The more I study it, the more I love it. The Book of Hebrews appears to be addressed to Jewish Christians. It is written in a way that seems strange to our modern ears – the language is steeped in the Old Testament. It deals with this vital question: How can you approach God?
The author’s answer is: through Jesus, our Great High Priest. The high priesthood of Jesus is the pinnacle of the letter. It is the only New Testament document that expressly calls Jesus a Priest. The priestly work of Jesus is hinted at elsewhere, for example, the ‘high priestly’ prayer of Jesus (John 17) and John’s description of Jesus as advocate with the Father (1 John 2:1). But it is here in the book of Hebrews that the theme is taken up and expounded.
1. Approach God knowing he is loving and compassionate
God’s love for humanity has always been great. ‘Your compassion is great, O Lord’ (v.156). The psalmist knew God’s love: ‘Preserve my life, O Lord, according to your love’ (v.159). He knew God was a deliverer (v.153). He speaks of redemption (v.154) and salvation (v.155).
He knew God would deliver, redeem and save, and it was because of this that he knew he could approach God with confidence. What he did not know was howGod would save him.
As we read the whole Old Testament, including this psalm, through the lens of the New Testament, we can see that what the psalmist described is made possible through the high priesthood of Jesus.
Lord, thank you for your great love and compassion. Thank you that through Jesus you have made it possible for me to be delivered, redeemed and saved.
2. Approach God through Jesus, the Great High Priest
It is quite astonishing that you and I can approach the Creator of the universe with confidence and boldness. Of course, we must be respectful but we do not need to be timid or fearful. How is this possible?
As the writer introduces the central theme of his letter, the high priesthood of Jesus, he makes the point that the main purpose of his letter is to encourage them to ‘hold firmly to the faith we profess’ (4:14). Learning more about who Jesus is enables you to stand firm in your faith through the storms and temptations of life.
Jesus is unique. The Great High Priest is both ‘the Son of God’ (v.14) and fully human. He is able to sympathise with our weaknesses and he ‘has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin’ (v.15).
Jesus had all the same feelings you have. There were times when he felt like doing the wrong thing, but always chose to do the right thing. As you speak to him in prayer you can know that he knows how you are feeling.
There were three necessary qualifications for the priesthood:
Humanity (‘selected from among human beings’, Hebrews 5:1)
Compassion (‘able to deal gently’, v.2)
Divine appointment (‘called by God’, v.4)
In all these ways, Jesus exactly fits the role.
But Jesus belonged to the tribe of Judah, not Levi, and therefore he lacked qualification for the normal priesthood, which was made up of descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron (who was a Levite). Thus the writer identifies him with a new order of priests, identified with the Old Testament character Melchizedek, who was a priest of ‘God most High’ and ministered to Abraham (Genesis 14:18–20).
The book of Hebrews shows how in every way the priesthood of Melchizedek was superior to that of Aaron (see Hebrews 7). Because Jesus’ priesthood is like Melchizedek, it is eternal (5:6). It is therefore effective for all time. It affects those who lived before Jesus, as well as everyone who lives after him.
Jesus is our representative (v.1). He is both the model priest and far superior to any other priest.
Jesus gained experience through the things he suffered (v.9). God uses everything in your path, however painful, for you to gain experience. You can learn to use your pain for someone else’s gain.
Joyce Meyer writes that God ‘will use everything in our past. No matter how painful it was. He considers it experience… I am a specialist in overcoming shame, guilt, poor self-image, lack of confidence, fear, anger, bitterness, self-pity, etc… [Be] positive about your past and your pain, and realise that it can all be used for good in God’s kingdom.’
Like us, Jesus gained experience through what he suffered. However, unlike us, he is without sin. Therefore, he did not need to offer sacrifices for his own sins. He is ‘the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him’ (v.9).
We can ‘approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need’ (v.16). As you ask for forgiveness for the past – you can know that you will receive ‘mercy’. As you ask for help for the future you can know that you will receive ‘grace to help’ you in whatever your needs are and whatever difficulties you are facing at the moment.
The image of the throne is a way of emphasising the majesty and glory of the one who sits on it – God. Yet through Jesus you can approach God in prayer and worship no matter how you are feeling or what you have done.
Lord Jesus Christ, my Great High Priest, thank you that you made it possible for me to approach the throne of grace with confidence. Thank you that today I can receive mercy and find grace to help me in my time of need.
3. Approach the throne of grace with confidence
What an amazing thing to be told that we can approach the heavenly throne at all – let alone ‘with confidence’ (Hebrews 4:16)! The prophet Ezekiel (whose name means ‘God is strong’) caught a glimpse of this throne: ‘There was something that looked like a throne, sky-blue like a sapphire, with a humanlike figure towering above the throne… from the waist up he looked like burnished bronze and from the waist down like a blazing fire. Brightness everywhere!… It turned out to be the Glory of God! When I saw all this, I fell to my knees, my face to the ground. Then I heard a voice’ (Ezekiel 1:26–28, MSG).
Ezekiel was called by God (in 593 BC) at the age of 30 (v.1). He was a priest (v.3). He was a Jewish exile in Babylonia (whereas Jeremiah was in Jerusalem). He was taken captive with the young king Jehoiachin in 597 BC (2 Kings 24:8–17). Like Jeremiah he called the people to repentance and foretold the eventual rebuilding of Jerusalem.
Ezekiel’s call begins with a vision of God. In the vision he sees four strange creatures (Ezekiel 1:10). Each one is a witness to part of the character of God.
The first has the face of a human being, the second a lion, representing strength and courage, the third an ox, representing fertility, and the fourth an eagle, representing speed. Together they point to the awesome majesty and greatness of God (v.10).
In this vision, Ezekiel catches a glimpse of a man – who we now know was Jesus (Revelation 4:1–10).
Ezekiel’s response to the vision of the throne of grace is to fall flat on his face (Ezekiel 1:28). This was not an unusual response to the presence of God (see, for example, Revelation 4:10).
God speaks to him (Ezekiel 2:1). The Holy Spirit enters Ezekiel (v.2). He is given the words of God to devour (3:1): ‘So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth’ (v.3b). He is told to go and speak the message that God has given.
He is to face great opposition but is told, ‘Do not be afraid of them or terrified by them’ (v.9). It is not his responsibility ‘whether they listen or fail to listen’ (v.11b). Your responsibility, like Ezekiel, is simply to speak the message that God gives you.
You are not responsible for the reaction of others (vv.18–21) but you will be held accountable for whether or not you obey God and speak the words that God has given you (vv.18,20). Sometimes you don’t know what the outcome will be in a certain situation, but you can trust and obey God no matter what.
Later on, the glory of the Lord appears to Ezekiel again and he falls face down (v.23). Again, the Spirit enters him (v.24). God promises, ‘When I speak to you, I will open your mouth and you shall say to them, “This is what the Sovereign Lord says”’ (v.27).
Lord, thank you for this immense privilege: that through your sacrifice, as the Great High Priest, I can approach the throne of grace with confidence today.
Hebrews 4:16 MSG
‘So let’s walk right up to God and get what our Father in Heaven is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help.’