“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, 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 empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are - yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Heb 4:14-16)
Jesus, the High Priest
Hebrews 4:14-16 is one of the most important passages in this book.
Hebrews 4:14 says,
“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.” (Heb 4:14)
Jesus being our eternal high priest is one of the main themes of the book of Hebrews. In fact, the author uses the word ‘the high priest’ in almost every chapter of this book and devotes a good deal of space to explain how Jesus is our high priest and its meaning.
As I said before, priests played important roles in the Old Testament. They mainly served in the tabernacle and led sacrifices and worship. So, in order to understand the meaning of Jesus being our high priest and the benefits we have in him, we need to first go over some basic concepts in the Old Testament.
In Exodus, after the Israelites came out of Egypt, God led them to Mount Sinai and made a covenant with them.
It was like a wedding ceremony. Mount Sinai was a wedding hall. God became the bridegroom and the Israelites became his bride, and they made a covenant together.
After that, God gave the Israelites the Ten Commandments written by God himself. But, It wasn’t only the law they were to follow as God’s people. The two stone tablets served as an official certification which proved the relationship between God and the Israelites.
God also taught them how to make the tabernacle, the place of God’s presence because he wanted to dwell among his people. Just as a married couple can’t live apart, God wanted to live among them, have fellowship with them, and communicate with them.
In the tabernacle, there were the bronze altar where animals without defect were sacrificed and burned and the bronze laver where priests washed themselves after making the sacrifice. But, the most important thing in the tabernacle was the tent.
What’s important about the tent was that it was divided into two rooms by a thick curtain. The first room was called ‘the Holy Place.’ In it were the golden lampstand, the table of bread, and the altar of incense. Only priests could enter the Holy Place to serve.
Behind the Holy Place, there was the most sacred place called ‘the Most Holy Place’. The ark of the covenant, which symbolized the presence of God, was placed there.
Since it was the most sacred place, only a high priest could enter here and on just one day a year, the Day of Atonement, to make atonement for all the Israelites.
The Most Holy Place was divided by the curtain. No one could go into this place because if sinners had met Holy God, they would have died right away. Even when a high priest entered the place, he had to make atonement for his own sin first before that.
The author of Hebrews explains about the tabernacle in chapter 9. He said,
“Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand and the table with its consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant… When everything had been arranged like this, the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry. But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance.” (Heb 9:1-3, 6-7)
These verses explain about the Holy Place, the Most Holy Place, and the Day of Atonement, which are very important concepts in understanding who Jesus is and what ministry he carried out as our high priest. We’ll talk about this later. Today, I want to focus more on the Most Holy Place.
The Most Holy Place And the Ark of the Covenant
The writer said that in the Most Holy Place was the gold-covered ark of the covenant. He further describes the ark,
“This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover.” (Heb 9:4-5)
This is the ark of the covenant. Inside it, there were three things--a gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff, and the two stone tablets of the covenant written by God.
This is what God commanded the Israelites to make at Mount Sinai. God said,
“Make an atonement cover of pure gold - two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends. The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law that I will give you. There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.” (Ex 25:17-22)
So, to sum up, there was the ark of the covenant in the Most Holy Place. And, the ark was covered by the atonement cover. And, above the atonement cover, 2 cherubim faced each other, overshadowing it. The part between the two cherubim is called ‘the Mercy Seat’ because the Israelites believed that God sat and spoke to them there.
The mercy seat was like God’s chair. God sat down here and communicated with his people. It was the place where God met with His people upon His throne. The mercy seat was God's throne here on earth in the midst of his people. That’s why King David called the ark of the covenant "the footstool of our God" in 1 Chronicles 28:2.
The Throne of Grace
The mercy seat is also called ‘the throne of grace.’ It’s not an exaggeration to say that the whole sanctuary was built for the purpose of housing the ark of the covenant.
Remembering all this, let’s read Hebrews 4:16 together again.
“Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Heb 4:16)
Here, God’s throne of grace refers to the mercy seat above the ark of the covenant in the Most Holy Place. When we read this verse, we should have two questions.
First, where is God’s throne of grace now? And, second, how can we approach it? Answering these two questions is vital in Christian life.
First, where is God’s throne of grace now? It is above the ark of the covenant in the Most Holy Place. But now, we don’t know where the ark is because it was lost sometime in the history of Israel. Many archaeologists have tried to find it, but none of them have succeeded.
Then, how can we possibly know where God’s throne of grace is? The answer is, we don’t have to try to find it because in the New Testament, we are the ark of the covenant.
There were three items in the ark and the most important one was the stone tablets. I said that it served as an official marriage certificate between God and the Israelites. That’s why the most important object of Israel was not something made of gold or silver, but the stone tablets.
We see its importance by the fact that it was written by God himself. Everything—even the ark and the mercy seat were made by humans but only the stone tablets were written by God.
Have you ever thought about how glad God was when he engraved the words on them? He must have been as excited as a bridegroom getting ready for his wedding.
Therefore, the reason the ark of the covenant was so important was not because the ark itself was an important thing, but because it contained the stone tablets. Without the tablets, the ark itself is nothing. What is important are the tablets, not the ark. In other words, the ark of the covenant is where the stone tablets written by God are.
Then, where are the stone tablets now? Let’s read Heb 10:16 together.
“This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds” (Heb 10:16).
Here, the writer is quoting from Jeremiah 31:33, which is famous as the New Covenant. When God handed over his people into the hands of the Babylonians for their sins and rebellion, he promised that he would renew them and recover them one day and that on that day he would put his laws in their hearts, not on stone tablets.
This was achieved through Jesus Christ, the mediator of the new covenant. Through Jesus Christ, we can have access to God and have a close relationship with him. Now, we don’t need the stone tablets anymore because our hearts themselves become the tablet of the covenant.
This fact leads us to the next one. If our hearts are the tablets of the new covenant, we become the ark of the covenant. That’s why I said earlier, we are the ark of the covenant.
And, this also leads us to next great truth. If we’re the ark of the covenant, we don’t have to go to a specific place to find the throne of grace, the mercy seat, where God’s presence is. That’s because it is always with us wherever we are if we truly believe in Jesus and have a relationship with our heavenly Father through him.
Now, we can approach God’s throne of grace with confidence wherever we are and receive his mercy and find his grace to help us.
Remembering this truth is very important in Christian life. Sometimes, we feel like God is far away from us. We feel that he doesn’t hear our prayers or isn’t really interested in us. That’s the lie through which Satan deceives us.
We should remember that God’s throne of grace is always with us. To make this happen, God sent his only Son to the world and had him die, bearing all our sins, to tear down the thick curtain that had separated us from the Most Holy Place, his presence.
Now, in Christ, and through Christ, we can call God, Father, and have access to him wherever we are. God is much closer than we feel he is. God never leaves us alone, but is always there for us.
Sometimes, our feelings and situations deceive us that God is far from us, but when we really seek him and pray to him, we will immediately notice the fact that God has always been with us and helped us even when we didn’t see it.
The author of Hebrews said that we have a great high priest who is able to empathize with our weaknesses—Jesus Christ. When we’re confident that he cares for us, we can stand firmly even when things don’t go well and our faith is weak.
In this chapter, we encounter the most important invitation in the New Testament. We’re to approach God’s throne of grace with confidence. Here, at the throne of grace, we experience God’s amazing mercy that purifies us and covers all our past sins. We also find his grace that fills our needs today.
Therefore, we should never neglect prayer life. Not setting a time for prayer in our daily lives is the same as believing that we don’t actually need his mercy and grace. That’s exactly what arrogance is.
So, the book of Hebrews encourages us to go to the throne of grace, the mercy seat of God. He understands us, he knows our weaknesses, and renews us with his mercy and grace. So, neglecting prayer is to lose the most important and timely resource, because as Christians, all help comes from God’s throne of grace. Amen!