Hebrews: Our Faithful Priest

Hebrews: Our Faithful Priest

Please note that this article is derived from a sermon series on Hebrews given in Bermondsey Gospel Hall, the audio of which can be found here.

We have arrived in our last section of Hebrews 2 together. Having considered how the Superior Son announced our salvation to us in Hebrews 1, Hebrews 2 tells us how the Suffering Saviour achieves our salvation for us. If Hebrews 1 is the Declaration of our Salvation, Hebrews 2 is the Foundation of our Salvation. In chapter 2 we have seen that there are three roles of this Suffering Saviour. These are three parts Jesus plays, roles that he performs, as he saves us. How does Jesus save us? He saves us as a Forerunning Prince (2:5-9), a Founding Pioneer (2:10-13) and a Faithful Priest (2:14-18). These functions are the foundation of our salvation, the grounds upon which its greatness is built. It is to the last of these that we turn this week. Jesus Christ is our Faithful Priest.

Hebrews 2:14-18 is made up of four sentences: two longer sentences (2:14-15, 2:17) and two shorter sentences (2:16, 2:18). If we read them carefully, we will realise that there is an exact parallel between the two longer sentences. They both say that A allows B causing C. ‘Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death…and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery…. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.’ (Hebrews 2:14–5, 17)

A in both sentences speaks of the incarnation. The starting point for both statements is that Jesus partook of the same flesh and blood as the children (2:14). As pictured by the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus was made one of us, with a human body and blood. He was ‘made like his brothers in every respect’ (2:17). The New Testament is clear that Jesus was truly man. He hungered when fasting in the desert, ‘after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.’ (Matthew 4:2) Not only hunger, but he thirsted as well. In John 4 he see him asking the Samarian woman at the well to draw him a drink of water. After teaching the crowds that were flocking to him, he falls asleep in the stern of the boat travelling across the sea of Galilee, a great storm arose on the lake but Mark records that ‘he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion.’ (Mark 4:38) Jesus was truly human, while here on earth ‘he was living within the limits of humanity.’ (Lloyd-Jones) Do not ever let anyone tell you that Jesus was anything other than truly human, a real life, hungering, thirsting, tiring, human. He took on flesh and blood. As John tells us, ‘the Word became flesh…’ (John 1:14). To say Jesus was anything other than both truly God and truly man is quite literally the oldest heresy in the book, with the church spending its first 300 years being torn apart by heretics asserting otherwise. The Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons are simply modern variations of a very old heresy.

This emphasis on the humanity of our Saviour, is really a continuation of what we considered last week. We finished the previous passage by considering our shameless sibling (2:11-13). He is a brother who is not ashamed of his brethren, even when suffering for their sins he did not abandon his siblings. Although his Father forsook him, he has never forsaken them, those children that God had given to him. Why? They are his family. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified ‘are of the same family’ (Moo) or ‘all have once father’ (Schreiner) (2:11). Therefore, we should be unsurprised when this theme of complete conformity arises in our passage. The Son of God because a son of man in order to bring many sons to glory, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers (Romans 8:29). The language of family solidarity continues throughout our passage, the ‘children’ of verse 14 are the ‘offspring of Abraham’ of verse 16, and the ‘brothers’ of verse 17. Indeed even in the next chapter the writer will consider this house of God (3:2-6) and appeal to his ‘brothers’ within it (3:1,12).

All of this language is used to remind us of the importance of the incarnation. The fact that Christmas had to happen so that Easter could occur. The writer tells us that the incarnation made the crucifixion possible. Before Jesus could die, he had to be born. And not just born, but born as one of us. Jesus can only save us because he is one of us. He can be our priest because he is our brother. He can stand between God and man, because he is both God and man. ‘There is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.’ (1 Timothy 2:5). Our salvation is dependent on the incarnation. Jesus had to be truly man in order to truly save.

While the passage stresses the importance of the incarnation, it does not finish there. It is only the first part of each sentence. The incarnation enabled the crucifixion. And the crucifixion causes our salvation. A allows B causing C. Because Jesus became like us, he could die for us. Because Jesus died for us, he can save us. It is these last two elements that the passage stresses to us. In verses 14-15, we are told of a Delivering Death. In verses 16-18, we are made aware of a Propitiating Priest. A Delivering Death – Jesus destroys the devil and delivers us from death. A Propitiating Priest – Jesus saves us from sin and supports us in suffering.

1.  A DELIVERING DEATH – Jesus destroys the devil and delivers us from death

What is the biggest threat facing humanity? Did you know that every year, a whole range of international organisations provide a list of what they perceive to be the biggest threats to humanity in the coming year. At the beginning of this year, the World Economic Forum provided their top five global threats as: nuclear war, climate change, extreme weather events, water crisis and natural disasters. The World Health Organisation added air pollution, diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease, global flu pandemic and the failure of anti-biotic drugs. Despite the many different sources of danger presented to us, these threats all share one common factor – they are all connected to our death. The greatest threat to humanity is ultimately death. No matter how that death comes about, whether spectacularly through a natural disaster or during a nuclear war, or a slower death brought on by disease or simply age. The greatest threat we face as humans is death. We all face it for it is a universal reality. Every single one of us will die. It is our unavoidable destiny. The writer will summarise this truth for us in Hebrews 9:27 - ‘it is appointed for man to die’.

Hebrews 2:15 tells us that death is not only our future destiny, but its effects echo back into the rest of our lives. Even though we are all alive today, death still affects us. ‘Death casts a shadow over the entirety of life.’ (Schreiner) Nobody wants to die, indeed we spend a great deal of our time trying to avoid it. We look both ways before crossing the road. We try to eat healthily and exercise regularly. We go to get vaccines and take medicine. We all know that one day we will die, but we take measures to try and ensure that it is not someday soon. Our death affects our lives long before we die. However, it does so in a much deeper way than how we cross the road and why we eat vegetables. The writer tells us that there is a fear of death that makes us ‘subject to lifelong slavery’.

Our fears can enslave us, restrict our freedom and prevent our flourishing. Hebrews tells us that a fear of death does this to all of us. It is a fear not only of dying, but death itself. It is not just the pain of passing from this world that causes fear, but what happens after that moment when our eyes close and we leave this earthly life behind. Inside we all know not only the certainty of our death, but the certainty of judgement as well. The writer makes that clear in Hebrews 9:27 - ‘it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgement.’ There will be judgement for our sin, for rebelling and rejecting God during our life, at the point of our death. We have good reason to fear death, for damnation is certain if we have not trusted in Christ.

This fear of death is a slavery, a bondage during our life. And the author tells us who it is that is our slave master, the one who wields the weapon of death, ‘the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil’. The Devil has always been connected to death. He was the one that tempted Adam and Eve to sin and thereby brought death into the world. It has been his weapon against all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve ever since. Slaves of sin and Satan for now, doomed to death and damnation forever. Death, our greatest threat, and the Devil, our greatest enemy, coming together to dominate our lives and dictate our futures.

In what ways does death dominate your life? What is your plan for death? I’m not telling you to prepare for your funeral, but I am urging you to prepare for your trial. ‘It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgement.’  How are you preparing now to undergo judgment? On what basis do you think that God will forgive you for your disobedience in this life? How will you counter the arguments of the accuser, the Devil, on that day? Satan will be able to show your sins as the reason why you should be damned. What will you be able to point to show that you should be saved? Hebrews tells us very clearly who is it that you are to look to for your deliverance. Yes, the Devil has the power of death. Yes, we are enslaved by the fear of death. But Hebrews tells us that through death Jesus has destroyed Satan and delivered the slaves. Jesus destroys the devil and delivers us from death.

Jesus told us that he was going to destroy Satan. In John 12:31, he told his disciples a few days after delivering Lazarus from death, and a few days before he himself would die, ‘Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.’ In Hebrews 2, the writer tells us that Jesus died in order to ‘destroy’ the Devil. However, that translation perhaps gives us the wrong idea. It is destruction not in the sense of disappearance, the Devil is still around today for Peter warns Christians in 1 Peter 5:8, ‘Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour’. The Devil is still around and active. It is not destruction in the sense of disappearance, but in the sense of disarmament. That is how Paul describes it in Colossians 2:15, ‘He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them….’ Our greatest enemy has been nullified, neutralised, neutered, the power of death that he had over us has been removed. The Devil can disrupt and disturb us, but if we are in Christ the Devil can never destroy us. We have been delivered from his domain, if we have faith in Christ death now holds no fear for us.

Last week we considered Christ as the captain of our salvation, the champion who goes out to fight on our behalf. Like David went out to challenge the giant Goliath as the champion of Israel, we have a champion that goes out to fight with our great enemy on our behalf. The Devil appears in all his might and terror, having for thousands of years subjected humanity to slavery through fear. Christ goes out to meet him, the Saviour faces Satan on our behalf. Sinless and spotless, Satan has now power over him. Just as David took up Goliath’s sword, beheading the giant with his own blade. Our Deliverer took up death itself and turned it back upon the Devil. That great weapon which he had wielded against all the sons of Adam who had come before, was now turned back upon him. For through death Jesus destroyed Satan and delivered the slaves. How well did John Owen describe it almost 400 years ago when he published a book with the title, ‘The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.’

And it is the death of death. God’s Word tells us that not only are we delivered from the fear of death, but that we will one day be delivered from the fate and finality of death. Just as Christ rose from the dead back into life, all those who trust in him will rise from death and pass back into life. On that final day, God will do what he promised back in Isaiah 25:8, ‘He will swallow up death forever…’. Thinking upon that promise and looking at the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Paul exclaims its fulfilment in 1 Corinthians 15:54-55 ‘“Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”‘ A Delivering Death – Jesus destroys the devil and delivers us from death.

The Psalmist pens a verse in consideration of this kind of deliverance, ‘Some sat in darkness and in the shadow of death, prisoners in affliction and in irons, for they had rebelled against the words of God, and spurned the counsel of the Most High.  So he bowed their hearts down with hard labour; they fell down, with none to help. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and burst their bonds apart. Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man! For he shatters the doors of bronze and cuts in two the bars of iron.’ (Psalm 107:10–16)

2.  A PROPITIATING PRIEST – Jesus saves us from sin and supports us in suffering

These glorious truths that are outlined in verses 14-15 are further explained in verses 17-18. We said at the beginning that these two main sentences are identical in their structure. A allows B causing C. The incarnation allows the crucifixion causing our salvation. The same pattern found in verses 14-15 is found in verses 16-17. However, different language is used, an so we get a fuller understanding of these truths.

The first premise is largely the same. Verse 14 states ‘partook of the same things’ and verse 17 says ‘made like his brothers in every respect’ in reference to the incarnation. However, while verse 14 says that the purpose of the incarnation was ‘that through death he might destroy…and deliver’, verse 17 says that he was made like us ‘so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.’ When we place these two statements alongside each other, we get a much fuller understanding of our Suffering Saviour. We realise that he is our Faithful Priest, for the first time in the book the priesthood of Christ is directly mentioned.

How is it that the death of Christ destroys the Devil and delivers us? If we were at the crucifixion 2000 years ago, if we happened to be travelling into Jerusalem that day and passed a dying man on a cross, would we realise that humanity was being delivered from their greatest threat and enemy? How is it that the death of Christ was a victory? What is it about his death that make any difference to us? Billions have died throughout history, what was special about this death? Why does his death deliver us?

Hebrews tells us that Jesus’ death delivers us because despite appearances, the man dying on a cross was not a criminal suffering the punishment for a crime. He was a priest making an offering for our sins. Indeed, not just a priest, but the high priest. That was the figure in Israel that had the responsibility of entering into the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle and Temple and offering up the blood of a sacrifice as an atonement for the people. Hebrews tells us that on the cross, Jesus Christ was not a prisoner of men, he was the priest of God. His blood was not simply shed as a spectacle for the mocking crowds, but as a sacrifice for a people from every tribe, tongue, people and nation. Our high priest died ‘to make propitiation for the sins of the people.

Propitiation isn’t a word that we use every day. In fact, it is only used four times in the New Testament (Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10). However, it’s importance far outweighs the frequency with which it is used. While it is uncommon in the New Testament, its Hebrew equivalent is much more frequently found in the Old Testament. There is it used to describe the effect of the sacrifice on the day of atonement (Leviticus 16:30). To propitiate is to deal with somebody’s anger (MacLeod) – to pacify, appease or conciliate (Murray). And in reference to our sins it speaks of a sacrifice that turns away, or satisfies, God’s righteous and just wrath against us. No longer is his divine wrath for sin directed towards us, justice has found satisfaction in the death of the sacrifice, and now it is the grace and favour of God that is lavished upon us. As our high priest, Jesus has made a sacrifice, being himself, for us to satisfy the wrath of God and save us from it. Jesus has made propitiation for the sins of the people.

How is it that Paul can say that Jesus has disarmed the rulers and authorities in Colossians 2:15? Because in 2:13- 14 he states that God has made us ‘alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross..’ Why is it that Paul can cry ‘O death, where is your victory?’ in 1 Corinthians 15:55? Because in 15:56 he reminds us that ‘The sting of death is sin…’. By making propitiation for our sins through his death, our merciful and faithful high priest destroys Satan and delivers the slaves. Jesus saves us from sin. By dealing with our sin, Jesus has set us free. Jesus has taken away the fear of death, and he has done it by taking away the guilt of sin.

Not only does Jesus save us from sin, but Hebrews tells us that our Faithful Priest supports us in suffering. Jesus Christ has an effect on both our death and our life. As the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism reminds us: our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ, who has fully paid for all our sins with his precious blood and has set us free from all the power of the devil, is our only comfort in life and in death.

Christian, you who have been delivered from the fear of death and the power of the Devil by this high priest, do not forget that this same high priest is able to help you daily in your life. ‘For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham.’ That is the first mention of this help in our passage. It’s appears to be somewhat of a tangent, and it is, until you realise that in a single statement, he draws together the first four chapters of the book of Hebrews. His reference to the role of angels completing the angelic theme of Hebrews 1-2, reminding us that he came to redeem not angels but men and therefore became the likeness of man. It also references the Hebrews 3-4, when we look at the journey of the children of Israel through the wilderness into the eternal rest of the promised land and remember that we too are the offspring of Abraham if we like Abraham have faith in God.

The help theme re-emerges in verse 18 where, having remember our Faithful Priest, he says ‘For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.’ Again we see that the experience of Christ enables him to accomplish his mission. He took on flesh like us that he might save us. He suffered temptation like us that he might support us. When did he suffer this temptation? Certainly his temptations in the wilderness come to mind (Matthew 4), but given the context of his propitiatory priesthood and the language used, perhaps better rendered ‘was tempted in that which he has suffered’ (NASB), I think it is the temptation he confronted in the garden of Gethsemane and would have remained with him until his crucifixion the that the writer has brought into view.

As we look to Jesus, we see one who, because he suffered and was tempted, is able to help us as we suffer and are tempted. This priestly support will receive a regular mention in Hebrews (4:14-16). We are reminded of our priest who ever lives to make intercession for us (7:25). We are reminded by the example of Jesus Christ that resisting temptation is possible, for he was tempted as we are yet was without sin (4:15). When we look to Jesus, our forerunner, our pioneer, the founder and perfecter of our faith, we realise that he are empowered to follow in his footsteps in being obedient to the Father, we can run with endurance the race set before us (12:1-2). If when we look to our brothers we are strengthened in suffering and able to remain firm in our faith (1 Peter 5:9), how much more when we look to our Saviour?

However, this support of our Suffering Saviour is more than simple inspiration, more even that the power of the Spirit to live holy lives like him. This support of our Faithful Priest is once again founded in his sacrificial death on our behalf. He is a merciful high priest only because God’s justice has been satisfied. Further, the strength to suffer and to struggle against sin ultimately comes from the fact that Jesus has not only freed us from guilt of sin and fear of death, but from the power of sin and death as well. In place of lifelong slavery, we now have lifelong support.

 ‘Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.’ (Romans 8:34)

 ‘When Satan tempts me to despair, and tells me of the guilt within, upward I look and see him there, who made an end of all my sin. Because the sinless Saviour died, my sinful soul is counted free, because the just is satisfied, to look on him and pardon me.’ (Charitie Lees Smith)