Jesus is our qualified and compelling great high priest. The Son became human not only to identify with us and represent us, but to intercede for us as one who can personally relate with us. Gethsemane is not only a moment of consecration for Jesus but of connection with us. He understands. He sympathizes. He has been there.
Jesus understands what we are going through. That’s one reason for the incarnation. It’s also a surprising lesson I’ve learned preaching through the book of Hebrews.
I decided to preach through Hebrews, in part, for its message to the church concerning apostacy. We live in an age of de-conversion and de-construction. That language may be new, but apostacy, as we used to call it, is an age-old problem. The author of Hebrews addresses this problem directly and severely.
The severe warnings of Hebrews have shocked me afresh, but they have not surprised me. There are some puzzles to work out with some of the terminology and imagery, sure. But once those issues are resolved, the warnings against falling away, however hard to hear, are to be expected. They are consistent with Jesus’ teaching and with the Apostles.
Here’s what I did not expect to find: an equally direct message concerning the sympathy of Jesus Christ. In fact, I am convinced that a primary way in which God keeps us from falling away is by communicating to us his profound and personal understanding of the very temptations and troubles that might otherwise lead us to leave him. The message of Hebrews, then, should not only properly scare us about falling away, but soften us to stay close to him, for he understands what we are going through.
I have it on good biblical grounds that you are suspicious of this claim, which I will explain later. My primary objective, though, is to overcome that suspicion so that you might stay faithful to the incarnate Son.
Priestly Sympathy is Greater Than Prophetic Warnings
It is true that the author returns five times to warn us against falling away (2:1–4; 3:7–4:13; 5:11–6:12; 10:19–39; 12:14–29). On a first reading, we might summarize the message of the book with the words, “Don’t fall away!” But that would not be enough to keep us from doing so. The strategy of the author of Hebrews is not to arrest our attention with warnings for their own sake. Rather, the author warns us so that he might gain a hearing for a message that will keep us from falling away. That message concerns Jesus’ priesthood, the subject of his argument which runs from 5:1–10:18.
While there is much to say about the priesthood of Jesus, two observations have convinced me that Christ’s sympathy for us is central to that message and therefore an essential help for our endurance.
First, the author frames his message with an emphasis on the sympathy of Christ.
On either side of his extended argument concerning Jesus’ priesthood, the author summarizes his overall message. Here’s the first and more concise of those two summaries:
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.
This is the first and only time in the New Testament that Jesus is called “a great high priest.” What makes Jesus’s high priesthood so great? He is a great high priest because of where he has gone for us, into heaven. But crucially, we must understand that Jesus is a great high priest because of where he has been for us. That’s what makes his heavenly ascent our earthly good. It would not be good for our sake if Jesus passed into heaven without having first passed through the temptations common to humanity.