The Compassionate High Priest
by William Bacon Stevens
"Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need!" Hebrews 4:14-16
In the Jewish economy, the High Priest occupied solemn and peculiar relations. A descendant of Aaron — anointed with the holy oil — clad in garments made for glory and for beauty — unblemished in person, sacred in office, and standing once each year before the mercy-seat in the Holy of Holies as the mediator between God and his people Israel — he became invested with a sacredness and a majesty of character befitting to him who stood among men as the representative of God.
To this pompous office, the Jews had become much attached, and the design of Paul in the Epistle to the Hebrews was to transfer their love of this office as a Mosaic institution — to Christ, a High Priest greater than Aaron, in the new and Christian dispensation. This he does by showing how Christ was in all points equal to the Jewish high priest, and in many ways far exceeded him; thus establishing claims to their regard and obedience beyond those which pertained to the Aaronic priesthood.
This position we shall better understand, by showing wherein they were analogous, and wherein the priestly office of Christ exceeded that of Aaron or his sons.
The Aaronic high priest must be called of God. "No man," says Paul, "takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God, just as Aaron was. So Christ also did not take upon himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him: You are my Son; today I have become your Father!" Hebrews 5:4-5
The Aaronic high priesthood was unchangeable. It could never depart from the family of Aaron. So Christ being made a High Priest, changes not, "but abides a priest continually." He "has an unchangeable priesthood."
The Aaronic high priest was to be anointed with the holy oil. The very name of our Savior (Christ, or Messiah,) showed that he was anointed by God to execute his mediatorial office; set apart to the office, not with the anointing oil employed in the solemn consecration of Aaron and his sons — but with the antitype of that oil, "the Spirit of grace" poured upon him without measure by the hand of God. Acts 10:38
The high priest must be without blemish, and holy. He must be sound and healthy in body and mind. Aaron and his sons were also originally sanctified externally by a long series of most solemn offerings and ceremonies; their garments were styled holy, and "Holiness to the Lord" was engraved on a plate, which they were directed to wear upon their miters. "Such a High Priest," says Paul, "is Christ, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners," of whom even his enemies declared they found "no fault in him." His very garments were holy, for the sick and infirm but touched the hem of them — and they were made whole.
The Aaronic high priest only could enter into the Holy of Holies once each year, and then only with blood. So Christ entered into the "most holy place" above with the blood wrung from him in Gethsemane and on Calvary. The Aaronic high priest only could make a ceremonial atonement for the sins of the people; and Christ, as the High Priest of our salvation, "by a sacrifice and oblation of himself once offered, made a full, perfect, and sufficient" atonement for the sins of the world.
These are some of the more prominent analogies between the priesthood of Christ and the priesthood of Aaron; and, were we to pursue the comparison further — we would find that the symbolic and temporary ministrations of the one, had their end and perfection in the spiritual and unchangeable priesthood of the other.
But there are qualities and attributes far above these, which show the superiority of Christ's high priesthood. The high priest of the Jews was a sinful being. The High Priest of the gospel was holy. The one, had to make atonement for himself as a sinner; the other, "knew no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth." The high priest of the Jews was a man — weak, frail, mortal man — born of dust to be buried in the dust. But the High Priest Jesus, "is the same yesterday, today, and forever."
The high priest of the Jews was on earth, and only entered into the Holy of Holies once a year to make an annual expiation for the sins of the nation on the great day of atonement. But our High Priest is in Heaven, the true Holy of Holies, and there "he ever lives to make intercession for us;" so that not once a year merely — but at all times; not at Jerusalem only — but in all places, we can have "boldness of access to his mercy-seat."
The Christian dispensation, then, outvies the Levitical in the glory and exaltedness of its great High Priest who has passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God. And hence the Apostle subjoins the exhortation to the Hebrews, "let us hold fast our profession," for they were particularly inclined to apostatize from Christianity, and go back to Judaism, being tempted by their unconverted brethren to regard the Mosaic religion and the whole Jewish ritual as far more elevated, splendid, and magnificent than the Christian — in comparison with whose temple, service, and gorgeous ceremonials — the origin and rites of the religion of Jesus appeared base and insignificant. By therefore showing these Hebrew Christians that we had a High Priest not only equal in office and dignity — but far more exalted than the high priest of the temple, he urged them to hold fast their profession, not to relinquish their grasp on Christianity, because there was no such external ritual in the primitive church — no such altars, sacrifices, offerings, priests, as in the Jewish church — for all these were more than met and answered by the plenitude of grace in the new dispensation.
And, in view of their peculiarly exposed position to the assaults of the tempter, he brings the touching argument, "for we have not a High Priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are — yet without sin." Ah, my brethren, this was just such a Priest as man needed — a Priest that could feel for him; a High Priest that was compassionate; a great High Priest who could be touched with the feeling of our infirmities — one in all points tempted as we are — yet without sin. There was nothing like this in the old dispensation. It was reserved for the gospel to introduce to man a High Priest, who, while exalted in the heavens, could yet be touched with the feeling of our infirmities — who was tempted with all the temptations of humanity — yet did not sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.
Christ, then, our great High Priest, is touched with the feeling of our infirmities; and O, to creatures so full of infirmities as ourselves — how delightful to have a spiritual ruler who understands them, and is touched with them with an abiding sympathy.
Sin has shorn us of our glory, and strewn the earth with curses, and planted the path of man with infirmities and sorrows. We are prone to suffering — we are subject to disease — we are victims of adversity, and we stagger under the weight of our mental and physical infirmities, from the tiny footsteps of childhood to the feeble tread of threescore and ten. Under these infirmities we groan being burdened; we feel the workings of the curse of sin, every day of our life; and the loss of limb and function and strength and health, which is everywhere going on around us — show us the sadness and misery of man's earthly condition.
These infirmities, through the influence of the body on the mind and soul — often lead us into sin and temptation, become avenues of assault upon the heart, and the means whereby faith is weakened, and love chilled, and hope repressed, and the soul bereft of its holy aspirations. In sickness, how much are we tempted to impatience and repining. In bereavements, how apt to murmur and complain. In adversity, how often do we show the restive and untamed spirit of a worldling! No infirmity of mind or body can overtake us, without begetting some unholy feelings towards our Creator.
Now Jesus, our blessed Master — suffered the ills of life when on earth; hunger, thirst, cold, poverty, reproach, buffetings, and all the infirmities of man. His compassionate heart is therefore touched by our sorrows, and deeply sympathizes with all our distresses. Frequently was this exhibited when on earth. He was moved with compassion when he saw the multitude scattered abroad as sheep having no shepherd. He had compassion on the multitude without bread — at seeing in the throng sick people, whom he healed — at the sight of blind men, whom he restored to sight — at a leper, whom he cured — at a child possessed of an evil spirit, which he cast out — at beholding a mother's grief, whose son he restored to life. Yes, his mission to man was prompted by mercy, and his life on earth was full of compassion.
We know how delightful it is when suffering under any sickness or calamity, to have the sympathy and pity of those we love; to feel that in their bosoms are kindred emotions of tenderness and regard, causing them to weep with those who weep. But how much more cheering is it to the Christian, bowed beneath some burdensome sorrow — to know that he has the compassion and sympathy of his Savior! To know that Jesus, the Son of God, our ever-living High Priest in Heaven — is touched with the feeling of his infirmities! The Christian can know no need, no affliction, no suffering — which Jesus does not feel, and towards which his compassions do not flow out! And this is not a mere inoperative compassion, expending itself in words and professions — but it is a sympathy joined to a willingness to do, and an ability to do, for our relief. For having been himself tempted, he is both able and willing to support those who are tempted. Many people have borne the same afflictions which befall us — who are not willing to sympathize with us. Many are willing to sympathize with us, who have not experienced like tribulations. And many are both able and willing to extend to us their compassion — who are yet unable to do anything for our comfort or relief.
But our compassionate High Priest unites all these. He has been a man of sorrows, and acquainted with griefs, and can therefore sympathize experimentally with us. He is willing and prompted by the benevolence of his heart, to give to us his kind compassion; and, as God in the plenitude of omnipotence, "he is able to save to the uttermost all who come unto God through Him," and to "wipe away all tears from their eyes."
The sympathy of Christ to his disciples on earth is a tender sympathy; for "as a father pities his children, even so he pities those who fear him." It is an extensive sympathy — there is not an infirmity of man which it cannot reach. It is a proportionable sympathy — answerable to our peculiar needs, and to every occasion. It is a perpetual sympathy — so long as he continues a High Priest, and we remain subject to infirmities — so long will our blessed Jesus be touched with the feeling of them.
Man has no such sympathy as this for his fellow-man. Angels who never wore our nature, can have none like it — it is only the man Christ Jesus, both God and man, who centers in himself this plenitude of mercy and this unselfish compassion.
The reason why our great High Priest is so sensibly affected by our suffering condition, is stated by the Apostle to lie in the fact that "He was in all points tempted like as we are — yet without sin." The Greek word here used is more general in its meaning than the English word "tempted." It adverts both to trial by affliction, and temptations to sin; implying no more, however, than that of being susceptible to temptation, resulting from the possession of a human nature. It means then to put to the proof, to try the nature or character; and this proof can be made either by allowing one to fall into temptation, properly so called, where some strong inducement is presented to the mind, and where it becomes thus a trial of virtue; or by subjecting a person to afflictions or sufferings, so that his character is proved, that the principles and motives of conduct may appear. Jesus Christ was subjected to both of these in as severe a form as ever was presented to man; his whole life being little else than a long conflict of faith with sense — holiness with sin — virtue with temptation. Yet, blessed be God, the tempter was repelled, the sin was overcome, the flesh was nailed to the cross — for he rose from each assault a conqueror — vanquishing every foe, triumphing in every contest. He alone, then, who has conquered sin, and overthrown the tempter — can support us in the temptations of the one, or the assaults of the other, and enable us to be victor over both.
When thrust at by the enemy of our souls — when attacked by his fiery trials, when seduced by his gilded lures, when teased by the insinuations and cheating whispers of this "father of lies" — it is cheering and animating to the half-subdued soul to know, that Jesus was tempted in all points like as we are; and that, having been tempted, he knows what humanity can endure, and will not allow us to be tempted above that we are able to bear. In Christ, we are invincible — though sin, death, and Hell wage war upon the soul. Out of Christ, we are the victims of the first temptation, and fall an easy prey to the spoiler of our souls.
Such being the nature of our compassionate High Priest — the Apostle argues thence our duty, and urges upon us our peculiar privileges.
Is he thus tender towards our infirmities, and does he thus support us in our temptations? Then should we hold fast our profession. Why should we relax our hold, when He whom we serve is able and willing to sustain us? We serve not an impotent Prince or a weak Sovereign. He under whom we have enlisted, is omnipotent. The banner under which we are marshaled, is one that never yet was lowered to any foe; and the weapons by which we war, are "mighty through God, to the pulling down of the strongholds of sin and Satan." Why, then, should we relax our hold, when "the Lord Almighty is with us — and the God of Jacob is our refuge?"
Why should we go back to the world? The question there meets us, "What shall it profit a man, to gain the whole world — and lose his own soul?" What can the world give, in barter for your faith? What will it palm off upon you, in lieu of your hopes? What will it sell you, for the joys of the Spirit? O, go to its shambles, and its money-changers, and see what trade you can make for the religion of Christ; and when you have learned the price, decide whether you will hold fast your profession. Shall you give up the contest because it waxes warm? Shall you retreat because of the danger? Does the toil overcome you, and do you faint and grow weary because of the burden and heat of the day? Had your Savior been influenced by such motives, what would have become of your soul?
Have we such a compassionate High Priest? then should we confide in him. He knows our infirmities — he is cognisant of our needs — he is touched with our sorrows — he feels for us in our bereavements, and sympathizes in all our adversities. Divine wisdom could not have provided for the soul a more full and perfect counterpart in kind, though in degree infinitely removed above us. It is just such a High Priest as man needs; and there is no necessity of his moral nature that he does not meet and satisfy.
And then, too, he is willing to aid and support us — more willing than we to ask. And should we not, therefore, confide in his mercy and tenderness? Look upon his face — do you see there a forbidding aspect? Are any frowns gathered there? Is repulse expressed there? Or does it not rather beam with a love as infinite as his own perfection, and glow with a smile of compassion, which is the sunlight of the soul?
If you cannot confide in Christ, in whom can you? If you fear to go to him with your cares and your sorrows — then to whom will you resort? He suffered for you; he sorrowed for you; he bled for you; he died for you. Shall not his sorrows, his tears, his stripes, his blood, his death — all experienced for you, beget your confidence? You confide in an earthly friend — but could all the men of earth combined, work out for your soul the ransom which Jesus made for it on Calvary? Oh, is it not, I ask, black ingratitude not to trust him? Is it not an insult to his love to withhold your confidence? Reason it out upon the principles which regulate human friendship, and see in what position it places you to your adorable Redeemer. Yes, confide in Him in all times, in all places, in all circumstances.
Are you poor? He had nowhere to lay his head.
Are you in distress? He too was afflicted with grief.
Are you the object of reproach and scorn? He was despised and rejected by men.
Are you persecuted? He was reviled, and buffeted, and scourged.
Do you weep in silence? He shed tears, as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.
Are you mourning under bereavement? He wept at the grave of Lazarus.
Do the pains of death take hold of you? They were endured by Christ in their highest extremity.
You cannot in your greatest woe, exceed his anguish — or in your keenest afflictions, excel his grief. And the valley of the shadow of death cannot appear darker and more terrible to you, than it did to the Crucified, when he cried, "my Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me." All these points are so many guarantees that your confidence is not misplaced — so many invitations to place your hope and trust in his loving-kindness. Confide fully in Christ; be not distrustful of his compassion, for "He is faithful, who promised."
"Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace." The mercy-seat of the Jewish temple was inapproachable to the multitude. Only the High Priest could go in before it once each year, and then only with blood and incense — but the throne of grace erected in the heavens, is accessible to all. It is a throne, because occupied by a King; and is the seat of the Majesty on high; but it is named Grace, because of the clemency and compassion of Him who sits upon it.
Approach this throne — and we are sure of an audience. The golden scepter of mercy is ever held out to us, and we are sure of grace to help in every time of need. Boldly go to that throne, and offer your request in faith upon the merits of Christ, and in confidence upon the mercy of that great High Priest who is passed unto the heavens, Jesus the Son of God — remembering that he is touched with the feeling of our infirmities, that he supports us in our temptations, and gives to all who call upon him, "grace to help in every time of need!"
"Clinging to Jesus"
Holy Savior, friend unseen,
Since on your arm you bid'st me lean,
Help me throughout life's varying scene,
By faith to cling to Thee!
Blessed with this fellowship divine,
Take what you will, I'll ne'er repine;
E'en as the branches to the vine,
My soul would cling to Thee!
Far from her home, fatigued, oppressed,
Here she has found her place of rest;
An exile still — yet not unblest.
While she can cling to Thee!
Oft, when I seem to tread alone
Some barren waste with thorns o'ergrown,
Your voice of love, in tenderest tone,
Whispers, "Still cling to me!"
Though faith and hope may oft be tried,
I ask not, need not, anything beside;
How safe, how calm, how satisfied.
The soul that clings to Thee!
Blessed is my lot, Whatever befall:
What can disturb me, what appal,
While as my rock, my strength, my all,
Savior, I cling to Thee?