Priestly Profiles: Our Great High Priest

In our previous article, we noticed how the introduction of the truth of Christ’s priesthood at the end of Hebrews 2 serves as the knot that unites the argument of chapters 1 and 2, bringing together the great truths of Christ’s deity and humanity. Chapter 3 opens with the call for the reader to “consider the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus.”[1] At that point, Christ’s priesthood recedes from view as the writer develops the idea of His apostleship, comparing Him with Moses (3:2-3) and Joshua (4:8). At the end of chapter 4, the focus moves back to Christ as our “great high priest, that is passed into the heavens,” and the priesthood of Christ remains the dominant theme of the epistle until we reach the end of chapter 10.

The context in which the priesthood of Christ is reintroduced at the end of chapter 4 is deeply significant. The writer points us to Christ and to His priestly ministry as he concludes one of the epistle’s warning sections. Throughout chapters 3 and 4, the writer has been reminding his readers of the wilderness experience of the nation of Israel. In solemn sequence, he reminds us of their provocation of God by their consistent and hardhearted refusal to believe His word and of the judgement executed on those “whose carcases fell in the wilderness … to whom [he swore] that they should not enter into his rest” (3:17-18). As we move into chapter 4, the writer makes the point of this history lesson abundantly and arrestingly clear: “Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it” (v1). The failures of the nation are not just a matter of historical record; they serve as a stark warning of the dangers of unbelief and the tragedy of failing to enter into the rest that God has provided. The exact nature of the rest that the writer has in view here – whether it is present or future, a rest from the works of the law or ultimate rest in heaven, or both – is the topic of some debate. For the purposes of this discussion, however, it is sufficient to note the weight that the writer attaches to entering into rest and his stern warnings about Christians repeating the sin of the Israelites, “fall[ing] after the same example of unbelief” and failing to enter the rest that remains for the people of God. The seriousness of this is underlined in the imperative of verse 11: “Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest.”

To labour to rest is paradoxical but diligence is required on the part of the believer, “for the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (v12). It is because (“for”) of the penetrating and discerning power of God’s Word, and because “all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do” (v13) that we must labour to enter into rest, to ensure that our belief of and obedience to this living and powerful word are not feigned or constrained but genuine and total. The language used is striking. Verse 12 speaks of a sword that can divide the otherwise indivisible and that can probe the very innermost recesses of our being. Verse 13 describes all creation as being “naked and opened” before the eye of God; the imagery behind “opened” has been debated, but the word was used of a wrestler pinned by his opponent, or of a sacrifice readied for offering. The eye of God pierces and pins us: we can neither run nor hide from His gaze.

To say, then, that this is not a passage that promotes complacency is to put it altogether too mildly. Indeed, it is hardly an overstatement to describe these verses as terrifying. The seriousness of the consequences of unbelief, the vital energy of God’s Word, and the pinning, probing and piercing power of divine scrutiny all unite to make the thoughtful reader very conscious of his or her own powerless inadequacy.

That is what these verses are intended to do. They do so, not to leave us paralysed in fear but as a prelude to the great provision that God has made to provide for people like this, for people like us: “Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession” (v14). “Seeing then” leads us to expect a conclusion built upon verses 11 to 13, but the author no longer wants us to be taken up with our own need. Rather, he wants us to turn our eyes to the only reason that gives us any prospect of holding fast our profession – our great High Priest, “Jesus the Son of God.” The title of His deity sends our minds back to the opening verses of this epistle, and we remember that “the Son” is the one by whom the ages were made and who upholds all things by the Word of His power (1:2-3). Such a one it is who upholds us in our need. And He has gone where we are going – He is “passed into the heavens”; His knowledge of the path that we are taking is not merely theoretical or academic, “for we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (v15). His sympathy does not embrace only the general contours of our pathway, for He was tested “like as we are” in every point. True, He was without sin – and this is no minor caveat – but the reality and the range of His testing was such that He is “touched with the feeling of our infirmities,” able to sympathise with our weaknesses, an embracive word for every sort of human frailty. And though the Greek word sympatheō may be the source of our word sympathy, the translation scarcely does justice to the word. This is not a remote passive empathy, but a compassionate (cf. the translation of the same word in 10:34) sharing with us in the depths of our weakness and need.

We know by experience that in difficult times there is nothing like talking to someone who has passed through the same circumstances as us. Someone who has shared our experience can sympathise and support in a way that is impossible for someone who has not, however empathetic they might be or how deeply they might desire to help. The wonderful truth of this verse is that, no matter what the circumstance, we have a High Priest who understands exactly what we are enduring.

The fact that we have a great High Priest like this has powerful consequences. Because of Him (“therefore”), we can “come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (v16). It is a shock to remember that those who are called to come boldly are the very same who are naked and open before the eye of God in verse 13. In just two verses, we have moved from terror to boldness, and the truth that has made this transformation possible is the fact that we have, as our great High Priest, “Jesus the Son of God.” To come boldly is not to abandon the reverence required by the presence of God. It is not to come casually or carelessly. But it does mean that we do not come like Esther did, creeping into the presence of King Ahasuerus, waiting with bated breath to see if the sceptre would be extended. We come with an absolute assurance of our acceptance, and we come with the confidence that we will receive “grace to help in time of need,” to receive the resources that we need in order to hold fast our profession. We come to a throne, for the One that we approach has authority, who is in control of the circumstance that we find ourselves in. And in coming we find a timely supply – just what we need, just when we need it.

In the chapters that follow, the writer will develop more fully the implications of the high priesthood of Christ that he has introduced here. As he does so, he will deal with typology and theology, with history and hermeneutics. But he never strays too far from the practical emphasis of these introductory verses and, if we would rightly understand this noble epistle, neither should we.

[1] Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV.