The Lord's Day Morning
March 24, 2013
“Mercy and Grace in Time of Need”
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Hebrews chapter 4. We’re beginning a new section of this book today which speaks of Jesus as a better priest. And in chapters 4, 5, 6, and 7 we’ll see that theme repeatedly. This morning I'd invite you to look back to Hebrews chapter 4 verse 1 and also verse 11 because in those verses you will see an exhortation in language that you are going to meet again in the passage we're studying today. We’re going to be looking at verses 14, 15, and 16. But in chapter 4 verse 1 and in chapter 4 verse 11, you will find an exhortation. The exhortation is, “Let us.” In verse 1 it's “Let us not fail to enter the rest that remains.” In verse 11 it is, “Let us strive to enter that rest.” And so chapter 4, verses 1 to 14, is an extended exhortation but it's a warning. It's a warning against failing to live life in such a way that you enter in to the ultimate rest that God intends for His people, and so it's a scary passage. There are a number of these warning passages that we've already met in Hebrews and there are more warning passages to come, but it's followed by the passage we're going to study here today which is a passage of comfort. And the two“Let us” that we meet in verse 14 and in 16, are positive and strengthening and encouraging.
And I'd like you to note what they are because the whole passage is built around them. In verse 14, we have this exhortation: “Let us hold fast our confession.” And the part of the sentence that comes before it is designed to encourage you to understand and to experience the blessing of following that exhortation. And then if you look at verse 16, the second exhortation that we meet in the passage is, “Let us then with confidence draw near.” So you have two exhortations. “Let us hold fast to our confession,” verse 14; “Let us draw near.” And all of the words around those exhortations, before and after, are encouragements, inducements, to your doing what those exhortations as you to do. And that's what we're going to be studying together today. Let's pray before we read and hear God's Word.
Heavenly Father, believing You and drawing near can be very hard in some places in Christian experience. Some situations that we are in are so difficult that we have trouble believing. And some circumstances in which we find ourselves, not least our sin, make it hard for us to draw near. And You know that, and that's why You wrote this passage. We pray that You would open our eyes and that by the Spirit You would apply this truth to our hearts so that we believe and trust and draw near in comfort. This we ask in Jesus' name, amen.
This is the Word of God. Hear it:
“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. 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. 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.”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
I love what Martin Luther says about this passage. He says, “First, the apostle terrifies us and then he comforts us.” He's talking about the warning in Hebrews 4:1-13 and he says it's terrifying to think that we could fail to believe and fail to enter into the rest that the Lord has so graciously provided. But after he warns us, after he terrifies us, he comforts us. And boy does he comfort us in these verses. I want us to look at the two exhortations in this passage and I want us to understand what these exhortations mean because you know the language of these exhortations. The language of these exhortations are probably found in your own personal prayers. They’re certainly found in many of the hymns that we sing. But sometimes we don't actually understand the words that we're singing, and in that we miss a blessing. And so I want us to understand the exhortations. I want you to know what these words mean. But I also want you to understand why it was so important for the author of Hebrews to exhort you in these ways. And then especially I want you to see what he gives to encourage you in these exhortations.
LET US HOLD FAST OUR CONFESSION
So let's look at verse 14 and we’ll address the first exhortation. You see it there at the very end of the sentence — “Let us hold fast our confession.” Now what does that mean? He is saying to you, “Christian, hang tight to Jesus! Hang tight to your confession of Him! Hold fast to Jesus! Hold on to your confession of Him! Don't abandon your profession of Jesus! Don't stop believing in Jesus! Don't stop clinging to Jesus! Hold fast to Him!” And why is he giving this exhortation? He is saying that we as believers need to continue in our loyalty to Christ. Why? Why is he saying this? Because it is so easy to find ourselves in the Christian life where it becomes hard to believe.
Last April, 2012, John Piper stood up at the Together for the Gospel conference in Louisville, Kentucky to preach a passage out of the book of Jude and he opened with these words. “I am amazed that I am still a Christian, and that I am still a Christian, is due to the fact that God has preserved me.” You know, my friends, believing is not an easy thing. You know, sometimes we act like believing is easy; it's not an easy thing. To have faith is a gift. Paul says, “it is the gift of God.” To persevere in faith is the gift of God. Believing is not easy. Some of you are in circumstances in life where believing that God is God and God is good is very, very hard. And that's why the author of Hebrews is saying to you, “Hold fast to Jesus! Don't let go of your confession of Him! Cling tight to Him!” Hold fast.
But he doesn't just say, “Do it!” he gives you comfort in doing it; he gives you help in doing it. He gives you encouragement in doing it. He gives you an inducement to do it. And if you’ll look back at the beginning of verse 14 you’ll see that he's going to tell you three things to move you to hold fast to Jesus. And the first thing that he says is this. “Since we have…let us hold fast.” “Since we have” — what? “A great high priest.” What is the author of Hebrews saying? He's saying, “You know, Aaron was a high priest and sometimes he was a pretty good high priest. He wasn't a very good high priest the day that he made a golden calf and gave it to Israel, but usually he was a pretty good high priest. And there have been other good high priests. In fact, there have been numerous good priests in the Old Testament; the Bible records their stories, how they helped the people of God. But you, Christian, have a great high priest. Sometimes our dear Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox friends will say to Protestants, “Why don't you have priests?” You know what your answer is, don't you? “We do! We have a great high priest and He's such a great high priest that we don't need any human priest because no human priest can match Him! He's a great high priest!” That's the first reason why you need to cling to Jesus, because He's a great high priest.
But second, look at the next phrase. “He has passed through the heavens.” He's not just like the Old Testament high priests who got to go into the tabernacle or into the temple and into the holy of holies once a year, into that place that represented the presence of God. He has gone into the very presence of God! He is sitting at the right hand of the Father on high! He has passed through the heavens. He's not in a place that represents the presence of God with His people; He's in the presence of God! That's where our high priest is and that's where He's going to take us. He's there to prepare a place for us and He promises us that if He's gone to prepare a place for us He will come that where He is we may be also; therefore hold fast to Jesus.
And then he says. He is Jesus, “the Son of God.” Now who would you like to have for your intercessor? Who would you like to have for your mediator? Who would you like to have for your representative with God? Hmmm, God's Son sounds like a pretty good idea! This priest isn't just a godly man called to an important pastoral task as Aaron and his sons and all the Levites were in the days of the old covenant. This is God in the flesh, called and appointed by His Father to be your mediator and mine, to be our priest. That's your priest! You see, his whole point is to say, “Look at your priest. Look at Jesus. Look at who He is; look at what He's like.” And I want you to understand, my friends, every time you study what the Bible teaches about Jesus, every time you study what the Bible teaches about Christ, that truth is designed to help you keep the faith. That trust is designed to help you hold fast your confession. That trust is designed to help you cling tightly to Jesus because there is nothing that can make you cling tightly to Jesus better than a sight of Jesus Himself.
You know, your Christian friends can let you down, your church can disappoint you, life can cave in around your ears, but Jesus will never disappoint you. There's no one like Him. And the sight of Him strengthens faith. And so before he says to you, “Christian, keep on believing. Hold fast to your confession. Cling to Jesus,” what does he do? He just says, “Let me show you Jesus.” That's why you need to be in the Word, that's why you need to be studying Jesus, because the Jesus taught by the Word is the Jesus who keeps you believing because there is nothing more conducive to your believing in Jesus than seeing Him as He is. So we're not aiming for you to have your heads crammed with facts that don't relate to anything else; the study that we do in the Word is about the stuff that keeps you believing. Seeing your Savior keeps you confessing Him. And that's the first exhortation that we see in this passage.
LET US DRAW NEAR TO THE THRONE OF GRACE
And the second one is like it and glorious. Look at it in verse 16. “Let us then with confidence draw near the throne of grace.” What does that mean? What does it mean to, with confidence, draw near the throne of grace? It means to come near to God with boldness. It means to come to God with freedom and with confidence because of Jesus. The author is exhorting us as Christians to boldly and believingly approach God, to boldly approach God in trust and in prayer because of the kind of priests that Christ is. Now why does he need to do that? Because unbelievers and believers alike know things about ourselves that we don't even want to share with those who we love the most and who love us the most, because very frankly we're humiliated by those things. We don't want anyone to know those things.
You know there are respectable sins that we will talk about in polite company. You know we can feel good — “You know I struggle with worry.” You know everybody kind of nods — “Yeah, yeah.” But do you know if you’re a pedophile you’re probably not going to confess that in small group. You know there are very few people that can screw up the courage in a company, even of good friends, to say, “I am completely dominated by my desire for alcohol or drugs. I'm a substance abuser.” Or, “I've struggled with same-sex attraction all my life.” You know there are some things you just don't want to tell other people. And not coming to God with those things keeps you from the blessings that are awaiting you. And so the author of Hebrews says, “Let us draw near.” And he doesn't just say, “Let us draw near;” he says, “Let us draw near once again because of who Jesus is.” Just like we're to hold fast because of who Jesus is, we're going to draw near because of who Jesus is.
And look at what he says. You see it right before the exhortation. “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who is in every respected tempted as we are yet without sin.” You’re not expecting that. You know after you've just been told that He is a great high priest who entered into the very presence of God and He is the Son of God, He's God in the flesh, you are not expecting the author of Hebrews to say, “And you know what? He understands your temptations.” That's not what you’re expecting, but that's what he says before he tells you to draw near. Is that not glorious? It's one thing to believe; it's another thing to draw near. When you know how you have succumb to sin, when you know the sin that is in your heart, when you know the sin that's dominating your heart, it is very difficult to draw near, unless you’re just a really good hypocrite. And so he says, “Let me tell you something about this Jesus. He sympathizes with your weakness because He has been tempted like you.” That's stunning.
You see, the author of Hebrews is not just saying, “Draw near to God because God knows what it's like to be a human because He created humans.” That's true, but he says more than that. He doesn't even say, “Draw near to God because God knows everything. He knows the sins that you’re struggling with.” He says, “Draw near to God because when God sent His Son into this world He appointed for His Son to be fully human like you, and so He knows what it is like to be you. He knows what it is like to face your temptations. And so when you come to Him and you admit to Him what you’re afraid to admit to anyone else, you’re not going to face a sneer, you’re not going to face condescension — ‘You worm! How could you possibly struggle with that?’ You’re going to hear, ‘I understand that. I was tempted that way too.’” It is mind-boggling to think that the Son of God knows how you feel to be tempted because He's been tempted in all ways like you. In fact, my friends, He has been tempted in ways that you and I will never ever understand. You know the funny thing is that it's we who can't understand what Jesus went through; it's not Jesus who can't understand what we went through. We can't understand what He went through, but He can understand what we go through.
I had a friend who had, a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, and he was struggling with same-sex attraction. And he went to a friend of mine who was a minister and with fear and trepidation he shared with him how he had fallen in that lifestyle into sin. And that minister said to him, “I've had that temptation all my life. By God's grace I've never given into it, but I know exactly, I know exactly what you’re going through because I'm conscious of it every waking moment.” And in a way, exponentially greater than that, you cannot come to Jesus and surprise Him with your temptations. And you will never meet His sneer. And so the author of Hebrews is saying, “Draw near to your God because He knows what you’re facing. He knows exactly what it feels like to be you. He knows exactly the sins that you’re being tempted with. You've fallen to them, He hasn't, but He knows exactly what those temptations feel like. And when you come to Him, you’re going to find not a word of rebuke or condescension, but you’re going to here, ‘Come to Me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’”
You know, isn't this a glorious contrast? The children of Israel are redeemed out of Israel in the Old Testament, they go into the wilderness to worship the living God, they get to the mountain and what does God say? “Not too close. Don't touch the mountain or you’ll die.” And here we're told, “No, no, My people. Come close.” Why? Because of Jesus! Come close! Come to Your Father. Because of Jesus, He understands. I want you to think of it, my friends, there is a human being like you sitting at the right hand of God the Father Almighty today! There is a human being who has been tempted like you in more ways than you who is sitting at the right hand of God the Father Almighty and He is ever living to intercede for you! You see what the author of Hebrews is saying? “Come close to your God. Jesus has been in your flesh. He knows what it's like to be human. He knows how to help you in your temptation.”
You know this is the exact argument that Charles Wesley is making in the hymn, “Arise, My Soul, Arise.” Just take your hymnals out and look at number 305. What's Charles Wesley's argument? He's wrestling with what? Guilty fears. “Arise, my soul, arise, shake off your guilty fears.” In other words, “I'm afraid, God, to approach You because I know what I'm like, I know what I am, I know who I am, I know what I've done, I know You ought to condemn me!” “Arise, my soul, arise, shake off your guilty fears.” What's Charles Wesley going to argue against those guilty fears? “The bleeding Sacrifice on my behalf appears.” He appeals to Jesus. And throughout that song he just piles up reason after reason based on Jesus why he ought to not be kept of drawing near to God because of his guilty fears because Jesus has covered those sins and He's dealt with that guilt at Calvary. And what are his last words? “With confidence I now draw nigh, with confidence I now draw nigh, and ‘Abba, Father!’ cry.” Father, Abba, Father, cry. That's exactly what the author of Hebrews is saying to you. Come close to the God who is your Father in Jesus Christ because Jesus knows the temptation to sin that you’re enduring and He will not break a bruised reed and He will not put old a smoldering flax, but He’ll bring you to God and He’ll put you back together.
And then did you see the last words of verse 16? What are you going to find when you come to Him? Mercy and grace. You’re going to get the help that you need — mercy. You’re going to get favor that you don't deserve — grace. You’re going to get the help that you need; you’re going to get favor that you don't deserve. There's nobody like this Jesus. There's nobody like Him! Hold fast to Him. Draw near to God. Let's pray.
Our Lord and our God, we thank You for Your Word. We pray that You would work it deep into our hearts so that we would believe it, so that we can really cling to Jesus and draw near to You because You've dealt with our sins at Calvary and You will never leave us or forsake us but You’ll always give us the help that we need and You’ll give us blessings that we could never ever deserve. In Jesus' name, amen.
Now we've got to sing to Jesus, so would you take your hymnals out and turn to number 165 and let's sing, “Ye Servants of God, Your Master Proclaim.”
What does Jesus give you when you come to Him? Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.