Why You Can't Sympathize with Christ but He Can with You2
It’s important for us to remember that the Incarnation involves far more than merely the idea of God becoming flesh and blood in the person of Jesus. The Son of God might conceivably have become a human being in Jesus of Nazareth and then lived out his life distant, cut off, and altogether remote from us and our struggles and our temptations. Continue reading . . .
It’s important for us to remember that the Incarnation involves far more than merely the idea of God becoming flesh and blood in the person of Jesus. The Son of God might conceivably have become a human being in Jesus of Nazareth and then lived out his life distant, cut off, and altogether remote from us and our struggles and our temptations. He might conceivably have entered into this world and taken to himself a human nature and then retreated to an ivory tower or behind fortress walls or have hidden with the protection of angels so that he wouldn’t have to see or hear or feel or struggle with any of the issues of life that you and I face on a daily basis.
But he didn’t! When God became incarnate in Jesus he not only “partook” (v. 14) of flesh and blood and was not only “made like” us, but also entered into the very conditions of human existence that we face each day. He experienced life as a human up close and very, very personal. He not only shares our nature but also our suffering! He experienced firsthand the weaknesses and limitations and obstacles that come with being a real human in this real world.
It is not enough simply to say that Jesus Christ is a man. Rather, we must go on and say that as a man he hungered and thirsted and grew weary and slept and laughed and wept and rejoiced and was sorrowful and became angry and frustrated and was tempted by sloth and power and wealth and sex and impatience and countless opportunities for selfish and sensual indulgence and idolatry.
And yet for our sakes and to our eternal and temporal welfare he met head on every experience and every temptation and never once yielded to the point of sin. Never once! This is what we read in Hebrews 2:18 and again in Hebrews 4:15 –
“For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (2:18).
“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” (4:15).
In doing so he showed himself to be both “merciful” toward us in our struggles and “faithful” (Heb. 2:17) in his commitment to us to do everything necessary to provide us with an example and with power and with incentive to say No to sin.
Now, some push back against this truth and argue that if Jesus, although tempted, never actually sinned he can hardly understand what we go through; he can hardly be a helpful high priest to bring us to God and to supply us with what we need to live this life in a godly fashion.
But listen carefully. You need to remember two things. First, if Jesus had sinned when he was tempted, like you and I sin when we are tempted, he becomes useless to us. He becomes just another sinner who himself needs someone to make propitiation for his own sins! And if he had sinned, he would hardly qualify as a “faithful” high priest because sin would mean that he had been “faith-less” or “unfaithful” on each occasion that he fell victim to temptation. In order for us to be saved and reconciled to God, Jesus not only had to die the death we deserved to die, he also had to live the life we ought to have lived. But if in the course of that life he repeatedly sinned, we lose our savior!
Second, this objection is based on a false assumption. It is based on the misguided belief that one knows less of a temptation if he successfully resists it. But if you face a temptation and successfully resist it and say no to it and do not yield to it, you are not for that reason less familiar with it or less capable of understanding its power and seductive appeal. In fact, precisely the opposite is true. The person who resists a temptation to the very end and never gives in experiences and learns more of its force and its evil nature than does the person who gives in early on.
Think of it in quantitative terms. If you and I very quickly and easily fall into sin after having only endured 20% or 40% of a temptation’s power but Jesus, because he never sins, perseveres and resists all the way to the point of having seen and felt 100% of the seductive appeal of a particular temptation, he stands to learn more and to know more and to be far more experienced in this regard than any of us.
Here is what C. S. Lewis said in response to this objection:
“A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is . . . A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in . . . Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means—the only complete realist.”
Here’s the simple fact: It is not that he can’t sympathize with us because he didn’t sin, but that we cannot sympathize with him because we did! Let me say that again. Christ can easily and readily sympathize with us in our suffering from temptation, but we could never sympathize with him in his.
There is an important difference between the expressions of sin and the essence of sin. Expressions change over time. Jesus wasn’t tempted to pull out a gun and shoot someone in cold blood. He wasn’t tempted to cheat on his income taxes. He wasn’t tempted to watch pornography on the Internet. He wasn’t tempted to exceed the limit on his credit card by purchasing things he really didn’t need. These particular expressions are unique to our century. But the essence of sin hasn’t changed. Jesus was tempted with unrighteous anger and greed and lust and hatred and every other sinful temptation that we face. And he faced them all without yielding and thus knows the battle each of us faces. He doesn’t mock your pain or shrug his shoulders indifferently or in ignorance of what you are enduring.
He knows what you are facing because he faced it. He knows what you are feeling because he felt it. But unlike you and me, he didn’t fail. I don’t need other failure in my life. I need a winner! And I find it in Jesus Christ.