Grace in Time of Need (Hebrews 4:14-16)
Topic: One Lord: So Great a Salvation Passage: Hebrews 4:14–16
I. Sympathy and Empathy
From what I can tell, there has come to be some confusion when it comes to the words sympathy and empathy. Both are transliterated Greek words. That means the Greek word just comes over into English, with Greek letters simply being replaced by English letters. Empathy is most certainly the newer word. It's current usage only goes back to the late 1800's. Neither the modern nor the ancient Greek word corresponds to our modern English word, which means the ability to understand another person's experience or feelings from their perspective.
In contrast, sympathy literally means to 'feel with' a person who is suffering. It is an ancient Greek word, and it's meaning has not changed all that much over the centuries. I would suggest this morning that true sympathizing always involves some degree of empathizing; that is, it is an understanding of the suffering of another, understanding to whatever degree, that inspires us to suffer or feel with them.
These ideas are not only interesting and important, but they are also present in our main passage this morning. If you have not already done so, please turn with me to Hebrews chapter 4. I pray that you've been encouraged as we've worked through this book in our reading plan.
II. The Passage: “He Has Spoken to Us by His Son” (4:14-16)
Let's look together at verses 14-16 of Hebrews chapter 4. We read here that...
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
So to really understand the encouragement here, the first thing we need to recognize is how this ancient writer has provided his readers with two Jesus-inspired 'calls to action'. In essence, he is saying, “Since this is true about Jesus, you should do this.” These 'calls to action' are both introduced by the phrase “let us”, which we find at the end of v. 14 and the beginning of v. 16.
So the first 'call to action' is found in v. 14. It's based on the fact that Jesus is our incomparably great priest, and the related application here has to do with one's “confession”. The second 'call to action' is found in verse 16. It's based on the fact that (v. 15) Jesus is our incomparably gracious priest, and the related application this time has to do with one's “confidence”.
So that's the basic 'road map' to understand this passage. Why don't we follow this guidance and take a closer look at these two, God-breathed truths, AND two, God-breathed commands.
1. Our Incomparably Great Priest (v. 14)
So if we go back to verse 14, we see that the author here has presented Jesus as our “great high priest”. The title “high priest” has already been applied to Jesus in the book of Hebrews, first in 2:17, then again in 3:1. But what should ask, what kind of high priest is Jesus? He's one who (according to chapter 4, v. 14), remarkably, “has passed through the heavens”, one who is none other than “the Son of God”. Later, the writer will add to this description. Listen to 7:26:
For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.
Unlike the long line of high priests who served at both the Tent of Meeting and the Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus is both morally perfect and fully divine. As we read in Hebrews 8:1...
...we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven...
Now this is where the 'call to action' comes in. Verse 1: Since then we have [this kind of] high priest... let us hold fast our confession. What does that mean? It means we shouldn't give up; that we shouldn't give in. It means pressing on in faith, not (10:39) 'shrinking back'. As chapter 11 describes, this is the kind of enduring faith exemplified by so many of the men and women described in the OT. “Hold[ing] fast our confession” means (12:1) “run[ning] with endurance the race that is set before us”. And it's a confession centered on Jesus. That's why in 3:1 he's called “the apostle and high priest of our confession”.
So if, as we talked about last time, the original readers of this book were being tempted, were being pressured, to return to a Jesus-less Judaism, to Levitical priests, and animals sacrifices, and all the rituals of the Jewish temple, the writer reminds them that no one and nothing can compare to Jesus. He is our “great high priest” and there is no one greater; the One who's priestly work is radically better than anything that came before, and anything the world could ever offer.
Though the flood waters of false ideas and obsolete practices were raging against them, pressing them to let go of their faith in Christ, the writer presses back: “let us hold fast our confession”.
2. Our Incomparably Gracious Priest (vs. 15-16)
But look at how the author actually expands our vision in verses 15-16. Not only is Jesus our incomparably great priest, he's also our incomparably gracious priest. Verse 16 contains our second 'call to action'. Do you see it there? Yes, “let us hold fast our confession”. But also...
Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Now think first about this idea of drawing near. Interestingly, the Hebrew equivalent to this word appears 280 times in the Old Testament. But 102 of those instances appear in one book: Leviticus. Not only is this word applied to the worshiper who is bringing his offering, but also to the priest, who is making that offering before God.
Also keep in mind that the Ark of the Covenant, which was at the very center of Tent and Temple worship, was partly meant to represent God's throne. It was there, in the 'most holy place', that God was “enthroned upon the cherubim” (I Samuel 4; II Kings 19), where the presence of God was said to be manifested in a very special way; the God of Israel dwelling among his people.
So here, with his Hebrew readers, the writer is using all this OT language about worship and offerings and priests and God's presence to urge them to come to God. Why are they to come? To “receive mercy and find grace”; “mercy” and “grace to help”. When? “...In time of need.”
But here's where things get really, really amazing. If we ask, “What need does the author have in mind?”, we have to move back to the previous verse to find an answer. When he talks about “in time of need”, does he mean in times of lack, or in times of persecution, or in times of sickness, or in times of unemployment, or in times of confusion? Maybe he's speaking in general terms here in order to say, 'in any time of need'. But he isn't, not in light of verse 15.
Look at how verse 15 introduces the idea of our need. The word the author uses in verse 15 to point to our needy condition is the word “weaknesses”. But the context helps us get even more specific. The focus here is on weakness in the face of temptation. Wonderfully, Jesus, though he was “tempted as we are”, he was and is “without sin”.
So the “time of need” mentioned at the end of verse 16 is, based on the context, a time when what we desperately need is “mercy”' as those who have given in to temptation. It's a time when we desperately need “grace to help” as those who give in to temptation, but haven't given up in terms of our confession. This struggle if left unchecked can certainly lead to a crisis of faith that leads to not holding fast to our confession. That explains the word “for” at the beginning of v. 15.
But please don't miss the Jesus-inspired aspect of this 'call to action'. Why is it that we can come with confidence before God's throne of grace? Is it because Jesus is an incomparably great priest, holy in every way? Yes, but that's not the emphasis here. Is it because Jesus offered the incomparable, unblemished sacrifice of himself? Yes, but again, that's not the emphasis here. The emphasis in this passage, specifically in v. 15 is the sympathy of Jesus for struggling sinners. Do you hear that? The writer of Hebrews calls his readers, and God is calling us, to “draw near” with “confidence” because of the sympathy of Jesus for struggling sinners.
Do you understand why their struggles with sin might keep them far from experiencing anything even remotely resembling “confidence” before God... a holy God? We can't miss what the author told us about God in the verse just before this morning's passage. Hebrews 4:13...
And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
But again, the author is expanding our vision of Jesus here. He is most certainly great... exalted... holy... divine. But he is also gracious... staggeringly gracious. And he's gracious because he knows what it means to suffer the onslaught of temptation. He knows your struggle. As the writer explained in 2:18... For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
Therefore, we can come with confidence as struggling sinners... confidence that we will find mercy instead of condemnation, grace instead of wrath, divine help instead of what we ultimately deserve: divine judgment.
III. Called to Action
So I have to ask you (as I've asked myself): do you personally hear these 'calls to action'? Is God, through his Holy Spirit, stirring you even now? Speaking of the Holy Spirit, is this call inspired by a clear vision of Jesus, as the Spirit gives you eyes of faith to see him in truth, according to God's word? If He is, then it's important we take a few minutes to unpack these two 'calls to action', so that we might respond wisely... and faithfully.
First, God may be convicting some of you about the reality of 'mission creep' when it comes to pursuing Jesus. You are holding fast your confession, but your grip has been loosened by the cares of this life and/or the enticements of this world. Others of you, in every practical sense, have or are about to let go of your confession. You are now living for yourself, for the world, for something other than Jesus, while he's been shoved into a box somewhere deep inside you, a box labeled “tradition” or “ helpful concepts” or “things to do when life slows down/gets easier”.
But as God's word has reminded us this morning, there is nothing, there is no one, greater than Jesus. Keep in mind, every step away from Jesus is a step toward some other savior; toward the many idols that offer, but cannot deliver, spiritual significance and satisfaction. This morning, God is calling you to lay hold of once again or tighten your grip on Jesus, and only Jesus.
But second, even when we are holding fast to Jesus as the King of our confession, how easy it is to waver in our confidence; specifically confidence or assurance that God always welcomes struggling sinners like us. Even when we know the specifics of grace, we can slip into human-centered estimations of how much is too much when it comes to sin. “Surely God is tired of me”, we might lament. “Surely I've confessed too many times and struggled far too long.” We project our limitations, our patience, or the disappointments and frustrations of our critics onto God.
But God has spoken to us this morning, and reassures us that we are always welcome. Why? Because our high priest is Jesus. Now remember, God does not begrudgingly welcome us because somehow he has to. He's the One who lovingly gave us Jesus. Yes, we are called to draw near to a throne, the most exalted of all thrones; the throne of the most exalted King. But how is it described in verse 16? As the “throne of grace”.
And Jesus doesn't welcome us begrudgingly or even indifferently, as if he's simply abiding by the Father's 'redemption protocols'. No, as we see in v. 15, he sympathizes. He feels. He is full of compassion of struggling sinners. As the 17th cent. writer pastor/writer Matthew Henry put it...
Though he is so great, and so far above us, yet he is very kind, and tenderly concerned for us. He is touched with the feeling of our infirmities in such a manner as none else can be; for he was himself tried with all the afflictions and troubles that are incident to our nature in its fallen state: and this not only that he might be able to satisfy for us, but to sympathize with us.
Will that knowledge affect how you draw near? Will it affect how often you draw near? It should. Will it affect how you leave the presence of God after repenting, confessing, yielding, and trusting? After you “receive mercy and find grace to help”? It should. This writer will pick up these themes again in chapter 10 when he remind us that “since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus... since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith... Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” Will you come even now, brothers and sisters? Friends? Yes, come with rich assurance, then leave with an abiding joy... the joy of one who has been welcomed; one who has been loved; one who has been forgiven.
More in Our Bible Reading Plan (2021-2022)
October 2, 2022Visions of Jesus (Revelation 19:9-10)
September 25, 2022Why Justice is Worth Singing About (Revelation 15)
September 18, 2022How to Conquer the Dragon (Revelation 12:11)