Heb4v13 to Heb5v19 THE GREAT HIGH PRIEST.

(A) Introduction

I suppose some might say that we have moved on from High Priests and that this passage which was so meaningful for the Jews in the first century after Christ is of little relevance today. The scripture under consideration is, however, about faithfulness, prayer and obedience and so has much to say to Christians in Western Europe where the church has been in decline for so long.

(B) Jesus is an exalted Great High Priest: an encouragement to steadfastness

The writer says to his fellow Jews in Heb4v14 Let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. The faith that they professed was essentially their belief in Jesus; belief in: his teachings as words of eternal life, his example as the Son in whom God was well pleased, the saving work performed at Calvary, the glorious resurrection to life, his return to judge and reward his followers and his supreme authority in heaven and on earth. We are urged to keep a tight grip on Jesus. There are those who argue that this is hardly necessary, as Jesus has promised to keep a hold on us. He said, John10v27 "My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand." It is easy to assume from this that Jesus is assuring us that once we begin to follow him we cannot be lost. If that is the case why are we told to hold on to Jesus? Jesus was a high-risk teacher. He often used irony to make a point and some of his sayings are misunderstood because of an unwillingness to admit his use of irony, humour, exaggeration and the like. Jesus isn't going to lose one of his sheep because of any lack of commitment on his part. He isn't a care less, laid back, half-hearted shepherd. He has a firm hold on us. But we must keep a hold on him. When I was a little boy I would, as a very rare treat, go with my father to watch our local professional football team - Ipswich Town, the Tractor Boys. As we left the ground at the conclusion of the match my father held my hand in his so that I did not get swept away and lost in the crowd. I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that I clung to my father's hand. I had no desire to be lost in the sluggish current of jostling men and separated from the one I loved.

We have two incentives to remain steadfast(or faithful):

    (a) We are going to have to give an account of our lives to God Heb4v13 Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
    A day is coming when there will be no-where to hide. We make a good job of hiding our sins now and appearing better than we are but a day is coming when we will have to face God who knows all about us. During my years as a schoolteacher I didn't let my pupils get away with much. I can remember putting a tall seventeen-year-old youth called Biddy into detention for not completing homework. He did not turn up at the designated time. So I went looking for him. He had hidden up. I strode into the Sixthform Common Room and asked if anyone had seen Bidwell. One girl, more honest than most, gave the game away by saying, "Not recently, Mr Reed". So I searched the room, found him lying behind a sofa, hauled him up and confronted him with his wickedness. He hung his head so I got hold of his chin and made him look me in the eye.

    You might say that God isn't much like a teacher in a mood. Well... the Greek word translated, 'laid bare before the eyes of', is the one used to describe the procedure whereby a criminal had a knife pointed at his throat to make him lift up his head and face those he had wronged. Paul says that each of us will give an account of himself to God.Rom14v12. That is why it is vital to hold on to Jesus. He is the one who can present us without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless as part of his radiant church to his Father in Heaven. See Eph5v27. We should remember the warning Jesus gives in Mk8v38 "If anyone is ashamed of me and my words... the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels. Jesus is faithful, God the Father is faithful and so we are obliged to be faithful too. If we are not then God's faithfulness is forfeited.

    (b) We have a great high priest who has been exalted. He has v14 gone through the heavens
    Jesus bodily left our universe and ascended into heaven. He is our personal representative at God's right hand. It is harder to get nearer to the centre of power than that. Jesus told his disciples in Mt28v18 "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." I used to give an old man called Jack Finch a lift to church. He had some very strange views notwithstanding a daily study of the Bible. He was also a very angry man quite out of tune with the modern world. He sometimes would say to me, "I wish God would put me in charge for a day; I'd show 'em". Well Jack's bark was worse than his bite and he was, beneath the bluster and bravado' a kind-hearted man. However, I am glad God didn't put him in charge for five minutes! Jesus is the ideal representative - loving us and loving God. He is God's son and our elder brother.

    During the famine Joseph's brothers were blessed in having a representative who was Pharaoh's right hand man in Egypt. When the time came for his brothers to return to Canaan Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain, to put each man's silver back in his sack, and to give them provisions for their journey Gen42v25. I have likewise benefited from having a personal representative in Parliament, my local MP. I am the Brockley Cricket Club's mole killer. This is a job I dislike doing very much. The best way to kill moles is to put worms that have absorbed strychnine through their skin into the runs. The moles eat the worms and .... Some years ago the Ministry of Agriculture refused to give me a permit to purchase strychnine. I petitioned my MP, my representative at the seat of power. He used his influence to get me a permit. He did for me what I could not do for myself.

    Surely it is in our best interest to remain true and loyal to our great high priest in heaven. Our man there has all power in heaven and earth. He is our advocate - pleading our cause. Sometimes to hold on is a matter of life and death. People have been saved from drowning and rescued from burning buildings because they have held on. We are being saved; we shall be saved if we hold on. Jesus can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves - justify us in the sight of God.

Jesus is a sympathetic Great High Priest: our encouragement to pray.

The writer is able to write in Heb4v16 Let us approach the throne of grace with confidence so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need because he knows that Jesus is a high priest who is able to sympathise with our weaknesses and one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are - yet was without sin. This is one of those great Scriptures that has always been a huge comfort to troubled Christians. It is part of God's living, consoling word to me. Above all else it gives us a real incentive to pray for these reasons:

    (a)Jesus knows how hard it is to be good.
    Jesus knows this better than anyone else because he is the only person to have held out against all temptations without succumbing and sinning. The person who knows the full horror of torture is the one who never gives in to it. Someone who has suffered without submitting will have more sympathy and understanding for the individual who does succumb than the person who has never experienced torture at all.

    One of the best examples I know in literature of the pain involved in resisting temptation for a long time is found in George Eliot's, 'The Mill on the Floss'. Dear little Maggie Tulliver, the miller's daughter, falls in love with Stephen Guest. He returns her love. Unfortunately he is engaged to Maggie's best friend, Lucy Deane. So, Maggie, after a terrible heart rending struggle, renounces his love. After two miserable months apart Maggie received a letter from Stephen. I will just quote a fragment of it:

'Maggie! whose pain can have been like mine? .....
Maggie, call me back to you!- call me back to life
and goodness.
Write me one word - say, "Come!"

    Eliot's description of the force and, indeed, terror of this temptation is masterly. Again I will quote a few selected phrases:

When Maggie first read this letter she felt as if her real
temptation had only just begun.
For hours Maggie felt as if her struggle had been in vain.
For hours every other thought that she strove to summon was
thrust aside by the image of Stephen waiting for the single
word that would bring him to her.

    In the end Maggie burns the letter and decides that next day she will write to Stephen one last word of parting. She wonders if she can bear it; bear it until she dies. Will she have the patience and strength? It would be a continual struggle.... In the end she falls on her knees and commits her soul to the Unseen Pity who would be with her to the end. Such is the skill of the author that it is by no means certain that next day's letter will contain that word of parting such is the force of the temptation to be united with her lover. But Maggie is delivered - for next day she and her brother drown.

    I used once to marvel that any Christian could marry an unbeliever. It was beyond my comprehension until I fell in love with an unbeliever myself. I was only delivered from temptation because the girl was so much younger than I was and I knew that I could never make her happy for any length of time. I was also aware that I could make a fool of myself. I wasn't helped by the affectionate disposition of the girl! I did realise that if we had met when we were both young I could not have resisted the temptation to woo her. But I didn't. We are not tempted more than we can bear. It did make me more sympathetic to Christians agonizing over their love for a non-Christian.

    Jesus does understand what it is like to struggle to overcome temptation. He is there to help in time of need. He will assist if we ask him because he is merciful and gracious. I have been protected where I am most vulnerable. It is a great blessing not to be given the opportunity to sin!

    (b) Jesus knows how to help because he found ways to overcome temptation
    Many examples could be given. Jesus was troubled by the knowledge of Judas' faithlessness and imminent betrayal. He must have been tempted to despair, despondency and bitterness. He overcame temptation by letting Judas go. He told him to go and do what he had to do quickly. A man I knew from my youth recently left his wife for a younger woman. They were both active Christians. It was a terrible instance of unfaithfulness. The wife felt betrayed. Unfortunately she wants him back and cannot let him go. She will experience no peace until she does. Jesus clearly shows that there is a time for letting go.

    There can be no doubt that Jesus was upset by his reception in Nazareth. He could do few miracles in his hometown because the people lacked faith in him. Jesus said that "a prophet is not without honour save in his own country." Jesus did not stay in Nazareth piqued and resentful - he moved on. It is better to move on than stay put unappreciated, soured and ineffective.

    Jesus knew how to conquer temptation. He found ways of escape. We should always pray to him in time of need for guidance and grace. If we do not then this shows:

      (1) Lack of faith. We are not convinced that Jesus will or can help us. I have often thought that if I contracted a debilitating disease like Alzheimer's or Parkinson's I would commit suicide. It is a solution that has strong appeal to me. It would, though, show lack of faith in my Father in Heaven.
      (2) Chronic presumption. We believe that we can manage on our own without God's help. It is a good thing to come to the end of your resources and wholly lean on Jesus name. When I cared for my father during the terminal stages of Parkinson's Disease I prayed, every day, long and hard for assistance.
      (3) A rebellious spirit. There are times we do not pray because we do not want the help Jesus will offer. Christians fall out and get very upset. Jesus will undoubtedly assist a reconciliation. That is what he advocates - reconciliation before the sun goes down. One or both of the injured parties prefer to nurse their grievance.

    It is wonderful to be able to pray to Jesus the Great High Priest in confidence. In Adeline Yen Mah's book, 'Falling Leaves', she writes about the troubled relationship she had with her stepmother Niang. Adeline and her brother and sister were made to walk to school. It was a long way and it would have been much easier to take the tram. The children begged their grandfather, Ye Ye, for the tram fare. When Niang found out she was very angry and forbad her stepchildren to ask Ye Ye for any more money. She said, "come to us and beg for your tram fare and we might give it to you....we will only give it if you show enough repentance." Adeline never asked her stepmother for her tram fare. For five years she walked back and forth to school whatever the weather. Her brother and sister succumbed and grovelled for the money. Adeline had no confidence in her stepmother. We have a high priest who sympathises with our weaknesses and we can approach him in the certainty that we shall receive mercy and find grace in time of need.

(D) Jesus is a submissive Great High Priest: our example of obedience

    (a) There was an ordeal Christ shrank from. Ch5v7 During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death.
    There were three aspects of death by crucifixion, that bitter cup, Jesus may have anguished over. There is no doubt of his torment because Luke records that Jesus sweat, as it were, great drops of blood as he prayed to his father in the garden about his impending ordeal. There was:
      (1) The shame of it.
      We know Jesus was not fastidious but I expect he had natural dignity and modesty. The thought of hanging naked on that cross for all to stare at may have been repugnant to him. I found my old friend, Mr Lewis, distressed when I visited him in hospital. He had just soiled his bed. The nurses had cleaned him up and changed the bed-clothes. Mr Lewis said to me, "John, I would rather die than have that happen again." There were no toilet facilities on the cross.

      Those that obey God may not be spared shame. My father sold his car to remain obedient to his calling to the Baptist Ministry. He was not being paid enough to feed four sons and run a car. He felt the shame of it. He could no longer do for his family what other fathers did for theirs. Chinese pastors imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution were unable to support their wives and children. It was a criminal offence to help the family of an enemy of the state and so an imprisoned pastor's wife was often left to beg and scavenge for food. Her situation was worse than that of her husband's - the shame of it.

      (2) The humiliation of it.
      Pilate had Jesus flogged, the soldiers platted a crown of thorns for his head and robed him in purple. Then Pilate presented him to the mob as an object of pity, "Look at the man", he said. The soldiers knocked him about and spat on him. He was mocked by the highest and the lowest in the land. He was too weak to carry his cross. He had to drink from a sponge on a reed. Why should he have to suffer so? There are those who would still humiliate obedient Christians. They are spoken of with pity, contempt and derision.

      (3) The loneliness of it
      Jesus was deserted by most of his friends and abandoned by God. It can be lonely being a Christian. This has been my experience. When as a student and later as a teacher I was on Geography Fieldtrips and Sunday came round I would invariably attend church on my own. No one from the groups that I was with accompanied me. It is not easy visiting the very sick and dying. I have always gone alone. I am an abrasive public speaker - one with whom others would rather not associate. Obedience can result in loneliness.

    (b) Jesus learned the cost of obedience through suffering C5v8 Although he was a son he learned obedience from what he suffered.
    Until Jesus submitted to his arrest, trial and execution he was happy in his Father's will. Who can doubt that there was intense satisfaction in pleasing God in heaven. Jesus may have been frustrated by the hardness of heart of many of his fellow Jews but he had a loyal band of followers with whom he had sweet fellowship. During his earthly ministry Jesus was never shamed, humiliated or alone. He bested his opponents, triumphed over adversity and received love and respect from those close to him. It was at Calvary that he experienced the full and painful cost of obedience.

    There is a cost to discipleship. Jesus warned would be followers to count it! It is excruciatingly painful to end a relationship with an unbeliever that you love. Not many manage it! It is not easy to give up a career to care for a handicapped child or an elderly invalid. Many Christians do not even consider it. Some Christians have been excluded from their churches because they have not been prepared to toe the party line. Quite recently Lord McKay, Lord Chancellor of England, was expelled from his strict Presbyterian Church because he attended the funeral of a Roman Catholic friend. A Christian might miss out on promotion if unwilling to compromise on the time spent serving his church. Others experience a sense of failure supporting what seems a lost cause - a rural fellowship with a dwindling membership. Sometimes we have to say, "No," to something we would really like to do. I would have liked to have played in the national final of the veteran's hockey tournament that my club entered. Unfortunately the final was on a Sunday and I did not feel that I could miss church.

    (c) Jesus became perfect or fully equipped to provide eternal life to all who obey because he was obedient and suffered. See v9
    Jesus knew that there was a prize to be won. We read in Heb12v2 that Jesus for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame. He is equipped to provide eternal salvation to all who obey him because he obeyed his Father. Phil2v8 He.... became obedient to death, even the death on the cross! Have we faith to believe that such suffering as we experience because of our obedience to Jesus fits us for his purpose? There is often not much merit in other forms of suffering. If I have the toothache I look to have it dealt with as soon as possible. However, we are equipped to effectively serve Jesus as we suffer hardship for his sake.

    Joseph was groomed by God to save his people only because he was obedient in Potiphar's house and resisted the advances of his lustful wife. He said, "No," and was put in prison. The Lord was with him in prison and it was a crucial step to becoming Prime Minister in Egypt. It was only because the beautiful Esther was obedient to her godly father by adoption, Mordecai, and willing to put herself in danger, that she was used by God to spare the Jews from annihilation. Nehemiah took a risk and in obedience to the promptings of his conscience told the Persian King that he grieved because the walls of Jerusalem were in disrepair. His courage before the king equipped him in more ways than one for the work God wanted him to do in Jerusalem.

    It is ever thus - there is no gain without pain.

    ANY COMMENTS FOR JOHN REED: E-mail jfmreed@talktalk.net