In Hebrews 4:14-16, we have a convincing picture of Jesus Christ as a compassionate high priest: “Seeing then that 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 cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” I would like to examine this passage in a way that you have perhaps never considered, and that is from the point of view of the implications of the nature of Christ and specifically the source of the temptation that he dealt with while he was a human being .
We know that Jesus Christ was tempted. Most famously, he was tempted by Satan in the wilderness after having fasted for forty days, and His success in that temptation immediately after His baptism signified the moment that Satan’s dominion was at an end, even if its final destruction has been held in abeyance until the time is right. We will have much to say about this experience in the wilderness and its significance anon but for the moment is simply necessary to say that it is this sort of experience that the author of Hebrews is referring to when he says that Jesus Christ was tempted in all points as we are. Unsurprisingly, Paul and the author of Hebrews have a particular interest in demonstrating Jesus’ fitness to be our Savior and High Priest precisely on the grounds that He had endured the temptation that is common to mankind but successfully endured it without sin, in stark contrast to the way that human beings frequently succumb to this temptation. Yet, as we have previously noted, the temptations that Jesus Christ suffered from were external temptations. Nowhere do we see that Jesus Christ had a corrupt internal human nature that lured Him to sin in the fashion that people were lured to sin.
It would seem at first glance that this lack of empathy (because of an absence of that corrupt aspect of human nature) would hinder Jesus’ effectiveness as a high priest. After all, let us look at the grounds by which the author of Hebrews notes that Jesus is an effective high priest, namely that he sympathizes with our weaknesses. Yet, although He was tempted by Satan, He never fell into sin, and therefore He does not know what it is like to be a sinner even if He knows better than anyone the horrible burden it is to carry the weight of the sins of the world on His shoulders. The moral perfection of Jesus Christ was essential in Him being a fitting substitute for us, for it was only a sin offering without blemish that could be accepted on our behalf. If Jesus Christ had failed in living a sinless life and in fulfilling the will of God that the world could receive an opportunity for salvation and that we who believe and trust in Him should have the righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed to us, then we would have died in our sins because it would have been necessary for everyone to die for the sins they committed, and eternal life would have been unattainable for mankind forever.
There are many aspects of Jesus Christ that we do not wish to discuss at length, but which it is important to note because they appear in Hebrews and are part of the overall argument of the author of Hebrews on the superiority of Jesus Christ as a high priest to the levitical priesthood that was already passing away and would soon vanish after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70AD. Over and over again in Hebrews Jesus’ superiority by virtue of being sinless, by the fact that He is heavenly and not subject to earthly corruption, and by the fact that He brings better promises, and even by the fact that He is of a higher order of priesthood in being of the order of Melchizedek, who received the tithes of Abraham and was thus the greater being in the economy of believers to the ancestor of Levi. There are many fascinating implications to these questions, some of which I have discussed elsewhere .
What I would like to discuss here, though, is the aspect of Jesus’ priesthood that demonstrates His sympathy for sinners despite His absence of a sinful nature. Consistently in the Gospels, the striking contrast between Jesus’ own moral rectitude and His genuine compassion for sinners is remarkable. To briefly summarize the extensive amount of Gospel commentary on the subject, Jesus Christ was known as an associate of sinners and winebibbers, of prostitutes and tax collectors. He graciously dealt with a woman who was cohabiting with a man after having been married four times unsuccessfully before. Part of Jesus’ compassion was in the fact that He recognized that all mankind were sinners, debtors to Himself and to His Father who owed Him hopeless and impossible sums, and hence were all on a place of equality with each other. That is something we often neglect when we view ourselves as superior to others.
In a way, Jesus Christ was better able to be compassionate to sinners than we are as fellow sinners. For Jesus Christ was without sin and He was alone in that as a human being. Everyone He interacted with was a sinner whom He hoped would repent and begin the process of reconciliation with God and with others, and that generosity of spirit is something that was clearly noticed by other people. It is hard for people to be gracious to sinners when they themselves are unrepentant sinners or when they wish to be viewed as lesser sinners than those around them. Regardless of what sin human beings struggle with, whether openly or secretly, there will be some sins that they have a hard time being gracious with in other people. Some people will be understanding towards the exploitation of others if they see themselves as powerful enough that such exploitation is not a threat to them. Others will be understanding towards addictions and sins of sexuality or theft or lying or dishonoring authorities or being harsh and unloving towards members of one’s family. Others will view these sins with horror and view someone who struggles with them or commits them as beneath contempt. Yet Jesus Christ, absent any of these sins and having no need to defend a vulnerable or insecure sense of personal probity and honor with regards to such matters, could be sympathetic with all because he had no special empathy with any specific nature of sin. Being equidistant from all sins, He could be merciful to all while at the same time realizing that all fell short and all needed to repent. That understanding is sometimes absent from our own treatment of other sinners, and it is a striking quality that Jesus Christ has that makes Him a fitting High Priest for all of us. The absence of having sins and the fact that He has never sinned gives Him none of that unjust favoritism that we tend to have when evaluating sins and sinners ourselves.
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