The High Priest That Wept
An article from SVM Spring 2011
Engineer, Brother in Christ.
The writer of Hebrews provided a comprehensive picture for his readers of Jesus Christ as our High Priest, perfected and unchanging, who always lives to intercede and save to the uttermost. The implication by the writer indicates that his audience at the time was unable to receive the full understanding of Jesus as High Priest due to their dullness of hearing – Hebrews 5:11. He also suggests that the failure to do so will limit their experience of the powers of the age to come and tasting the heavenly gift – Hebrews 5:4-5.
Fortunately, our epistle writer decided that he was confident concerning better things for them, and we are also subsequently blessed by the latter presentation of the superiority of the priesthood order of Melchizedek. If we can grasp what is truly being told to us, we also can advance in the faith and experience in greater measure the divine enablement, the grace of God, that Jesus intends for us.
This article is to encourage the recognition of Jesus Christ as our High Priest. The depiction of Jesus Christ as High Priest is not just an effective analogy created by God so we understand the salvation process better but something that is very real because of the manner in which it came into reality. Our lives–our ability to continue to exist–depend on the High Priest’s ability to intercede for us at the Holy of Holies. It is my belief that the success of our sojourn in this world is the experiential awareness and the understanding of Jesus Christ as High Priest is paramount. To do this, we are going to explore the training of the Jesus Christ as High Priest and then connect it with our own. When we do, the appreciation for His empathic capacity may become more real to us, and we can begin to accept in full measure there is nothing He cannot handle as our intercessor before the Father.
The Need for a High Priest
The writer of Hebrews makes a significant statement about the sojourn of Jesus Christ:
“… who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who is able to save him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered.” – 5:7-8
This is a powerful description of the life of Jesus Christ while living as a human, in the flesh, learning what it was to be human, and to qualify as High Priest.
“For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin”- 4:15
High Priest Training
God the Father actually arranged circumstances and situations for Jesus to experience as part of His training as High Priest, and some specific ones are reported to us. However, if we believe the writer of Hebrews that throughout His life he made cries to God, then we undoubtedly are privy to only a few. The word translated supplications in Hebrews 5:7 is an uncommon word in the New Testament. It describes entreats, or earnest requests, approaches for a favor. If we consider this in its totality in the context given, we are to recognize that Jesus Himself asked God to take action over and above what He was obligated to do, even for Jesus, God’s only begotten Son. Moreover, Jesus did so with vehement cries and tears, and He was heard, not because of His status of Son, but for His Godly fear – Hebrews 5:7-8.
Yes, Jesus was motivated to go to God with requests with great need of an answer. Although He was confident in His Father’s protection, He must have understood life as it is for us sometimes with all its bewilderments. Jesus must have understood what He was talking about from His own experience when He said “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” – Matthew 6:34. The life of Jesus Christ is multifaceted, so we should be careful never to impose any limitation on Him.
When we are unsure of what to do, are bewildered, and are frustrated in our walk, we can potentially stumble when we begin to doubt the Father’s will in our lives. At such times, we do not recognize how or why our will, our desires, and even our needs have come into conflict with the Father’s will. When we fail to properly recognize this conflict and identify it for what it is, there is a temptation to deviate from God’s will.
So this now brings us to pose a question. If Jesus Christ always stayed within the full knowledge of doing His Father’s will, how does He qualify to be High Priest to all of us who fall short of this knowledge and who still are learning and growing in understanding of who God is?
The writer of Hebrews gives us a start in understanding the answer:
“… He learned obedience by the things which He suffered, and having been perfected, He became the author of salvation to all who obey Him …” – Hebrews. 5:8-9.
By learning obedience the writer is not suggesting that Jesus was at any time disobedient, which we must rule out, but he is telling us that Jesus learned what it was like to be obedient as a human, and the suffering that comes with it, to an Almighty and Holy God. He learned the temptation to be disobedient, but yet remained without sin – Hebrews 4:15. The suffering and temptation to be disobedient must have been so severe that He offered up “… vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death …” – Hebrews 5:7. The only death that could be in view here is eternal death.
Jesus’ Fear and Our Fear
The writer of Hebrews writes that Jesus was heard because of His godly fear. Are our fear and Jesus’ fear the same?
We are caught in a sense between a holy God and a wise and powerful adversary. This is a precarious position, and we must realize our dependency on God for safety. We are never to take for granted our dependency on God knowing our own proclivities to disobey. The writer makes a point that Jesus never took His direct lineage to God as a means of an advantage to be heard but rather states He was heard for His godly fear. This fear is a religious reverence and calls for great caution. We are called to hold this same fear by the writer of Hebrews in chapter 12, verse 28. Our fears are therefore very much the same as were Jesus’ own fears when He came in the flesh. We are motivated to offer up prayers and supplications to God in our time of need as did Jesus also. It is my belief that His occasions of need far exceeded the severity of our own. If we wish to be heard, we need to know we will be heard for our godly fear.
One of the most expressive emotions of Jesus Christ during His time on earth that is recorded in the Gospels is found in John chapter 11, where we find the shortest verse in the Bible, i.e., “Jesus Wept.” The story is played out in unusual detail compared to some of the other activities of Jesus. In order to understand what brought Jesus to shed tears, we need to develop an understanding of the events that led up to this. If we examine the details of the story as a whole, taking into account the unusual details of the event, something very profound regarding this story emerges.
I believe this may be one of the most misunderstood stories in the Gospel. There are two main ideas that I hear repeatedly presented regarding the emotions of Jesus in this account. One is that He was angered due to the disbelief of those around Him. Another is that He was caught up in the emotion of the moment and was sympathetic to the feeling of loss of a fellow loved one. Although we would like to believe our Lord is very capable of expressing His empathies for such reasons, the context of the story reveals a far more deeply felt, personal trauma than normally is considered.
For the purpose of this article, let‘s explore the story from where it begins. In John chapter 11 we are told that Lazarus of Bethany is sick, and he is the brother of Mary. In verse 2 we are reminded of Mary’s faith, devotion, love, and gratitude for Jesus, for she had been forgiven much.
In their belief that Jesus could help Lazarus, the sisters sent a message to Jesus of his dire condition. Moreover, to persuade Jesus’ attention in the matter and to come to Lazarus’ rescue, the sisters reminded Him of His close relationship with their brother: “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick” – v 3
The word the sisters used for love is phileo. Phileo is an emotional affection, often termed brotherly love. Phileo can be considered the outward demonstration of the kind of love we read in 1 Corinthians 13, agape, which regards another with spontaneous favor, or a charitable love. This would have been something visible in the past by the family of Lazarus in observing Jesus. In verse 36 of this chapter, the Jews observed the same of Jesus when he was in tears because of the matter of Lazarus. “See how he loved (phileo) Him!” – v 36
But Jesus reveals the purpose of the illness that has been brought upon Lazarus, that it was for the glory of God, and that Jesus Himself would be glorified by it. Again, so that there would be no doubt about the validity and source of the personal connection that Jesus had for Lazarus, i.e., Mary and Martha, John himself tells us of the love (agape) He had for them in Verse 5. John is establishing for us the strength of Jesus’ earthly ties to these people, which is necessary if we are to properly interpret the events that are to unfold. Jesus remained in the place He was for two more days.
This tarrying measure was to ensure that Lazarus was dead before He arrived. Although some would like to reconstruct the events with a timetable day by day, it is impossible without speculation to recreate the events in such a way. We do not know long it took the message to reach Jesus of the condition of Lazarus, nor how long he lived after the message was delivered. What we do know is Jesus had purpose in His delay to ensure there was no doubt about the death of Lazarus upon His arrival in Bethany. Jesus Christ invariably knew that He was executing the will of His Father by ensuring that Lazarus was dead. The Father’s perfect will is paramount to Jesus and in the forefront of His mind. Jesus also wanted to take advantage of the occasion to get those whom He loved to believe in Him in greater measure.
As an apparent interlude in verses 8 to 10, the disciples expressed their concern for Him in visiting Lazarus as the Jews sought to stone him in the region of Judea through which they had to travel. Jesus reminded His disciples by analogy of walking in the light, that so long as He and those who follow Him walk in the daylight, they are walking according to His Father’s will. So long as Jesus did His Father’s will, He was under the Father’s protection. There was nothing He should fear that the Father did not permit while doing His Father’s will. The disciples did not appreciate at that point the Father’s protection of His Son until the appointed time, or the inevitability of Jesus’ death. After Jesus confirmed the death of Lazarus to His disciples he expressed the following:
“And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, that you may believe. Nevertheless let us go to him– v 15. The execution of the Father’s will is again emphasized in Jesus’ own words, that He was glad even, that He was not there to heal Lazarus. These plainly spoken words make clear His intentions that the disciples, as well as others, would believe in greater measure of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and His power over life and death. What we see here is the single-mindedness that is needed for Jesus to be successful, as well as an example to all who follow Him. John’s emphasis of the determination of Jesus to hold His Father’s will as preeminent is an integral part of the developing story that is unfolding.
“Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died”
Martha’s words in verse 21 to Jesus expressed the profound disappointment of the Lord’s failure to fulfill her need and Lazarus’ need, to save him from the sickness, which she was absolutely confident He could have done, and indeed she was right. It would be no stretch of the imagination that Lazarus was calling for Jesus from his deathbed for help, which would have only amplified the anxiety of those around him. However, this did not cause her faith she had in Him to fail (verses 22, 27), but she was compelled to express her disappointment. Jesus responded by attempting to take her understanding to the level that the resurrection to life is so strongly tied to Him that He Himself is the resurrection and the life. Jesus does appear to be concerned in comforting her, which He could have perhaps done by telling her in specificity that He would raise Lazarus from the dead in a few short hours. He is more concerned about the victory over death that He brings in the greater context.
“Then, when Mary came where Jesus was, and saw Him, she fell down at His feet, saying to Him “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died”” – v 32.
Mary collapsing at Jesus’ feet likely came about by emotional exhaustion culminating by the sight of the One she counted on the most, but was there too late. Jesus undoubtedly felt it.
“Therefore, when Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her weeping, He groaned in the spirit and was troubled,”- v 33.
I have heard various interpretations of the reasons behind Jesus’ inner emotional response to what He found Himself confronted with. Let us review a few we may be familiar with. That the inner indignation or the feeling of strong emotion, translated here as “groaned in the spirit” expressed in this verse was at the evil of death that had afflicted those around Him. It would be highly unlikely that Jesus was not already acquainted with suffering and death. Throughout His life He would be acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3), and the death was necessary to fulfill the purpose for which He was already passionate about. This does not answer the question as to why He was troubled. For John to write that He was troubled, suggests He was for that moment not prepared, perhaps not certain as to what He had encountered. It has also been suggested that Jesus was angry at their lack of faith in Him, because they did not even consider that He could raise Lazarus from the dead.
This kind of thinking returns us to the discussion above where we erroneously get the idea He was disconnected from the angst of human experience. Besides this, was not the death of Lazarus allowed for the very purpose of bolstering their faith? At the other end of the spectrum we are sometimes asked to believe that Jesus was simply moved with compassion joining in with their distraught emotions over the death of their mutual friend. Such a Jesus is appealing to us, but when the context of the story is considered as whole, this starts to fall short of what was truly troubling Jesus.
As we stated earlier, John gives the account in some unusual detail, commencing when Jesus was first made aware of Lazarus’ imminent death. John gives an account of Jesus being unmoved by the death of Lazarus, even though he had love for him and the family, taking the opportunity to demonstrate the protection of the Father, that he was glad for their sakes that He was not there, for the opportunity that they may believe in Him and increase their faith.
This apparently unmoved Jesus, confident in doing His Father’s will, is suddenly confronted with the grief that could have been prevented had not He delayed for the purposes of executing His Father’s will. He is suddenly coming to terms with how the will of God on this occasion has conflicted and opposed the deep need that humans have and share. To further the acuteness of the impact on Him, it was the grief allowed to be inflicted on those on earth who were closest to Him. What we see expressed by John is Jesus being caught in the inner conflict of doing His father’s will, and the needs of finite human beings. This sudden realization evoked a strong emotional response and troubled Him deeply.
This popular and shortest verse in the Bible should also be interpreted in the context of the drama that has unfolded. In the creation of man, God saw to it that we should have a pressure release valve, and Jesus needed it here without question. The pressure of being human with divine purpose overcame even His personal mental capacity and required such a release. It is very difficult to express the true inner emotions of another, particularly when they are deeply felt as it was with Jesus during this account. John therefore leaves it up to his readers to discover with the level of detail he includes. John was perhaps the best to give the account over the other Gospel writers. It is my belief that John carefully observed Jesus in this occasion, and may have asked Jesus privately on what He went through internally during this encounter.
A Lesson Learned
Jesus Christ is our High Priest, and is qualified to do so.
“Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted” – Hebrews 2:17-18.
When tragedy or illnesses to death strike, Jesus must be aware of how the acuteness of loss might be a temptation for some to fall away. Their faith might not be as developed as it was with Mary and the others. The same applies to betrayal, and all temptation we encounter.
The account of John of the death of Lazarus is an important example for us to consider regarding the training of Jesus Christ as High Priest. We must try to understand it correctly, for it helps us understand how Jesus as High Priest can relate to finite human beings, who in their development as Christians, cannot fully comprehend God’s will at all times.
Therefore, No Excuses
The writer of Hebrews warns his readers in the early chapters to take earnest heed not to fall away as he develops the need and the superiority of Jesus Christ as High Priest. In the past, God spoke to Israel through His servants the prophets in various ways, but now speaks to us always by His Son – Hebrews 1:1. Therefore, although those who were disobedient because of frustration were without excuse in times past, how much less excuse would we have now given all we have been provided by Jesus Christ as our High Priest? Yet, some in the Church of God drift away, using a myriad of excuses.
In my Christian experience, and in the observation of others I cannot help the sense of an undercurrent of frustration, leading to unbelief. The writer of Hebrews must be aware that there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to frustration. Let’s examine the writer’s words that involve our level of obedience in relation to Jesus Christ as High Priest. The writer’s build up to all that Jesus is as High Priest is worth examining.
“Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience. For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of the soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart”-Hebrews 4:11-12.
Why is it necessary that the Word of God be so piercing and dividing? Because your attention is needed – salvation is not a passive process, which frustrates many. For God’s Will to be successfully executed in our lives, we can be sure He will, when necessary, get our attention in ways that will stop us in our tracks. The flesh without bone is useless, totally dependent on one another to move, as is for us the soul and spirit. When the Sword of God penetrates, it will indeed stop us in our tracks and get our attention.
And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account. – Hebrews 4:13.
An essential point being illustrated by the writer to the Hebrews is this:
When the High Priest speaks, if the sword of His mouth is delivered (Rev 1:16), it is delivered with all the authority and empathy that leaves us without any excuse other than to respond in the correct manner.
Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” – Hebrews 4:14-16.
These words given from verses 14 to 16 are not an afterthought, but integral to the prior verses. We are warned not to fall under the same example of unbelief, but immediately we are exhorted to use the available assistance all believers have in Jesus Christ our High Priest, so that we do not fail. The Word of God is not given as a sword to condemn, but to convict. By conviction we see ourselves as we truly are, and this is a key element in our development as Christians. Verse 13 advises not trying to hide anything from the One who can help you. Verse 14 introduces the High Priest who is sympathetic to our weaknesses. The call to go boldly is to not fear retribution, but the opposite. It is the throne of Grace, not the judgment seat. Psalm 95 is quoted twice in chapter 3 and three times in chapter 4.
Let’s take a look at this Psalm also. Consider the transition in verse 7 of this Psalm.
The early verses in Psalm 95 give praise and thanksgiving and a call to worship the Lord, and do not appear to be heading in the direction for a call not to harden our hearts. The transition is found when we are likened to sheep in His Pasture. Once there, it is as though the writer points to the Lord Himself, Who interjects with what He wants the least from those who praise Him the most.
“Today, if you will hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts” – Hebrews 4:7.
Why would we harden our hearts upon hearing His voice? The answer is given in verse 12 – His words can be powerful, sharp and piercing. If the word of His mouth comes to us as described here, we can be sure we are hearing it for a reason. Remember, Jesus Christ did not come to condemn, but to save. This purpose He continues to have as He extends every opportunity to believers who have problems with human weaknesses, and so we all do. Verse 7 tells us we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand. The sudden transition is to the voice of the Shepherd. Recall Jesus words:
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. And I give unto them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of my Father’s hand” – John 10:27-29.
Notice that the Shepherd sees His sheep in His hand. To hear His voice is not just a call to privilege, but a call for repentance as well. Getting our attention is the theme. It is the Shepherd in view that wants His sheep’s attention.
This throne of Grace, on which Jesus sits, was not just made or created, it was LEARNED! It was PERFECTED! There is not an ounce of frustration or despair or angst that this throne cannot deal with. I believe an important remedy for frustration is realizing and accepting the qualification experience of Jesus Christ as High Priest. Jesus Christ poured out His life to the last to qualify to live in the capacity of High Priest, and His Father also ensured that He would. If Jesus prayed in tears to His Father to save him from death, then how close He must have felt He came to deviating from His divinely ordained mission. But He was heard for His godly fear. When we are at a point of giving up, or the point of being overwhelmed, consider the experience of our High Priest. He has been there throughout His life on earth, and if He is now at the right hand of God the Father sitting at the throne of the universe, will He not hear the eternal echo of His own cries to Him? Jesus Christ insisted we believe in Him. This belief in Him must include accepting the entirety of His sacrifice, which includes His suffering on earth. If we can accept this, we have the recipe to navigate through our most difficult times.
As God wanted Jesus to qualify as High Priest over all, so does He desire even ourselves to be successful in our training as being kings and priests. Therefore, He will allow experiences to occur in our walk to stop and show us something we have not seen, or has not occurred to us. God’s intervention at times may leave us bewildered, conflicted and without full comprehension of what is going on. However, our High Priest knows exactly what we are going through, and can provide all the intercession we need as we work it out.
Now this is the main point of things we are saying: “We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens”- Hebrews 8:1.
Our High Priest is sitting at the very throne of God, it is a Royal Priesthood. The Levitical priesthood lacked power, but the priesthood of Melchizedek is a royal priesthood. Even the most sincere love in this world is a frustrated love, but the love of God is love backed by power, mighty to save. The intercessory capacity and love of Jesus Christ is powerful and alive, and the essence of His experience to perfection on earth as High Priest is also powerful and alive in Him today. So when it seems like it has all fallen apart, it is because it was designed already to be put back together by the One who saves. Praise God for His Wisdom and foresight in our lives.