Hebrews 4:14-16: Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. The Holy Bible : New International Version. electronic ed. Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1996, c1984, S. Heb 4:14
“Does God exist?” may be an important question, but the follow up question might be more crucial – “what kind of God is he any way?”
I read a lot of fantasy fiction. Most of the contemporary stuff contains a divine element in the story-line, usually in the form of “the gods”. Modern fantasy writers tend to have a cynical view of divinity. For the most part their gods are either uninterested in human affairs, or too busy with important things to care about mortal affairs, or most cynically, the source of human misery. Likewise, most Americans believe that God exists. But that doesn’t answer the question of what kind of God they believe in. Is God uninterested in their life, too busy, or even malicious, or … (insert your favorite paranoia about God). Basically, all the fuss is simple: if God exists, does He care, and can I approach Him or not?
The challenge is that life sucks, and each of us, no matter how good, manage to contribute our share of misery. Deep down in the human psyche is the fear that each one of us has screwed up so badly that there is no reason to expect mercy from other people, let alone God. The Bible would agree with that assessment, but it describes God in a surprising way.
A Little History
In the Old Testament of the Bible, it tells the story of how people turned their back on God – not how God turned his back on people. The Adam and Eve account relates our human tendency to not trust God to have our best interests at heart, and our determination to believe we don’t need God. Now, what God should have done was blast everything to Adams, er, atoms, and start all over. But that isn’t God’s character. Instead, God wanted to give us a chance, and set about trying to repair the relationship between God and us. That, incidentally, is the story line of the Bible, and the “back-story” to our verses in Hebrews.
In order to understand these verses, it necessary to understand the role of the Old Testament High Priest (HP) in atonement, God’s initial method of making things right between God and us. In the Tabernacle, later the Temple, the Ark was in the Holy of Holies – a little room completely curtained off from everything else. The cover on the Ark was called the ‘mercy seat’, because God would come and be present above the Ark.
Once every year, the HP, and only the HP, would enter the Holy Place of all Holy Places, into the very presence of God to make things right with God and the entire people of Israel for their sins of the past year. This was the Day of Atonement, and it was very dangerous. Before going in the HP had to go through a thorough process of self purification; as he entered the Most Holy Place, he had to have a cloud of incense between himself and the Ark, obscuring the presence of God. First, the HP would offer a sacrifice for himself, and then he would offer the sacrifice on behalf of people.
I’ve read somewhere that by the time of Jesus, the HP had a rope tied to his ankle and wore a bell; as long as his fellow priests on the outside could hear the bell they knew that everything was going well. But if they stopped hearing the bell, they would know that the HP had screwed up somehow, and that God had struck him dead. In that case, at least they could haul his carcass out with the rope, and not have to wait a year to recover his body. Like I said, getting right with God entailed a little danger.
Jesus The HP
Whoever wrote the book of Hebrews didn’t have to explain all this because readers had grown up with it. Therefore, the contrast between the Old Testament and Jesus as the great HP would have jumped off the scroll at them.
First, as THE HP, Jesus is in God’s very presence, present tense – not just in a place God comes to once a year – no, Jesus stands right next to God full time, providing complete, instant access!
And in God’s presence is not a Mercy Seat, but the Throne of Grace. The Mercy Seat is where God came to dispense mercy. Mercy is God saying “you deserve to die for what you’ve done, but I will let you off.” Now a throne is where the king sat to administer justice – to apply the law (like king Solomon and the two women claiming same baby). But it isn’t the Throne of justice or mercy, it is the Throne of Grace; Justice is God giving us the sentence we deserve, Mercy is God not giving us what we deserve. But Grace is God giving us what we don’t deserve.
That leads to the third thing – something completely amazing! Think about this comment on the Old Testament Mercy Seat of the Ark: Grace does not veil itself from the people. Grace does not hide itself in a tent. Remember, the Old Testament people couldn’t enter the holy part of the Tabernacle, only the priests; the priests couldn’t go into the Ark (God’s presence), only the HP, and then only one day out of year. But now, because Jesus the great HP is in God’s very presence, all of God’s people have access to God. Everyone. Full time. And there’s no more reason for caution and fear of instant death. No bells or ropes! Hebrews says “approach the Throne of Grace confidently – boldly!”
So why is it the called the Throne of Grace? What do we find there, that we don’t deserve? Help in our time of need.
Think on this – In Old Testament days, if someone was tempted to disobey God, where could they turn for help? The HP was the only person who had direct access to God – but only once a year. But if you did go to the HP, there wasn’t anything he could do to “fix it”. He was a susceptible to temptation as anyone else. All he could do was listen, commiserate, and offer some powerless words about faith. Believe me. I’ve been a pastor, been there, done that. It’s crushing to be powerless to fix someone’s inner struggles.
But. Jesus, as your great HP, is right next to God. Someone has written, “as believers in Jesus Christ, we can run to our High Priest at any time, in any circumstance, and find the help that we need.” That’s grace. And as Hebrews points out, a HP with direct access to God wouldn’t be much comfort if he didn’t sympathize with his people. What a horrible thing to have a HP with the ability to step in for his people, who rarely saw the need to. No, Jesus sympathizes when we struggle with disobedience to God. Here’s how The Message phrases Hebrews 4:15, “we don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all – all but the sin.” Jesus is compassionate – he demonstrated that so many times while walking in our shoes.
In the gospels, Jesus showed sympathy to the:
Weary and burdened: Matthew 11:28-30. Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
Weak in faith: Isaiah 40:11; 42:3; Matthew 12:20. He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle.
Grieving: Luke 7:13; When the Lord saw her, his heart overflowed with compassion. “Don’t cry!” he said.
Diseased: Matthew 14:14; Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
Hungry: Mark 8:2. “I feel sorry for these people. They have been here with me for three days, and they have nothing left to eat.”
Confused and aimless: Matthew 9:36; When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
That is the kind of HP Jesus is, because that’s how God is – mercy, grace, compassion.
Therefore, God is totally accessible! There will never be a reason to prevent you from approaching God. You never have to feel that something you’ve done, contemplated, or said has cut you off from God, that somehow you are unworthy. Of course you’re unworthy, but that’s the whole point! God wants to be accessible to you anyway! You are invited to boldly, confidently, march right in to the throne of grace, because that is where Jesus is. That’s where to find help – eagerly given – because he’s sympathetic … he’s walked in your shoes.
What kind of God is God? That kind of God.