What do you see around you that you would label as ‘glorious’? The things that make you stop to take a second look, the things that make you say ‘Wow!’, the things that take your breath away. Maybe it’s the people around you? Friends, family members, people that make such a difference in your life. Maybe it’s a sunrise or sunset where you see the different colours in the sky and you are in awe of its beauty.
The passage of the Bible which we read that we will be looking at together, Hebrews chapter 2, sets out something else, or really someone else that is glorious. ‘But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.’ (Hebrews 2:9)
It is this glory which belongs to Jesus and is made visible to you and I. The glory that is due to him because by his death, he allows us to face death, the glory that is due to him because by his ministry to us, he helps us to live.
Why does that matter for us today 2,000 years later? Well, what this passage says is that this matters because in his dying for us, Jesus achieves 2 things and sets up the work that he will do for the rest of time. That is, in his dying he gives us confidence to face our own death, and he enables us to live well.
1. He takes away the fear of death
As a young child, my parents tested my food to make sure the temperature was okay. This is so that I could get by unscathed, even if it means they got a burnt mouth in the end! We have, in Jesus, one who has gone before us in his dying to ensure we can face our death with confidence.
Death might be a cause for anxiety for some of us today. Whether it is a fear that we think this life is all there is and so we want to extend our lives to have as much time as possible. Whether the fear of death comes from uncertainty of what is next. We saw during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic how seriously we feared death. We closed down pubs and restaurants, schools and work went online, we tried to reduce our contact as much as possible with others, why? Because of the fear of death.
Death is something that we largely don’t think much about, especially when it comes to our own. It’s easy to think, ‘It’ll never happen to me.’ but when it does come by, what do we do in those moments? We tend to ask the big questions, ‘What about life after death?’
Though many are not religious in Scotland today, we still comfort ourselves by holding onto a notion of the afterlife. A number of friends and family who aren’t religious would still comfort themselves by saying how their granny is in a better place or how their uncle is “having a party up there”
We just lived through a pretty huge moment as a country as the Queen passed on, yet there was something about the funeral which spoke so clearly of her Christian faith and the hope she had in Jesus. I was speaking to a non-Christian friend recently who said that they’d been to humanist funerals and just felt that they were so devoid of hope, yet the Queen’s seemed so full of hope.
Days before her funeral, there was also a service held at St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh and one minister who served there centuries ago, Robert Bruce, was on his death bed with his family surrounding him. Some of his last words to his family was this, ‘I have had breakfast with you all this morning, but I shall have supper with my Lord tonight.’
What can cause the Queen, Robert Bruce, or you this morning to face death with such confidence and hope? Because Jesus has gone ahead of us and leads us to eternal life. Jesus as our forerunner in death allows us to face our own death with confidence because he is more than wishful thinking. It’s certainty. Colossians chapter 2 in the New Testament speaks of Jesus as disarming the powers and authorities over us, that is death, making a public spectacle of it.
Through faith in him, death no longer holds sway over us because Jesus in his dying, took the sting out of death for us. Sure, we all die, but when we do, death does not get the final say, but Jesus does. For those belonging to him, death will not be the end, but we will live forever in endless joy with him. For those whose trust is in Jesus, he says, ‘I am the resurrection and the life, the one who believes in me, though they die, yet they will live.’ (John 11:25) So, therefore if you are a Christian this morning you can look ahead to your death without fear because the sting of death has been taken away and instead life awaits you.
This is what makes Jesus so glorious in our sight. This is what makes him worthy of all praise and honour and glory. In his death, he did what no one else can do. We were all, in the words of our passage ‘… in slavery to the fear of death’ but that fear has been taken away and life forever is granted with him because he went before us and tasted death for us all! We can trust in Jesus’ death in our place to defeat death’s hold on us. We can say this with confidence because ‘we see Jesus’. We see Jesus who came to earth, we see Jesus who died in our place, and we see an empty tomb and a risen saviour. Because he died and was raised from the dead we can be freed from the fear of death, knowing that we can live with him forever, even beyond death in a time where death no longer exists!
2. He takes away the punishment for sin
When we were getting ready to have Alistair, we read books, we listened to podcasts, we went to classes which told us of the highs and lows of parenting but this was a foreshadow of the real thing. They are second best to what is to come. The love you experience when you hold your baby in your arms for the first time, the thrill when they babble for the first time, the joy when they learn to walk. Before you only have things which show you what it’s going to be like, then when your baby arrives, you have the real thing.
Like the resources expectant parents use to prepare for their coming baby, the Old Testament serves to tell us about what things would be like when Jesus came to earth. The Old Testament contains a variety of people and practices which were never intended to be an end in themselves, but which point forward to Jesus. We come across these words in our reading today ‘great high priest’ and ‘atonement’ which you maybe rarely, if ever use, and you may think, ‘What does this mean?’ For this, the passage we read in the Old Testament earlier, the Day of Atonement, is helpful to gain a better understanding of what Jesus has done as the Day of Atonement is a foreshadow of what was to come with Jesus.
On the Day of Atonement, three things were happening: there was a bull sacrificed by someone called the ‘High Priest’ to pay for the sin of the High Priest and his family to even allow him to enter God’s presence. Then a goat would be sacrificed in the place of all God’s people as the wrath of God was turned away from God’s people because the goat absorbed that wrath. Then the high priest would place his hand on the head of the other goat and confess the sins of the people of God, essentially transferring over the record of sin to this goat and then the goat would be released into the wilderness. There the sins were completely taken away from the believer and also out of sight, never to be seen again. ‘As far as east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.’ (Psalm 103:12) When wrongdoing was confessed, the memory of their sins was taken away, not so much from the human perspective, but from God’s perspective. God says through the prophet Jeremiah, ‘I will forgive their iniquities and will remember their sins no more.’ (Jeremiah 31:34) It means that God no longer held the sins against his people.
To bring this to people like you and me today in Kirkcaldy in the 21st century, these sacrifices are no longer necessary because they have been superseded by Jesus. That is indeed the whole message of the book of Hebrews, how Jesus is the fulfilment of these Old Testament practises and people. These sacrifices which had to be carried out once a year on the Day of Atonement has now been surpassed by Jesus’ once for all sacrifice. Rather than something that needs to happen again and again, Jesus’ sacrifice signals that for the people of God, our sins are dealt with permanently because he was the propitiation for our sins. In other words, he was the one who diverted God’s wrath away from us and onto himself.
Our text in Hebrews this morning says: ‘For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make propitiation for the sins of the people.’ (Hebrews 2:17)
Jesus became human so that he could fulfil the role of the High Priest in the Old Testament. On the cross, like the rituals carried out on the Day of Atonement, Jesus took the punishment for our sin and wrongdoing, freeing us from being subjects to God’s wrath. Now we are in the wonderful position as God’s people that our sins are removed from us, as far as east is from the west. God no longer holds our sin against us.
How often have you been in an argument and the other person says, ‘You always do that… it’s like that time that you… don’t think I’ve forgotten that!’ I can assure you one thing, if you are a Christian this morning, you’ll never hear God bringing up your past sins. He’ll never use your sins as a weapon against you. Instead, you’ll hear his wonderful words of peace, ‘I will forgive their iniquities and will remember their sins no more.’ (Jeremiah 31:34)
That’s why we’re here celebrating every Lord’s Day. And especially why we’re celebrating the Lord’s Supper today. At the cross, Jesus absorbed the wrath due to us for our sin. But also, as our sins are placed on him, they are taken away from us. At the Lord’s Supper, we confess that Christ died on the cross to divert the wrath due to us onto himself, to remove our sin from us.
Because of Jesus’ once for all sacrifice of himself in our place, we no longer have to live in fear that our past will catch up with us because our past failings were placed on Jesus, never to be remembered again! Not spending our life on the defensive, we have nothing to be defensive of before God because our defence for all our wrongs is Jesus. This also allows us not to be on the defensive with other people. It gives us the freedom to put our hands up to acknowledge our wrong, to ask others for forgiveness and to know that though we have done wrong, there is forgiveness from God. We needn’t go around under the shame and guilt of our past, because in Jesus, our sins have been dealt with, they’ve been removed from us, they’ve been transferred to Jesus. Our sins are forgiven.
If we have received such forgiveness for our wrongs from God, surely that turns us into the most forgiving people around. What an opportunity it is for the church today to show how merciful God is! Instead of relentlessly condemning others, we, recognising the mercy we have received for our faults, can extend mercy to those who have wronged us. When someone lets us down, or upsets us, instead of cutting them down, we can instead leave our door wide open and offer forgiveness.
3. He gives us his help
How do you deal with your mistakes and character flaws? Especially ones that we seem to get tripped up by again and again. Perhaps you carry on like when you know you’re lost but you’re too stubborn to ask for directions. Maybe you laugh it off as unimportant, or perhaps you see your flaws and look around at others who you think have worse flaws, comforting yourself that you’re not as bad as them.
From my perspective, I just know my own limitations, my weakness in being able to stand up to temptations and walk away victorious every single time. It’s way too easy to give in. And I think, if we’re honest, we can all find our own temptations too difficult to face and win. We might not label it as ‘temptation’ but you know when you just get that urge, say, to gossip about someone behind their back, or you just get so frustrated at something someone does and so you blow up at them, or give them the silent treatment? There is in that moment, often, a realisation that what you’re doing maybe isn’t right, but you struggle to fight it because it feels much better to feed your crave to act in this certain way and so you do it.
That’s why, as Christians, we need to have regular times of confessing our sins to God because as humans we lose the battle with temptation every day, sinning against God and against others. We lose our temper with those we love most, we can choose to put our desires ahead of others. All these things and the many other particulars we find ourselves doing every day, separate us from God and if we are to know forgiveness for our sins, and life in Him forever, we must come to him asking for forgiveness through his son, Jesus. When we do, we can know that God does not hold our sins against us, but offers us forgiveness and calls us to live for him.
‘For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants.’ (Hebrews 2:16)
Jesus’ ministry as our great high priest does not end with his life on earth or his death on the cross where he took the punishment for wrong, but his ministry to us continues to this day. And part of that ministry is a ministry of helping us in our temptation. Jesus himself was tempted to turn his back on God, as we are every day, but crucially he never gave in to temptation which is why he is able to help us in our weakness and temptation, he’s been there before.
How often I’ve been in conversation with others older than me who when I tell them something that has happened, they roll their eyes and say, ‘Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt.’ Yet, Jesus didn’t experience temptation to brag about how he’s ‘been there, done that, and bought the t-shirt.’ but he has experienced temptation more intensely than us so that he can sympathise with us when we are tempted to turn our backs on God and he can be our help amidst our temptation.
Despite our weakness in facing temptation, Jesus does not abandon us. But he is our help as we battle on, he is right there. We might find a certain passage of the bible that comes to mind to help us when we are tempted, or a hymn which reminds us of who God is and what he calls us to. Because he has gone before us, because he has endured temptation, we needn’t despair when our battle against sin seems hopeless because Jesus is our help. He helps us with our temptation by reassuring us he knows what its like, what a comfort derived from the knowledge of a common experience shared with another! That you’re not the only one person who has faced this before! He also helps us with our fight against temptation in that he prays for us.
It says later on in Hebrews, ‘Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.’ (Hebrews 7:25)
Jesus holds us and keeps us close to himself in his prayers and in his sympathy for us, his help goes deeper than even our sin. Deeper than our desperate attempts to beat this addiction. Deeper than our despair that we still can’t beat this sin. Christian, do you think that you are a hopeless case? Do you think that you are drifting away from Jesus without a hope? Look up to Jesus, the glorious one, he is the one who has not only paid for your sin but also keeps you close to himself, he is able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through him.
Therefore, as we go on in the Christian life, please do not despair. Look up. See Jesus in all his glory and beauty, our great high priest who helps us face death by defeating it on the cross. See Jesus, our great high priest who takes the punishment for our sin. See Jesus, who takes our sins away from us and from the sight of God. See Jesus, our great high priest who helps us amidst our temptations in his prayers, and in his sympathy towards us in our temptations.
And as we have someone so sympathetic to us in our temptations because he himself was tempted, so we are able to sympathise with others as they wrestle against their own wrongdoing as we also undergo temptations, and often fail to stand up to them. This allows us not to recoil in horror when a friend shares something difficult they’re struggling with because we know ourselves how easily we are led astray. This allows us to share the hope we have with those who are battling against their wrongdoing by lifting their weary and embattled heads to look up to Jesus who provides forgiveness for sin, his perfect record of goodness before God, and who promises to be their companion throughout temptation as they journey on.
As we get ready to come to the Lord’s Table, remember this is Jesus, the one who is glorious because he took away the sting of death for you and me. This is Jesus, the one who is glorious because he took the punishment for our sin, this is Jesus who removes all memory of our sin, this is Jesus who helps us fight temptation and live for God.