The context for our lesson today provides important concepts that give urgency to the admonitions and propositions of our text.
I. Discussion of context
A. Chapter 3:18, 19 – The writer shows that he is using unbelief and disobedience as synonyms. The Israelites’ disobedience was a manifestation of unbelief, an absence of faith in God’s provision. They did not embrace the reality that God would accomplish what he had promised. Their lack of obedience, faith, cut them off from the land that God has promised to Abraham and his descendants and consequently from the eternal redemption contained in the gospel.
B. 4:1, 2 – Even now a promise of entering rest remains for us; it is the culmination of all the promises in the gospel of Christ. Their promise of a land contained the gospel implicitly because God’s provision for them was in pursuit of fulfilling the covenant with Abraham, the man of faith. Disobedience to the command, therefore, showed an evil heart of unbelief. Conversely, Abraham (who already had faith) obeyed the command to offer Isaac because he reasoned from faith (cf. Hebrews 11:17-19.) We have the gospel in its final manifestation both by way of historical accomplishment and revelation of meaning. If by their disobedience they did not enter the rest God had provided for them, how much greater is our sin in disobedience to the gospel.
C. 4:3-10 – Entering the rest is a matter of belief and nothing else. “We who have believed enter that rest.” God’s rest is the enjoyment he derives from viewing the goodness of a covenanted action brought to completion. The first was creation; his declaration of its goodness and his rest as a result becomes a paradigm for the completion of successive stages of his decrees. The “rest” of entering the land was refused by disobedience; but when Joshua successfully navigated the entrance, we learn that there is still a rest. One element of this rest is the perfect obedience of Christ so that “whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” (10) To enter God’s rest is to experience the full joy of the successful completion of this aspect of the decree (covenant) of redemption. Christ has died, Christ is risen, nothing remains to be done by way of performance of types (that is, continuation of any part of the ceremonial law), or attaining of merit. The reward promised in obedience to the law has been fully met by Christ alone. Because of that, pay careful attention to know the object of your trust (4:1 – “while the promise stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it.” ) He does not say, Lest some of you who have faith should lose it,” but that “you should seem to have failed to reach it.” A falling away means that one never attained to true faith. Ascertaining that we see and feel the certainty of Christ’s completed work, that the operation of mercy and grace completely satisfies us, that our deceitful hearts do not harbor any idea of acceptance for our own work, our own merit, seems, from the Bible’s presentation, to be one of the most necessary aspects of meditation and examination.
D. 4:11 ff – So how do we conduct this examination? We strive to determine that we do not share in the disobedience shown by
E. 4:14 – Having admonished his readers to strive to enter that rest, he now gives another admonition. “Let us hold fast our confession.” Those to whom he wrote had confessed their faith in Christ as Messiah, as the one in whom all of God’s promises are “yea” and “amen.” (2 Corinthians 1:18-20). They had affirmed their belief in and dependence on Christ. Hold fast this confession, for, in fact, he is the High Priest who has gone, not just into the holy of holies in the tabernacle, but through the heavens into the dwelling place of God. He is Jesus, the Son of God, the one uniquely qualified to bring us to God.
II. 4:15 – 5:6 – For the perfection of the high priestly work, Jesus must be like us and like the other high priests in some ways. At the same time, he must be different from us and the other high priests in some ways. This is because his work operates in two directions, to man on the one hand, and to God on the other (“”to act on behalf of men in relation to God.” 5:1)
A. How he is like us
1. The writer already has established that he is of our nature, that is, of our race, (2:11 – He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one nature.”) Jesus could not minister to our need and accomplish our covenantal obligation to God were he not of our nature, the man Christ Jesus.
2. He also had a covenant of necessary trial in order to manifest a mature obedience. A collateral feature of this testing is that he has undergone in his human nature the powerful attack of Satan to deceive and allure one away from the love of God and undiluted devotion to the glory of God (“in every respect has been tempted a we are.”). The path of obedience he has trod and the temptation to detour to avoid the hard places he has felt. Because he saw the glory of God more clearly, he also felt the rage and cunning of Satan more intensely.
3. Like other high priests, he must be called to this position in accordance with the will and purpose of God. (5:4). So Christ, like Aaron, did not take the position upon himself, but was “appointed” by his Father.
4. Like the high priest, he has the capacity to “deal gently with the ignorant and wayward,” (5:2, compare with 4:15 “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses”). The consummate High Priest, however, the Lord Jesus Christ, sympathizes from a significantly different basis and with a more comprehensive and absolute ability to console. What are the necessary differences?
B. How he is different? If he were not different, then his ministry would not result in a fulfillment of that which is typified in the priests and the sacrifices. They would go on year after year in witness to the fact that none of them is effectual for the true forgiveness of sins. Christ’s uniqueness and distinctly fitting qualification, both for God and man, make his sacrifice effectual in satisfying man’s need and God’s justice, rendering the entire transaction one of infinite mercy and grace.
1. “Yet without sin” (4:15) Christ’s temptation did not culminate in sin but in perfect righteousness. The writer tells us the result of this in verse 16.
Since this sacrifice is in the hands of a high priest that goes straight into the presence of God with his own blood, the effect on sinners for whom the sacrifice is made is the establishing of a legitimate confidence to draw near. If we clearly and accurately perceive what has transpired, we go to God unhesitatingly, not for our own righteousness and sacrifice, but for his.
Without the intercession of one whose appeal is based on an act of justice in himself, we could not look for any execution of mercy for us. But since another has taken to himself the perfection of righteousness in honoring the justice of God, we may find both mercy and grace precisely at the point of our need. Compare this to 1 John 1:5-10 that shows it is by the blood of Christ that divine holiness is honored (“God is light”) and God, consistently with his justice and in faithfulness to the righteously consummated work of reconciliation, forgives our sins and cleanses us from all unrighteousness.
2. He not only is son of man, fully sympathetic with the eternal interests of his own race in that respect, but he is Son of God, fully conscious of the offended justice and a full participant in the holy, righteous anger of God, but also equal to the otherwise impossible necessity of giving in his person, by his obedience, an honor equal to the honor of the offended deity. “A great high priest, . . . Jesus the Son of God . . . You are my Son, today I have begotten you” [see lesson on chapter 1 for discussion of this appellation] 4:14, 5:5.
3. His offers a sacrifice not for his own sins first, as did the Aaronic high priest, but himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the people. [See 7:27]
4. His priesthood in not of lineal descent according to the flesh, but by special appointment in the likeness of the priesthood of Melchizedek. The writer deals more largely with this in chapter 7.
III. The Major Takeaway – Today I heard Krista Tippett, of “On Being” fame, interview four religious leaders: The Dali Lama, a Jewish Rabbi, an Islamic Imam, and an Anglican bishop. The interview focused largely on how each of these “religions” moves toward interpreting life in terms of human happiness, through guiding its adherents in meditation, dealing with sorrow, and setting forth objects of hope. Obviously, she has no intention of setting forth any of these options as absolute truth, but the intent to avoid that kind of claim kept the discussion about mere external effects of religion in common human frailty. So is the faith that does not penetrate to the utter necessity of salvation on account of sin and the unique qualifications of Christ to render that salvation effectual to the one that believes in him. Focus on temporal safety, health, well-being, security, and comfort that hides one’s gaze from the covenantal purpose of God in salvation can lead to a false sense of faith where none exists in truth. That man’s problem is sin and that the only solution is the uniquely-qualified Jesus must constitute the burden of our proclamation and our understanding of faith. To disregard this is to ignore the biblical witness, our eternal safety, and the moral perfections of God.