Message 16, Our Great High Priest: The Heavenly Ministry of Christ:
We often think of the work of Christ in terms of His finished work on the cross and forget about His present priestly ministry on our behalf. Christ was not only faithful in securing our salvation through His death and resurrection but He is also faithful in bestowing upon us the benefits of our salvation. As High Priest, Jesus both died for His people and continually prays for them. In this session, Dr. Ian Hamilton concentrates on the ongoing work of Christ in applying the benefits of redemption and interceding on behalf of His people.
Please turn with me in your bibles to the letter to the Hebrews. I’m one of these antiquarians who has a sneaking suspicion that Paul actually wrote the letter to the Hebrews, but don’t tell my scholarly friends. I’ve been asked in this session to consider with you the ongoing work of our Lord Jesus Christ, as He applies the benefits of His redemption to His people and intercedes for them before the throne of God.
And with that in mind, we will read two passages, initially in the letter to the Hebrews, chapter 9 verse 23 through 28, one verse in chapter 7, verse 25. But keep your Bibles somewhat open in John 17. Let us hear the Word of the living God.
Hebrews chapter 9 and verse 23, “Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world.
But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”
And one verse in chapter 7 and verse 25, “Consequently, He (that is the Lord Jesus Christ) is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”
If you were to meet a Christian this week whose life was being overwhelmed with severe trials, what is the one thing you would want to say to him or say to her? The letter to the Hebrews was written, as many of you will know, to Christians suffering severe trials. So severe were the trials that they were seriously contemplating, many of them, turning away from Jesus and returning to Judaism.
And there is one theme running through the length and breadth of this letter to the Hebrews, one repeated thing that the writer to the Hebrews wants his sorely tried, spiritually debilitated brothers and sisters in Christ to know. And here is the one thing that from one perspective and another he consistently impresses upon them, “Consider,” he says, “and grasp the preeminent superiority of the Lord Jesus Christ, especially the perfect effectiveness of His sacrifice for sin and the perfect effectiveness of His present intercession at God’s right hand for the people given to Him by His Father.”
You will know perhaps that there is a number of key words that surface again and again in this letter to the Hebrews. And perhaps preeminent among those key words is the word “better.” “In Christ,” chapter 7 verse 19, “we have a better hope.” Jesus Christ Himself, 7:22, is a better covenant. Chapter 10 verse 34, because of Christ we have a better possession. 11:16, in Christ we are heading for a better country.
Because of Jesus Christ, 11:35, we have a better hope. And here in chapter 9 verse 23, the writer speaks of better sacrifices. He wants these hard-pressed, spiritually debilitated believers to understand that in Christ everything is better. Substance replaces shadow, reality replaces type or copy, fulfillment replaces promise.
What the Old Covenant sacrifices could never accomplish and were never ever intended to accomplish, Jesus Christ has accomplished by His One self-offering oblation on Calvary’s cross. Verse 26 of our passage, “Once for all at the end of the ages he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.”
You may have noticed in these closing verses in Hebrews 9 that the writer focuses on the Lord Jesus’ three appearings. Verse 26, Jesus has appeared. Verse 24, He now appears. And in verse 28, He will yet appear. And each of these appearings establishes the infinite, transcendent superiority of Jesus and the great need of these Hebrews to hold fast to Him and not turn back.
The letter to the Hebrews describes itself at the end of chapter 13 as “a brief word of exhortation.” I am not sure “exhortation” is actually the best translation. It translates the word really from which we get, the word “comforter,” the parakletos, the One who comes alongside us. Hebrews is a parakletic epistle. It’s an encouraging exhortation. And the great encouraging exhortation of Hebrews is, “Behold, the grace and glory of your Savior Jesus Christ.” Jesus Christ is the great comfort of His people. We hear much talk and some of the talk, I think, is helpful and good, but the church needs great application.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, Jesus Christ Himself is the great application of the gospel. Our great need is to sink our lives ever more deeply into the grace, glory, majesty and infinite transcendence of our Savior Jesus Christ. And the writer to the Hebrews is seeking to do that. In a multitude of different ways, he crafts as a pastor who cares for the people of God. He crafts his way into showing them how their pressing needs, and their needs were pressing, that in the midst of those pressing needs, their great need was to consider Christ.
First of all, he says, just very briefly before we more particularly zoom our way into the core of what I want to say this morning. First of all, he tells them in verse 26 that He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. He wants to remind them, just as we need always to be reminded, that the Lord Jesus Christ has come and made the one perfect sacrifice for sin. To go back from Jesus is to turn away from the one, effective, perfect sacrifice for sin.
Secondly in verse 28 he tells them, “He will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” He wants them to know that the Lord Jesus Christ is coming again. But for whom is He coming again? Not for those who have abandoned Him, but for those who are eagerly waiting for Him.
He is telling them that one day these troubles which are sore and severe, one day they will pass into eternal oblivion. And that they need to live their lives in the light of eternity because the Savior is coming, but He is coming not for those who have turned from Him, but for those who are eagerly waiting for Him.
Did you notice, and now we are coming more particularly to the focus of our concern this morning, in verse 24 he tells us that the Lord Jesus Christ “now appears in the presence of God on our behalf.” He has appeared, He will yet appear, but He now appears in the presence of God on our behalf. What has the Lord Jesus Christ been doing, if we can think in spatial terms? What has our Lord Jesus Christ been doing these past 2000 years since His resurrection and ascension? Is He simply lying in indolent glory in the bosom of the Father? No! He appears there in the presence of God on our behalf. This is His present ministry.
And that’s why we read in chapter 7 verse 25, “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him.” Now notice this, “Since he always lives to make intercession for them.” What is our Lord Jesus Christ doing at this very moment? He is interceding ceaselessly, unendingly before God for all whom the Father has given to Him. But what does that actually mean? What does it mean for Him, for Him to intercede before His Father for us? What does it mean for Him to be an intercessor at the right hand of the Heavenly Father?
And the question I really want to ask this morning is this, what is the relationship between Jesus saving sinners to the uttermost by his oblation on Calvary’s cross and His intercession for them? Let me put it a little more starkly.
If someone said to you today or this morning as you were making your way here to the conference, if someone had said to you that sinners are saved by Jesus’ prayers, I wonder how you’d have responded. Saved by Jesus’ prayers? Would you not have been tempted and more than tempted to reply, “Friend, you are wrong. Jesus saved me by His perfect, righteous life and by His bloody, sin-atoning sacrifice on Calvary’s cross. There lies all my hope in the perfect righteousness, active and passive, of the Lord Jesus Christ. My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”
And yet the writer to the Hebrews says, “He is able to save to the uttermost, those who draw near to God through Him since He always lives to make intercession for them.” Saved by the prayers of the risen, ascended, enthroned Jesus. I want to ask three questions of this text this morning. First, what is Jesus’ intercession? Secondly, what is the content of His intercession? And then thirdly, for whom is He interceding?
First of all, what is Jesus’ intercession? When the writer says here, “He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through Him since He always lives to make intercession for them,” how are we to understand the nature of that intercession? Paul speaks of the same thing in Romans chapter 8 verse 34, “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died — more than that, who was raised — who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” What is the heavenly, unceasing intercession of Jesus Christ?
Are we to picture our Lord Jesus pleading before His Father, asking Him to bless His people? I think it is unthinkable that we should understand our Lord Jesus seeking to persuade His Father to bless us. Isn’t Jesus Himself the gift of the Father’s love to us? He has no need to persuade the Father to bless us or to do anything good for us. Remember Jesus’ words to His own disciples as He began to take His leave of them at the end of John 16, “The Father Himself loves you.”
It seems to me that we best understand the nature of our Lord Jesus’ intercession like this. His intercession is His presence at the right hand of His Father. His intercession is His presence at the right hand of His Father. His intercession is not vocal at all. His risen, sin-atoning, sin-vanquishing, Satan-conquering presence at His Father’s right hand contains every conceivable blessing that His people could ever ask for or ever need. “In Christ,” Paul tells the Ephesians, “the Father has blessed us with every spiritual blessing.” In other words, our Savior’s nail-pierced hands and feet are His intercession.
I don’t think anyone has better expressed this than John Calvin. Maybe you find Calvin a little daunting. Maybe you think, “I could never really get into 16th century exposition and theology.” Calvin is a lucid, a most lucid prose writer, one of the originators with Blaise Pascal of modern French prose. He writes sublimely, simply. He is not a Puritan in the 16th century. John Owen has long, complicated, Latinate sentences, full of subordinate clauses that sometimes leave you, though they thrill you. But Calvin just sweeps you along. He is un-put-down-able. That’s not a word, but I’ve made it up anyway. And if a Scotsman says it, it must be true.
Listen to John Calvin as he expounds the nature of the heavenly, high priestly intercession of Jesus Christ, “We must not measure this intercession by our carnal judgment, for we must not suppose that He humbly supplicates the Father with bended knees and expanded hands. But as He appears continually as the One who died and rose again, and as His death and resurrection stand in the place of eternal intercession and have the efficacy of a powerful prayer for reconciling and rendering the Father propitious to us, He is justly said to intercede for us.”
In other words, as the Father beholds the atoning glory of His Son, He sees a life that has won everything good for all His people. He beholds His Son, and in His Son He beholds His elect people, believing sinners in all the ages of history, and He sees them united to the One who by His obedience unto death has won every conceivable blessing in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. In Christ, we lack nothing.
In Christ, we have everything. And as the Father beholds the risen glory of His Son, He inevitably, inevitably, without vocal cries or tears from His Son blesses His people, for the Son has won all things good for His people. That is His intercession. He needs not to bow the knee before the Father. He is in the bosom of the Father. There is glorified dust on the throne of heaven, and that glorified dust has secured all things good for everyone who has put their trust alone in Him. That’s His intercession.
But secondly, what is the particular content of His intercession? What did our Lord Jesus Christ die on the cross to accomplish? You might find it helpful for the next few moments to turn to John 17. What exactly did our Lord Jesus Christ give Himself as a ransom for sin to accomplish for believing sinners? In John 17, we find our Lord Jesus Christ praying what is called, and I think rightly called, His High Priestly Prayer.
The shadow of the cross has begun to penetrate the human soul of our Savior. He has poured out His life, and now He is about to pour it out unto death. And as the shadow of the cross begins to consume His human soul, He lifts up His heart and His eyes to His Father in heaven.
And what is it that He prays? Well, in verses 1 through 5, he prays that the Father might glorify Him, that through Him being glorified, the Father Himself will be glorified. But then from verse 6 to the end of the chapter, He prays first for the apostles in their unique situation as His divinely inspired ambassadors. And then in verses 20 through 26, He prays for the church in all the ages of history.
And what is it that He prays for these divinely inspired apostles? And what is it He prays for the church in all the ages of history? There are three things perhaps above all that the Lord Jesus Christ prays to His Father for. Three things that clearly lay heavy on His heart. He first of all prays in verse 15 that His Father will keep these men, who are the chosen penmen of God, the divinely inspired apostles of Christ. He prays that the Father would keep them from the evil one, keep them from the evil one. “I do not ask you to take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.”
You see, our Lord Jesus Christ knew, as no other knew, and certainly as these men did not know that there was a great unseen enemy who was out to consume them. Remember how earlier Jesus has to say to Simon Peter, “Simon, Satan has desired to sift you as wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith fail not.”
The Lord Jesus prays, “Father keep them from the evil one,” because very soon His presence, His embodied presence will no longer be with them, and they will become an increasing prey to the wiles and the stratagems of the prince of hell. “For our warfare is not first with flesh and blood, but with principalities and powers.”
Every moment of every day, these men would be and all of us most certainly are the objects of the conspiratorial wickedness of the prince of hell. You and I are the objects of the seductions of a passing, dying world. You and I, if we are in Christ, know what it is to experience the remnants of corruption within us, as the Westminster Confession so vividly puts it, remaining or indwelling sin, we know the struggle that we have.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s not easy to be a Christian, and every day that we are kept by the grace of God should be a day of thanksgiving to Him for His mercy and guarding and keeping us. But our greatest enemy is not this seductive passing world or even remaining corruption within us, but the great enemy of God lying behind these, the devil himself. Your greatest enemy this morning is not your indwelling sin, though that is a great enemy.
Your great enemy and my great enemy is the evil one, the devil who was bold enough to confront the Son of God in our flesh and tempt Him to turn away from His Father and to abandon the saving obedience He had pledged to give in the covenant of redemption in eternity. And so Jesus prays, “Father keep them from the evil one.”
And by His sin-vanquishing oblation on Calvary’s cross, He has vanquished Satan. He has spoiled principalities and powers, Colossians 2:15, by His cross. And as the Father beholds the nail-pierced, it will be the only disfigured body in the heavenly glory throughout all eternity, as the Father beholds the nail-pierced hands and feet of His Son.
He sees in those nail prints the triumph of the crucified over the prince of hell. We will be kept by the sin-vanquishing oblation of our redeemer. That’s His intercession and He prays, “Father, keep them.” And as the Father beholds the Son at His right hand, He says as it were, “Son, they will be kept.”
But then secondly, do you notice in verse 17 Jesus prays, “Father, sanctify them in the truth. Your word is truth.” You know, I’m sure that the root meaning of the both the verb and noun “to sanctify” and “those who are sanctified” is “to be set apart,” “to separate.”
In other words, Jesus is praying here, “Father bless these men by separating them unto Yourself.” That’s what it means to live the Christian life, to live unto God. The Christian life is very, very simple. It’s very hard, it’s demanding, it’s costly. Unless you take up your cross daily and follow Christ, you cannot be His disciple.
But the Christian life is very simple. We are called to live unto God, love God, keep His commandments. And Jesus prays, “Father, sanctify them in the truth.” He is praying that these men and those who will come to faith through the witness, the apostolic, inspired witness of these men, would live distinctively different lives from the world into which God had planted them. He does not pray they will be taken out of the world, verse 15, but equally he is not asking them to live like the world. Because Christian believers are the sanctified in Christ Jesus.
One of the tragedies of the modern church, I think, is that we think that influence is dependent on what we consider relevance. Now the church is to be relevant, but we are to be relevant by proclaiming to the world in all its fallenness, the eternal gospel of God. There lies our relevance, not in shaping our lives or being styled in our lives by the fallenness of a dying culture, but by living distinctively different lives.
What is the essence of evangelism? The very finest definition of evangelism I have ever come across is the one given by J.I. Packer. “Evangelism is a Christian living as a Christian in the world.” He’s not decrying endeavors and efforts. He’s not saying there shouldn’t be concerted outreaches. Far from it. But what was the evangelism that turned the early world upside down? It was Christians living unto God. There was a savor of the heavenly about them. There was an aroma of something that was not of this world.
Isn’t that true for many of us here today? What was it that first impacted you? Maybe it was hearing the gospel, and that was what brought me to Christ, ultimately hearing John 3:16. Never heard it before, but it was the life of a boy at school that I couldn’t square with any other life that I’d ever seen in my 16 years of life.
There was an aroma about him. I thought at first he was weird. He wasn’t into anything that I was into. I was in the academic stream; he was not so much. I was really into sport; he couldn’t be bothered. I was into girls, and well he could take them or leave them. But there was something compelling about his life, and it was that that hooked me.
And the Lord is praying, “Father, sanctify them in the truth.” Now notice this, “in the truth.” Jesus does not think immediately of sanctification by Bible knowledge, otherwise the devil would be the most sanctified being on the planet. We are sanctified in the truth. He’s thinking about lives shaped and styled by God’s inerrant Word.
Paul writes about that. Perhaps our English translations don’t really begin to capture the force of what the apostle writes. In Romans 6:17, where he talks about the gospel being like a mold into which we are being poured. God’s truth has a shape to it, and that shape is every word that I have commanded you. The Great Commission is not minimalist; it’s maximal. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
Everything, not most things, not many things, not things that are acceptable to the culture in which we live, but everything that I have commanded you. Christians are never to be cross-grained, angular individuals, but we are called to live distinctively different lives so that people will say to us, “Why do you do that?” or “Why do you not do that?” And we say to them, “Because God has poured me into a mold of His making, by His grace. And I am seeking, however poorly, to live unto Him who loved me and who gave Himself for me.” And that’s why sanctification is unto the likeness of Jesus Christ. The sanctified life is at heart a Christ-like life.
God has predestined us, Romans 8:29, to be conformed to the likeness of His Son. That’s the protasis, what’s the apodosis? That’s just fancy grammar. That’s the first bit, what’s the second bit? “He predestined you to be conformed to the likeness of His Son in order that,” you see the purposes of God don’t terminate on you or on me, “in order that He might be the firstborn among many brothers.”
Why does God sanctify His people? Yes, to make us perfect in righteousness ultimately, but rather that we might reflect eternally the glory of His Son. The gospel is ultimately about the glory of Jesus Christ, not your salvation and not mine. We are saved to bring added glory to the Son of God in whom the Father has delighted from times eternal.
But then thirdly, and this is really verses 20 through 26, He prays that all His people will be one, just as You Father are in Me and I in You. Isn’t it striking? Isn’t it challenging? And isn’t it ultimately, profoundly humbling, sorely humbling that the last prayer in this context offered up by the Lord Jesus Christ to His Father is that His people will be one so that the world might see that you sent me.
Now, I don’t particularly think our Lord has in mind structural unity, though that may be the outcome of His prayer. But He certainly is praying that His people, those who confess Him and profess Him, who belong to Him, for whom He shed His blood, that they will be one.
And in their oneness, the world will look and see something they see nowhere else in this divided, scarified, broken, tragic, sad world. They will see people from all colors and cultures and backgrounds and denominations united in confessing what? That Jesus Christ is Lord in all the fullness of what that word “Jesus” means and what that word “Lord” means. That’s why the Ligonier statement is just so seminal and signal for the days in which we live. This is what we confess.
I’m often reminded of Augustine the great fourth fifth century church father who was being reviled by some fellow Christian believers, and his secretary Alypius wanted to give back as good as they were receiving and Augustine said to him, “Brother Alypius, remember we are washed in the same blood.” It’s a hard thing when Christians who essentially are one in Christ behave as if they were enemies.
I don’t mean that we should soft-pedal our differences or forget our distinctives. I’m an unreconstructed, passionate paedobaptist, covenantal, de jure divino Presbyterian. But brothers and sisters in Christ, I want to embrace with all my heart every blood-redeemed brother or sister, whoever they are. I want to tell them that first we are family. And then I can sit down and show them where they’re wrong. And I do mean this next thing, and listen with rapt attention to where they show me where they think I’m wrong.
One of the things I’ve loved about coming to this conference my first time is to meet people who have, like me, strong, passionate, Reformed convictions. But before they’re anything, they’re blood-bought sinners. That’s our fundamental identity in Jesus Christ. Not that we read Calvin or Owen, dare I say it not even that we read the books of R.C. Sproul, and he would be the first to say, “Amen.” Our fundamental identity is that Jesus Christ has redeemed us by His own blood.
And then thirdly, for whom is Jesus Christ interceding? Who are the them we read about, who draw near to God. Well, they are those who draw near to God. Those are the ones for whom He is interceding. And if you have drawn near to God and received Jesus Christ as He is offered to you in the gospel, it’s for you He is interceding.
However weakly and haltingly and tremblingly your faith in Jesus Christ might be, if it be faith in Jesus Christ, the great thing is this: it’s not your faith that takes you to heaven, it’s faith in Jesus Christ that takes you to heaven. It’s better expressed, “Jesus Christ in whom I have faith.” What is my hope built on? My trembling, weak, inconstant faith? God forbid. “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” My faith will at times fail me utterly, but Jesus Christ will never fail me. He saves to the uttermost all who come to God through Him.
You see, our Lord Jesus Christ Himself is the gospel. If there is one thing I’ve wanted to say in these three addresses, it’s simply that. Jesus Christ is the gospel. He is the good news. It’s not that God gives us salvation as a gift apart from His Son. He gives us His Son, who is our salvation. And that’s why for every one look at yourself, you should take ten looks to Jesus Christ, because all our hope lies outside of ourselves.
Let me finish with two little Latin tags. You’ll love these. All our hope is extra nos, outside of ourselves. That’s the Reformation clarion cry, outside of ourselves. Not in the church, not in its sacraments, not in its priests. All our hope lies extra nos, outside of ourselves. And that extra nos, outside of ourselves is focused on crux probat omnia, the cross is the test of everything.
That’s Martin Luther, “The cross is the test of everything.” That’s where we plant our flag, in the one who lived the one righteous life, as our covenant head and who died the one effective sin-atoning, sin-vanquishing, Satan-conquering death on Calvary’s cross. Who by His substitutionary penal atonement has made for all who believe an everlasting salvation, because, and this is the glory of the gospel, because He is Himself the salvation of God. Let us pray.
Father, we are out of our depths. We know in part. We see through a glass darkly. You have blessed us with Your Word, which is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. But Lord, how little we know. Oh, for grace to know You better, to love You better, to serve You better. Oh gracious Father, look upon us as Your beloved children, poor and needy. May Your face shine upon us and be gracious unto us. May You lift up Your countenance upon us and give us Your peace. And we ask it all in the name of our risen, ascended, reigning, interceding, and returning Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.