Ours is a hyperbolic age, a time when words have become a devalued currency, where sentiment often masks a lack of substance, and where things that seem too good to be true most often are. In this kind of atmosphere it can be difficult for us to give oxygen to the comforts and counsels of the word of God. When we have burned up the fuel of life’s false promises, when politics and people around us write rubber cheques about their ability to help, we can stop hearing the true heartbeat of the hope we have in Christ Jesus.
There are times, then, when we really need to sit back, breathe deeply, and think clearly about some of the beautifully true statements that the Scriptures make about the consolation that is in Christ Jesus, to roll their flavour around our palate, and to remind ourselves that all of this is right and faithful. One such promise is Hebrews 4:15. There, believers who are beleaguered and bewildered by the bitter upshot of following Jesus in a world which does not esteem him, are encouraged to hold fast their confession because,
We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15, ESV).
These words can too easily roll away from our conscience like rocks from a hillside, finding no stable place to land or lodge. We can hear about a sympathetic Saviour through cynical ears which have long ago forgotten how to really listen to the words ‘hope’ and ‘help’ pronounced with clarity. To help us undo this damage, we might ask some questions of this promise.
Even this, Lord Jesus?
In our commendable pursuit of a true Christology, we can rush to the dogmatic weight at the end of Hebrews 4:15 – Christ Jesus committed no sin. This is, of course, one of the central struts in our whole framework of redemption in Christ, without which the whole structure fails. It is right to dwell on the impeccability of the Saviour whom we worship but not, I would contend, at the expense of his concern for us.
The purpose behind Hebrews 4:15 is primarily pastoral, and the emphasis of the verse is not on Christ’s sinlessness but on his sympathy. Without a single smut of sin or unrighteousness, Jesus has walked through this same wilderness world we inhabit, he has felt the slings and arrows, the terrors and troubles which attend human existence, and though free from all default and defeat, he is full of compassion for us. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has tasted the trials we wrestle with, and he knows how we feel, even if he never embodied how we fail.
To truly scale this teaching, it can be helpful to turn it into a prayer:
Even this, Lord Jesus? Even the collapsed lintels of life’s structure, have you tasted even this?Even this, Lord Jesus? The burn of bodily weakness, the atrophy of limb and lung and life, the overwhelming weariness of waging war on a broken body to bend it to the purpose I am made for – even this?
Even this, Lord Jesus? The disappointment of spurned love, of deep betrayal, of wounds which receive no bandage, of trust’s untimely death which finds no funeral – even this?
Even this, Lord Jesus? The hot tears, or no-tears heartache, of standing at the graveside, the uncrossed boundary of burial, the incredulity of loss, the lifeless form upon which our love and friendship once was laid, and over which death crept with criminal audacity – even this?
Even this, Lord Jesus? The floundering fear of being faithful to God’s purposes, the internal torque of apprehension on the gut, the thunderous horizon of tomorrow with all of its untold terrors – even this?
We might dare to translate every inequity without iniquity, every trouble without transgression, every temptation without capitulation, and bear this down in prayer upon the heart of our High Priest – even this, we can ask, all of this worry and warfare, all of this disappointment and distress, even all of this? Do you see this, and feel this, and sympathise with this?
Yes, even this
To all of these desperate and hopeful questions, our sympathetic Saviour nods his head, and gives his yes – yes, even this.
When you feel the world is against you, I see, and feel, and sympathise – once, for me, it truly was. Yes, even this.
When you spend your trust on failing stock, when your nearest love leaves with ease and breaks your heart – once for me, when my kinsman, my companion, my disciple, sold my substance for paltry silver, and kissed the cheek which soon would be beaten with rods – once, for me, this burning betrayal rent my heart. Yes, even this.
When sickness and sorrow become squatting tenants in the hallways of your life, when they invade attic and basement, bedroom and garden, when they entwine their knotted needs around your limbs, and squeeze breath from life, and colour from sight – once, for me, this collapsing tent of fleshly life was mine, and was pierced through with sorrow and infirmity. Yes, even this.
When the tomb takes in the heart which was once your happiness, the friend whose faithfulness wed your welfare to theirs, when death divides across the chambers of your heart, and all your grief falls like fire on every asset of your life – once, for me, I stood at the tomb and shouted out the grinding anguish of my grief at sin and sickness, and all that is sullied in this fallen place. Yes, even this.
When tomorrow is a sentence with no prospect of parole, when what tomorrow’s dawn promises is sullied light, and hard things which rattle the bearings of your abilities, which harrow the last vestiges of hope and light in your soul – once, for me, I lay face down in a garden and sweated out bloodied prayers to my Father to take the cup from me, rather than me take it from him. Yes, even this.
This is a promise which prises open the cynicism of the suffering Christian, which disarms our greatest fear – that no one understands – and brings us in to the hallowed company of our great High Priest, who does not stand aloof, who does not leave us alone, who does not observe our tears with dispassion or distance, but who feels for us and cares for us. Bring your worst, and ask if even this is felt by him who knew no sin, and weigh the consolation of these words – yes, even this.