Able to Save
Series: Easter 2022
On Easter we celebrate that Jesus rose from the dead. But why does it matter that He’s still alive? Because He’s still alive, He can save you completely.
Hebrews 1-8 (Word Biblical Commentary), William Lane
Hebrews, John Owen
Gentle and Lowly, Dane Ortlund
It’s Easter Sunday, the day many Christians throughout the world have chosen to set aside to focus especially on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. As we have already read in our service, Jesus was a real human who really died, and then really came to back to life, not in spirit, not in our memories, but the body that went into the grave dead came out of the grave alive three days later, and still lives today. And there are all kinds of reasons that’s a big deal: It proves Jesus is who He said He was, it begins a new creation where all the sad things come untrue, it gives a factual, historical foundation to Christian faith as opposed to mere mythology, and much more. But the text on which we’re focusing today from Hebrews 7 points out an element of the resurrection’s significance that is perhaps obvious, and therefore overlooked: It’s because Jesus is still alive today that Jesus is still able to save us today. If Jesus had died and stayed dead, He couldn’t save us, because dead people can’t do anything. They’re dead. If Christianity was about you saving yourself by following Jesus’ teachings, then it’d be no problem for Jesus to remain dead. We have His teachings written down for us, and we could just go save ourselves by doing them. But that’s not what Christianity is about. At the center of Christianity is the claim that Jesus saves, and therefore if He’s not alive, there is no Christianity. It’s just a word identifying a social group. But because He is alive, because He did rise from the dead, Jesus can save you completely. To see that, we’ll talk about His ability to save, who it is He saves, and how He saves.
His ability to save
Our passage begins with a reflection on the former priests, noting that they were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office. Clearly none of them were able to completely save, because if they were, there would only have been one of them. He would have saved us completely, and there would have been no need for another. But that wasn’t the case. In fact, they were many in number, because every one of them, no matter how faithful a priest he was, died. Death is the curse God pronounced on sin, and even the greatest of priests was still a sinner. Under the sacrificial system that God instituted before the coming of Christ, a priest might burn the incense just right, undergo the cleansing rituals to the letter of the law, offer all the appointed sacrifices on your behalf, and pray for you night and day. But the day he dies, all of it will be good for nothing. Sin once, and he will no longer be there for you to offer a sacrifice on your behalf.
This is important for the author of this book to point out because his audience was tempted to forsake Christ and return to Judaism. Many of you here today don’t struggle with that; you may have never met anyone going by the title of “priest” in your life. Of course, the Roman Catholic church still claims to have priests, and the critique here applies equally well to them: they are many in number, because they are prevented by death from continuing in their office. But while you may not look for salvation from a priest, we often look for salvation from people. How often is our reassurance in life grounded upon our acceptance with some person or community? When we are anxious and afraid, we long to be with family that accepts us, with a significant other who reaffirms their love for us. I remember an unhealthy relationship I was in, where whenever I would feel insecure, I would call or text the girl to gain a sense of assurance from her love for me. Now there’s no doubt that the love of family and friends should be a great source of comfort to us, but if it’s your ultimate source, if they’re your priests, as it were, consider this, however uncomfortable it is to do so: How will they reassure you when they’re buried in the ground? Who will answer the phone in that day, or respond to the text?
Here’s the difference with Jesus, verse 24: He holds His priesthood permanently, because He lives forever. Like the former priests, Jesus died, but unlike them, His death was not the end of His priesthood. Rather, His death was an essential element of His priesthood. A large part of the ministry of priests was to offer sacrifice on behalf of the peoples’ sins. In this God instituted a representation of our need and the solution: Because God is just, all evil deserves punishment. But because God is also gracious, He provides a way for our evil to be punished without us being punished. We are guilty and God is just; otherwise no sacrifice would have been necessary. But God is also gracious; otherwise no sacrifice would have been available. So the priests would offer these sacrifices as a symbolic substitute, the animal offered bearing the sins of the people and being punished for them. Then the priest would die, and no longer offer sacrifices. But Jesus is different, because the sacrifice He offered was Himself, the truly perfect human who because He was human and perfect, could bear the sins of other humans and accomplish a true atonement for them, not a merely symbolic one. But if He had stayed dead, His priestly work would have remained incomplete.
So today on Easter Sunday Christians throughout the world celebrate the fact that He rose again and ascended into heaven, to present Himself, having already been sacrificed, in the heavenly temple, and to remain there forever on our behalf. Because of the resurrection, Jesus is still in office as priest today. Because of the resurrection, He will never be removed from office, because He will never die again. You don’t have to consider, “What good will His love be to me when He’s buried in the ground?” because He already was buried in the ground, the ground couldn’t hold Him, and He’s never going back. Consequently, verse 25, He is able to save to the uttermost.
Now, of course we could say that because Jesus is truly God, He is able to save, because He is able to do anything. He is omnipotent. That’s not what the writer of Hebrews is talking about here, though. Here His ability to save is the consequence of something else: Namely, His permanent priesthood. His ability to save is a consequence of His office, because God has not set up salvation to function in an arbitrary manner. He promised eternal life on the condition of perfect obedience, death on the condition of any disobedience. So once we have disobeyed, God is bound by His own justice and promise to issue the curse of death, and though He has the power to do anything, it would be a violation of His own character for Him to then save us from it without somehow satisfying the demand of His justice. Therefore, God instituted an office, the priesthood, where the priest would act as a representative of the people, and then He came and filled it Himself in the person of His Son, who offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sins, thus satisfying the demand of God’s justice, and rising from the dead to present that sacrifice in heaven, never to die again, so that now because He holds that priesthood permanently, He is truly able to save to the uttermost.
In the Bible, salvation is principally from 3 things: 1.) Sin, 2.) The curse of the law, and 3.) The wrath of God coming in the final judgment. So also the Bible speaks of salvation as past, present, and future. We can say we have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved. Which of these, then, is Christ able to affect? Is He able to save from sin, from the curse of the law, or the wrath of God to come at the final judgment? Is He able to save us in the past, in the present, or in the future? The answer of Hebrews 7:25 is yes. He is able to save to the uttermost. There is not a single part of salvation, whether from sin, the curse, or the coming wrath, whether past, present, or future, that Christ is not able to accomplish! There is not a single percentage, not a single fraction of a percentage of our salvation, that Christ is unable to do.
What do you need today for your complete salvation? Maybe you lack the beginning of it, what the Bible calls justification, where our sins are forgiven and we are declared righteous by God. How could you ever attain it? No priest, nor any sacrament administered by a priest, can give it. You are guilty of sin, you can’t make excuses for it, and when you try to do better, you find you commit the same sins again. But Jesus is able to save you from sin and its curse. Many of you here today are Christians, and so you can truly say, “I have been saved.” But you still need to be saved from the ongoing influence of sin in your lives. Jesus is able to save you in this way too. You still need to be saved from the accusation of the law when you sin against it again, that sting on your conscience that you can’t just ignore indefinitely; Jesus is able to save you in that way too. And you still need to be saved in the end, to be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, and Jesus Himself is able to save you in that way too. He’s taken it upon Himself not only to save you on the cross, not only to save you in your conversion, but to raise you up on the last day. There is nothing you need for salvation that He lacks. He is able to save to the uttermost. But who is it that He saves?
Who He saves
Verse 25 tells us that He is able to save to the uttermost a specific subset of the total human population. He is able to save those who draw near to God through Him. In the Gospel accounts, the stories of Jesus’ life, those who are miraculously healed by Jesus not only believed He was able to heal them; they came to Him. And they came with varying degrees of faith. One who came even admitted that he needed help with his unbelief. And yet all of them, believing that Jesus was able to provide the cure they needed, came to Him. So here, if you believe that Jesus is able to save to the uttermost, then draw near to God through Him, and He will save you.
While Scripture elsewhere speaks of saving faith as coming to Christ, as in the Gospel accounts, here the focus is on coming to God the Father, through Christ. In essence these are the same things, but viewed from different perspectives. Here the concept certainly includes initial, saving faith: We renounce not only our sins, but all of our dependence on our good works, and draw near to God through Christ, not our goodness. This is one the great barriers for many truly coming to Christ. We think He can’t do all the work of salvation. It can’t be as simple as drawing near to God through Him; I must also need to give some explanation for my sins. I must assure God, myself, and others that I’ve been through a lot in life, and if only I’d had an easier life like so many others, I wouldn’t be guilty of sin. Or perhaps I must need to convince God, myself, and others, that I don’t have true sins. Sure, nobody’s perfect, but I’m not one of those people who do terrible things. Ok, I can admit I’ve sinned, but here’s what else I can do: I can promise never to do it again. I’ll make it up to God and those I hurt. I’ll do good from here on out. Ok; I’m still not really sure, so here’s what I’ll do: I’ll find a priest to tell me I’m ok, and I’ll go through whatever ritual he tells me to do to make him say that.
Do you see how in each of these cases, by drawing near to God through another priest, through your good works, through your excuses, through your resolutions, you aren’t drawing near to God through Christ? That’s why our catechisms and membership vows describe true faith as receiving and resting on Christ alone for salvation. If you are drawing near to God through anything in addition to Christ, you aren’t drawing near to God through Christ at all. He doesn’t need anything else to be able to save you, and if you think He does, all that shows is that you don’t believe He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through Him. Why do you think you need those things? Do you think Jesus is unable to save a guilty sinner with no excuses, no good works, and no ability to improve him or herself? Here’s the catch: Those are the only people who exist. Before Jesus saves us, that’s what we all really are. As Dane Ortlund puts it, “We are to-the-uttermost sinners. We need a to-the-uttermost Savior.” And that’s who we have in Jesus. Draw near to God through Him, and He will save you completely.
Many of you here today have no doubt done that; if you’re a member of our church, it’s because as best as we can tell, you have done that. But the verb here translated “draw near” is a present tense verb. It’s not, “He is able to save to the uttermost those who have drawn near to God through Him,” but those who presently draw near to God through Him. There is an initial exercise of faith in Jesus, when we draw near to God through Him for the first time and are saved, which I’ve just been talking about, but that’s not the only way we draw near to God, and it’s probably not the main way in view in this verse. Throughout Hebrews, to draw near to God is to engage in the activity of worship. Those Jesus saves are those who engage in the activity of worshiping God through Him. That doesn’t mean our action in worship is what saves us; this text is clear that Jesus saves us. Nor does it mean we are justified by engaging in the activity of worship; that’s in the past tense part of salvation, and received by faith the moment we believe. But it does mean that anyone who claims to be saved by Jesus, but does not engage in the activity of worshiping God through Him, is deceived. The people Jesus saves can genuinely be described as those who worship God through Him.
For the writer to the Hebrews, this is contrasted with those who worship God through the Jewish priesthood. They try to draw near to God through animal sacrifices, incense, and keeping the food laws. They think there is still sacrificial work to be done by a priest for their salvation. So today I can’t help but mention the Roman Catholic Church one more time, where those who engage in its worship think that they still need a priest to re-offer the sacrifice of Christ on their behalf. But let’s not let ourselves off the hook. We often hesitate to draw near to God because functionally, we’re still trying to come to Him through our works, and on the days where we sense our works aren’t good enough, we stay away. So many, when they know they are walking in sin, will stay away from church gatherings. The church reminds them of the guilt of their sin, so rather than facing it, they avoid it. They think they can’t draw near to God in worship, not with the way they’re living.
Others of us are good church-goers, but consider your prayer life. Why are we often so hesitant to draw near to God in our time of need? Isn’t it often because we functionally think we need to get ourselves together first? I assume once I’ve thought about this situation clearly, then I’ll be able to approach God about it and offer Him a well put together prayer. When we’re stressed, why do we run to the phone, the TV, the refrigerator, the bottle, the girlfriend? Isn’t it because we’re afraid to draw near to God? Look; I don’t care how bad you feel, or how far from God you are: There is never a bad time to draw near to God through Christ. He still holds His priesthood, and so He is still able today, whatever your situation, to save you if you draw near to God through Him. If you let your own goodness, your own “I’ve got this figured out”ness, be the thing through which you come to God, you often won’t feel like you can draw near to Him. But if you come to Him through Christ, who holds His priesthood permanently, there is never a moment where you cannot draw near to God through Him. Draw near in prayer in your time of need. Come to church and draw near in worship, however weak and unworthy you feel that day. If you find you don’t want to draw near to God through Christ, do you want to want to? Then start there, draw near from the distant position you find yourself in, and Jesus is more than able to change your desires. Finally, how does He do this saving work?
How He saves
I’ve already alluded often to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross as a key part of His priestly work and necessary for our salvation. However, it is not the part of His priestly activity on which this text focuses. The big deal here is that He is able to save the uttermost because He’s still alive, and never will die. The saving activity it’s focusing on, then, is not something He did in the past, like His death, but something He’s doing now, while still alive, which the last part of verse 25 identifies for us. Here’s how He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through Him: He always lives to make intercession for them. He always lives to do something, now, for His people, namely, to “make intercession” for them. To make intercession for someone in the simplest sense means to plead on someone’s behalf. An employee may intercede for a friend to help them get a job at their company, a social worker may intercede for a child to get them the services the need. Perhaps most relevant to our context, a lawyer may intercede for a defendant in a trial, advocating for their acquittal. When that intercession is directed toward God however, it is essentially prayer. This verse is telling us that the reason we can have such confidence in our salvation, the reason we can so trust that Jesus is able to save us to the uttermost as long as we draw near to God through Him and through nothing else, is because He’s alive today praying for us.
I listened to an interview with Pastor Tim Keller a few months back, who has pancreatic cancer. And he said in the interview that he could really feel the comfort of how many people were praying for him. I know that feeling too; when I’m overwhelmed, I’ll often text some friends and ask them to pray, and when they respond even by simply saying, “Praying for you Mike,” it comforts me. But what if you believed in every moment that Christ was praying for you? Robert Murray M’Cheyne once said, “If I could hear Christ praying for me in the next room, I would not fear a million enemies. Yet distance makes no difference. He is praying for me.” And if you are in Christ today, He is praying for you, and will never stop praying for you until your salvation is complete, your salvation and the salvation of all His people scattered throughout time and space.
Now Scripture never gives us the words of His prayers as He is presently praying them to the Father. Perhaps He’s not using words, perhaps His prayers are the groanings of the Holy Spirit too deep for words; God doesn’t tell us everything we might want to know. But we can get some hints of the content of His intercession from the prayers He prayed on our behalf on earth. Perhaps the most basic and foundational of these is the prayer He prayed while on the cross: “Father, forgive them.” So He continues to pray for His sheep who have not yet believed His Word, that the Father would have mercy on them and call them to Himself. In John 14 He tells His disciples one way He is going to pray when He returns to the Father: He will ask the Father to send another helper, the Holy Spirit, to be with them forever. So the supply of the Holy Spirit to us, to give us eternal life, to lead us into the truth, to work in us His fruits and gifts, to keep us to the end, is a result of His intercession. In Psalm 2:8, God tells Him: “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance.” The salvation of people from every nation will come as an answer to Jesus’ prayer. He prays in John 17 that God would sanctify us in the truth; His Word is truth. Our sanctification is an answer to Jesus’ prayer for us. He prays that God would keep us from the evil one. Our preservation is an answer to Jesus’ prayer for us. He prays that we would all be one; our unity with one another as Christians is an answer to Jesus’ prayer. In 1 John 2, the theme of forgiveness comes up again, but now for believers, where John assures that if any of us do sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, who prays for the ongoing cleansing of our sins. And finally, He prays in John 17 that the Father would take us to be with Him where He is, to see His glory.
In other words, He prays for our complete salvation, and therefore He is able to save us completely. He saves us to the uttermost by praying for our uttermost salvation, from our conversion to our sanctification to our preservation to our glorification. Do you see then the love of Christ, the deep concern He has in Himself for us? Why is it often comforting to know others are praying for you? Why is it so meaningful when someone not only tells you they’ll pray for you, but prays for you right there and then, and then comes back to you a week later and says, “Hey, how’s your anxiety? I’ve been praying for you since we spoke.” It’s meaningful for one, because God answers prayer, but it’s also meaningful because it communicates to you: “You matter to me. This week, I thought about you, and so I prayed for you.” Do you see that’s what this text is saying Jesus’ heart is toward those who draw near to God through Him? He’s thinking about you, and praying for you now before the Father. He’s interceding for you, not against you. He’s praying for the forgiveness of your sins, not their condemnation. He’s praying for your sanctification, not that you’d continue in sin. He’s praying for your protection from Satan, not that God would hand you over to Him. He’s praying the Father would bring you to be with Him, to see His glory, not keep you away from Him. How could anything in your life possibly fail to work for your good with this kind of advocate in your corner?
This is how He saves. It’s different from the other ways we look for salvation, isn’t it? When I was describing the unhealthy relationship earlier in which I depended on texts and phone calls from a significant other, maybe you thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get those texts and phone calls from Jesus? Since He’ll never die, we’ll never run out, right?” But here’s the deal: Even if you could find the significant other that never dies, they can’t save you completely. A text isn’t salvation; it just feels good. Our problem, actually, is we think that’s what we need most. That’s one of the things we need to be saved from. What we truly need is a perfect record of righteousness, a perfect sacrifice for sin, victory over death, forgiveness, sanctification, preservation, unity, glorification. And these we have in Jesus, because He always lives to make intercession for us.
Finally, notice the love of the Father in this, that He would institute such a priesthood, and send His own Son to fill the office for us. One of the dangerously mistaken ways of thinking about Christ’s intercession is as a loving and compassionate priest assuaging an otherwise unwilling God. But if God were unwilling to save us, He never would have instituted the priesthood. The moment we sinned, we’d have all been cast into hell. If God were unwilling to save, He never would have said to His Son, “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance.” All throughout the Bible, God’s willingness to answer prayer is evidence of His love, not His distance. It’s because He is our good Father who loves to give good gifts to His children that He is delighted to answer the prayers of His ultimate Son on our behalf. Because Jesus is risen from the dead, he always lives now to make intercession for us. There will never be another priest, and we will never need another priest. However far from God you may feel today, draw near to Him through Christ, and He will save you completely.