God’s Promised Rest, 1-13
4:1 Therefore we must be wary that, while the promise of entering his rest remains open, none of you may seem to have come short of it.
Our writer, Guthrie notes, argues that even Joshua was unable to lead his people into true and lasting rest:
‘Since Moses was unable to lead the Israelites into Canaan, the writer reflects on the position of Joshua, who did lead them in. But he shows that even Joshua did not secure for his people true rest. Joshua failed for the same reason as Moses, that is, through the people’s unbelief. This leads the writer to exhort his readers to seek that superior rest, which he goes on to imply is found in Christ.’
We must be wary – This verse begins, in the original, with the expression, ‘Let us fear, therefore…’.
Guthrie notes that
‘The position of the verb gives it special emphasis. It would be salutary for Christians seriously to consider the failure of the Israelites and their incurring the displeasure of God, and to fear lest a similar calamity should befall members of the new community, the spiritual Israel.’ (Guthrie)
According to Barclay, the writer is using the word rest (katapausis) in three different senses:
(i) he is using it as we would use the peace of God…
(ii) he is using it, as he used it in Heb 3:12, to mean The Promised Land…
(iii) he is using it of the rest of God after the sixth day of creation, when all God’s work was completed.
‘This way of using a word in two or three different ways, of teasing at it until the last drop of meaning was extracted from it, was typical of cultured, academic thought in the days when the writer to the Hebrews wrote his letter.’
‘Rest’ originally signified settlement in the Promised Land. It meant rest from pilgrimage, from hardship, and from conflict. But in Psa 95, echoed here, it refers to a future rest for the people of God. ‘In Hebrews the promise of rest is sharply focused on the unending festivity and praise of a Sabbath celebration at the consummation of history.’ (Lane) The former is a type of the latter.
The promise…still stands – because no word of God can fail. Cf. v12.
Let us be careful – phobeo, elsewhere always translated ‘to fear’ in the NIV. The translation here is a little weak.
On the translation and meaning of this word, Girdwood and Verkruyse (College Press Commentary) comment:
‘This is the only place where the NIV translates the verb “to fear” as to “be careful.” Elsewhere it translates indicating fear, even terror, and sometimes reverence. The word and its cognates are used in Hebrews in Heb 2:15; 4:1; 10:27,31; 11:23,27; 12:21; 13:6. The phrase, “Be careful,” is a little weak for this verb. Fear is a powerful motive. It is not wrong to be motivated by fear, especially with so much at stake. Jesus taught fear as a motive. (Mt 10:28; Lk 12:4-5) It should not be the only motive. Neither should love be the only motivating force. Ideally every feeling of man should be stimulated to give a balanced, holistic response of all we are to whatever God wants us to be.’
4:2 For we had good news proclaimed to us just as they did. But the message they heard did them no good, since they did not join in with those who heard it in faith.
They had heard and understood the message of God. However, it did them no good because it was not believed or obeyed. The same danger is present today, when thousands of church-goers will know something about Christ, but not know him personally.
Hearing God’s word without faith is as fatal as hearing it without action, Jas 1:23.
4:3 For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, “As I swore in my anger,‘They will never enter my rest!’ ” And yet God’s works were accomplished from the foundation of the world.
We who have believed enter that rest – Note the combination of past tense (’we who have believed) with present tense (’enter that rest’). This emphasises that the rest is something that the promised rest is already being entered into.
A further quotation from Ps 95:11. (cf. Heb 3:11) This is introduced ‘to show that if the divine oath excludes all unbelievers from a share in that rest into which god entered when he finished the work of creation, then it also follows that the invitation to participate in this rest remains open for all believers.
Wherever there is a promise, there a threatening in reference unto the same matter is tacitly understood. And wherever there is a threatening, that is no more than so, be it never so severe, there is a gracious promise included in it; yea, sometimes God give out an express threatening for not other end but that men may lay hold on the promise tacitly included. The threatening that Nineveh should perish was given out that it might not perish. And John Baptist’s preaching that the axe was laid to the root of the trees was a call to repentance, that none might be cut down and cast into the fire.’ (Owen)
His work has been finished since the creation of the world – ‘As if he wants his readers to switch their minds back beyond the wilderness wanderings to the creation itself. The my rest of the quotation and the his works of the comment are clearly closely connected. What believers can now enter is none other than the same kind of rest which the Creator enjoyed when he had completed his works, which means that the rest idea is of completion and not of inactivity. It is important to note that the “rest” is not something new which has not been known in experience until Christ came. It has been available throughout the whole of man’s history. This reference back to the creation places the idea on the broadest possible basis and would seem to suggest that it was part of God’s intention for man. “Rest” is a quality which has eluded man’s quest, and in fact cannot be attained except through Christ. Jesus himself invited men to come to him to find rest,’ (Mt 11:28-39) (Guthrie)
4:4 For he has spoken somewhere about the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works,” 4:5 but to repeat the text cited earlier: “They will never enter my rest!”
The quotation is from Gen 2:3. God’s Sabbath rest began when he had completed the work of creation. This rest is a foretaste of the eternal joy and peace which characterise the new creation. This is the rest into which believers enter.
‘The allusion to Genesis 2:2 is not accidental. Anyone attending a Sabbath evening service in the synagogue would have heard the call to worship from Psa 95:7b-11, followed immediately by the celebration of God’s sabbath rest in Gen 2:1-3…God’s primal rest from his works, v4, is the archetype of the promised rest, just as the settlement of Canaan under Joshua, v8, is the type. The antitype is the Sabbath celebration following the consummation of history, v9.’ (Lane)
‘God’s rest is not a rest necessitated by fatigue, nor consisting in idleness, but that upholding and governing of which creation was the beginning.’ (Alford)
In Hebrew thought, the word ‘rest’ ‘stands for consummation of a work accomplished and the joy and satisfaction attendant upon this. Such was its prototype in God…For mankind, too, a great task awaits to be accomplished, and at its close beckons a rest of joy and satisfaction that shall copy the rest of God. Before all other important things, therefore, the Sabbath is an expression of the eschatological principle on which the life of humanity has been constructed…It teaches its lesson through the rhythmical succession of six days of labour and one ensuing day of rest in each successive week. Man is reminded in this way that life is not an aimless existence, that a goal lies beyond.’ (G. Vos)
v5 True believers enter God’s own rest by coming to Christ.
4:6 Therefore it remains for some to enter it, yet those to whom it was previously proclaimed did not enter because of disobedience.
The Israelites had failed because of disobedience to enter Canaan, the promised land, Nu 13 14. ‘The line of argument must be that since the Israelites never entered…someone else must, if God’s promise is not to be rendered void.’ (Guthrie)
4:6 Therefore it remains for some to enter it, yet those to whom it was previously proclaimed did not enter because of disobedience.
The urgency in heeding God’s invitations and warnings is expressed in the word “today”.
Through David – or, ‘in David’ (i.e. ‘in the book of David’).
4:8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken afterward about another day.
Possibly the writer is anticipating an objection here, for although it is clear that Moses could not lead the people into the Promised Land because of their unbelief, Joshua did lead them into Canaan. But, says our writer, this cannot be so, otherwise God would not have spoken about another day. The rest that they entered into under Joshua was transitory and imperfect
‘If this rest had been enjoyed by those who eventually possessed Canaan under the leadership of Joshua, then God would not have fixed another day for entering into it so long afterwards (v7). For the temporal settlement of the promised land was but a faint shadow of the true rest into which the people of God are conducted by their “Joshua,” Mt 11:28-30.’ (Wilson)
‘The Greek name is the same spelling for Joshua and for Jesus. Ellingworth presents three ways of understanding the name here. It may point to: (1) the historical Joshua; (2) Jesus Christ, not Joshua; or (3) the historical Joshua, but with some kind of play on the word thus alluding to Jesus as well. The LXX used the Greek name for the several different Hebrew spellings of the name Joshua. The point of the passage is that if the Israelites upon entering Canaan under the leadership of Joshua had entered the “rest” God spoke about, then he would not have spoken later in David’s day about another day of rest. This later statement shows that there still remains a “rest,” even a “Sabbath-rest,” for the people of God. God’s blessings are not spiritual alone; he gives physical blessings also.’ (College Press)
‘The fact that Israel’s entrance into Canaan was not the same as entrance into God’s eternal rest may be established along other lines. There are numerous OT passages which predict that God would regather his people and bring them back to the land. Many of these passages use terminology that cannot describe a literal return to the physical land on the east end of the Mediterranean Sea. For example, see Isa 10:20-23; Eze 20:34-38; 37:21-25.’ (College Press)
‘He meant not to deny but that David understood by rest the land of Canaan, into which Joshua conducted the people; but he denies this to be the final rest to which the faithful aspire, and which we have also in common with the faithful of that age; for it is certain that they looked higher than to that land; nay, the land of Canaan was not otherwise so much valued except for this reason, because it was an image and a symbol of the spiritual inheritance. When, therefore, they obtained possession of it, they ought not to have rested as though they had attained to the summit of their wishes, but on the contrary to meditate on what was spiritual as by it suggested. They to whom David addressed the Psalm were in possession of that land, but they were reminded of the duty of seeking a better rest.’ (Calvin)
4:9 Consequently a Sabbath rest remains for the people of God. 4:10 For the one who enters God’s rest has also rested from his works, just as God did from his own works.
A Sabbath-rest – The term sabbatismos is unique, and may even have been invented by this author. It is important, because it differentiates between the kind of rest the Joshua led the Israelites into, and the spiritual rest which remains.
The people of God – A comprehensive term, embracing the whole believing community, both Jew and Gentile. ‘This possessive aspect of God is remarkable. He delights to call the believers his people. A new community, devoted to hearing God’s voice and obeying it, has displaced the old Israel which failed in the time of testing.’ (Guthrie)
For the Israelites, God’s rest was the earthly peace and prosperity to be found in the promised land. For us, it is peace with God now, Rom 5:1 and fellowship with him for eternity, Jn 14:1-4.
‘The Sabbath was a creation ordinance which placed the day of rest at the end of the six days of labour, but when Adam sinned it became impossible for man to attain the rest of God by his own efforts. This now required nothing less that a second creation, and by keeping the Sabbath on the first day of the week, “the people of God” gladly acknowledge that their entrance into this rest depends entirely upon the redemptive achievement of Christ.’ (Wilson)
‘Believers knew themselves in a measure partakers of the Sabbath-fulfilment…It has ben strikingly observed that our Lord died on the ven of that Jewish Sabbath, at the end of one of these typical weeks of labout by which his work and its consummation were prefigured. And Christ entered upon his rest, the rest of his new, eternal life on the first day of the week, so that the Jewish Sabbath comes to lie between, was as it were, disposed of, buried in his grave.’ (Delitzsch)
‘Although rest in the OT remains in the sphere of promise, in the NT there is fulfilment. Christians, by faith in Christ, have entered into rest. (Heb 12:22-24) he is their peace. To all who come to him he gives rest, rest that is relief, release and satisfaction to the soul. (Mt 11:28-30)
But rest in Scripture has also an eschatological content. There remains a sabbath rest for the Christian as for Israel. (Heb 4:9) The celestial city and the heavenly country (Heb 11:10,16) are still in the future. Today there is the task, (1 Cor 3:9) the good fight of faith, (Eph 6:10-20) the pilgrimage. (Heb 11:13-16) And even the rest to which death is the prelude (Rev 14:13) is not fullness of rest. (Rev 6:9-11) But those who have entered into the rest of faith, by casting anchor within the veil where Christ has gone, know that the final state of rest is secure.’ (NBD)
Here is ‘the prospect of sharing in the inexpressible joy of that ultimate celebration of the mighty works of God, embracing both creation and redemption.’ (Lane)
Rests from his own work – cf. Eph 2:8-9.
The rest of which the sacred writer speaks does not belong wholly to the future state of bliss, but begins here and now. Moreover, it is God’s rest and therefore incomparably superior to all earthly forms. Again, it is a rest that believers enter into, and share in.
4:11 Thus we must make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by following the same pattern of disobedience.
Make every effort – Entering into God’s rest cannot be taken for granted. Considerable effort is required. There is a danger of history repeating itself, and of those who set out confidently will fall just as the Israelites did.
‘Christian pilgrims in the contemporary worl must realise that, in the light of a passage such as this, it will not do to confess a merely nominal allegiance to Christian truth or pay occasional lip service in meetings and services to faith in Christ. Our commitment must be sincere and genuine.’ (Brown, BST)
This rest of which he speaks is the rest of grace here, and of glory hereafter. But it is not obtained without effort. Let us strive, let us labour, let us haste, to enter into this glorious rest; let us take heed that we do not come short through disobedience and lack of faith is did Israel, Nu 26:65.
To fall is to perish. It is not so much to sin, as to suffer the punishment for sin.
4:12 For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing even to the point of dividing soul from spirit, and joints from marrow; it is able to judge the desires and thoughts of the heart. 4:13 And no creature is hidden from God, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account.
The word of God – either, generally, the revelation of God, or, specifically, Jesus Christ (cf. John’s Logos). These two meanings are closely linked, for the inspired word and the incarnate Word are inseparable, especially in the gospel itself. Beware those who would have Christ, but not the Bible (the Teacher, but not his teaching, religious experience, but not Christian doctrine). Beware too those who would have the Bible without Christ (biblical scholarship but no atoning sacrifice for sin). The revelation of God finds its fullest expression in Christ himself, cf Heb 1:1ff. But the main focus here is the word of God as representing what God has spoken – and especially his warnings, 4:7. The description which follows shows how different this word of God is from the word of man.
Living – This in contrast to a dead code, as the Law had become for many Jews. Jesus declared that his words were ‘spirit and life’, Jn 6:63. See also Acts 7:38; 1 Pet 1:23. This book is alive: it will comfort me, smile on me, instruct me, frown on me, smite me. It is ever alive: it does not grow old and out of date, it will never become extinct. It has no wrinkle on its brow, there is no hesitancy in its step. Men may try to tear it into a thousand shreds of criticism, bury it beneath a hundred avalanches of error, but their efforts are vain: the word of God is yet alive. It imparts life: a single verse can call us from death to life, can revive our soul.
‘The word of God is instinct with life. Certain issues are as dead as the dodo; certain books and words have no living interest whatever. Plato was one of the world’s supreme thinkers but it is unlikely that there would be any public for Daily Studies in Plato. The great fact about the word of God is that it is a living issue for all men of all times. Other things may pass quietly into oblivion; other things may acquire an academic or antiquarian interest; but the word of God is something that every man must face, its offer something he must accept or reject.’ (DSB)
Active – It is ‘energetic; effectual’. Something may be alive, but dormant, like a seed in winter. God’s word, however, ‘speeds to fulfil the purpose for which it has been uttered’ (Bruce). Cf. Isa 55:11. It is actively at work in challenging as those who fall short of its standards, and in calling for personal decision and commitment on the part of those who hear it. Spurgeon remarks that bibliolatry is a crime of which few are guilty, and is a forgivable crime: ‘To me the Bible is not God, but it is God’s voice, and I do not hear it without awe.’ Preachers should remember that their effectiveness does not lie in their learning or their eloquence but in God’s word. It is by the word of God that sin is slain, and grace is born. Only the word of God can penetrate our defences, destroy our arguments, and enthrone King Jesus in our hearts. If we would do good in the world, let us wield this weapon.
‘It is one of the facts of history that wherever men have taken God’s word seriously things have begun to happen. When the English Bible was laid bare and the word of God came to the common people, the tremendous event of the Reformation inevitably followed. When people take God seriously they immediately realize that his word is not only something to be studied, not only something to be read, not only something to be written about; it is something to be done.’ (DSB)
Sharper than any double-edged sword – Cf. Isa 49:2; Eph 6:17; Rev 1:16. The ref. in Eph is to the sword as a piece of spiritual armour; here the emphasis falls on its penetrating character. The sword is sharp all over, it has no blunt side; likewise, the Bible has no redundant portion, all is inspired.
‘Whether or not we agree with Tertullian and Augustine that the two edges of the sword represent the Old and New Testaments, the Bible has many sword-like qualities. It pricks the conscience, and wounds the pride of sinners. It cuts away our camouflage and pierces our defences. It lays bare our sin and need, and kills all false doctrine by its deft, sharp thrusts.’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, p132f)
It is sharp to the point of dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow – the thought is not of the word dividing between soul and spirit, but of piercing the whole being, including soul and spirit, etc. As the surgeon’s knife unerringly cuts into the body, the word of God’s penetrates our being thoroughly, and in every respect. It diagnoses with unerring accuracy ailments and inconsistencies in and between our constituent elements. ‘No smoothing over with outward actions can hide from God the real purpose or intent of the heart. We may appear to be utterly sincere before other humans but God knows if there is an ulterior motive.’ (Louis Evans)
It judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart – a most challenging thought. Nothing, not even our inmost thoughts and atittudes, is hidden from the penetrating searchlight of the word of God.
The context determines that the discriminating power of the word of God is particularly applied in its judicial power: in the execution of its sentence on those who resist its testimony.
If this is the nature and power of the word of God, it follows that we have a solemn and urgent responsibility to hear it, to study it, to believe it, and obey it.
v13 This verse drives home the truth inherent in the preceding one. God’s word penetrates our inmost being, shines like a searchlight into our hearts, exposes every detail to the divine gaze.
Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight – not one single thing. But it is particularly the inner recesses of the human heart which are in mind here. 1 Chron 28:9; Ps 33:13-15; Ps 139:11; Jon 1:3; Jn 2:24; 1 Cor 4:5
Uncovered – lit. ‘naked’. Nothing is unknown or incomprehensible to him who is the source of all being and of all knowledge. All pretence and secrecy is stripped away. There is no refuge, no dark forgotten recess, for that which would hide from God. We can hide our thoughts and feelings from our friends, neighbours and loved ones. We can even hide our inmost desires and motives from our own selves. But we can hide nothing from God.
Laid bare – a vivid term, suggesting the idea that God makes sure that no-one can hide his face from the eyes of God; his head is pushed back so that he is in the full view of God.
Him to whom we must give account – obviously a reference to God. There will be a final reckoning. One day we must all give an account of ourselves to God, Acts 17:31; Rom 2:16.
‘This profound and solemn truth is one that man in his fallenness does not like to face: it is damaging to his self-esteem; it destroys his proud pretensions to wisdom and competence; and it discloses the futile superficiality of all the elaborate defences which he seeks to erect against God. (cf 2 Cor 10:4-5) But God sees all things, as man never can, in the ultimate light of their undisguised reality; his gaze penetrates beneath the surface and beyond every specious facade to the radical heart of our being.’ (cf. 1 Sam 16:7) (Hughes)
Jesus Our Compassionate High Priest, 14-16
4:14 Therefore since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 4:15 For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin. 4:16 Therefore let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help.
The role of the high priest has been mentioned several times already, Heb 1:3; 2:17; 3:1. But it is only now that the theme is given a full treatment. The present passage (Heb 4:14-16) is something of a prologue to a long passage on this theme, with Heb 10:19-23 as the epilogue.
‘One of the things on which the Jews most valued their religion, was the fact that it had such a minister of religion as their high priest-the most elevated functionary of that dispensation. It came, therefore, to be of the utmost importance to show that Christianity was not inferior to the Jewish religion in this respect, and that the High Priest of the Christian profession would not suffer in point of dignity, and in the value of the blood with which he would approach God, and in the efficacy of his intercession, when compared with the Jewish high priest. Moreover, it was a doctrine of Christianity that the Jewish ritual was to pass away; and its temple services cease to be observed. It was, therefore, of vast importance to show why hey passed away, and how they were superseded. To do this, the apostle is led into this long discussion respecting their nature. He shows that they were designed to be typical. He proves that they could not purify the heart, and give peace to the conscience. He proves that they were all intended to point to something future, and to introduce the Messiah to the world; and that when this object was accomplished, their great end was secured, and they were thus all fulfilled.’ (Barnes)
Therefore – Links back to Heb 2:17-18, with the intervening passage best seen as an interlude.
We have a great high priest – ‘We Christians,’ says our author, ‘have a high priest as surely as the Jews had. But our is a great High Priest: superior in every way to that of the old order.’ The High Priest was the highest religious authority in the land. Yet even he was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies just once a year, on the Day of Atonement. The role of any priest was to represent the people before God, to act as mediator. Jesus is great both as to his person and his work, and also in comparison with Aaron.
‘The assertion is at once a word of encouragement and an emphatic reply to the taunts of their unbelieving kinsmen who would assail the validity and efficacy of this “new” religion on the ground that it had no high priest to intercede for its misguided adherents. Many still cannot rise to the spiritual reality of New Testament truth and must needs worship a visible Vicar of Christ on earth who blasphemously arrogates to himself the title of “Pontifex Maximus” the greatest High Priest!’ (2 Thess 2:4) (Wilson)
How great a priest, and how superior the priesthood of Jesus, who has gone through the heavens. See 7:26. He had bridged the gulf between God and man. This in contrast with the Jewish high priest, who went once a year into the most holy place in the temple. In the light of the plural heavens, some have thought that the author is referring to a series of heavens. Paul refers to ‘the third heaven’, 2 Cor 12:2. But the plural form is always used in the OT, and ‘it is most likely that the idea is general and is intended to contrast with the limited entrance of the Aaronic high priest within the veil. Our high priest penetrates to the very presence of God. The words suggest that no hundrance obstructs his passage.’ (Guthrie). According to Heb 10:19 believers share the access of our high priest.
If we need to distinguish between various ‘heavens’ (and we probably don’t need to), then we can refer to the atmospheric heavens, to the planetary heavens and to the dwelling place of God. Cf. Paul’s reference to ‘the third heaven’, 2 Cor 12:2.
He has gone before us into heaven, Heb 6:20, and is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God, Heb 1:3. He is our Mediator; he has gone there to constantly intercede for us, Heb 7:25, to prepare a place for us, Jn 14:2; let us take every measure to ensure that we do not forfeit that place, Heb 2:1; 3:14.
‘Your sins have need of the great High Priest and his sacrifice to procure remission of them. If he take them not away by the blood of his cross, they can never be taken away; they will lie down with you in the dust; they will rise with you and follow you to the judgment-seat crying, “We are thy works, and we will follow thee.” All thy repentance and tears, couldst thou weep as many as there be drops in the ocean, can never take away sin. THY DUTIES, EVEN THE BEST OF THEM, NEED THIS SACRIFICE. It is in virtue thereof that they are accepted of God. And were it not that God had respect to Christ’s offering, he would not regard thee nor any of thy duties. Thou couldst no more come near to God than that thou couldst approach a devouring fire or dwell with everlasting burnings. Well, then say, “I NEED SUCH A PRICE EVERY WAY.” Love him in all his offices. See the goodness of God in providing such a sacrifice for thee. MEAT, DRINK, AND AIR ARE NOT MORE NECESSARY TO MAINTAIN THY NATURAL LIFE THAN THE DEATH OF CHRIST IS TO GIVE AND MAINTAIN THY SPIRITUAL LIFE. Oh, then, with a deep sense of gratitude in thy heart, let thy lips say, “Blessed be God for Jesus Christ.”’ (Flavel)
Jesus the Son of God – The names of titles applied to our Lord in this epistle are not indiscriminate. In Hebrews, the name Jesus is used particularly in connection with our Lord’s work of salvation, (cf. Mt 1:21) whereas Christ is associated with his divine mission (3:6, 14). More generally in Scripture, the name Jesus asserts his human nature and his historical identity. Calling him the Son of God establishes his divinity. He therefore has ‘the perfect qualifications for a high priest who was to be superior to all others.’ (Guthrie)
Let us hold firmly to the faith we profess – Even though we may be going through times of testing and trial, v15f. This is, of course, the essence of this epistle’s practical message. The sentiment is mirrored clearly at the end of the long section on the high priesthood of Christ, 10:19-23.
‘Here is encouragement to perseverance on a double account. One is, that Jesus, our head, is already in heaven; and if the head be above water, the body cannot drown. The other is from the business he is there employed about, which is his priesthood; he is passed into the heavens, as our great High-priest, to intercede, and therefore we cannot miscarry.’ (Flavel)
For – our confidence is not in ourselves, but in the excellence of our high priest.
We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses – This thought have already been introduced in positive from in Heb 2:18. Here it is advanced in negative form as if the writer were aware of a possible objection that Jesus Christ is too remote from us to be aware of our weaknesses. ‘It might be supposed that a high priest so grand that he could enter God’s presence was so superior to us that he could not understand our lowly struggles on earth.’ (College Press) The word weaknesses ‘is sufficiently comprehensive to include any form of felt need.’ (Guthrie)
‘The Christian idea of God as a loving Father is interwoven into the very fabric of our mind and heart; but it was a new idea. To the Jew the basic idea of God was that he was holy in the sense of being different. In no sense did he share our human experience and was in fact incapable of sharing it just because he was God.
It was even more so with the Greeks. The Stoics, the highest Greek thinkers, said the primary attribute of God was apatheia, by which they meant essential inability to feel anything at all. They argued that if a person could feel sorrow or joy it means that some other person was able to influence him. If so, that other person must, at least for that moment, be greater than he. No one, therefore, must be able in any sense to affect God for that would be to make him greater than God; and so God had to be completely beyond all feeling. The other Greek school was the Epicureans. They held that the gods lived in perfect happiness and blessedness. They lived in what they called the intermundia, the spaces between the worlds; and they were not even aware of the world.
The Jews had their different God; the Stoics, their feelingless gods; the Epicureans, their completely detached gods. Into that world of thought came the Christian religion with its incredible conception of a God who had deliberately undergone every human experience. Plutarch, one of the most religious of the Greeks, declared that it was blasphemous to involve God in the affairs of this world. Christianity depicted God not so much involved as identified with the suffering of this world. It is almost impossible for us to realize the revolution that Christianity brought about in men’s relationship to God. For century after century they had been confronted with the idea of the untouchable God; and now they discovered one who had gone through all that man must go through.’ (DSB)
Consider how Jesus ‘sympathised with weaknesses’ in his earthly life. See, for example, Lk 8:50. Sympatheo ‘expresses not simply the compassion of one who regards suffering from without, but the feeling of one who enters into the suffering and makes it his own.’ (Westcott)
The Lord Jesus ‘knows our every weakness’. He ‘took up our infirmities, and carried our sorrows’, Isa 53:4; cf. Jn 11:38. He understands, especially, how sorely we are tempted, for he was tempted just the same. Therefore, he can sympathize with our weaknesses, and we can talk to him as a friend.
‘He sympathizes with our weaknesses, not with our deliberate hard-hearted sinfulness. H.G. Link says that in classical usage the word is applied to any kind of weakness, primarily to bodily weakness, especially sickness, but also to the frailty of women, of human nature, even of economic weakness, rarely also of moral weakness.4-26 The NT does use the idea of moral weakness. One of the beautiful realities of Christianity is that Jesus took our “infirmities” onto himself. (Mt 8:17) When Paul was struggling, God reassured him that, “My strength is made perfect in human weakness” (2 Cor 12:9; see 13:9). The case of Israel’s behavior in the desert was not weakness, but hardened, long-term disobedient rebellion. Weakness of faith is one thing. (Rom 14:1; 15:1 1; Cor 8:9-12) Lack of faith is quite another. Weakness grieves God; hardness angers him. He will help the weak. He will expel the disobedient. To one he offers mercy and grace, Heb 4:16; 11:34; Rom 8:26. To the other he promises harsh judgment, Heb 3:11,18 12:10.’ (College Press)
Whatever weakness, whatever frailty, we may be experiencing, Jesus can say, “I have been there.” ‘He remembers we are dust and he knows our frame. (Ps 103:14) he knows our nature from the inside. He’s been where we are. He has walked through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. He has fought with Apollyon. He’s been in the Darkness where there’s no light. He can look down on us in all our struggles, turn to his Father and say, ‘I know exactly how that woman feels!’ He is not only Shepherd but Lamb, and what he saw and felt and suffered here is etched indelibly upon his memory, sustaining a sympathy we can never outreach.’ (McLeod, A Faith To Live By)
‘There is nothing ails a poor believer in Christ, there is no groan riseth from his distressed heart, but it is immediately felt at the tender heart of the Lord Jesus, at the Father’s right-hand. We would groan and sing with the same breath, if we believed this firmly.’ (Traill)
One who has been tempted in every way – he was tempted literally, but also subject to all the kinds of testing that we might have to endure. He knew poverty, hunger, loneliness, ridicule, and rejection, and he experienced a most cruel and lingering death. All of this forms a vital aspect of our Lord’s true humanity.
‘This phrase does not mean that Christ underwent every single human temptation that is possible to experience in our day, but that He experienced in every way the full force of our temptation yet without yielding to it.’ (Apologetics Study Bible)
‘A God who knows exactly what it is to eat a meal and take a walk, to have a toothache or a stomach ache, to rejoice at a wedding or to mourn at a funeral, to be indebted to an earthly mother and her husband, to stand trial in a human court, to be flogged, to be cruelly executed, does not need to apologise to men and women for his immunity, still less for his existence.’ (Blamires)
‘For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; (Though now he hath none of his own, yet can he feel those of his people, and his feeling engageth speedy relief. The reason the apostle gives for this sympathy of Christ with his people, is from Christ’s experience when on earth); but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. The apostle delivers the mind of the Holy Ghost about Christ’s sympathy negatively, we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities: in which manner of expression he reflects on the meanness of the Levitical priests, to whom it was impossible to know and feel all the infirmities of the people, for whom yet they appeared before God; and he implies the affirmative strongly, we have an high priest which can be (and is) touched with the feeling of our infirmities. How a sinless man as Christ ever was, can be touched with the feeling of the infirmities of sinners, and many of these infirmities sinful ones; how a glorified man, as Christ now is, exalted to, and possessed of the highest glory and bliss, can be, and is touched with the feeling of all the infirmities of all his people, is what the word plainly reveals to be believed; but it is not to be fully known till we come to heaven. But he is the head, and all his people are his body, his members, of his flesh, and of his bones. (Eph 5:30) A marvellous word! Can the flesh be torn, and the bones be broken, and the head not feel it? Though he be glorified above what we can conceive, he is a living, sensible, and compassionate head; and as nearly and closely united to all his members now, as when they saw with their eyes, and heard with their ears, and with their hands handled the word of life. (1Jo 1:1) There is nothing ails a poor believer in Christ, there is no groan riseth from his distressed heart, but it is immediately felt at the tender heart of the Lord Jesus, at the Father’s right-hand. We would groan and sing with the same breath, if we believed this firmly.’ (Traill)
Yet was without sin – This is an amazingly definite and comprehensive statement. What, no sin at all, not just a few little ones? No, not one. See 2 Cor 5:21. The writer will elaborate on ths significance of this point in chapters 7-9. All the tests presented in Mt 4 he passed without flinching.
‘The sinner who capitulates to the first solicitation to evil cannot claim to have felt the full power of temptation. It was otherwise with Jesus who experienced the anguish of temptation to an unimaginable degree, for his immaculate person was subjected to the continuous assaults of the Temptor.’ (Wilson) See Heb 2:18.
Robert Traill poses four questions arising from this text:-
- Where may I find God? – on a throne of grace.
- How should we come to God on this throne? – Let us come boldly.
- What ground does a sinner have for this confidence? – noting the word ‘therefore’, it is because of Jesus the Son of God, our great high priest in heaven, v14f.
- What shall we get if we come to this throne of grace? – we shall receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Here is an alternative outline:-
- Who? – us
- What? – Let us approach
- Where? – the throne of grace
- How? – with confidence
- Why? – so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us
- When? – in our time of need
Let us then approach… – ‘It is the possibility of drawing near to God which has particularly caught the imagination of the writer’ (Guthrie). This ‘coming’ or ‘drawing near’ to God represents an attitude and an act of worship. See Heb 7:25; 11:1,22. In the Levitical system on the High Priest could approach God’s presence, and then only once a year, on the Day of Atonement. The people were prohibited from doing so because of their sin. But Christ’s sacrifice on the cross has opened up a way which had hitherto been closed, an access symbolised by the tearing of the curtain in the temple, Mt 27:51; Mk 15:38; Heb 10:20. Our Saviour has blazed a trail through the heavens for us, Heb 4:14. Those to whom this letter was written were in danger of drawing back, Heb 10:35 instead of drawing near. They, and we, need to learn that the difficulty of the struggle should prompt us to draw near to God for more resources, not to retreat from him in despair. See Jn 6:66-68.
The language is that of ritual. ‘Back of this stands the idea that the priest brings near his sacrifice, as well as bringing near those who follow him. So we are brought near by Jesus as our High Priest and Forerunner.’ (Vos)
‘Based on Jesus’ function as our high priest, Christians are encouraged in general to “hold firmly to the faith we profess,” (Heb 4:14) and specifically to “approach the throne of grace with confidence.” Again in 6:18 it is left to us to “take hold of” what God has offered us. Because Jesus has gone into God’s presence, Christians can come with confidence into his presence. Later, this will be called “a new and living way opened for us” which we can confidently enter (Heb 10:19-22). Paul explained that in Christ and through faith in Christ “we may approach God with freedom and confidence.” (Eph 3:12) To all who ask he gives generously without finding fault. (Jas 1:5) John went even farther when he said, “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us-whatever we ask-we know that we have what we asked of him.” (1 Jn 5:14-15) The privilege of prayer was designed to be used.’ (College Press)
Note the close connection between holding firmly to the faith we profess (v14) and our access to the throne of grace. ‘More scepticism may be traced to a neglected prayer closet than to the arguments of infidels or the halls of secularists. First, men depart from God; then they deny him. And, therefore, for the most part, unbelief will not yield to clever sermons on the evidences, but to home thrusts that pierce the points of the harness to the soul within.’ (Meyer)
The throne of grace – So called because it is the place where God’s free favour is dispensed. According to Heb 8:1 and 12:2 Christ is seated at the right hand of the throne. ‘He is the guarantee that it is a place of grace’. (Guthrie)
In our approach to God as Father, we do not forget that he is sovereign. Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father”, but then to say, “Your kingdom come”. God is truly awesome in his sovereignty, and yet it is the sovereignty of grace which is apparent here. We come, not to the mount of sovereign law, but to the throne of sovereign grace. The fact that grace is dispensed from this throne is guaranteed by the fact that Christ himself stands by the throne, Heb 8:1; 12:2. Such a throne is to be approached, as Spurgeon says, with lowly reverences, devoit joyfulness, complete submission, enlarged expectations, unstaggering confidence, and deepest sincerity.
It is the antitype of the mercy-seat in the earthly sanctuary, 9:5. ‘It was before the earthly mercy-seat that the work of propitiation was completed on the day of atonement and the grace of God extended to his people; the presence of the Christians’ high priest on the heavenly throne of grace bespeaks a work of propitiation completed not in token but in fact, and the constant availability of divine aid in all their need. Thanks to him, the throne of God is a mercy-seat to which they have free access and from which they may receive all the grace and power required “for timely help” in the hour of trial and crisis.’ (Bruce)
‘What…is this throne of grace? It is God in Christ dealing with men according to the grace of the gospel. It is God in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not imputing to them their trespasses. (2 Cor 5:19) It is Christ set forth by God to be a propitiation. (Rom 3:25) This is the true mercy seat, or throne of grace, or propitiation. (1 Jn 2:2,4:10) This is the new court or throne erected by God, and declared in the gospel, to which sinful man is invited to come.’ (Traill)
‘Nothing could sum up better the blessings of being in Christ than the expression “the reign of grace”. For grace forgives sins through the cross, and bestows on the sinner both righteousness and eternal life. Grace satisfies the thirsty soul and fills the hungry with good things. Grace sanctifies sinners, shaping them into the image of Christ. Grace perseveres even with the recalcitrant, determining to complete what it has begun. And one day grace will destroy death and consummate the kingdom. So when we are convinced that “grace reigns”, we will remember that God’s throne is a “throne of grace”, and will come to it boldly to receive mercy and to find grace for every need.’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, 181)
‘Prayer pulls the rope below and the great bell rings above in the ears of God. Some scarcely stir the bell, for they pray so languidly. Others give but an occasional pluck at the rope. But he who wins with heaven is the man who grasps the rope boldly and pulls continuously, with all his might.’ (Spurgeon)
Our approach is to be with confidence. This is not irreverence, Psa 89:7, or presumption, Psa 130:3, or over-familiarity (Abraham was a ‘friend of God’, yet never forgot God’s majesty or his own unworthiness). We should come with godly fear, but with a sense of freedom and expectation, without dread. This attitude finds its expression in the address, “Our Father”. See Eph 3:12.
Though God is sovereign, and we approach his throne with awe, nevertheless as we come we address him as ‘our Father’. The idea is ‘not opposed to godly fear, but to slavish dread.’ (John Brown)
‘It is Jesus’ person and performance that makes our salvation secure, not our own. People know this intuitively as John explained in 1 Jn 3:20-23. There are two possible centers of attention for Christians. When we focus on ourselves, our hearts condemn us. We know we are imperfect and not worthy of heaven. But God sees the bigger picture. “He knows everything.” When we focus on Jesus, our hearts do not condemn us. We know he is perfect in every way. Hence, “we have confidence before God.” We pray with “confidence” (Heb 4:16 and 1 Jn 3:21).’ (College Press)
So that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us – In the tabernacle, to enter the holy of holies was to stand before the mercy-seat. So, to draw near to God is to present ourselves before the throne from which mercy and grace are dispensed. ‘Mercy’ is the love that helps the wretched, ‘grace’ the love that pardons the guilty. ‘Mercy’ is placed first because our weakness has been stressed. (Lenski)
Although this admits of a broad application, the context determines that the primary reference is the granting of strength so that the readers may maintain their confession and resist the temptation to give up and go back.
‘Moulton and Milligan found the word “help” and its verb “perpetually recurring at the end of petitions” in papyrus material. Jesus is able to help (Heb 2:18). Now we see him offering to help (Heb 4:16).’ (College Press)
‘Mercy means that God does not give us what we do deserve; grace means that he gives us what we do not deserve.’ (Wiersbe)
Our time of need – That is, ‘seasonably’; at the right time; when we need it the most.
This help is intimately connected with Christ’s continuing intercessory ministry, Rom 8:34; Heb 7:25f.
The supply of grace is unlimited and uninterrupted, and yet is especially experienced when we need it most, for it is when we rely on it completely that we learn its true power and value. The only condition is that we be in need, and that we feel that need enough to ask for help. God’s gifts of mercy and grace are seasonable: they are given when we need them most; when all other helps have failed; before we are overwhelmed. They are suitable: to the time, the person, the circumstances. See Psa 104:27; Isa 55:6f.
‘In our finest moments needs are not seen as crushing burdens to be stoically borne, but opportunities to link with God in bringing his mercy and grace to bear in human situations. This is true whether the need is one’s own personal need or a need of others. The Savior made the vessels brim with the best wine only when Cana’s own supply ran short. This gives a whole new dimension to the idea of praying continually.’ (1 Thess 5:17) (College Press)