and also his cries from the cross.  Both point out that obedience to God’s will in this case brought extreme suffering.

Like us, when going through deep trials, Jesus found it necessary to pray.  Like us, Jesus needed His Father’s help.  He was entirely dependent upon the sustaining presence and strength of His Father.

Jesus has never failed to engage human misery with a compassionate heart and action.  Philip Hughes writes,

“But now in the Garden the moment has come, in his self-identification with mankind, to plumb human depravity and fallenness to its very depths as he prepares, in all his innocence and purity, to submit himself in the place of sinners to the fierceness of God’s wrath against the sins of men.  This meant an experience incomparable in the horror of its torment, from which his whole being shrank instinctively but which was inescapable if the purpose of his coming was to be achieved” (Philip Edgecumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 182).

Mark tells us Jesus was “greatly distressed” (Mark 14:33).  The idea here is that of terrified human surprise.  As he considered the cup he must drink, he was astonished with horror.  

Jesus knew that what He was facing was not merely an excruciatingly painful death, but also judgment for sins—the wrath of a thrice Holy God against sin—our sins, but laid upon him—which is to experience the “second death” (Rev. 20:4; Heb. 9:27), the disintegrating experience of utter separation from God.

It is clear from His own words that He dreaded the bitter “cup” He was about to drink (Mt 26:39).  That cup was the wrath of God against all sinners.  To drink it meant spiritual death, i.e., separation from God.  For Jesus, Who knew no sin, to become as the ONLY sinner in the world and endure God’s wrath for that sin, was something from which He cringed in horror.  We can’t fathom what it must be like for God to lay the “iniquity of us all,” on someone Who was holy.  We must see Him as a man, appalled by what was ahead of Him.  The very thought of separation from God must have seemed too much for Him to bear–yet He surrendered.  (C. S. Lovett, Lovett’s Lights on Hebrews, 114)

The dread with which he approached the cross is explained, as Calvin says, by the fact that in the death that awaited him “he saw the curse of God and the necessity to wrestle with the sum total of human guilt and with the very powers of darkness themselves.”

Mark also tells us that Jesus said, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Mark 14:34), for his sorrow was so deep, it threatened death to his human body. Mark takes us even deeper into the terror-filled mystery, telling us: “And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’” (Mark 14:35, 36).  The inner circle of disciples saw Jesus’ body fall prostrate to the ground.  There he prayed repeatedly.  Our text in Hebrews gives us even more light, for it mentions “loud cries.”

How can Jesus sympathize with the pain and suffering and heartache that we go through?  Because He has been there.  He knows what it is like.  In fact, He knows the heights of physical pain as well as the depths of emotional distress.  He knows the very horrors of hell.

Amazingly (in the light of redemptive history), he was repeatedly asking that if possible the “hour” and the “cup” (metaphors for his death) might be avoided!  How could he desire something contrary to the Father’s will?  The answer is: Jesus was truly God and truly man.  As a man he had a human will and voluntarily limited his knowledge.  His prayer was not to do something other than the Father’s will, but he did say in prayer that if there were a possibility of fulfilling his messianic mission without the cross, he would opt for that.  As a man Christ cried for escape, but as a man he desired the Father’s will even more.

John Calvin quotes Cyril of Alexandria as saying: “You see that death was not voluntary for Christ as far as the flesh was concerned, but it was voluntary, because by it, according to the will of the Father, salvation and life were given to all men” (John Calvin, A Harmony of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke and the Epistles of James and Jude , vol. 3, trans. A. W. Morrison (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975), p. 515).

The ”loud cries and tears” which accompanied Christ’s supplication are to be understood, then, in relation to the indescribable darkness of the horror that he, our High Priest, was to pass through as, on the cross, he bore not only the defilement and guilt of the world’s sin but also its judgment.  At Gethsemane and Calvary we see him enduring our hell so that we might be set free to enter into his heaven (Philip Edgecumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 183).

Matthew Henry notes: “”The prayers and supplications that Christ offered up were joined with strong cries and tears, herein setting us an example.  How many dry prayers, how few wet ones, do we offer up to God!” (Matthew Henry, p. 1951).

These prayers with tears were addressed to the Father, described here as “him who was able to save him from death,” which could mean either that the Father would keep him from dying on the cross or raise him from the dead, so that death could not forever hold him.  As a man, he probably preferred the former.  By doing God’s will, Christ was “saved from death” by rising again after three days.

Our text here in Hebrews tells us “he was heard because of his reverence” (v. 7b).  His reverence for the Father determined that his humanity would do nothing but please the Father.  His prayer was, of course, answered, for though his body died, he was saved out of death—and so the Father’s will was done.  His prayer was not to escape the Father’s will, but to fully accept it.  It seems unlikely that Jesus was actually asking to be spared from dying.  Just a week earlier he had said it was for this very purpose that He had come (John 12:27).

And in doing it this way, as we’ll see in v. 9, Jesus “became the source of eternal salvation” for those who put their faith in him.

This reminds us that sometimes God’s “hears” our prayers but does not do what we think He should; rather He has something greater in mind.  God did hear the prayers of His Son, and delivered him through death to life.

The Father attended to His Son’s cries because of Jesus’ heart posture of complete abandonment to the Father’s will.  His reverence for the Father determined that His humanity would do nothing but please His Father.

Richard Foster, in his book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, begins his chapter on “The Prayer of Relinquishment” with an analogy between human and spiritual development:

As we are learning to pray we discover an interesting progression.  In the beginning our will is in struggle with God’s will.  We beg.  We pout.  We expect God to perform like a magician or shower us with blessings like Father Christmas.  We major in instant solutions and manipulative powers.

As difficult as this time of struggle is, we must never desire it or try to avoid it.  It is an essential part of our growing and deepening in things spiritual.  To be sure, it is an inferior stage, but only in the sense that a child is at an inferior stage to that of an adult.  The adult can reason better and carry heavier loads because both brain and brawn are more fully developed, but the child is doing exactly what we would expect at that age.  So it is in the life of the spirit.

In time, however, we begin to enter into a grace-filled releasing of our will and flowing into the will of the Father.  It is the Prayer of Relinquishment that moves us from the struggling to the releasing.

It might be expected that because He was God’s Son, God’s one and only beloved Son, that he would be exempt from suffering.  But no, to become our perfect high priest, He had to experientially learn obedience through suffering.  Although Christ has a unique standing with God as His Son, this did not keep him from having to go through a “learning experience” in which he perfectly, or completely, learned the role He must play as the Captain of our salvation (Heb. 2:10).

The word “Son” here has no definite article.  But that doesn’t mean that “the Son,” Jesus Christ, is not in view here.  Rather, the lack of the definite article means this word “Son” is being used in a qualitative sense.  “Sons…learn…”  That just the nature of growing up and becoming mature.

The structure of the passage, “Although He was a Son, he learned…” expresses what grammarians label a “contraexpectation,” of what one might call a “sweet surprise.”  In other words, the dynamics of the situation was not what you would expect.  Unlike an ancient prince on whom positions were bestowed simply by being born into the royal lineage, this divine Son was called to walk a path of obedience through suffering.

The “Son” being the Son of God, was under no necessity to learn obedience through suffering, but He did.  He chose this path (Phil. 2:8; Heb. 12:2).

Verse 8 says, “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered.”  This does not mean he moved from being disobedient to being obedient.  It means he moved from being untested to being tested and proven.  He moved from obeying without any suffering to obeying through unspeakable suffering.  It means that the gold of his natural purity was put in the crucible and melted down with white-hot pain, so that he could learn from experience what suffering is and prove that his purity would persevere.

When the author says that Christ “learned obedience” and was “made perfect,” he is not suggesting to his readers that the Son was less than divine, less than God, less that omniscient, omnipotent, and certainly not that He had been disobedient before and had learned to be obedient.  It is not that He was morally flawed in any way.  Remember, in Heb. 4:15 he told us Christ was “yet without sin.”  Rather, Jesus’ calling involved walking obediently all the way to the end of the path to which the Father had appointed him—to the cross.  That he “learned obedience” simply means that the son arrived “at a new stage of experience,” having passed through the school of suffering.  Perfection refers to the Son’s having “graduated” from that school, accomplishing the mission and making it to the end of that passion.

Remember C. S. Lewis’ comment about how it is the “good man,” not the “bad man” who knows the full extent of what it means to be tempted, because he endured to the full extent and didn’t give in early like we normally do in our temptations.

Even as God the Son, and as such perfect in one sense, Jesus gained something through His sufferings, namely, experiential knowledge of what being a human involves.  Griffith Thomas remarks, “”Innocence is life untested, but virtue is innocence tested and triumphant” (W. H. Griffith Thomas, A Devotional Commentary, p. 64).

The “perfecting” in view has to do with Christ’s vocation, his calling to be the savior of his people. It was a process by which he was shown to be fully equipped and qualified for his office.

We need to understand Jesus’ learning and becoming “perfect” in the context not of moral deficiency but as the completion of a task.  He finished the task and drank the full measure of the experience that was needed in order to make a complete sacrifice for our sins.

There is a link here between Jesus’ prayers in the midst of his suffering and the prayer of the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 50:4-9.

5 The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward. 6 I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.

What did the servant learn?  He learned how to sympathize deeply with us in our suffering.

Philip Hughes describes it like this: “His perfection consisted in the retention of his integrity, in the face of every kind of assault on his integrity, and thereby the establishment of his integrity.  Had he failed at any point, his integrity would have been impaired and his perfection lost, with the consequence that he would have been disqualified to act as mediator and redeemer” (P. E. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 188).

Jesus succeeded where Adam failed and cried “It is finished” from the cross (John 19:30).

John MacArthur says, “Christ did not need to learn any new information when He came to earth.  He was omniscient, all-knowing.  But He chose to participate in man’s feelings personally as that He could be sympathetic, all-feeling.”

Verses 9 and 10 proclaim the happy result of the Son’s reaching this perfection, accomplishing this goal.  He became the “source of eternal salvation.”  This affirmation links the perfecting process closely to the cross, where our great high priest offered up himself as the sacrifice for our sin.  His blood opens the door to our salvation.

9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.

As an eternal high priest, He could offer eternal salvation.  His offering differed from that of the high priests.  First, He did not have to offer a sacrifice to atone for his own sins.  He had none.  Second, his sacrifice was once-and-for-all.  He did not have to offer it year after year.  Third, this offering was Himself.

Back in chapter 2, verse 10, our author had said:

10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.

The obedience that is being referenced here is the obedience of faith, responded to the Spirit and the gospel call with an obedient trusting in Jesus Christ.

F. F. Bruce comments: “There is 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.” (The Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 133).

“Jesus didn’t waver, neither should you,” the author of Hebrews is telling his audience.

Prolonged obedience is proof of saving faith.

Like Jesus, believers often learn obedience through their suffering (see 12:2-11).  This example from Christ encouraged the readers to remain firm and not drift away from the faith in times of suffering.  Just as Christ was perfected through his suffering, so Christians will be, too.  (Bruce Barton, Life Application Bible Commentary: Hebrews, 68)

Jesus: Our Great High Priest, part 2 (Hebrews 5:4-6)

The author of Hebrews is making the case that Jesus is a superior high priest to the Aaronic high priests in Judaism.  He makes comparisons between the high priests in their religion with the kind of high priest Jesus is.

1 For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. 3 Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. 4 And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. 5 So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; 6 as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” 7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. 9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.

We were talking last time about verses 1-3 and saw their the high priest’s solidarity (that he was a man like them) and his sympathy (vv. 2-3, that he shared their weaknesses).  We were discussing verses 2 and 3, showing that the Aaronic high priest had to offer sacrifices to pay for his own sins since he had sinned out of his weakness.  This made him sympathetic so that he could “deal gently with the ignorant and wayward.”

F. F. Bruce suggests that the phrase “with the ignorant and wayward” should be taken as a hendiadyes, meaning “those who go astray through ignorance.”

It was for this type of person—the person who, because of moral weakness, has unintentionally wandered off the path of righteousness—that God had designed the Old Covenant sin offerings.

This is reflected in Numbers 15:28-29.

28 And the priest shall make atonement before the LORD for the person who makes a mistake, when he sins unintentionally, to make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven. 29 You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the people of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them.

The defiant sinner, however, blasphemes God and thus find no such provision.  In all of the Old Testament there is absolutely no provision made for the unrepentant, deliberate, defiant law breaker.  The following verses in Numbers 15 say…

30 But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. 31 Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.”

Likewise, the Psalmist says

12 Who can discern his errors?  Declare me innocent from hidden faults. 13 Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me!  Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.

This is serious indeed.

Philip Hughes, in his commentary on Hebrews, reminds us that it was this kind of sin—open, defiant, high-handed sin which the readers of this epistle were in danger of committing.  Thus, he passionately warns them.

Of course, God is still able to forgive, if He so chooses.  Aaron himself, whose feeble yielding to the people’s demand for a visible symbol of deity is matched only by the ineptitude of his excuse to Moses:

Exodus 32:24

So I said to them, ‘Let any who have gold take it off.’  So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.”

Wow, did you see that?  I threw that gold jewelry into the fire and out came a golden calf.  Amazing, isn’t it Moses?

In this case, Aaron was in no condition to make intercession for the people of God—to act in his priestly role—because of his rebellion; rather it was Moses who went into the presence of God and made atonement for their sin and procured their pardon (Exodus 32:11-14, 31ff).

Not only must the high priest be a man in solidarity with the people and not only must he sympathize with people who are weak, just like him, but he must also be selected by God.

The third and final qualification is straightforward—the high priestly position must spring from divine selection: “No one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was” (v. 4).  All Israel’s priests were to come only through divine appointment (Exodus 28:1–3; cf. Leviticus 8:1ff.; Numbers 16:5; 20:23ff.; 25:10ff.).

In other words, the office of high priest is an office of immense dignity and you can’t just decide to have it.  God has to call you to it like he called Aaron in the Old Testament.

The high priest served in that role only because he was “appointed” by God, not because of his own ambition or aspiration.

Attempts to do otherwise met with catastrophic judgment. Korah and his 250 followers were swallowed by the earth because they elevated themselves to the priestly office by burning unauthorized incense (Numbers 16:16–40).  Saul lost his reign because he impatiently assumed Samuel’s priestly function (1 Samuel 13:8ff.).  And Uzziah, wrongly utilizing a priestly censer, broke out with leprosy that lasted until his dying day (2 Chronicles 26:16–21).

It is possible that the writers of Hebrews is reminding them that in their own recent history—in the two centuries before Christ—the high priests had been appointed by political rulers and even in some cases by popular vote!

The High Priest was taken from the community of God’s people but was not chosen by God’s people.  He was appointed by God for His people.  Aaron did not say to himself one day, “I think that I shall go to priest school and obtain a degree in Priesthood and become a priest.”  It did not even help that he had an “in” with his brother Moses.  The only way that Aaron became a priest was because God chose him to be a priest.

No genuine priest ever arrogated himself to the high priestly office.  All were sovereignly chosen.  Therefore, a proper priest was filled with deep humility.  His work was never a career.  It was a divine calling.  The role of high priest derives from a divine rather than a human authority.  God created the role of high priest, and any high priest thereafter must be called by God to be considered an authentic and authoritative representative of the people before God.

What an inviting picture the ideal human high priest was.  He bore Israel on his shoulders and over his heart.  He was crowned with holy intent for all—“Holy to the LORD.”  He kept the bells ringing as he worked at intercession and atonement.  He was in solidarity with his people—he was one of them.  He was a real link between them and God.  He was in such sympathy with them that he always could “deal gently” with them.  He was the product of divine selection —free from ego and hubris.  He was selected to serve.  How appealing this was to the Hebrew mind, and quite frankly to us!  The ideal high priest was a man of incomparable attractiveness.

When a human high priest completely fulfilled these principles, he was attractive to the Hebrew mind.  Could anyone or anything ever exceed this ideal in attractiveness and efficacy?  The answer is a resounding “Yes!”—Jesus Christ.

Our writer now turns from the universal principles that related to the Old Covenant high priesthood and applies them specifically to Jesus Christ.  Just as Aaron was called by God (5:4), so Christ himself did not “take upon himself the glory” but was appointed to the position.

David Guzik points out:

It is easy to see why the priesthood of Jesus was difficult for early Jewish Christians to grasp. Jesus was not from the lineage of Aaron.  Jesus neither claimed nor practiced special ministry in the temple.  He confronted the religious structure instead of joining it. In Jesus’ day, the priesthood became a corrupt institution.  The office was gained through intrigue and politicking among corrupt leaders.

5 So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; 6 as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.”

The author establishes that Jesus Christ is our great high priest because first, He too was appointed by God.

The verb “exalt” or “glory” in verse 5 is used only here, but the cognate noun is sprinkled throughout Hebrews.  We see Jesus as “the radiance of God’s glory” (1:3), “crowned with glory” (2:7, 9), “worthy of greater honor [glory] than Moses” (3:3), and the one to whom should be ascribed “glory for ever and ever” (13:21).  In each instance the glory comes to Christ from another party or parties, he never seeks glory for himself.  In fact, he takes the opposite path.  He ”did not exalt himself” as we see in Philippians 2.

In 5:5-6 the author focuses on the glory bestowed by God the Father on the occasion of the son’s appointment to the high priesthood, finding evidence for that honor in Psalm 110:4.

The Son-who-was-King was also declared the Son-who-was-High-Priest, but not in the order of Aaron, rather in the order of Melchizedek.

Here the author quotes Psalm 2:7 (which he quoted before back in 1:5) and Psalm 110:4, two Psalms acknowledged by the Jews as Messianic.  Psalm 2 declares him to be the “Son-who-was-King,” the heir of David whose destiny was to rule the nations (Psalm 2:8). 

His royal office was prophesied in Psalm 2:7—“You are my Son; today I have begotten you” (cf. Hebrews 1:5), which in the mind of the writer of Hebrews refers to Christ’s enthronement as “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).  This is an implicit statement that Jesus is eternal King!

Psalm 110 declares the Messiah to be the “Son-who-was-High-Priest.”  He is a priest of a special order.

Here the author is likely refuting a Qumran interpretation in which the Messianic King and the Messianic Priest were two separate individuals—the king coming from the Davidic line and the priest from the Aaronic line.

Jesus’ priestly office was prophesied, says our writer, in Psalm 110:4—“You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”  This was a bombshell statement to his hearers because, while Psalm 110:1 had been applied to Christ by others (and even in Hebrews 1:13), this is the first time Jesus was ever identified with the mysterious priesthood of Melchizedek!  Not only that, but Psalm 110:4 now becomes the virtual theme-text of the heart of the letter to Hebrews (that text is quoted three times, in 5:6; 7:17, 21; and there are an additional eight allusions to it in chapters 5 and 6).  It is especially important here to realize that Melchizedek, according to Genesis 14, was both king of Salem and priest of God Most High (Genesis 14:18; Hebrews 7:1).

So our author gives us a stupendous truth: Jesus is both eternal King and eternal priest.  And it all came to him by the ordaining word of God the Father. Jesus did not seek it!  Just as in eternity, he “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6, 7), neither did he clutch the office of king and high priest.  His only goal was to glorify God the Father.

So Christ has the dignity to be our High Priest and to become the source of eternal salvation.  No one but the Son of God could do it.  No other being in the universe has the dignity that was required to obtain an eternal salvation.  It took an infinite dignity.  No priest of Aaron’s line and no angel in heaven could do it.  Only one could do it—the Son of God.

So the author is here using a rabbinic technique known as “verbal analogy,” coupling Psalm 2:7 and 110:4 by virtue of their common elements: Both psalms contain a pronouncement by God in the second person (“You are…”), thus making both of them statements from God the Father to His Son Jesus Christ.  Linking his primary passage (Psalm 110:4) with Psalm 2:7 serves to infuse his priesthood with kingly authority from the beginning.

Melchizedek will be discussed in greater detail in Hebrews 7, but a brief introduction is important here.

Melchizedek is mentioned two times in the Old Testament (Genesis 14:18 and Psalm 110:4), that’s all.  In Genesis he meets Abraham coming back from a military conquest and blesses him, and Abraham gives him tithes.  The text simply says, “He was a priest of God Most High.”  There is no information about his parents or his ethnic origin.  He appears and disappears until a thousand years later in the time of David, who quotes God as saying that the Messiah is “a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”  And that’s it.  Nothing more about Melchizedek until this writer mentions him here.

  • He was a king-priest who lived at the time of Abraham, and whose ancestry is completely unknown.
  • He was king of Salem (the ancient name for Jerusalem) and was a priest of the true God (Genesis 14:18).
  • He lived many centuries before the Aaronic priesthood was established and his priesthood was never ending (Hebrews 7), unlike that of Aaron, which began in the days of Moses but ended in 70 A.D.

Melchizedek represented a “non-Jewish, universal priesthood” much like the role that Abraham played in relation to the covenant (B. F. Westcott).

The Melchizedekian priesthood was superior in two ways: First, Melchizedek was a king; Aaron was not.  Second, his priesthood was perpetual; Aaron’s was temporary.  The writer of Hebrews traced Jesus, from the tribe of Judah, not Levi, back to Melchizedek, a superior priest.

Thus, Jesus is a high priest of a better order than that of Aaron.  He was appointed in this role by God.  When did this happen?  When the Son “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven” (Heb. 1:3).  This is affirmed in Acts 2:36.

“Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Melchizedek symbolizes in the Old Testament a priesthood different from the priesthood of Aaron and the tribe of Levi.  Melchizedek became a kind of symbolic pointer to a priesthood with no beginning and no ending.  That’s why Psalm 110 and Hebrews 5:6 stress the word “forever”—”You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.  Christ really is a High Priest, as Hebrews 7:3 says, “having neither beginning of days nor end of life.”

He did not act on His own initiative.  His life was one of obedience to the Father.

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. (John 5:19)

“I can do nothing on my own.  As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” (John 5:30)

The authority that Jesus acted upon was not His own authority.  The miracles which He brought about were not by His own power.  The message which He preached was not independently His own.  Everything that He did was from a higher authority.  Everything that He did was from the Father and the Spirit.  When He was baptized by John, He did not say, “Look everyone, I’m the Son of God!”  Instead, it was the Father’s voice from heaven who made this announcement.  Jesus ALWAYS acted from the authority of God.

Jesus was not a rebel, usurping authority by himself or for himself.  He was always submissive to the Father and to proper authorities on earth.  And this will lead us into this Great High Priest’s submissive suffering that we will see next week in vv. 7-10.

Jesus: Our Great High Priest, part 1 (Hebrews 5:1-3)

Jesus is the best high priest you could have.  And you say, “So what?”

Why is this important to us?  It was important to the Jews, but why is it important to you and me? 

Among the first thing a Jew might have asked another person about his religion was, “who is your high priest?”  I bet no one has ever asked you, “who is your high priest?”

A Jew during the first century might have asked a new follower of the Way, Christians, “How are your sins going to be pardoned when you have no one offering sacrifices for you?”

So the writer of Hebrews wanted them, and us, to realize, “But we do have a high priest, in fact, a better high priest, the perfect high priest, and His name is Jesus.”

The author from the beginning has been setting up Jesus as the unique Son-who-is-King.  Then he began presenting Jesus as the Son-who-is-High Priest.  This will be the focal point of chapters 5-10.

The Epistle to the Hebrews stands alone among the NT books in calling Christ priest.  The cause for this neglect may perhaps be found in the history of the Jewish people.  Throughout the ages the Jews had expected a king from David’s house.  This king would deliver them from foreign oppression.  And this king, because David’s line was from the tribe of Judah, could not be a priest; priests were descendants of Aaron in the tribe of Levi.  Therefore, Jesus was known as king.  At his birth the wise men called him “king of the Jews” (Mt 2:2), and this appellation was commonplace during the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.  He was not known as priest.  (William Hendriksen & Simon J. Kistemaker, NT Commentary: Hebrews, 135)

The heart of the book focuses on Jesus’ high priesthood.  His superior priesthood makes the New Covenant superior to the Old Covenant.  He has done what all the priests together under the Old Covenant could not do and never could have done.

Within this main section of the book (5:1-10:18) can be discerned two movements: (1) the first addresses the Son’s appointment as high priest according to the order of Melchizedek (5:1-7:28), which is bracketed off by an inclusio (the same elements at beginning and end) and includes an exhortation in 5:11-6:20 which is an exegetical conundrum.  It will take us several weeks to explain that portion of Scripture.

Before enlarging on the consequences of the priesthood of Christ for his readers, the author seeks to show Christ’s qualifications for that role.

When the high priest was donned with all his majestic priestly garments (described in Exodus 28), it was quite a display.  But what was more important were the inner qualifications so necessary for effective ministry.

The writer closed the previous chapter with the statement that we have a high priest in the person of Jesus.  The Jew would immediately object, “Hold it right there!  It takes certain rigid qualifications to be a priest.  Not just anyone can take that title to himself.”

The writer anticipates this objection and so, he pauses to examine three particular aspects of the high priest.  Then, in verses 6-10, he goes back over those same aspects in reverse order, applying them to Jesus.  This type of reverse parallelism is known as a CHIASM (after the Greek letter Chi, which looks like one half of the letter X).  It can be charted like this:

A     The old office of high priest (5:1)

B       The solidarity of the high priest with the people (5:2-3)

C       The humility of the high priest (5:4)

C’      The humility of Christ (5:5-6)

B’      The solidarity of Christ with the people (5:7-8)

A’      The new office of high priest (5:9-10)

The use of chiasm functioned both to emphasize the central elements (humility) and as a mnemonic device to help listeners remember.

The introduction of verse 1, the conclusion in verse 10 and the apex of the chiasm in vv. 4-6 all serve to focus the attention of the theme of Christ’s legitimate appointment to the high priesthood.  In contrasting the Aaronic priesthood in general terms (vv. 1-4) to Christ’s Melchizekian priesthood (vv. 5-10), the author is attempting to show that Jesus is a superior high priest.

Again, the big idea is that Jesus is the best high priest you could have.

1 For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. 3 Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. 4 And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. 5 So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; 6 as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” 7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. 9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.

First we see the qualifications of the Earthly High Priest (vv. 1–4)

The writer opens this section by asserting in verses 1–4 the three essential qualifications for one who would aspire to be high priest—namely, solidaritysympathy, and selection.

Solidarity, oneness with humanity, was fundamental to priestly ministry and is explicitly stated in verse 1: “For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (cf. Exodus 28:1; Numbers 8:6). 

This was established in Exodus 28:1a, “Then bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the people of Israel, to serve me as priests…”

The high priest must originate among the people.  In order to represent mankind He had to become a man.  No angel or celestial being could stand in the place of the high priest.

Not just anyone could serve as a priest in the Old Testament.  In the first place, you had to be a member of the tribe of Levi.  But not everyone in the tribe of Levi qualified.  You also had to be a descendant of the family of Aaron.  Aaron, you will recall, was the brother of Moses.  And only one of the descendants of Aaron was given the privilege of serving as the High Priest.

The emphasis here is on the similarity, or solidarity, between the high priest and the people—he was “one of them.”  This is a continuation of the theme introduced back in 2:10-18 where the Son came down “among humanity” to accomplish reconciliation in our behalf.  Chapter 2 ended with a statement of Christ’s identity with the people as their high priest (2:17-18).

17 Therefore 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. 18 For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

This theme popped up again at the end of chapter 4.

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.

And this is why the author of Hebrews unpacks the implications here.

The role of the high priest was to “act on behalf of men in relation to God.”  The high priest stood between God and man as their representative with Him.  As a priest acting “on behalf of men” Luther made this astute and important comment: “It is not enough for a Christian to believe that Christ was instituted high priest to act on behalf of men, unless he also believes that he himself is one of these men for whom Christ was appointed high priest.”

In other words, YOU must believe that you need a high priest, not merely that Jesus is a high priest, just like you must believe that you need a Savior, not merely that Jesus is a Savior.  This is similar to the distinction made in Hebrews 4:14.  It’s not just that there is a high priest available to us, but “we have a great high priest.”  And we have one because we need one!

So Jesus Christ is our go-between with God, our mediator.  As high priest, He functions as our mediator.  The priests under the Old Covenant were bridge builders to God.  Men could not come directly into God’s presence, and God therefore appointed certain men to be ushers, as it were, to bring men into His presence.  The way to God was opened only as the priests offered sacrifices–day in and day out, year after year–presenting the blood of animals to God.  The priests were God’s mediators.  (John MacArthur Jr., The MacArthur NT Commentary: Hebrews, 118)

Let me illustrate for you what a high priest is and does.  The Latin phrase for “high priest” is pontifex maximus.  The word “maximus” means great.  The word “pontifex” is interesting and is itself comprised of two words: “pons” (bridge) and “facio” (to make or build).  A high priest, therefore, is a bridge builder.  He makes a way for man to be connected with God and relate to God.  And what our author is about to unpack for us is that Jesus Christ is the bridge that spans the gap created by our sin, the gap that had separated us from God.  Through his sinless life, sacrificial death, bodily resurrection, and his current ministry of interceding for us at God’s right hand, he has built a bridge for us to get to God!

Christ holds three offices in His mediatorial role: prophet, priest and king.  According to Arthur Pink there seems to be a special importance attached to Christ’s role as priest, which is what is emphasized here in Hebrews.  First, we never read of “our great prophet,” or “our great King,” but we do of “our great High Priest” (Heb 4:14)!  Second, the Holy Spirit nowhere affirms that Christ’s appointment to either His prophetic or His kingly office “glorified” Him; but this is insisted upon in connection with His call to the sacerdotal office (5:5)!  In this priestly role he was exalted.  Third, we read not of the dread solemnity of any divine “oath” in connection with His inauguration to the prophetic or the kingly office, but we do His priestly–“The Lord has sworn, and will not change his mind, You are a priest forever.” (Ps 110:4)!  Thus the priesthood of Christ is invested with supreme importance.  (Arthur W. Pink, An Exposition of Hebrews, 238-9)

In particular, the high priest handled the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement.  Then and there he would offer “gifts and sacrifices for sins.”

The High Priest wore a breastplate on which were inscribed the names of all the tribes of Israel.  This pointed to the fact that his role was to represent all the people in the presence of God.  He alone could enter the Holy of Holies on only one day each year, the Day of Atonement.  On that day he offered sacrifices for the sins of the people and made it possible for them to remain in relationship with God.

On the Day of Atonement the high priest would take two goats and a ram from among the Israelites (Lev. 16:5).  After casting lots for the goats, the high priest slaughters one of the goats as a sin offering “for the people” (16:15), and the other goat is brought forth alive from the tent.  The high priest lays his hands on the head of the “scapegoat,” confessing all the sins of the people before the Lord, then sends the goat away into the desert (16:20-22).  By carrying out this part of God’s instructions for the Day of Atonement the high priest acts before God as a representative on behalf of the people, making atonement for their sins.

Exodus 28:1, 3; 29:1 stressed that the high priest was appointed for God, but in this verse the writer said that he was appointed for people.  Both statements are true.

Verses 2 and 3 expresses the high priest’s sympathy with his people:

2 He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. 3 Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people.

Verse 2 shows the sympathy of the priest, expressed to the greatest degree in Jesus Christ, as we saw back in Hebrews 4:14-16.

You see, the high priest had to offer a special sacrifice for himself and his household before he could offer the goat sacrifices in behalf of his people.  In this regard, the Old Testament reads:

Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself. (Leviticus 16:11)

The Mishna records this prayer by a priest, which probably reflect something of the ancient Aaronic prayer:

O God, I have committed iniquity and transgressed and sinned before thee, I and my house and the children of Aaron, thy holy people. O God, forgive, I pray, the iniquities and transgressions and sins which I have committed and transgressed and sinned before thee, I and my house.” (M Yoma 4:2)

This was followed by the high priest taking the blood of the sacrifice into the Holy of Holies and sprinkling some on the mercy seat and then sprinkling more seven times before the seat (Leviticus 16:6–14, esp. v. 14; cf. Leviticus 4:3–12; 9:7).  It was only after taking care of his own sins that he dared offer sacrifice for his people on the Day of Atonement.  The ideal high priest knew he was a sinner through and through—and thus was equipped to “deal gently” with his sinful people.  He did not elevate himself above them, but ministered with sympathetic grace as a priestly sinner on behalf of other sinners.

The necessity stems from the priest’s being “beset with weakness” (v. 2b).  The Greek word translated “beset” (perikeimai) means “to be surrounded” by something, like a millstone tied around the neck (Mark 9:42; Luke 17:2) or the witnesses that surround us in Hebrews 12:1.  The priest’s weaknesses close in on him and leave him no way out, thus obligating him to first offer sacrifices for his own sins.  He shared in the universal “community of weakness” of all mankind.

Remember, it is in this respect alone that Christ did not exactly correspond to the qualifications and characteristics of high priest in this passage (cf. 7:27).  He IS able to sympathize because He has endured the temptations, yet without sinning.  To have been a fellow sinner would be of no worth to us.

This facing of temptation, however, has redemptive value in that it enables him to “deal gently with the ignorant and wayward.”  And in this we have something most beautiful, because the word translated “deal gently” was used classically to define a course of conduct that was the middle course between anger and apathy, between being incensed at sin or laissez-faire about sin.  It meant “wise, gentle, patient restraint.”  Such a high priest was compassionate and sensitive.  He dealt gently with his people.

There is a remarkable parallel between the chemistry that produces the ability to “deal gently” (awareness of weakness plus sinfulness equals gentleness) and the first three Beatitudes.  There an awareness of weakness —“Blessed are the poor in spirit [those who realize there is nothing within themselves to commend them to God], for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”—is combined with an awareness of sin —“Blessed are those who mourn [over their sins and the sins of the world], for they shall be comforted”—to produce gentleness —“Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:3–5 NASB).

When one is truly aware that he or she is a sinner and couples this with the interior awareness of human weakness, this person will deal gently with others.  Conversely, a harsh, judgmental, unsympathetic spirit is a telltale indication that one has outgrown his sense of weakness and awareness of sin.  Many evangelicals fall to this syndrome after humbly coming to Christ at conversion, for their initial experience of sanctification deludes them into imagining they are better than others.  Such arrogance, however, actually disqualifies them from spiritual ministry.  What a beautiful priestly quality it is to “deal gently” with those falling into sin.  How wonderful a priest like this would be.

Edwin Friedman, in his book Generation to Generation, says that a good leader will be a “non-anxious presence,” meaning that he or she can keep control of their emotions and not allow the tensions around them to dictate their emotions, yet he or she also does not draw away from the situation, but stays connected people.

This is what the ideal high priest was supposed to do.  It is what Jesus does for us.

Come to the Throne of Grace, part 4 (Hebrews 4:16)

We ended last week talking about the wonderful reality that through the death of Jesus Christ access has been graciously given to us so that we can have all confidence in approaching God in prayer.  Hebrews 4:16 says…

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.

Access to the most powerful leader in the world—the President of the United States—is granted to only a few who have successfully passed through a series of detailed, cautious checkpoints!

It is hard to get in to see the President.  A Norway teen created quite a stir when he challenged the system, boldly dialing a secret phone number for the White House.  Sixteen-year-old Vifill Atlason claims he called President George Bush out of curiosity.  “I just wanted to talk to him, have a chat, invite him to Iceland, and see what he’d say,” he later told ABC News.

In order to get through security, Atlason pretended to be Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, the President of Iceland.  He was surprised when his initial call didn’t pass through the switchboard, but went directly to a higher office to be screened by various security officials.  Atlason was then asked a series of personal questions in an attempt to verify his identification as President Grimsson.

Needless to say, he never made it through and was later taken from his home for questioning by local police, but no charges were filed.

Yet we have access to the all-powerful, all-glorious, most-sovereign ruler of the universe!

Our experience is more like this story…

During the civil war, there was a soldier who lost both his brother and his dad to death on the same day.  He wanted to see the president and plead his case.   He was given a pass to do so.   He went to the White House but was told by the guard on duty, “You can’t see the president, young man!  Don’t you know there’s a war going on?  The president is a very busy man!  Now go away, son!  Get back out there on the battle lines where you belong!”

So the young soldier left, very disheartened, and was sitting on a little park bench not far from the White House when a little boy came up to him.  The lad said, “Soldier, you look unhappy.  What’s wrong?”  The soldier looked at the little boy and began to spill his heart to him.  He told of his father and his brother being killed in the war, and of the desperate situation at home.  He explained that his mother and sister had no one to help them with the farm.  The little boy listened and said, “I can help you, soldier.”  He took the soldier by the hand and led him back to the front gate of the White House.  Apparently, the guard didn’t notice them, because they weren’t stopped.  They walked straight to the front door of the White House and walked right in.  After they got inside, they walked right past generals and high-ranking officials, and no one said a word.  The soldier couldn’t understand this. Why didn’t anyone try to stop them?

They reached the Oval Office—where the president was working—and the little boy didn’t even knock on the door.  He just walked right in and led the soldier in with him.  There behind the desk was Abraham Lincoln and his Secretary of State, looking over battle plans that were laid out on his desk.

The president looked at the boy and then at the soldier and said, “Good afternoon, Todd.  Can you introduce me to your friend?”  Todd Lincoln, the son of the president, said, “Daddy, this soldier needs to talk to you.”  The soldier pled his case before Mr. Lincoln, and right then and there he received the exemption that he desired.

Because of Jesus, we have direct access to the Father, let’s never forget that.

More important than any President is this King to which we can draw near.  And as the hymn puts it, “Thou art coming to a king, large petitions with thee bring!”

The point is, we are not coming to a cosmic welfare agency for a meager handout or to the back door for scraps off someone’s dinner plate.  When we need grace for our souls we are coming to the throne of the King of kings!  “In prayer,” said Spurgeon, “we stand where angels bow with veiled faces; there, even there, the cherubim and seraphim adore, before that selfsame throne to which our prayers ascend” (“The Throne of Grace,” in Spurgeon’s Expository Encyclopedia, Vol. 12 [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996], p. 206).

John Calvin wrote: “The glory of God cannot but fill us with despair, such is the awfulness of his throne.  Therefore, in order to help our lack of confidence, to free our minds of all fears, the apostles clothes it with grace and gives it a name which will encourage us by its sweetness.  If is as if he were saying, ‘Since God has fixed on his throne…a banner of grace and fatherly love towards us, there is no reason why His majesty should ward us off from approaching Him” (Calvin’s Commentaries: The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews and the First and Second Epistles of St. Peter , trans. William B. Johnston (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1963), p. 57).

Because it is a throne of grace, nothing is required of you but your need.  Your ticket to this throne is not works but desperation.  God doesn’t want sacrifice or gifts or even our good intentions.  He wants your helplessness in order that the sufficiency of his grace, at work on your behalf, might be magnified.  This is a throne for the spiritually bankrupt to come and find the wealth of God’s energizing presence.  “This is not the throne of majesty which supports itself by the taxation of its subjects, but a throne which glorifies itself by streaming forth like a fountain with floods of good things” (Spurgeon, 210).

By Christ’s self-sacrifice God’s throne of judgment is turned into a throne of grace.  Sinners are no longer commanded to keep their distance in fear in trembling (cf. Exodus 20), but are invited to “draw near.”

One commentator says, “this is nothing less than a revolution of the fundamental concept of religion and one of the most important revelations of the epistle” for “only Christianity can give sinful creatures the boldness to present themselves before God.”

Satan would love to steal your confidence away.  He is the accuser who doesn’t want you to have any assurance that you have a right to draw near to God.

Remember that the command here, “draw near,” is in the present tense.  This not only indicates that we should obey it by coming continually before the throne, but that it is a throne that is open to us all the time.  It is our privilege to come consistently to the throne of grace!

There is never a time when it is inappropriate.  There is never a time when he is not available to you.  There is never a circumstance that makes approaching the throne of grace a bad idea.

And what will we receive at this throne of grace?  We will receive mercy and grace.

We receive mercy for our past failures, and grace for our present and future needs.

If justice is getting what we deserve, mercy is not getting what we deserve.  It is pardon for our sins.

A mother once approached Napoleon seeking a pardon for her son.  The emperor replied that the young man had committed a certain offense twice and justice demanded death. 

“But I don’t ask for justice,” the mother explained.  “I plead for mercy.” 

“But your son does not deserve mercy,” Napoleon replied. 

“Sir,” the woman cried, “it would not be mercy if he deserved it, and mercy is all I ask for.” 

“Well, then,” the emperor said, “I will have mercy.”  And he spared the woman’s son. 

Any time we need mercy from God, all we have to do is come and confess our sins to Him and He will forgive us.

The tax collector, in Luke 18:13, realizing that he was a sinner, cried out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

In Ephesians 2, Paul says,

1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience–3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

We certainly deserved God’s wrath.

4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved—

Mercy—not getting what we deserve.  Not having to pay the price for our sin.  Having our debts erased.

Psalm 103:10 says, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.”  He goes on to say that this is because of His love (v. 11) and His willingness to forgive us (v. 12).  It is because He recognizes our frailty and weaknesses (v. 13).

We come to a God who is willing to forgive and He does forgive us when we confess our sins.

But we need more than mercy, we need more than just not getting what we deserve.  We also need grace—getting something that we don’t deserve.  Grace is undeserved kindness.  It is unexpected generosity.  It is a gift given to us unearned and undeserved.

Grace does not ignore God’s justice; it operates in fulfillment of God’s justice, in light of the cross.  Mercy and grace are both needed to deal with our sin.  Mercy assuages our misery while grace expunges our guilt.

Mercy focuses upon the negative. It looks at our sin and it forgives that sin.  Grace focuses on the positive.  It gives God’s riches to you in spite of the fact that you are still undeserving.

Both of these attributes of God are aspects of His goodness and kindness towards us, particularly as sinners.

This verse again contrasts the superiority of Christianity over Judaism.

“The law was given that every mouth may be shut, for we are guilty.  The High Priest is given that every mouth may be open, for Jesus receive[s] sinners.” (Adolph Saphir, 1:207)

What the author of Hebrews wants these struggling believers to know is that when they come to God He isn’t going to berate them.  He doesn’t make fun of them, or mock and ridicule them.

Instead, he grants the mercy we need for forgiveness and the grace that energizes us for perseverance.  Grace is power. Grace is energy. Grace is God at work in us to change us.  Grace changes how we think, giving plausibility and sense to ideas once believed to be false.  Grace changes how we feel, bringing joy in Jesus and revulsion for sin.  Grace changes how we choose, creating new and deeper desires for what we once found unappealing.  Grace changes how we act, equipping and energizing the soul to do what we have failed to do so many times before. 

If we are to have hope for perseverance in holiness, we must have the heart-changing, mind-changing, will-changing work of divine grace that is sovereignly bestowed when heart-weak, mind-weak, will-weak people ask for it from the only place it may be found: the throne of grace. 

Notice that this grace “helps” us.  It doesn’t do it for us, but helps us.  It is like Philippians 2:12-13, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

We work out what God works in us.  He puts the “will” or desire in us to “work for his good pleasure,” to produce the fruit of the Spirit as we obey Him and do good works.  He also gives us the “work” or the power to do these things.  We are not able in our own strength, and need the grace-gift of enablement in order to be obedient to God.  We not only desire, we also do, by virtue of the dynamic, antecedent activity of grace in our souls.

This is the grace that constitutes the help that God so freely supplies in response to the humble prayer of those who rely on him for holiness.  God helps by imparting to our souls a new taste for spiritual things that we might relish and savor the sweetness of Christ above all rival flavors.  He helps by infusing our hearts with a new disposition, a fresh way of thinking, a passion for the joy of enjoying him.  This help is grace!  Without it we are hopelessly consigned to living out the impulses of the flesh that will invariably lead us into the deceitfulness of sin (cf. Heb. 3:12). 

If we are to find in Jesus the fairest of ten thousand, if we are to revel in the joy he so generously supplies, our hearts must be fed with grace.  If we are to see in him surpassing excellency and for that reason say No to the passing pleasures of sin, our hearts must be fed with grace.  If we are to be fed with grace, we must come boldly to the throne on which it is seated, poised and ready to help us in our time of need, and we must ask. (Sam Storms)

And notice when we get that mercy and grace.  It helps us “in time of need.”  Whenever you need it, it is available to you.  Are you going through a time of need?  Are the circumstances in your life threatening to engulf you?  There is a light at the end of the tunnel – and it isn’t the light of an oncoming train.  It is The Light.  And He brings with Him mercy and grace.  Sometimes those grace gifts come at just exactly the right moment.

This is a true story that happened to Helen Roseveare, a missionary to the Belgian Congo.

One night, in Central Africa, I had worked hard to help a mother in the labor ward; but in spite of all that we could do, she died leaving us with a tiny, premature baby and a crying, two-year-old daughter.  We would have difficulty keeping the baby alive.  We had no incubator.  We had no electricity to run an incubator, and no special feeding facilities.  Although we lived on the equator, nights were often chilly with treacherous drafts.   A student-midwife went for the box we had for such babies and for the cotton wool that the baby would be wrapped in. Another went to stoke up the fire and fill a hot water bottle. She came back shortly, in distress, to tell me that in filling the bottle, it had burst.  Rubber perishes easily in tropical climates. “…and it is our last hot water bottle!” she exclaimed.  

Hot water bottles do not grow on trees, and there are no drugstores down forest pathways.  All right,” I said, “Put the baby as near the fire as you safely can; sleep between the baby and the door to keep it free from drafts.  Your job is to keep the baby warm.” 

The following noon, as I did most days, I went to have prayers with many of the orphanage children who chose to gather with me.  I gave the youngsters various suggestions of things to pray about and told them about the tiny baby.  I explained our problem about keeping the baby warm enough, mentioning the hot water bottle.  The baby could so easily die if it got chilled. I also told them about the two-year-old sister, crying because her mother had died.

During the prayer time, one ten-year-old girl, Ruth, prayed with the usual blunt consciousness of our African children. “Please, God,” she prayed, “send us a water bottle.  It’ll be no good tomorrow, God, the baby’ll be dead; so, please send it this afternoon.”  While I gasped inwardly at the audacity of the prayer, she added by way of corollary, ” …And while You are about it, would You please send a dolly for the little girl so she’ll know You really love her?”  As often with children’s prayers, I was put on the spot.  Could I honestly say, “Amen?”  I just did not believe that God could do this.  Oh, yes, I know that He can do everything: The Bible says so, but there are limits, aren’t there?  The only way God could answer this particular prayer would be by sending a parcel from the homeland.  I had been in Africa for almost four years at that time, and I had never, ever received a parcel from home. Anyway, if anyone did send a parcel, who would put in a hot water bottle? I lived on the equator! 

Halfway through the afternoon, while I was teaching in the nurses’ training school, a message was sent that there was a car at my front door.  By the time that I reached home, the car had gone, but there, on the veranda, was a large twenty-two pound parcel!  I felt tears pricking my eyes.  I could not open the parcel alone; so, I sent for the orphanage children.  Together we pulled off the string, carefully undoing each knot. We folded the paper, taking care not to tear it unduly.  Excitement was mounting.  Some thirty or forty pairs of eyes were focused on the large cardboard box.

From the top, I lifted out brightly colored, knitted jerseys.  Eyes sparkled as I gave them out.  Then, there were the knitted bandages for the leprosy patients, and the children began to look a little bored.  Next, came a box of mixed raisins and sultanas – – that would make a nice batch of buns for the weekend.  As I put my hand in again, I felt the…could it really be?  I grasped it, and pulled it out.  Yes, “A brand-new rubber, hot water bottle!” I cried.  I had not asked God to send it; I had not truly believed that He could.  Ruth was in the front row of the children.  She rushed forward, crying out, “If God has sent the bottle, He must have sent the dolly, too!”  Rummaging down to the bottom of the box, she pulled out the small, beautifully dressed dolly.  Her eyes shone: She had never doubted!  Looking up at me, she asked, “Can I go over with you, Mummy, and give this dolly to that little girl, so she’ll know that Jesus really loves her?” 

That parcel had been on the way for five whole months, packed up by my former Sunday School class, whose leader had heard and obeyed God’s prompting to send a hot water bottle, even to the equator.  One of the girls had put in a dolly for an African child — five months earlier in answer to the believing prayer of a ten-year-old to bring it “That afternoon!”

“And it shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear.” (Isaiah 65:24)

Come to the Throne of Grace, part 3 (Hebrews 4:15-16)

One of the reasons we are encouraged to go in prayer to Jesus Christ with anything we are going through is because He is the ultimate sympathetic high priest.  Hebrews 4:15-16 says…

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.

Last week we noted that he is able to sympathize with our weaknesses because (1) he has been tempted “in every respect” and that (2) he has been tempted “as we are.”  He has gone through those same temptations that we have faced due to Him sharing humanity with us.

Jesus, our High Priest, has an unequalled capacity for sympathy. It goes far beyond the intellectual, because it is truly experiential.  Jesus does not just imagine how we feel—he feels it!  The word for “sympathize” here means “to share the experience of another”—to sympathize through common experience.  The most sensitive Man who ever lived feels with us.

A third thing we see in this passage is that, although he was tempted in every respect as we are he was “without sin.”  His temptations were genuine.  As a human, Jesus felt the full force of these temptations.  But as God he had predetermined not to sin.  And as God, he had the power not to sin.

Earl Radmacher illustrated how Jesus could not have sinned this way: Suppose you had a thick iron bar and a thin wire.  The bar represents Christ’s divine nature and the wire His human nature.  The bar cannot be bent, but the wire could be.  Yet, if the wire is fused to the bar, the wire cannot be bent either.  Thus, the fusing of Christ’s divine and human natures meant that He could not sin (Salvation, pp. 40-41).

All orthodox theologians hold that Jesus did not sin.  Not only is this affirmed in our present passage (v. 15), but we find this repeated throughout the New Testament and pictured in the Old Testament sacrifices that had to be spotless and without blemish.

For example, 1 Peter 1:19 says, “but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.”  In 1 Peter 2:22 Peter, having been a close observer of Jesus in daily life and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says, “he committed no sin.”  The apostle John concurs, saying “in Him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5) and Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:21 that Jesus “knew no sin.”  He was holy even in the womb (Luke 1:35) and continued so throughout His whole life, as Hebrews 7:26 emphasizes, our high priest is “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners.”  This last phrase does not mean that He didn’t associate with sinners or identify with sinners, but that he didn’t enter into their sinning ways.

When Hebrews 4:15 says Christ was tempted in every respect as we are, yet without sin, we should understand the preposition “without” (choris) as extending both to the outcome of the temptations (unlike us, Christ did not sin) and also to the nature of the temptations (unlike ours, Christ’s temptations were not sinful).  In other words, we are tempted by the world, the flesh, and the Devil, while Christ never faced temptation from His flesh.  Or as John Owen put it, Christ faced the suffering part of temptation; we also face the sinning part.

Christ’s inability to sin does not make his temptations less genuine.  The army that cannot be conquered can still be attacked (W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 662).  If anything, Christ’s temptations were more intense than ours precisely because he never gave in to them.  This makes Christ even better able to sympathize with us than any other person could.

Since Jesus is one person with two natures, and since sin involves the whole person, in this sense, Jesus could not have sinned or else He would have ceased to be God.  But the question remains, “How then could Jesus temptations have been real?”  The answer seems to be that Jesus met every temptation to sin, not by means of His divine power, but rather through His human nature relying upon the power of the Holy Spirit.  As Wayne Grudem explains, “The moral strength of his divine nature was there as a sort of ‘backstop’ that would have prevented him from sinning…, but he did not rely on the strength of his divine nature to make it easier for him to face temptations…” (Systematic Theology, p. 539).

“Yet without sin” means an absolute absence of sin.  He was never, for a single moment, tainted by sin.

This identification with our weakness without sinning is what makes him the absolute best high priest.  He can sympathize because he experienced it all, to an even greater depth of suffering than any of us—because we give in so quickly. 

If he had sinned, he would then have had to make atonement for himself and that would have rendered his sacrifice unacceptable for atoning for our sins.

He would not have been an “improved high priest” had He sinned.  We mistakenly believe He would have understood us better had he engaged in sin.  But in fact, if he had, then He could not serve as our high priest.

Charles Spurgeon pointed out “[D]o not imagine that if the Lord Jesus had sinned he would have been any more tender toward you; for sin is always of a hardening nature.  If the Christ of God could have sinned, he would have lost the perfection of his sympathetic nature.  It needs perfectness of heart to lay self all aside, and to be touched with a feeling of the infirmities of others” (“The Tenderness of Jesus” [Ages Software], sermon 2148, p. 407, italics his).

What makes him able to sympathize is that he had “much greater love, infinitely more sensitive concerns, infinitely higher standards of righteousness and perfect awareness of the evil and dangers of sin.  Contrary, therefore, to what we are inclined to think, His divinity made His temptations and trials immeasurably harder for Him to endure than ours are for us” (John MacArthur, pp. 111-112).

Think about it.  When we are injured, our bodies go numb of into shock to protect us.  The amount of pain we can endure is not limitless.  We can conclude, therefore, that there is a degree of pain that we will never experience, because our bodies will turn off our sensitivity to pain in one way or another.

Similarly, we will never experience the degree of temptation that Jesus did, because no matter our level of spirituality, we will succumb before we reach it.

If we were to place every temptation on a 100 point scale, most of us would wimp out at 30 or 40, maybe if we’re a giant in the faith at 75 or 80.  But Jesus always engaged every temptation 100%, because He didn’t give in.  Satan ultimately had to give up and “return at an opportune time.”

Since Jesus never succumbed, He experienced every temptation to the maximum extent.  Yet He did not give in and sin.

As he approached his death he faced the prospect that following his Father’s will would lead to suffering and death in apparent estrangement from his Father.  Hence the agony of Gethsemane as he strained to commit himself to follow his Father’s will (Matt. 26:37–39Luke 22:41–44).  Jesus’ endurance without sin, meant that he experienced the full depth and suffering of temptation.  All sinners, at some point, relent from the pressure of temptation and succumb; Jesus did not.

This reality led B. F. Wescott to write:

“Sympathy with the sinner does not depend on the experience of sin but on the experience of the strength of the temptation to sin which only the sinless can know in its full intensity. He who falls yields before the last strain” (The Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 59).

“This sinlessness, it should be stressed, is not something passive, a mere state of being, but the achievement of Christ’s active conquest of temptation.  Indeed, it is entirely synonymous with the complete obedience learned by him through all he endured, by which his perfection was won and established and which fitted him to become the source of our eternal salvation” (Philip Edgecomb Hughes, Hebrews, p. 173).

So Jesus understands our every weakness.  He sympathizes with every temptation.  He understands our inability to say “no” to temptation and give in, although He never did.

We all need someone to sympathize with our problems and weaknesses without condemning us.  Sometimes that is enough to get us through—to know that someone else understands what we’re going through and accepts us and loves us.

I read about a boy who noticed a sign, “Puppies for sale.”  He asked, “How much do you want for the pups, mister?”

“Twenty-five dollars, son.”  The boy’s face dropped.  “Well, sir, could I see them anyway?”

The man whistled and the mother dog came around the corner, followed by four cute puppies, wagging their tails and yipping happily.  Then lagging behind, another puppy came around the corner, dragging one hind leg.

“What’s the matter with that one, sir?” the boy asked.

“Well, son, that puppy is crippled.  The vet took an X-ray and found that it doesn’t have a hip socket.  It will never be right.”

The man was surprised when the boy said, “That’s the one I want.  Could I pay you a little each week?”

The owner replied, “But, son, you don’t seem to understand.  That pup will never be able to run or even walk right.  He’s going to be a cripple forever.  Why would you want a pup like that?”

The boy reached down and pulled up his pant leg, revealing a brace.  “I don’t walk too good, either.”  Looking down at the puppy, the boy continued, “That puppy is going to need a lot of love and understanding.  It’s not easy being crippled!”  The man said, “You can have the puppy for free.  I know you’ll take good care of him.”

Well, that is a limited illustration of our Savior’s sympathy for our condition.  Since He became a man and suffered all that we experience, He sympathizes with our weaknesses.  He demonstrated His compassion many times during His earthly ministry.  But His humanity was not diminished in any way when He ascended into heaven.  We have a completely sympathetic high priest at the right hand of God!

Christ’s sympathy for us goes beyond the intellectual to the experiential.  He not only “knows how we feel,” but He has felt how we feel.  It has impacted Him deeply.

The very idea that the high and holy God could sympathize with humanity was an amazing and almost unbelievable idea to the Jews.  They could not comprehend Him experiencing pain, much less temptation.  The Jews believed that God was incapable of sharing the feelings of men.

It was just as hard for Gentiles of that day.  Stoics believed that God’s primary attribute was apathy—being without feeling or emotions.  The Epicureans believed the gods lived between the physical and spiritual worlds and were detached from mankind and suffering.

But the genius of Christianity is a God who drew near to us, became one of us so that he could suffer our pains and be tempted with our temptations.  He has experienced what we have experienced and feels what we feel.

Tim Keller, former pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York, writes:

Christianity does not so much offer solutions to the problem of suffering, but rather provides the promise of a God who is completely present with us in suffering.  Only Christians believe in a God who says, “Here I am alongside you.  I have experienced the same suffering you have.  I know what it is like.”  No other religion even begins to offer that assurance.

After the World Trade Center tragedy, between 600 and 800 new people began attending Redeemer.  The sudden influx of people pressed the question, “What does your God have to offer me at a time like this?”

I preached, “Christianity is the only faith that tells you that God lost a child in an act of violent injustice.  Christianity is the only religion that tells you, therefore, God suffered as you have suffered.”

This wonderful, marvelous reality leads the writer of Hebrews to urge his readers to this action:

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.

Here is a call to action.  It is essentially the same call that we saw back up in verse 14.  There we were told to “hold fast our confession.”  Now we are told to draw near with confidence.  These are not two separate actions.  They are connected.  The way that you hold fast your confession is by drawing near to Jesus with confidence.  And when you draw near to Him, you will find yourself holding fast your confession.   So this verse urges us to an action which will help us persevere—consistently drawing near to the throne of grace, availing ourselves constantly of the throne of grace.

The exhortation is based on all He has said about Jesus Christ being the perfectly suited high priest for us in our weaknesses.  We have Him, so draw near to Him.  “Draw near” is in the present tense, indicating a consistent, regular habit of coming into His presence in prayer.

We are to draw near to Him.  It is His presence and His ear that we most need.

Psalm 73:28 says, “But for me it is good to be near God.”  Asaph is contrasting the seeming good life that the wicked are experiencing, with the reality that the only real good life is found in God and in His presence.

James 4:8 urges us to “draw near to God and He will draw near to you.”  He will respond.  God is not the one playing hide-and-seek.  We are.  God is the one who wants to be found.

As sinners, we have a tendency, learned from Adam, to hide from God.  They did it by hiding behind bushes and fig leaves; we do it through psychological barriers like denial and distractions and drugs.

The Old Testament was all about barriers—this far and no further, because we are sinners.

The Old Covenant taught us that we are not welcome, naturally, in the presence of a holy God.

Only the high priest could enter into God’s presence, once a year.  The regular person was cut off from God’s presence.

And God’s presence was very terrifying much of the time.  In fact, in encouraging us to draw near to the throne would be very intimidating in the ancient culture.  Ancient thrones were typically flanked with huge statues of lions, instilling fear and terror in supplicants to the throne.  Kings only allowed an audience through invitation, as we see in the book of Esther.  Free access, much less a bold approach, was unheard of.

But Jesus opened access into God’s presence, dramatically represented by the rending of the veil in the temple during His death on the cross.  He has not only passed through the heavens, but He has also paved the way for us to join him in that adventure (cf. 2:10; 6:20; 10:19-20).

In Romans 5 Paul lists several benefits of being justified by faith (which we wouldn’t have if we could possibly be justified by works) and one of those is access to God.  Listen to Romans 5:1-2

1 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.

We have access to God!

And we are to draw near to God with “confidence.”  This word has the idea of freedom of speech, of being bold in expressing one’s thoughts.

There is no suggestion of disrespect here, but simply that we are to come to God without hesitation or tentativeness.  What a contrast with the trepidation of the high priest when he entered the Holy of Holies!  This is one of the grand revelations of this letter: “Come frankly and confidently to God, brothers and sisters!”

This letter urges us to come into the presence of a God who welcomes us and a Christ who understands us.  To neglect the place of prayer is to rob ourselves of immense and timely resources.  (Raymond Brown, The Bible Speaks Today:  Hebrews, 96-7)

This is the way we’ve been told by the author of Hebrews to persevere, to come regularly and boldly and confidently to the throne of grace.