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Last week, I was straight up with you about how enticing temptation can be, about how once we give into it how intoxicating sin can be; about how destructive patterns of sin always lead to negative consequences. And although we ended by focusing on getting help from Jesus, I just had a feeling as you walked out that some, perhaps many of you, were feeling discouraged, perhaps doubting your faith, and wondering if you are really a Christian at all. In that case, you have something in common with the people to whom the letter titled Hebrews was written.
And so, I decided to turn to Hebrews chapter 4 to form the basis of a message of God’s mercy and grace, so that we can draw near to the Communion table in confidence we are accepted and thereby offer God the worship He deserves.
So then, since we have a great High Priest who has entered heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we believe. This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for He faced all of the same temptations we do, yet He did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive His mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. (Hebrews 4:14-16).
Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were being tempted.
They were not just being tempted to sin in the ways that are familiar with us; breaking one of the 10 commandments, refusing to forgive another, outbursts of jealousy or anger, envy or lust; though they may have been guilty of any or all of these. No, the sin they were being tempted to commit was far more dangerous to their souls than any of those. Because they were being tempted to give up on faith in Christ altogether. They were no longer sure they wanted to sing.
‘Why would they do that,’ you ask? And the answer is they were experiencing some sort of persecution for their faith.
In his commentary, Ray Stedman, writes, (pages 12-13)
They had professed Christ for some time (5:12) and had once shown great evidences of sturdy faith (10:32-34). But when the letter was written they had reached a state of discouragement and spiritual lethargy. Some had given up meeting with other believers [for worship] (10:25); many found increasing opposition to their faith in Jesus among their Jewish families and friends, while they also faced sharpening hostility from gentile authorities and citizens. 1
George Guthrie adds, (page 22)
According to 10:32-34, these believers had faced and persevered in a time of serious persecution in the past. (Although) they had yet to suffer martyrdom for the faith (12:4), they were now facing a more severe time of trial (11:35-12:3; 12:7; 13:3; 12-13) in which some of their numbers were defecting. 2
Although most of us have never experienced persecution as they had and were, if you put yourself in their place, it’s not hard to imagine becoming discouraged with the faith. ‘Hey, I am trying to follow the Lord the best I can, so why do these bad things continue to happen to me? Where is the Lord when I need him most? He must not be with me, or He must not love me, because if He did, these things wouldn’t be happening! So why should I continue to knock myself out for a God who won’t protect me, or come to my aid, or answer my prayers the way I wish?’
And the practical result was that their worship attendance began to decline and some had given it up altogether.
As soon as you miss a couple of worship services, the big three tempters (the world, the flesh, and the devil) will start to work you over. ‘Isn’t it nice to have those couple extra hours in the week to sleep in, to watch television, to catch up on the news to, to (you fill in the blank). Wasn’t that nice staying home and having that extra cup of coffee? Don’t you feel better now that you got your grocery shopping out of the way?’ And you miss another and another and before you know it, just like that, you’re a casualty of the big three.
And when you are a casualty of the big three, guess what; your ability to resist temptation is greatly diminished. You begin to notice little things. You are surprised to hear a swear word pop out of your mouth and you think, ‘I wonder where that came from?’ And then another, and another and before you know it, you are a bonafide cusser. Your thought life begins to suffer degradation. You are surprised when you suddenly go off on your six-year-old child. You notice you lose your temper more often. And before you know your spiritual life or lack thereof, begins to snowball down the slippery slope toward carnality.
This writer knows that’s the fate that awaits his readers and why at the conclusion of this entire section of Hebrews the author writes, “Let us not neglect meeting together as some are doing, but encourage one another more and more (to worship) as the day of Christ’s return nears” (Hebrews 10:25).
But here at the beginning of this section, he encourages them to hang in there, to press on, to stay the course with the Christian faith. He gives them, and us, two things we must do: “Hold fast” and “draw near” (NASB).
We are to hold fast to what we believe about who God is for us in Jesus.
Since it is apparent this author is addressing people who were weaned on Judaism before becoming believers in Jesus, he turns throughout this letter to OT images: “We have a great High Priest” (Hebrews 4:14).
He is reminding them that once a year, on the Day of Atonement the High Priest would pass through the curtain in the Temple that symbolically separated man from God to make a sacrifice for sins on behalf of all the people. Later in this letter he will tell them that act was a theological skit; a shadow of the reality that was to come
So Christ has now become the High Priest over all the good things that have come. He has entered that greater, more perfect Tabernacle in heaven, which was not made by human hands and is not part of this created world. With His own blood—not the blood of goats and calves—He entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever. Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. (Hebrews 9:11-14)
Did you catch that? He said, “a perfect sacrifice for our sins.” “And now I’ve found the greatest love of all is mine, since You laid down your life, the perfect sacrifice.” (From the song, Majesty)
He is the perfect sacrifice because of His divinity, according to Guthrie, (175) the “major theme of the book’s first 2 chapters” 3 which enabled the Son of God to never sin. We are incapable of offering a sacrifice for sin because, as humans, we sin! But because Jesus was God He never sinned, and God the Father accepted His perfect sacrifice on our behalf. And He also accepts us.
Author Larry Reagan writes, “When I was a small boy, I felt like an ugly duckling. I was a good student and athlete, but I had no confidence at all with girls. One day I was listening to my mother as she talked on the phone. She said, “My fifth boy, Larry, looks just like Buck Owens.” I was so excited about her comment that I went into the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror noting I did kind of favor Buck Owens, a famous country music star of the time. That statement totally changed my attitude. I went to school the next day with a spring in my step and my head up high. I knew there would be many nice looking girls who would be interested in me because I looked like a celebrity. About one month later, I was listening to another conversation between my mother and one of her friends on the telephone. She said, “Buck Owens is the ugliest man I’ve ever seen.” My heart sank, and I went to the bathroom again to look in the mirror. I thought, ‘Wow! If your own mother thinks you’re ugly, then you’re ugly!’” 4
When we look into the mirror of God’s Word, our hearts should sink. There we are told that no matter how good we may look on the outside, God sees all the ugliness on the inside. Wow! If our Creator thinks we’re ugly, then we’re ugly!
But thanks be to God that we don’t have to stay that way. Through Christ Jesus, the ‘ugliness’ of our sin can be washed away, and we can be made new and beautiful (2 Corinthians 5:17). And if the Creator thinks we’re beautiful, then we’re beautiful!
Hold fast; continue looking to Jesus who was God and in the next verse the writer wants us to know He was also a man.
As a man this writer wants us to know, in verse 15, He can sympathize with us. Again, according to Guthrie, (176) the word ‘sympathize’ here “connotes being compassionate to the point of helping.” 5
When we think of going to someone for help, we want someone who understands us, who knows what it’s like to be us. Jesus was one of us; He feels our pain, identifies with us, and knows our realities of what it means to be tempted. He’s a God who sympathizes with our weaknesses.
Jesus was both God and man; therefore He is uniquely qualified to help us in our weakness.
I was reading about a guy who recently came to believe in Jesus who was a devout Buddhist. He had visited the temple of 10,000 Buddhas. While he was there, he accidentally knocked over one of the Buddhas, and it fell to the ground, and he quickly knelt down to pick it up. And in that act of picking it up, he thought. ‘Wait a minute, what kind of god is this that I have to pick him up? I don’t want to worship a god that I have to pick up when he’s down. I want to worship a God who picks me up when I’m down.’
We want a God who can pick us up when we are down; who’s willing to stoop low and help. This is who the God of Christianity is, the God who gives grace to help in time of need. The true and living God is a God who picks us up after we’ve fallen dusts us off and encourages us to begin again!
There is, therefore, no reason to fear, we can “draw near” to God in full assurance that He accepts us as we are and is always willing to supply the grace and mercy we need.
John Ortberg tells the story of how he and his wife once traded in their old Volkswagen Super Beetle for their first piece of new furniture: a mauve sofa. It actually looked like Pepto-Bismol, but mauve sounded more chic. The man at the furniture store warned them not to get it when he found out they had small children. “You don’t want a mauve sofa, get something the color of dirt.” But with the naive optimism of young parenthood they said, “We know how to handle our children; give us the mauve sofa.”
From that moment on everyone knew the number one rule in the house. Don’t sit on the mauve sofa, don’t touch the mauve sofa. Don’t play around the mauve sofa; don’t eat on it, or even breathe on it. It was like the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden. “On every other chair in the house you may freely sit, but the mauve sofa, you may not sit, for in the day you sit thereupon, you shall surely die.”
Then came the Fall. One day there appeared on the mauve sofa a stain; a red stain, a red jelly stain. So John’s wife, who had chosen the mauve sofa and adored it, lined up their three kids in front of it: Laura 4, Mallory 2 ½, and Johnny, 6 mos. “Do you see that, children?” she asked. “That’s a stain. A red stain. A red jelly stain. The man at the sofa store says it is not coming out. Not forever; do you know how long forever is children? That’s how long we’re going to stand here until one of you tells me who put the stain on the mauve sofa.”
Mallory was the first to break; with trembling lips, she said: “Laura did it.” Laura passionately denied it. Then there was silence, for the longest time; no one said a word. John Ortberg knew they wouldn’t, for they had never seen their mother so upset. He knew they wouldn’t because they knew that if they did they would spend eternity in the time-out chair. He knew they wouldn’t because he was the one who put the red jelly stain on the sofa, and he wasn’t saying anything! 6
The truth is, of course, that we have all stained the sofa. We are, all of us, guilty of breaking God’s moral law. But when we draw near to God we discover, to our great delight, mercy and grace.
In, John Paul the Great, author Peggy Noonan describes a friend who asked the question, “How do you find God?” She replied: Finding God is not hard, because He wants to be found. But keeping God can be hard. He wants to be kept, of course, but for most of us, finding him and keeping Him is the difference between falling in love and staying in love. The latter involves a decision that is held to.
Here is a path to finding Him and keeping Him.
One: Get yourself in trouble. Let life make you miserable. This shouldn’t be hard. So get low, gnash your teeth, cry aloud, rend your garments, refuse to get out of bed. Be in crisis. Trouble is good. For most of us, the world with all its dazzlement has to turn pretty flat and pretty dry before we want God. But God seems to turn it flat just at the moment when he knows we’re ready. So embrace your ill fortune as a blessing. (If you haven’t been blessed with a crisis, I’m not sure what to tell you beyond pray for one. You may have to just hang around enjoying the dazzlements until he’s ready to lower the boom. But he will, in his time and not yours, if that’s the only way he can get your attention. Because not only are you looking for Him, but He’s been looking for you.)
Two: Once you’re so low you’re actually on your knees, address the God whose existence you doubt. Ask for His help. Ask for His forgiveness. Ask for His mercy. Ask to know Him. Use the image of a throne. Either God is on the throne of your life, or you are. You don’t belong on it. He’s the king. You’re the servant. He’s the Father. You’re his child. Let him sit there. Every time you, in your pride and stupidity, try to claw your way back into control, remember the throne, and offer the seat to the gentleman who is older and wiser than you.
Three: Begin to pray regularly. A priest to whom I’d gone once for guidance told me that prayer is just conversation with your Father in heaven, and like any good conversation with an intimate, it should be honest, trusting, uncensored. Tell him anything—what kind of day you had, a triumph, a temptation, something that’s nagging at you. Ask for His blessing for an endeavor. Give thanks. Share a frustration.
Four: Get yourself some friends who will support you and help you. In other words, go to church. Stick with it no matter what. Where else can you go to worship the One who forgives and accepts you? 7
1 Stedman, Ray. Hebrews. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series.
[Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, © 1992]. Pages 12-13.
2 Guthrie, George. The NIV Application Commentary; Hebrews.
[Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, © 1998]. Page 22.
3 Ibid. Page 175
5 Guthrie, page 176.
6 Ortberg, John. The Life You’ve Always Wanted. [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, © 1997]
7 Noonan, Peggy. John Paul the Great [London: Penguin, © 2006) p. 82-85.