Between Easter and Pentecost each year, we observe Ascension Day. Jesus ascended into Heaven forty days after He arose from the grave. Just as the birth of Jesus was supernatural, and the resurrection of Christ was supernatural, so the ascension of Jesus was a great supernatural event.
Acts 1:9 says that while the disciples were looking on, “He was taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight.” Mark 16:19 says “He was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God.” In the coolness of the evening, forty days after His resurrection, Jesus led His disciples out of Jerusalem, to the Mount of Olives, and then, lifting His hands in blessing and benediction, he was “carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:50-51). The body of Jesus simply began to rise from the ground, and He parted from this world of sin, and entered into the eternal world again with the heavenly Father.
One of the tremendous lessons which all of us need to be reminded of when we think of our Lord’s return to Heaven, is that while Jesus was taken out of our sight, He has not been taken out of our reach. Just because Jesus is not visibly present here on earth, does not mean that He has ceased to exist, or that He no longer functions in behalf of God’s people.
When Jesus was here on earth 2,000 years ago, His primary function was to give His life a ransom for the sins of the human family. Now, during the present age, His primary duty is to serve as a great high priest for His people.
The work of the priest is different from the work of the prophet. The prophet is a preacher—one who speaks to men with a message from God. The priest is a mediator—one who speaks to God with a message from men. (The message from humans is that we have sinned, and the priest offers sacrifices to satisfy God’s demand for atonement.)
The “priest” was the official worship leader in the nation Israel. He represented the people before God, and conducted various rituals to atone for their sins. This priestly function in earliest times was carried out by the father of a family (Job 1:5) or by the head of a tribe—until the days of Moses and Aaron. When Israel was called out as a nation, Aaron was appointed as the first high priest, and thus the office of priesthood was formally established.
The one main characteristic of a priest is that he has access with God, and thus brings sacrifices to the Lord. Under the Old Testament, this access to God was the privilege only of the high priest. Once a year, he alone would enter into the Most Holy Place of the Temple, and there speak with God on behalf of the people.
The Old Testament high priests had to offer sacrifices for their own sins and then also for the sins of the people. Jesus had no need to offer sacrifices for himself, for He had no sin (Hebrews 7:27-28).
The Old Testament priests offered animal blood which could never permanently take away sin (Hebrews 10:1-4), but Jesus offered His own blood which indeed cleanses from all sin (Hebrews 9:12; 1 John 1:7).
The sacrifices of Israel’s priests were performed in an earthly building (Hebrews 8:5). Jesus performs His ministry in Heaven itself (Hebrews 9:11) and is seated at the right hand of God (Hebrews 10:12).
The high priest was bound to a higher degree of ritual purity than ordinary Levitical priests. He could have no contact with dead bodies, including those of his own parents. He could not marry a widow, nor a harlot, nor a divorced woman—but only an Israelite virgin (Leviticus 21:10-15). Any sin committed by the high priest brought guilt upon the entire nation and had to be countered by a special sacrifice for his own sins (Leviticus 4:1-12).
On the Day of Atonement, the high priest bathed, changed into a linen garment, and placed his hand upon the head of a young bull which was brought to the brazen altar as a sacrifice (Leviticus 16:4). He recited his own sins and then those of his household, with his hands over the head of the animal. Afterward, he sacrificed the bull, and took its blood into the Holy of Holies (the innermost part of the Temple)—and sprinkled the blood one time on the mercy seat, and seven times on the front of the ark of the covenant. The high priest then offered a second sacrifice (this time a goat chosen by lot from a pair of goats), which he sacrificed for the sins of the people. After slaughtering the goat, he sprinkled the ark of the covenant seven times with the goat’s blood.
Then the high priest placed his hands upon the second goat (the one not chosen for the sacrifice), and confessed the sins of the people. Afterward, the “scapegoat” (as it was called) was led through the crowd of people, to a place out in the wilderness—and there it was set free. (Read about it in Leviticus 16:8,10,26).
Those sacrifices made satisfaction for sin for another year. The next year, on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur, as it is called today), the sacrifices needed to be repeated all over again (Hebrews 10:1-4).
For Christians, Jesus Christ is understood to be the perfect high priest (Hebrews 5:5-9; Hebrews 6:20). He took upon Himself the sins of the world, and He is the mediator of a new covenant between God and those who choose to serve the Lord. His one sacrifice was made once for all, and no longer was there any need for the annual ritual on the Day of Atonement, and no longer must sacrifices be repeated year after year.
Hebrews 9:11-12 says, “And Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building, neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood, he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.”
The theme in this article is Jesus, Our Great High Priest. The text is taken from Hebrews 4:14-16. This is what the Bible says:
“Seeing then that we have a great high priest that is passed into the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”
The writer of Hebrews makes three clear statements about our great high priest. In Hebrews 4:14-16 he speaks about:
- 1) The Priesthood of Jesus (verse 14)
- 2) The Compassion of Christ (verse 15)
- 3) The Boldness of Believers (verse 16)
1. The Priesthood of Jesus (Hebrews 4:14)
Jesus is presently our high priest in Heaven. Verse 14 says that He has “passed into the heavens”—a reference to His triumphant ascension into Heaven. The book of Hebrews twice says that he “sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 1:3; 10:12). His ascension into Heaven and His being seated at the right hand of God are guarantees that His work for humans is finished, and that it was complete and satisfactory to the heavenly Father.
The word “great” (in verse 14) — “a great high priest”—indicates that Jesus is superior to the earthly high priests described in the Old Testament. They entered into the Holy Place of the Temple (into God’s presence) once a year on the Day of Atonement. By way of contrast, Jesus entered the heavens and sat down—and is always in the presence of God interceding for us!
Our great High Priest did not pass through the Tabernacle (like the high priests of Old Testament times did). Jesus passed through the heavens, and when He arrived in the presence of God, He sat down—and God said, “I’m satisfied! My Son Jesus accomplished the atonement for all those who come to Him by faith, and accept what He did for them.”
Surely with such a great high priest ministering on our behalf, we don’t want to give up our profession of faith. At the end of Hebrews 4:14 we are to hold firmly to the faith that we profess. That “faith” is described in Romans 10:9-10. It is with your heart you believe and are justified, and with your mouth you confess and are saved.
In Old Testament times, every year—year after year—another Yom Kippur was necessary. Between these yearly sacrifices, day after day, dozens of other animal sacrifices were offered to God. The process was never ended, and never completed—because the human priesthood was not perfect and the sacrifices were not perfect. By way of contrast—Jesus, our great High Priest—after He made the one-time perfect sacrifice, went into the presence of the heavenly Father and sat down for all eternity at the Father’s right hand, and there He continues to intercede for us.
The fact that Jesus ascended into Heaven and sat down at the right hand of God, means that His saving work is finished. It happened “once for all” (Hebrews 9:26). The ascension of Christ was not just the dramatic end of His earthly ministry. It was God’s guarantee that the work of Jesus on the Cross did indeed satisfactorily purchase our redemption.
2. The Compassion of Christ (Hebrews 4:15)
Many people seem to think of God as far removed from human life and from our human concerns. But our text says that when we reach out to God in faith, we can touch Him! He can be reached when we come to Him in prayer.
When we are troubled and hurt and despondent, we like to share our feelings and needs with someone who understands. The sentence in one of our hymns which says, “No one understands like Jesus,” is really a very true statement. He experienced the same kinds of disappointments and griefs and frustrations that all of us at times experience.
Because Jesus is the Son of God, some might be inclined to question whether Christ really understands our human predicament, or whether He is really interested in the problems of just one ordinary person like you and me.
But not so at all. Jesus is a merciful and faithful high priest who suffered when He was here on earth, and in His human body He was tempted like we are. True—He never sinned, but indeed He can and does sympathize with us. Verse 15 says, “We have not a high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities.” The double negative has the effect of saying, “Yes, our high priest does sympathize with our weaknesses.” Our Lord Jesus is full of sympathy and of tender compassion. Just because He is in Heaven, and just because He is the mighty Son of God, does not remove Him from understanding our human needs.
Jesus knows what it is like to be tempted. As a man on earth, Jesus did not live in isolation from human temptation. He was tempted just as intensely as we are. He experienced hunger, and weariness, and pain. When His back was all lacerated and bleeding from the scourging (just before He went to the Cross), they put a purple robe on Him and placed a rod in His right hand (a staff like kings carry as a symbol of their authority)—and then they mocked Him and said, “Hail, king of the Jews.” Not only the soldiers, but the chief priests, and the onlookers—all were making fun of Him while He was in pain. All of us know that it’s hard to be in pain and in suffering—and then have people laugh at you. But the Apostle Peter says that Jesus took it all without saying a word (1 Peter 2:21-23). The Bible says that we should follow His example.
Jesus faced all the basic trials of life. He knows what it is like to experience infirmities of various kinds, and with tender compassion He is touched by our needs. “For we have not a high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities,” but He was tempted like we are, and so He looks upon us with loving kindness.
3. The Boldness of the Believer (Hebrews 4:16)
Verse 16 contains tremendously encouraging words. We are urged to come to God in prayer, and we are encouraged to come with great confidence. “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”
Since Jesus our High Priest is at the right hand of God interceding for us, we have the freedom of access to the very throne of Deity. We are to approach the throne of grace boldly, and tell the Lord about our trials and temptations—and we can be sure that God will show His favor in our behalf.
This passage encourages us to pray, and to pray with a great deal of confidence. To “come boldly” means literally “Come, saying all.” Come as you are. Say what you feel. Ask what you need. Confess your sins. Pour out your fears. Express your wandering thoughts. (The word “come” is in the present continuous tense, meaning that we are to come constantly, repeatedly, and continually.)
When Jesus died and was buried and rose again, and then ascended into Heaven to become our great High Priest, the way to God was opened up, and the invitation to every believer is “Come, and find the grace and the help that you need—find it at the altar of prayer.” Our need may be material, physical, or spiritual. When we call on the name of the Lord in faith, and approach the throne of God, He will hear and answer.
Prayerlessness is really a great sin. When we do not devote time each day to earnest, believing prayer—in essence we are saying that we can cope with life without divine aid. Prayerlessness is human arrogance at its worst. Prayerlessness is really a form of practical atheism. Prayerlessness in the Christian life says that we believe in God, but we can get along without Him. Hebrews 4:16 urges us to come into the presence of God, for God is one who welcomes us, and Christ is one who understands us.
God answers our prayers in one of three ways — “yes,” “no,” or “wait.”
- Eliezer (the servant of Abraham) was given a quick “yes.”
- Paul (requesting the removal of the thorn) was told “no.”
- Moses (who wanted to see the Promised Land) had to “wait.”
Each answer was given in kindness—intended for the benefit of the one who prayed.
In Ephesians 6:18 we are told to “pray always with all supplication . . . (and with) perseverance.” God does answer prayer, and sometimes He answers in most unusual ways.
A pious young man (a night-attendant in a city drug store) tells about a thrilling answer to prayer.
The large drug stores in the city are often open all night in order to fill prescriptions. The night-attendant sleeps on a couch at the rear of the store. Customers ring a buzzer at the door if they want service.
The young man who gave testimony to God’s faithfulness, was just about sleeping one cold, rainy, dismal night many years ago in New York City—when he was aroused by the buzzer. When he answered the door, it was a little boy. “Please mister, get this medicine quick, my mommy is awfully sick.”
Sleepily and hurriedly he filled the prescription—and soon the boy was off. After he had gone, the attendant put away the bottles of medicine, and recorded the prescription—only to notice (to his horror) that he had given the boy a deadly poison, and not the medicine he had intended to give.
The attendant didn’t know which way the boy had gone. It was raining and dark outside. He looked in the phone book, but the name wasn’t there. So he went to his cot, fell on his knees, and asked God to overrule this tragic mistake for His glory—and then he lay down again on the cot.
It wasn’t long until the buzzer rang again, and when he answered, it was the same boy. He was crying frantically. He said, “Mister, I was running to get this medicine home to my mommy as quick as I could—and I slipped and fell and broke the bottle. Will you please get me the medicine again?”
You see—God overruled even a careless mistake to answer the fervent prayer of a humble Christian man.
The closing verses of Hebrews 4 contain some precious words of encouragement. They tell us about one of the provisions which God in His grace provides for us while we are still in this place of testing. Jesus serves as our great high priest (our advocate). He pleads our cause. He stands ready to meet our needs—but He expects us to be brave—and come to Him and ask in simple faith.
All of us have likely heard many appeals to a life of prayer. Most of us know that speaking with God is a valuable privilege. But prayer, on a regular basis, is hard work—and as a result, it is often neglected. It is our hope that the message today will call each of us to greater commitment in the area of faithful prayer.
For those who are not saved and have never embraced Jesus Christ as the only way to become reconciled with God (John 14:6), there is no promise of regular answers to prayer. On the other hand, God often does more than He has promised—and so sometimes unsaved people do experience answers to their cries for help. At the end of the age there is going to be a great prayer-meeting. People from all walks of life, in desperation and fear, will pray. There will be pleas for the rocks and mountains to fall and to hide sinners from God (Revelation 6:13-16).
The great central theme of the Christian faith is spelled out in the words of John the Baptist when he saw Jesus walking toward him. He said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Won’t you come to Jesus today—and love Him and trust Him and let Him save you? He will make you His child, and in that awful day when God’s wrath is poured out, you will be safe in His care.