In this passage the author argues that we have a sympathetic high priest, Jesus, the Son of God, who “passed through the heavens” and that we can now come with confidence to Him who sits on the throne.
This high priest is appointed by God from among men for men (as was Aaron and his successors; 5:1-10). Our high priest, however, is not a priest after the order of Levi (or: high priestly order of Aaron), but after the order of Melchizedek. This argument then is “interrupted” with the third warning passage (5:11-6:20) and resumed in chapter 7 and following.
Having shown in the previous verses (i.e., 4:12-13) that we are helpless and utterly exposed to the Word of God, the author stirs our attention to God’s provision. Through the gracious providence of God, giving us a merciful and faithful high priest, we are able to come to His throne with confidence! “The more desperate their situation is before the all-seeing eye of God, the more wonderful is his provision for their needs” (O’Brien, 180).
In verse 14 of chapter 4 the author comes back to his argument about Jesus being a “high priest” (cf. 2:17; 3:1). Being warned and exhorted not to “fall away from the living God” (3:12), they now receive a message of strongest encouragement. “Look! What a High Priest we have!” is the author’s intent of this. He is Jesus “the high priest par excellence” (Hughes, 169; emphasis original).
An interesting phrase is used by the author of Hebrews; he calls Jesus a “great high priest” (Gr: archierea megan). In most OT instances the word for “high priest” (Heb. kōhen gādôl ) already means “great priest” (Bruce, 115, n 63) and thus megas “may anticipate the comparison between Jesus and other (high) priests which begins in 5:1; or it may reflect the author’s conviction that Jesus is a high priest of an entirely different order” (Ellingworth, 266).
Why is He so great? Hughes (169) gives us three points: (1) because He made purification for our sins (cf. 1:3), (2) because He is able to help in our temptations (cf. 2:18), and (3) because he “passed through the heavens” and secures the heavenly rest which is promised to the people of God (4:1-11; cf. John 14:2f).
Whatever else the phrase “through the heavens” may imply, the author for sure speaks about Jesus having gone to the “supreme place” (Morris, 46) where God Himself dwells (cf. 9:24).
As a conclusion to this verse we can state that the readers are now shown how they can persevere in their faith. This can happen by the strength of the “merciful and faithful high priest” (2:17), Jesus, the Son of God, who will help in time of need (4:16). And when are we not in need?
The readers may now (v. 15) object that Jesus is cold and distant to their weakness because of His heavenly exaltation (Lane, 114; Hughes, 171; O’Brien, 182). But the author already established that the Son was fully human in 2:14-18 and now elaborates in that Jesus suffered temptation “in every respect as we are.” Davidson observes that this phrase does not necessarily mean that He experienced every single trial/temptation, but that He was “schooled in trial so as to have a fellow-feeling and bear gently (v.2) [i.e., 5:2] with those tempted” (107).
Staying on the last observation Peterson further writes that “only he who resisted temptation to the end knows its full weight” (in loc.) Temptation itself is neither evil nor good. Only by the response to it temptation becomes the means to virtue (if resisted and overcome) or sin (if given into) (Hughes, 172). He was “tempted as we are yet without sin.” Jesus did not commit a sin. He was perfectly sinless a lamb without blemish (9:14). If he would have sinned, his sacrifice would have been insufficient and our salvation not achieved.
The double negative of “we do not have a high priest who is unable” states the most positive, “we do have a high priest who is very much able to sympathize.”
He is able to empathize and sympathize recalls he being able to help (2:18) and further anticipates that he is able to deal gently (5:2), able to save completely (7:25), and able to perfect our consciousness (10:1, 11; cf. O’Brien, 182).
That Jesus was tempted “in every respect” as we are and that he did not commit a sin “is a real ground for encouragement, for the best help is that afforded by those who have stood where we slip and faced the onset of temptation without yielding to it” (Moffat, 59). We can surely trust on the strength of him who created us and who became flesh and lived among us, who was tempted as we are, and did not commit a sin!
All what he has said in the previous two verses leads the author to this conclusion (v. 16): “Let us draw near. Let us draw near with confidence!” We can do that because our “great high priest […] passed through the heavens.” His ministry is more than sufficient for anyone who believes in Him to draw near. The veil is torn (Mk. 15:38; Mt. 27:51) and the entrance to the Holy of Holies is open for us (this actually foreshadows the author’s discussion in chs. 7-10).
Interestingly the author makes use of the phrase “draw near with confidence” which is in stark contrast of the reader’s spiritual state. In 10:35 we read that the author urges “do not throw away your confidence” which they are on the verge to do (cf. Hughes, 174).
We can come near “to the throne of grace”. This phrase is a figure of speech called “metonymy of adjunct.” Something (the adjunct) is named for the subject. Here the throne of grace is named in place of God Himself. The author might use this figure of speech to communicate God’s character as being full of grace (cf. Davidson, 108).
The purpose of drawing near to our gracious God is “that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Here the author shows that “[t]he ‘sympathy’ of Jesus is shown by practical aid to the tempted, which is suitable to their situation, suitable above all because it is timely” (Moffat, 60). As Moffat alludes to εἰς εὔκαιρον βοήθειαν (in time of need) is better translated as “for timely help” (cf. Bruce, 117; Morris, 46-47; O’Brien, 186).
God is and will be always there, especially in times where we need Him most. He is a God full of grace and we do well to come to Him and ask for His strength. It is not because of us, but because our high priest, Jesus Christ, passed through the heavens that we can hold on to our confession and come with confidence to our Creator and Sustainer.
Davidson, A. B. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
Ellingworth, P. The Epistle to the Hebrews : A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids; Carlisle England: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1993.
Hughes, Philip Edgcumbe. A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1977.
Lane, William L. Hebrews. 1-8. Word Biblical Commentary, v. 47A. Dallas, Tex: Word Books, 1991.
Moffat, James. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Edinburgh: Clark, 1948.
Morris, Leon. “Hebrews.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. With the New International Version of the Holy Bible, Hebrews–Revelation Volume 12. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, v. 12. Ed. Frank Ely Gaebelein. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1981.
O’Brien, Peter T. The Letter to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; 2010.
Peterson, David. “Hebrews.” New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition, 4th ed. Ed. D.A. Carson, et al. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.