This article is part of the Gentle and Lowly: A 14-Day Devotional series.
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 4:15–16
All our natural intuitions tell us that Jesus is with us, on our side, present and helping, when life is going well. This text says the opposite. It is in “our weaknesses” that Jesus sympathizes with us. The word for “sympathize” here is a compound word formed from the prefix meaning “with” (like our English prefix co-) joined with the verb to suffer.
The word “sympathize” here is not cool and detached pity. It is a depth of felt solidarity such as is echoed in our own lives most closely only as parents to children. Indeed, it is deeper even than that. In our pain, Jesus is pained; in our suffering, he feels the suffering as his own even though it isn’t—not that his invincible divinity is threatened, but in the sense that his heart is feelingly drawn into our distress.
His human nature engages our troubles comprehensively. His is a love that cannot be held back when he sees his people in pain.
The writer to the Hebrews is taking us by the hand and leading us deep into the heart of Christ, showing us the unrestrained withness of Jesus regarding his people. The reason that Jesus is in such close solidarity with us is that the difficult path we are on is not unique to us.
He has journeyed on it himself. It is not only that Jesus can relieve us from our troubles, like a doctor prescribing medicine; it is also that, before any relief comes, he is with us in our troubles, like a doctor who has endured the same disease.
Consider your own life. When the relationship goes sour, when the feelings of futility come flooding in, when it feels like life is passing us by, when it seems that our one shot at significance has slipped through our fingers, when we can’t sort out our emotions, when the longtime friend lets us down, when a family member betrays us, when we feel deeply misunderstood, when we are laughed at by the impressive—in short, when the fallenness of the world closes in on us and makes us want to throw in the towel—there, right there, we have a Friend who knows exactly what such testing feels like, and sits close to us, embraces us.
With us. Solidarity.
Our tendency is to feel intuitively that the more difficult life gets, the more alone we are. As we sink further into pain, we sink further into felt isolation. The Bible corrects us. Our pain never outstrips what he himself shares in. We are never alone. That sorrow that feels so isolating, so unique, was endured by him in the past and is now shouldered by him in the present.
But what about our sins? Should we be discouraged that Jesus can’t be in solidarity with us in that most piercing of pains, the guilt and shame of our sin? No, for two reasons.
Our sinless high priest is not one who needs rescue but who provides it.
One is that Jesus’s sinlessness means that he knows temptation better than we ourselves do. C. S. Lewis made this point by speaking of a man walking against the wind. Once the wind of temptation gets strong enough, the man lies down, giving in—and thus not knowing what it would have been like ten minutes later.
Jesus never lay down; he endured all our temptations and testings without ever giving in. He therefore knows the strength of temptation better than any of us. Only he truly knows the cost.
The second reason is that our only hope is that the one who shares in all our pain shares in it as the pure and holy one. Our sinless high priest is not one who needs rescue but who provides it. This is why we can go to him to “receive mercy and find grace” (Heb. 4:16). He himself is not trapped in the hole of sin with us; he alone can pull us out.
His sinlessness is our salvation.
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