Our transcendent high priest sympathizes with us. Dr. Ligon Duncan preached this chapel sermon on Hebrews 4:14-16 as part of RTS Orlando’s Hybrid M.Div. week.
Call to Worship, Prayer, and Song
Service Leader: Good morning, everyone.
Welcome to Hybrid Chapel. Thank you for following the instructions to sit forward. I think in January we were in an Anglican formation, which was everybody was in one section, always the back. And now I think we’re Disciples of Christ this week. Y’all need to get around more to know that that’s pretty funny what I just said.
One of the challenges of having a worship service in the condensed schedule we have is how do you have a complete worship service in 20 minutes? So we’re not going to do that this week. We’re going to have a complete worship service in the space of a week. And today, the focus is on invocation. One of the things that causes pastors to tear their hair out more and more is how people arrive in shifts for Sunday morning worship. And you, as you learn ministry, would be well-served if you could condition people to arrive. You know, in most cultures, the person who comes the latest is the most important guest. And who is the most important guest in worship but the one who has promised to seat himself among us?
The rabbis used to say, “Where Moses is named between two witnesses, the glory cloud rests upon them.” Jesus riffs on that and says, “Where two of you or more are gathered in my name, there I am in your midst.” So we have the promise that when we gather in the name of Jesus, the ascended Christ comes to inhabit our praises so that God is not only with us, but that God the Son leads us in our worship.
So hear this call to worship from Psalm 100:1–2 before we pray:
“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! Know that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.”
Will you stand with me as we ask God to be present among us, as we enjoy his presence this morning and the week throughout? Let’s pray together this prayer: Our Father, the great Creator of all things, your Majesty is above the heavens and the earth. We, too, are your creation. You have made us, and we belong to you. In Christ, we are your people, the sheep of your pasture. In Christ, we enter your presence. In him, accept our prayers and our praise. By your Spirit, may our prayers and praise be from you and for you. Work within us true affection for you and your Son, that our prayers and praise would bring you glory. To you, our Triune God, be glory and honor, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God in all eternity. Amen.
Please remain standing. We’re going to learn a new little song today. We’re going to sing it Wednesday and Friday, as well. As Molly is going to play it through, I’ll sing it through, and if you know it, join me the first time through and then we’ll all re-sing it together.
Singing: Lord, early in the morning, we cry to unto you. / In you there is light when I cannot see. / In you there is love, patience, and peace. / Lord, I do not understand your ways, but you know the way for me.
Service Leader: Let’s sing it again.
Singing: Lord, early in the morning, we cry unto you. / In you there is light when I cannot see. / In you there is love, patience, and peace. / Lord, I do not understand your ways, but you know the way for me.
Service Leader: Please have a seat.
Prayer and Text
Ligon Duncan: Let’s pray. Our Heavenly Father, we come before you today, through Jesus Christ, by the help of the Holy Spirit, and we acknowledge that we need you. We need you more than we know. We are not here to go through the motions and complete some formal rite without desperation. We lack if we lack you. But if you are our shepherd, we do not want. So we ask this day for your presence. Your presence is the happiness of every condition in life, and your favor hallows every relationship. And so we ask that you would be present and favorable to us as we study together today and this week. We pray, Heavenly Father, that what we would crave is you, to know your favorable presence, so that what we will commend in ministry is you, and so that our delight will be set on you and found in you and you alone.
So come Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove with all your quickening powers and enliven our hearts to understand what true blessedness is and to understand that it consists in the enjoyment of your presence. Receive our thanks and praise, forgive our sins, help us now as we meditate upon your Word. We ask all of these things in Jesus’s name, Amen.
If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Hebrews 4. Hebrews 4 and we’re going to look at verses 14 to 16. Your theme this week focuses on the ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ. And you will discover various aspects of that ascension revealed in a variety of passages in the New Testament that are of particular significance to the believer. We’re going to look at verses 14 to 16 in Hebrews 4. Please allow your eyes to take a look back at least to verse 13. Martin Luther, in commenting about verses 14 to 16, says, “After terrifying us, the author of Hebrews now comforts us.” He’s referring diverse 13 as terrifying us, why? “There is no creature hidden from his sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do” (NASB). Now, if that does not terrify you, this comfort will fall short.
You turn your back on Jesus, you lose everything.And so there’s the context of the comfort, and this happens over and over in the book of Hebrews. If you notice this, this happens in Hebrews 6, it happens in Hebrews 10. There is warning and for very good pastoral reasons. People in this congregation are tempted to turn their back on Christ and go back into whatever form of Judaism that they were following. And the author of Hebrews over and over is warning them about turning their backs on Jesus. You turn your back on Jesus, you lose everything. And here he reminds them in verse 13, God knows everything about them, their souls are laid bare to him. And then the comfort comes in verses 14 to 16.
So let’s look and see what God says in this passage. This is the Word of God.
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 cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may 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.
Jesus’s Passage Through the Heavens Shows His Greatness and Transcendence
Now I want us to understand very specifically what the author of Hebrews is talking about when he says that Jesus passed through the heavens. And I don’t know a more succinct way to do that than to read to you the words of Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, the great Reformed Anglican scholar who taught for many years at Westminster Seminary. Here’s his description in a very short paragraph:
The greatness of this high priest surpasses all others, and this is seen by the assertion that he passed through the heavens. That is to say, in contrast to the high priest of the Levitical order, who once a year passed from the sight of the people as he took the blood of atonement into the earthly sanctuary, Jesus, our great high priest, at his ascension passed from the sight of the watching apostles as he entered once for all into the heavenly sanctuary there to appear on our behalf.
Not only did Jesus ascend, but in doing so he completely transcended all the limitations of time and space.Our author is speaking of something far more than a spatial journey like that of an astronaut. His language is that of transcendence. Not only did Jesus ascend, but in doing so he completely transcended all the limitations of time and space. His transcendence guarantees his uniqueness, his greatness.
So there’s the reference to the ascension in this passage, and he does it in order to bring home the fact that we have a great high priest. And he says this to us to encourage us to do two things. Notice what they are: that we would (end of verse 4) “hold fast our confession,” (beginning of verse 16) “draw near with confidence.” So he wants us to keep the confession of our faith. He wants us to keep believing in Jesus Christ. He doesn’t want us to turn our backs on Jesus. If I could quote Journey, his message is “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Don’t stop putting your trust in Christ. That’s the only hope for your salvation. Keep believing in Jesus and then draw near to him in prayer.
Jesus Can Also, Stunningly, Sympathize with Our Weaknesses
Now, he mentions the ascension in order to show the greatness of our high priest, in order to encourage us to continue to believe in Jesus and to go to him in prayer. But notice what completely surprises you that he says about the great high priest who has ascended. Look at verse 15, “We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weakness, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are yet without sin.” This is stunning. The great high priest who is greater than Aaron, who is greater than Moses, who is greater than the angels, who hasn’t entered into an earthly sanctuary, but into the heavenly sanctuary, actually is able to sympathize with you better than anybody on this planet.
The great high priest knows exactly what it is like to live in your skin.This is stunning. This is not what you’re expecting. Having exalted the greatness of the high priest, what is exalted here is that the great high priest knows exactly what it is like to live in your skin. He knows the temptations you face. He knows what it is like for you to deal with fear and temptation. And he is able to sympathize with your weakness, and this is even more jarring when you consider the sort of compounding argument that the author of Hebrews has been building since chapter 1. Remember the things that he’s already said about Jesus? Jesus is, for instance, he says the heir of all things. Everything belongs to him. He is the heir of all things.
There is nothing un-Jesus-like in the Father.He is, second, the one through whom God made the world. He is the Word through whom God spoke the world into being. He is the radiance of God’s glory. If you want to see God’s glory, look at him. He is the exact representation of God’s nature. If you want to know what the Father is like, look at him. For there is nothing un-Jesus-like in the Father. He is the upholder of all things by the Word of his power; this whole universe holds together because he holds it together. He is a high priest, according not to the order of Aaron but according to the order of Melchizedek. So he’s an eternal high priest and he has passed through the heavens and he is sinlessly perfect, beyond the perfection of holy angels.
All of these things are said by the author of Hebrews about Jesus Christ, the Son, and at the same time, he knows how to sympathize with you. Now, that’s absolutely stunning. Have you ever known somebody whose godliness you greatly admired, and you were actually comforted and encouraged by their godliness, but you thought to yourself, “That man, that woman would never understand my struggles because they’re godlier than I am”? Well, nobody has ever been as godly as he. And the author of Hebrews says he knows how to sympathize with your weaknesses.
Christ Learned to Sympathize with Us Through His Suffering
It was Jesus’s suffering that enabled him to know how to sympathize with you and me.That is stunning. How can that be? How can he know how to sympathize with our weaknesses? Well, it’s explained to us in 2:18, “he was tempted in that which he suffered,” and then 5:18, “he learned obedience from that which he suffered.” It was Jesus’s suffering that enabled him to know how to sympathize with you and me. The claim here is not that Jesus has experienced every discrete form of temptation that has ever existed. That’s not the claim here. The claim is that in his suffering, he has experienced a type of temptation which is greater and more severe than any temptation that you’ve ever experienced. And therefore, he is uniquely equipped to be sympathetic to you in every experience of temptation that you encounter.
And so today, as you go into class, realize and draw near to and hold fast your confession in the great high priest who is able to sympathize with your temptation. That is an enormous gift that the one who has entered into heaven in his ascension as your priest on your behalf knows what it is like to live in your skin.
Prayer, Closing Song, and Benediction
Heavenly Father, thank you for this time in your Word. We ask that you would bless it to our studies, that we would worship you even in what we study today. We ask this in Jesus’s name, Amen.
Service Leader: Let’s stand and sing together, a hymn based on a Psalm that’s found on page 662. And let it be the prayer for you this week as you continue to seek God’s presence in this time away from all your demands and busyness and under the comforts and reassurances of this Word from the writer of Hebrews. Page 662, “As the Hart Longs for Flowing Streams.”
Singing: As the hart longs for flowing streams / So longs my soul for thee, O God. / My soul does thirst for the living God. / When shall I come to see thy face?
My tears have fed me day and night / While men have said, “Where is your God?” / But I recall, as my soul pours dry / The days of praise within thy house.
Why do I mourn and toil within / When it is mine to hope in God? / I shall again sing praise to him; / He is my help; he is my God.
Ligon Duncan: Receive now the Lord’s blessing: Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.