[K:NWTS 1/3 (Dec 1986) 17-27]
Since then we have a great high priest who
has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son
of God, let us hold fast our confession
This is a valuable text to consider. Its value is that it summarizes much of the teaching of the book of Hebrews. It enables us, in other words, to get a handle on the whole of Hebrews. Further, it provides us with this summary, not in a remote, academic way, but in a way that bears very directly on our lives. In particular, we will see, it has a crucial bearing on the matter of prayer as that is so essential to being a Christian.
Our text naturally divides into two parts. It ends with an exhortation, while the beginning provides the basis for that exhortation. That suggests that we consider this text by looking more closely, in turn, at each of these two parts.
We begin with the end, with the command that we are to "hold fast our confession." We must appreciate at the outset that this is a command directed to believers in Jesus Christ. It is given to those who have already made a Christian confession. Further, we must appreciate how this command pinpoints the situation of those who are believers in Jesus Christ.
We can see right away that this situation is not one in which we can take it easy. It is not a situation where we can lay back and relax, as it were. In other words, we can't take our faith or our confession of it for granted. For, the writer tells us, our confession is something that we must "hold fast." That suggests a situation of difficulty, one in which we must be alert and diligent. Just this way of putting it–that we must hold fast our confession–implies a situation where we are under pressure, where there are hostile forces at work on us, pressures that come into our lives and tend to break the hold of our confession. Because of these pressures, the writer must express himself as he does: we have to hold fast, to hold on.
It is important to see that this is not an isolated command for the writer. It has its background in what he has already said. Notice the word "therefore" at the very beginning of verse 14. That word ties what he is going to say to what has just preceded, particularly to what he has had to say in the passage that begins at 3:7.
In that long section (3:7-4:13), the writer makes a comparison. He compares believers in Jesus Christ, the church, to Israel. He draws that comparison by referring to a particular point in Israel's history–that time when Israel was in the wilderness, traveling through the Sinai Desert.
The point of this comparison is twofold. On the one hand, the writer wants us to see that the church has been delivered from the bondage of sin, pictured by Israel's Exodus from bondage in Egypt. He wants us to understand that as believers in Jesus, we have had a real experience of release from the guilt and power of sin. We have received the salvation that has been promised in the gospel. That is one point of comparison.
But that is not the whole picture; the writer also wants us to understand this: just as Israel, although delivered from slavery in Egypt, was not yet in the promised land but still in the wilderness, so the church has not yet entered into God's rest, as he calls it. Believers still do not possess the final rest of God in its full and perfect form. To put it another way, the writer wants us to understand that, as the church of Jesus Christ, we have not yet attained to that experience of salvation that is unthreatened and unchallenged. Note carefully that I did not say "uncertain." Our salvation is certain. But, while certain, our salvation is always on the line. It is constantly being challenged, as we will be seeing more clearly.
The basic point of the comparison is that now, as well as then, the people of God are a pilgrim people. In New Testament times, as well as in the Old Testament, God's people are wayfarers. That is our basic identity as Christians; we are a people "on the way." That means, further, that those on this pilgrimage are exposed to all kinds of difficulties and hardship, and all of that hardship tends toward an ultimate temptation, the temptation to give up, to abandon our confession, not to "hold fast." That, then, is why it is so necessary for the writer to admonish the church as he does.
Briefly, we should notice several other places where the writer admonishes his readers, so that we can appreciate something of the full force of his concern. Elsewhere he says, "Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter [God's] rest, so that no one will fall by their example of disobedience" (4:11). Remember, by the way, he is talking here to Christians, not just to hypocrites but to the entire congregation. Again, "See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God" (3:12). And he tells us that we are to ''encourage one another daily.'' Why? ''So that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness" (3:13). Later on he says, "See to it that no one misses the grace of God" (12:15).
Certainly, there is no difficulty in seeing the seriousness, the urgency in what the writer is saying. That is why it is so important that there be no doubt that these exhortations apply to us. They are addressed to us today just as much as when they were first written 2,000 years ago. Twentieth century America, just as much as the first century Mediterranean world when this letter was first written, is like the Sinai Desert. It is a wilderness, a wasteland.
Most of us have never had the experience of being in a desert for any length of time. If we have, we have probably driven through in an air-conditioned car! But those in former times, who have traveled across desolate areas and deserts, like the Sahara, on foot or by some primitive means of transport for long periods of time, tell us of a great danger involved. As you plod on for endless hours, as the vast horizon constantly recedes before you, as the blazing sun beats down on you incessantly–one of the great fears is the mirage. The traveler begins to imagine things, to see things that are not there. He becomes confused and so risks getting lost.
The desert that the writer is describing, the desert where the church is, also has its mirages; mirages that would mislead us and take us off the path that we have set out upon in our Lord Jesus Christ. Briefly, what are some of those mirages, particularly those projected by our culture, those that continually confront us today through our mass media? There is, for one, the deception that what the Bible teaches is not necessarily the truth. We are thoroughly committed to the notion that man is the measure of truth. And that means that the truth is here today and gone tomorrow. The truth is what I for the moment consider it to be.
Along with that deception is the illusion that what humanity can do, what men and women can accomplish, is going to solve the world's problems. Our confidence and hope in our technology persists, despite the resulting threat of nuclear destruction and the ecological nightmares that we have to live with.
And then there is the delusion that men and women are essentially good, that human beings are basically loving people. Sin, like the truth, is only a relative thing. Sin is really no more than the mistakes that basically good people happen to make along the way. We live in a time when more and more God's clear guideposts, his commandments, have been replaced by a so-called new morality, a morality of mankind's making, based on our supposedly natural impulse to love.
The results of mankind chasing after these mirages are all too evident. Who can miss seeing what life has become, the desolate thing that it is, for many? Marriages that are parched for love, homelife that is filled with tension, jobs that are meaningless and unrewarding.
To highlight this bleak and barren picture is not to deny that "this is my Father's world." Creation as it has come from the hand of God is good, and our God intends that we should enjoy its many rich blessings. That, of course, is something very true that we should always keep in view. But at the same time, we must not close our eyes to the sinful confusion, the desolate desert, that man has made of God's good creation. And what is so alarming and disconcerting is that too often God's people fail to see the situation for what it is. We forget what the writer wants us to lay hold of in this text. We tend to forget that, even though this is God's world, in a very real sense we are aliens here for the present. And when we forget that, then we often find ourselves trying to make this life an end in itself. We can even find ourselves using our Christianity to make our lives comfortable. We too easily lose sight of the fact that every gift from God has two sides and you can't separate them. Every gift involves a duty, a responsibility. But we are too often guilty of playing at Christianity. And we lose sight of the fact that genuine growth as a believer in Jesus Christ is something that only comes by struggle. It only comes as we open ourselves up to and acknowledge the reality of the desert that the writer reminds us of in our text.
There is a problem that has been building up all along in what has been said so far. Perhaps you have already felt it. We have been focusing on what the writer has to say about holding fast in the midst of the desert. But, you will recognize, holding fast is something that requires strength. And so this question presses in on us: where, in the midst of all we have been considering, are we going to get the necessary strength to hold fast our confession? When we feel something of the force of that question, something of the dilemma in which we find ourselves as believers in Jesus Christ, then it is time for us to stop talking about the command in our text and turn instead to the first part of our text, to the basis of that command–that "we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God."
The writer says several things here, things that take us into matters that he himself later calls "hard to explain," that are not "milk" but "solid food for the mature" (5:11-14). But before we try to appreciate something of that richness, it is very important to see how everything here in fact comes to a very clear and single focus. That focus is Jesus Christ.
When we ask about the basis for our holding fast, notice that the writer doesn't point us to ourselves. Nor does he point us to the Christian community and all the resources that are undoubtedly there to support us in our Christian confession. Notice that he doesn't even point us to something God has given to us or done in us as believers. Instead he points us to Christ. He points us to the Son of God. And that, you see, more than anything else is what we need to take hold of in our text. The secret, if you will, of holding fast our confession is to hold fast to Jesus Christ. The secret of holding fast our confession is not something finally that we do, but what Christ has done and continues to do. By now it should be clear, then, that when the writer commands us to hold fast our confession, he is not talking about some document, some written confession, as important as that may be in its place. But he is talking about Jesus Christ. To hold fast your confession is to hold fast to Jesus Christ.
What exactly does the writer say about the Lord Jesus Christ as the basis for our confession, our holding fast? He states that Jesus is "a great high priest." A great high priest–in fact that understates it for the writer. Elsewhere he makes clear that Jesus is so great that he is in a class all by himself; he is a priest "according to the order of Melchizedek." And in that set there is only one–Jesus Christ. As a priest, he has no peers.
Our text tells us further that Jesus is our great high priest because he has "gone through the heavens." This phrase captures a very important concern for the writer, and that concern stands, not in opposition but certainly in contrast to the way in which we often look at things.
When we think of Jesus Christ as our priest, we tend to think primarily of his death as an atonement for our sins, and that, of course, is a very important aspect of his high priestly work, an aspect we must never lose sight of. But at the same time, it is fair to say that in Hebrews the emphasis of the writer lies elsewhere. He teaches very plainly that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is a perfect sacrifice, that his death is a death, once for all, to pay for our sins and doesn't need to be repeated (see, e.g., 9:25-26). Nowhere in the New Testament do we find a clearer emphasis on the finality of the sacrificial death of Christ than we do in Hebrews.
But still, with all that emphasis, for the writer of Hebrews the death of Jesus Christ has something preliminary about it. Christ's death with all that it accomplishes is still preparatory for what he is doing presently as our high priest in heaven. As the writer says in 8:1: "The (main) point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven." And a little later (verse 4) he can even put it this way: if Christ were still on earth he would not be a priest. Think about that. If Jesus Christ were still here on earth he would not be our high priest.
What the writer is pressing us to consider is the activity of Jesus Christ that continues on now at present. We must be careful what we do with Jesus' statement on the cross, "It is finished." That is a glorious statement. But it doesn't mean that subsequent to the cross Christ has somehow been consigned to frozen inactivity, as if he no longer does anything. "It is finished" pronounces the perfect completion of what Jesus Christ has done to make sacrifice for our sins. But that sacrifice provides a basis for him to enter the heavenly sanctuary and there to do something, to be active–active not just for himself but on our behalf.
Jesus Christ is alive. That is the heart of the gospel. That is not just something we celebrate on Easter and then forget about. Jesus Christ is alive today, in the sanctuary of heaven for the church, and that is the thoroughly exciting truth that the writer of Hebrews wants us to get hold of.
For the writer, there are two things primarily that the heavenly high priestly ministry of Christ involves. For one thing Jesus Christ is high priest in heaven as he continues to present himself before our heavenly Father. And how does he present himself there? He presents himself as our righteousness. Jesus Christ is the seal, the living exhibition of that perfect righteousness which God the Father declares to be ours. The righteousness that we need is a righteousness that continues to exist, a righteousness that is established where it really counts–in heaven. And that is why we can be so confident today, if our faith is in Jesus Christ, that our sins are forgiven. Because Jesus Christ, the righteous one, is there in heaven, in the sanctuary, on our behalf.
Secondly, the writer of Hebrews stresses that the ongoing activity of the exalted Christ is an activity of prayer. Jesus, he says, "always lives to intercede for those who come to God through him" (7:25). The heavenly high priestly ministry of Christ, it would seem, is especially a ministry of intercessory prayer.
Why does Jesus Christ have to pray for us? Have you ever thought about that? Why does he need to? Why is it necessary for Christ to pray? Think about all that he has done. Why, after all that he has accomplished in suffering and dying for us, can't he just sit back, so to speak? Why can't he relax and enjoy the results of his death?
The answer to these questions lies in seeing the connection between what the writer tells us about the high priestly ministry of Christ and his exhortation that we were considering earlier. The reason that Christ is so active on our behalf is because he knows the desperateness of our situation. He knows the desert that we were talking about earlier. He knows all about that desert because he has been through it himself. He has gone that way before us; he has been tempted, the writer tells us, in every way just as we are (4:15).
We must believe that. We tend to think of Christ as a divine being who is far removed from us. But he has become one with us, and he has been tempted, really and truly, just like you and I in every respect, but with one important difference–he did not yield to temptation. He overcame temptation. And so "he is able to help those who are being tempted" (2:18).
Jesus knows the desert, with the stresses and temptations that you and I are exposed to. He knows it by his own intimate experience. And so Jesus also knows something that some who call themselves Calvinists overlook. He knows that the certainty of our salvation does not cancel out the seriousness of our present situation. He knows that only those who endure to the end are going to be saved (Mt. 24:13). And he knows that enduring to the end is not something that happens automatically. He knows that for us to endure to the end will not happen without prayer. In particular, it will not happen without his prayer.
The writer would have us remember this precious truth: our Lord did not die for us and then abandon us. He knows that we need him, and he knows that we need him now. He knows, for instance, that today that great roaring adversary of the church, Satan, is prowling around like a roaring lion and he wants to devour every one of us (I Pet. 5:8). There is not one of us that Satan would not like to do that to. So Jesus is interceding for us. He is praying for us that in the midst of the struggle in which we find ourselves Satan will not be able to do what he wants to do. And as he prays our heavenly Father delights in that prayer, and protects us.
Jesus knows, as he did in the case of Peter, that Satan is demanding to have at us. Satan would like to get hold of us; as Jesus puts it, he would like to sift us like wheat (Lk. 22:31). But as Jesus did for Peter, he does for every one of us who is trusting him: he is praying that our faith will not fail (verse 32). He is praying that we will "hold fast our confession," and that prayer of Jesus is efficacious.
It doesn't matter how complicated, how desperate, perhaps even hopeless your life has become. No matter how overwhelmed you may feel by your problems, if your trust is in Jesus Christ, you can be sure that he is praying for you now and through that prayer he will provide for you the resources to bring you relief or enable you to carry on.
The most important thing that you and I need to learn about prayer is this: first of all and ultimately, prayer is not something we do but what Jesus does for us.
The incident recorded at the end of Acts 7, in verses 54-56, is a dramatic and powerfully evocative example of this reality–Jesus Christ praying for believers. The situation is one in which Stephen is before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish officials of his day. He has been summoned before them because of the tensions that have been created by his preaching of the gospel, because of the anger and alarm that has resulted among the existing religious and civil authorities. In other words, the situation is one in which Stephen is holding fast his confession.
As he finishes what he has to say, the anger within the Sanhedrin turns into a murderous fury. But as their blood lust begins to unleash itself on him, we are given the full picture of what took place there: "But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 'Look,' he said, 'I see heaven opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.'" The Son of Man is standing at the right hand of God. Everywhere else in Scripture, when mention is made of the Son of Man in heaven, he is always pictured as sitting at the right hand of God. But here the Son of Man in heaven at the right hand of God is not sitting, but standing.
What can this mean? It means that there are really two courtrooms involved here. One of them is on earth. And there justice is going to grind on to its sickening miscarriage. In that situation, that courtroom on earth, Stephen stands up for Jesus. But because of that, in the courtroom in heaven, the place where that justice is being rendered that really counts, Jesus stands up for Stephen. The judge becomes the advocate. The king becomes the intercessor. And, really, we shouldn't be surprised at this because Jesus is simply making good on that promise he made already during his earthly ministry, not just Stephen, but to all his disciples, to the whole church. "Whoever confesses me before men," Jesus has promised, "I will also confess him before my Father in heaven" (Mt. 10:32). There can be no greater source of confidence for the church today than this.
"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." Amen.
Westminster Theological Seminary