“Failure to thrive” is a phrase used by social services to identify babies who are not growing. It is a matter of grave concern. Sometimes it means the baby is in a harmful environment, perhaps ingesting lead or some other substance that inhibits growth, breathing or drinking something harmful. Other factors include illness, congenital disabilities, and sadly, caregiver’s ignorance, or inability, or even neglect.
For any parent, the prospects are terrifying, once their child has been identified as failing to thrive. A permanent record is created, the child often removed from their parent and placed in foster care, and the parent now under close scrutiny.
It is in this very situation the writer saw his readers.
The Hebrew Christians were not growing. Filled with feelings of doubt, tempted to go back to their old familiar ways instead of forward in faith, they were failing to thrive.
The Great High Priest
There is an overarching principle of life—whenever you and I are troubled, we begin with Jesus, not the trouble.
Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.Hebrews 4:14 (NRSV)
Passed through the heavens
On the Day of Atonement, the people would watch their high priest disappear from view as he went into the Holy Place, knowing he would next go past the curtain to the Holy of Holies. In the same way, on the day of His ascension, Jesus passed from the view of His disciples up into the clouds, then through what we would call space, past the three dimensions of our world and into heaven itself.
Just as, for thousands of years, those of Jewish faith knew with confidence the high priest would present sacrifices to God on behalf of the whole nation, so now these Jewish believers were to hold fast to their confession in Jesus. They were to know with confidence that Jesus had presented the ultimate atonement sacrifice on their behalf in heaven.
The Sympathetic High Priest
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.Hebrews 4:15 (NRSV)
In every respect Jesus has been tested as we are.
The writer had taken pains in Chapter Two to show Jesus had been made like people in every way, through suffering. Jesus had also experienced temptation in every way. In fact, Jesus experienced the full force of testing in ways you and I have rarely faced, because Jesus never gave in, no matter how bad it got.
ππειράζω | peirazo — to test
- to make proof of
- to try, to attempt
- to test, try, prove trials and afflictions sent or permitted by God
All the apostles spoke of the value of these tests.
My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.James, brother of Jesus (and leader of the Jerusalem church), James 1:3, 12 (NRSV)
[Jesus] said this to test [Phillip], for he himself knew what he was going to do.John, writing of a test Jesus gave Phillip, John 6:6 (NRSV)
The genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.Peter, 1 Peter 1:7 (NRSV)
The work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done.Paul, 1 Corinthians 3:13 (NRSV)
Such trials and tests are designed, according to the Christian testament, to show us the make of our character, the maturity of our faith, our mettle.
It is not as though God is wondering! But do you and I not wonder where we are in our growth as Christ followers?
The One Who went ahead of us is our Older Brother, the pioneer of our faith. Jesus faced all those tests and trials, blazing the trail for you and me to come up behind Him. He proved to you and me that it can be done! Take heart, Jesus’ ability and power is ours, He has already swung His machete and made a path through the jungle of besetting tests. And He is sympathetic to our fear, our weariness, our doubt and feelings of frailty.
The Approachable and Gracious High Priest
Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.Hebrews 4:16 (NRSV)
The throne of grace.
God’s throne in heaven was symbolically represented by the mercy seat, the cover of the Ark of the Covenant in the tabernacle, and later the temple.
You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold;
. . . You shall make two cherubim of gold; you shall make them of hammered work, at the two ends of the mercy seat.
. . . The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings . . . the faces of the cherubim shall be turned toward the mercy seat.
—You shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark;
—and in the ark you shall put the covenant that I shall give you.
There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat.Instructions for building the Ark of the Covenant, Exodus 25:17-22 (NRSV)
Tell your brother Aaron not to come just at any time into the sanctuary inside the curtain before the mercy seat[a] that is upon the ark, or he will die; for I appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat.Instructions for the Day of Atonement, Leviticus 16:2 (NRSV)
Everything about the tabernacle, and later the temple, was determined by the meaning and purpose of the Ark of the Covenant, at its center.
כַּפֹּרֶת | kaporet — the atonement cover, the mercy seat,
The most notable aspect of the Ark was the pure, solid gold cover, called “the atoning / making atonement.” The root Hebrew words end up meaning to cover over sin, offense against God, by offering propitiation, the act of gaining or regaining God’s goodwill,
God had already provided blood sacrifice as the means to offer propitiation, or atonement, for the life of every creature was in its blood. The blood shed in sacrifice, then, acted as surrogate for the person offering the sacrifice. That is to say, until Jesus offered Himself.
Inside the Ark were kept the two stone tablets of God’s law. Over the law went the atoning, the continuing propitiation or atonement of the people’s offenses against God.
Also within the Ark, eventually, were placed
- a bowl of the manna God provided for the people throughout their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness
- Aaron’s staff, which had miraculously budded as God’s visible affirmation that Aaron alone was to be high priest, and his descendants alone were to serve as priests throughout Israel’s history.
Prophetically, On either end of the atoning covering, the mercy seat, were cherubim, standing guard.
In antiquity, the monarch’s throne would be flanked by trusted guards as both a symbol and a very real emblem of power. So God would appear over the mercy seat in fire and cloud with this symbolic representation of the countless angels who surrounded God’s heavenly throne. An earthly sovereign would declare official pronouncements of law and judgment from the royal dais, so God also conferred with Moses, Aaron, and Miriam from this royal and sacred place.
Thousands of years later, the golden cherubim’s silent testimony would be fulfilled on the day of Jesus’ resurrection, as two angels stood at the head and the foot of the place where Jesus had lain in death, the true atoning cover for the sins of the world.