The Letter to the Hebrews is a masterful letter. Sporting some of the most graceful Greek in all of the New Testament, theologically masterful in its treatment of the Christ as the fulfillment and end of the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament, bold in its confession of the divinity of Christ, Hebrews is a tour de force worthy of contemplation and prayer. So much so, even though the early church didn’t know the author (although many assumed Paul wrote it), Hebrews made it into the New Testament canon and has played an important role in Christian thought.
The letter was written to Jews who were tempted to return to Judaism in the face of persecution. The writer makes clear, though, that the old ways and laws given to the Jews specifically to hedge them off from other peoples until the coming of Christ and to point to and teach about that coming of that Christ, were but a shell now, empty. Christ had come. What use are shadows when you have the real thing? To return to Judaism, to those old ways, now stripped of their purpose and meaning, was to lose everything, even if it meant escaping hardship for a time. It was to lose Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith, Mediator between God and Man. There was no need for more sacrifices. Christ had been sacrificed once and for all. There was no need for a veil to divide God and people. That veil had been torn when Christ died. We have been reconciled to Christ through the Lamb who was slain.
In Hebrews 4 the writer writes some rather terrifying words. Using the example of those who had fallen from the faith in Israel’s history through a failure to hear and cling to the Word, to God’s promise, the author writes:
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” – Hebrews 4:12,13
What is a two-edged sword designed for? Stabbing, repeatedly. Piercing. Dividing, as the writer explains. This is law and gospel, properly proclaimed. Law preached as if all are damned. Gospel preached as if every last sinner is saved. God sends us preachers to do this work, to bring us to our knees and then heal, all by His Spirit. But do me a favor and just hear what the author has to say as law here. Focus on the second of the two verses quoted above: “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13).
How does that sit with you? It frightens me. Naked, exposed in the eyes of the One to Whom I must give account? All my sins, thoughts, words, deeds laid bare, those known but also those carefully hidden, known only to me or my partners in sin, whatever that sin might be, whoever those partners might be. Naked and exposed, that’s how I stand. What a horrifying thought! The very thought makes me want to run back to the shadows and signs, the old ways with a seemingly more distant God, in fact, to lead the charge for those tempted to do so.
But the writer doesn’t leave us there, and thank God.
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” – Hebrews 4:14-16
All my sins exposed, but all my sins covered, blotted out, paid for. How? By a great High Priest who can sympathize with me in my weakness. Christianity turns religion on its head. There is no ladder to come. There is no sovereign, distant, hard-to-read God Who we must figure out how to placate, whether with man-made inventions or through scrupulous devotion to prescribed and sometimes very impressive, observances that we may or may not do well enough, that we may or may not do enough of.
We have a great High Priest for the naked and exposed. He dresses us in His righteousness. He silences our accuser, that old evil foe. Even more, He sympathizes with our weaknesses, because He became one of us to save us. He took our weakness upon Himself, was Himself tested in every way, so that we now pray to a God Who prayed to God in His desperation, find compassion and hope in a God Whose own suffering brought Him only more mockery and Who in the dregs of seeming hopelessness called out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
What does this mean? It means that we now with confidence come before God’s throne of grace. We are loved, undeservedly, but securely. It means we have received mercy. We don’t get the punishment we deserve. It means that we have help in time of need and hope when things seem hopeless. It means we never have to ask if God understands what we are going through, because He absolutely does—dying to turn our death to life, suffering to bring in the midst of the sometimes bitter waters of this world the living waters of eternal life.
This is what Lent is about, and I hope we rejoice in it as we continue our Lenten journey. We have a great High Priest, a High Priest for the naked and exposed. And so we examine ourselves. We ought… we need to do so, because unless we remember how fallen we are, recognize our failures to live up to God’s standards, consider how we’ve wronged our neighbors and failed to serve them, remember that it’s out of our sinful hearts that fallen thoughts and words and deeds flow, we won’t understand the importance and wonder of what God in Christ is doing. He is a High Priest for the naked and exposed. So let the law have its way. Look deep into the mirror. But don’t get lost in the reflection. No, delight that Christ finds you, finds you even then, and is your High Priest Who sympathizes with you, Who is your help in time of need, Who is your robe of righteousness and absolution.