Jesus is the perfect mediator between God and man, precisely because He is the God-man. It was important for the writer of Hebrews to uphold Jesus Christ as the God-man. The Jews didn’t value the idea that God could come and suffer and die on a humiliating cross.
We’ve been looking these last two weeks at the final words of Hebrews 2:
16 For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
We noticed last week that Christ is the perfect mediator. But he was also the “propitiation for the sins of the people.” He was “made like his brothers” by becoming flesh and blood. Why?
“So that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God.” Why? “to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”
Not only does Jesus rescue us from sin (v. 16) and represent us before God (v. 17a), but He also reconciles to Himself (v. 17b)
The word “propitiation” is a theological word for “satisfaction.” What a wonderful word!
Puritan John Owen pointed out that there are four elements in propitiation: (1) an offence or crime to be taken away; (2) a person offended, to be pacified or reconciled; (3) a person offending, to be pardoned; and (4) a sacrifice or other means of making atonement (An Exposition of Hebrews, p. 476).
What needed to be satisfied was God’s wrath towards us because of our sin. As a holy God, God is adamantly and fiercely against sin. The wrath of God abides on every sinner (John 3:36). We are “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3).
When people sin, they arouse the wrath of God (Romans 1:18) and become enemies of God (Romans 5:10). The Old and New Testaments reveal an utterly holy God whose holy nature demands wrath against all sin. Wrath is the expression of his holiness against sin. God cannot set aside his wrath toward our sin and remain holy. It is impossible for God’s holiness not to hold sin in repugnance.
Because we are sinners, we are God’s sworn enemies, recalcitrant rebels. And yes, there are verses in the Psalms that say that God hates sinners.
But He also loves sinners. He loves those whom He has chosen for salvation enough to give His one and only beloved Son to die for us. He did not spare the only truly and completely innocent person that ever lived, but put Him to death. Why? To satisfy His wrath, to pay the debt we owed.
We cannot diminish the wrath of God without correspondingly reducing His love. God’s love is a holy love, just like a parent’s love is a holy love, hating anything that harms the beloved child.
What God’s holy justice required, His love and mercy provided, in that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). As Philip Hughes exclaims, “Our hell he made his, that his heaven might be ours. Never was there such mercy, never such faithfulness as this!” (A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 120). He truly is a merciful and faithful high priest!
We need to take more seriously than we do the wrath of God. But God’s love is as constant as His wrath, His grace as firm as His righteousness. To procure our restoration, God himself has met the demands of His own holiness. He has, so to speak, propitiated Himself in our place, thereby achieving the reconciliation to himself of mankind, who otherwise were hopelessly alienated and under condemnation because of sin.
The word propitiation is used in several key verses to explain what Jesus accomplished through His death on the cross. For example, in Romans 3:24-25 we see that believers in Christ have been “justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness…” These verses are a key point in Paul’s argument in the book of Romans and are really at the heart of the gospel message.
Paul had made the point that we are all sinners (Romans 3:23), there is absolutely “none righteous” (Romans 3:10). We all deserve His wrath and punishment. But God, in His infinite grace and mercy, provided a way that His wrath can be appeased and we can be reconciled to Him. That way is through the sacrificial death of His Son, Jesus Christ, as the atonement or payment for sins. It is through faith in Jesus Christ as God’s perfect sacrifice that we can be reconciled to God. It is only because of Christ’s perfect life, His substitutionary death on the cross, and His resurrection on the third day that a lost sinner deserving of hell can be reconciled to a thrice holy God. We are saved from God’s wrath not because “we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be a propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
Christ met all the requirements of the law and then offered His life in our place, which theologians call his active and passive obedience to the Father. God vented the fury of His wrath, crushing His Son under the weight of the sins of humanity, so that Jesus experienced hell in our behalf.
To be our propitiation, Jesus had to be (1) sinless, (2) share in our humanity, and (3) be sympathetic to our need. He voluntarily fulfilled each of those requirements out of love for you and me.
So, not only does Jesus rescue us from sin (v. 16) and represent us before God (v. 17a) reconciles to Himself (v. 17b), but He also relates to us in our temptations (v. 18).
Verse 18 looks back to verse v. 17 and tells us why (the word “for” at the beginning of this verse) he became a merciful and faithful high priest—“to help those who are being tempted.”
18 For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
When Christ lived on earth, He too was tempted. Not just in the wilderness temptations, but throughout His life. Remember that Satan left him “for an opportune time” (Luke 4:13). That time probably came up quite often.
While here among us, He was a genuine human being, fully tempted.
Even in the wilderness temptations, Christ experienced the very spectrum of temptations we face—the lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes and pride of life.
Not only was Jesus tempted, but “suffered when tempted.” Most of us don’t suffer when tempted because we give in right away, we don’t experience the “good fight of faith.” In fact, we find it be a source of pleasure…for a season (Hebrews 11:25).
I am reminded of the story of the young boy in the kitchen who, asked by his mother, “What are you doing?” replied, “I’m just standing here with my hand in the cookie jar, resisting temptation.” That’s not fighting temptation, that’s preparing to surrender!
Being the sinless Son of God, temptations repulsed him far more than they could us. And being faithful to the Father’s will, He never gave in.
Our Lord was saddened and suffered as he sinlessly lived out his thirty-three years assailed by everyday temptations.
But his greatest suffering occurred, as the Scriptures specifically point out, when he was tempted to forsake his calling and take an easy way out. Matthew tells us that immediately after Jesus’ baptism, he was led out into the desert where he was tempted by the devil and that at the root of each of the three diabolical temptations was the lure to leave his vocation for an easier way (Matthew 4:1–11). Jesus was tempted for forty days.
Later, as he was establishing his ministry, Satan employed Jesus’ own family to try to dissuade him through a domestic kidnapping, because they thought “He is out of his mind” (Mark 3:21).
And then, at the apex of his ministry, Peter publicly rebuked Jesus for intimating that he must die on the cross. Significantly, Jesus denounced Peter’s words with a statement almost identical to that with which he earlier dismissed Satan in the wilderness—“Get behind me, Satan!” (Mark 8:33; cf. Matthew 4:10). Next, in Gethsemane Jesus repeatedly cast himself to the ground, sweating great drops of blood and crying out, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). And finally on the cross he was put to the ultimate suffering.
What a temptation to escape! What suffering! But he bore it all. And even more significantly, he bore it as a man. He was tempted and suffered and endured with a human mind, body, and emotions—and he never for a moment turned away from the cross.
Satan has dangled the bait of temptation before Jesus Christ many times, all without success. Yet, because He was tempted “in all ways like we are” (Hebrews 4:15), He is able to understand our temptations.
We would be wrong to assume that because Jesus never gave in to sin, or because He was God He wasn’t really even able to be tempted, that He never really experienced temptation nor could understand the depths of our temptations.
C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, explains it like this:
“No man knows how bad he is till he had tried very hard to be good. 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. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of the wind by walking against it, not by lying down. 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. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it; and 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.”
As Philip Hughes explains regarding Christ’s temptations: “Some have objected that only by the experience of sin could Christ have evinced full fellow feeling with fallen mankind; but for the incarnate Son to have succumbed to temptation, while it would certainly have meant his becoming a fellow sinner, would also have meant his failure and defeat, with the consequence that he would have been disqualified for the fulfillment of his high-priestly office (cf. Heb. 5:8-10) and unable to come to our aid and lead us in the way of victory” (A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, pp. 123).
“It is a fallacy also to imagine that the fact that he did not fall into sin means that he knows less about temptation than those who have given in to it; for his conquest of temptation, while ensuring his sinlessness, in fact increased rather than diminished his fellow feeling, since he knows the full force of temptation in a manner that we who have not withstood it to the end cannot know it. What good would another who has failed be to us? It is precisely because we have been defeated that we need the assistance of him who is the victor” (A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, pp. 123-124).
Kent Hughes offers a simple illustration that helps me grasp what our writer is saying. “Think of it this way—which bridge has undergone the greatest stress, the one that collapses under its first load of traffic, or the one that bears the same traffic morning and evening, year after year?” (Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul, p. 86).
- Jesus can say to the young person: “So, your family doesn’t understand you? They won’t let you do your own thing? Well, mine didn’t understand me either. They reprimanded me when I stayed in the Temple (see Luke 2:48-51).
- Jesus can say to the housewife, “So, your neighbors are unfriendly? Well, mine tried to kill me.” (see Luke 4:16, 28-29).
- Jesus can say to the businessman: “So your associates criticize you? Well, mine ridicule and cursed me” (Mark 3:6, 21)
- Jesus can say to the condemned: “You complain that the legal system is not fair? Well, I was condemned by a biased judge who listened to bribed witnesses” (Mark 14:56).
- Jesus can say to the deprived: “You complain that the economy is oppressive? Well, all I had were the clothes on my back” (Luke 9:58)
- Jesus can say to the persecuted: “You complain that people are prejudiced against you because of your race or religion? Well, I was called every vile name in the book” (John 7:20, 32).
- Jesus can say to those who’ve been forsaken: “You complain that your pals are disloyal? Well, mine all ran away at the first hint of trouble and claimed they didn’t know me” (Matthew 26:74)
- Jesus can say to the disappointed: “You complain that your plans didn’t materialize and you failed to reach your goals? Well, I wasn’t able to accomplish anything in my hometown!” (Matthew 13:54-58(
- Jesus can say to the frustrated: “You complain that you can’t get anyone to help you and they let you down when the going got rough? Well, my followers let me in droves.” (John 6:66)
- Jesus can say to the disadvantaged: “You complain that you had a deprived childhood? Well, I sent my first few years in a foreign country hiding out from a death sentence!” (Matthew 2:13-15)
- Jesus can say to those who feel out of place: “You complain that folks in my church are too pious and critical? Well, the leaders of my own religion condemned me as a sinner!” (Matthew 13:14, 24)
- Jesus can say to the outcast: “You complain that you were born on the wrong side of the tracks? Well, society said I was illegitimate and, furthermore, my city was the pits!” (John 1:40-50)
- You say, “Even when I try to do good deeds, people criticize me.” Well, they said I was working for the devil when I healed the sick! (Matthew 12:22)
- You say, “I’m single and will never get married.” Well, me too, but I was fulfilled doing my Father’s will.
In short, Jesus can say, “If you’ve got a heartache; I’ve had it too! If you’ve got a problem, me too! If you’ve met a temptation, so have I.” (Hebrews 5:2)
And what God would he be to us if he had fallen to temptation? His help is strong precisely because He was able to conquer every single temptation.
Because He has suffered through temptation, He is able to help us as we suffer through temptations.
Comfort drops but coldly from lips that have never uttered a sigh or a groan; and for our poor human hearts it is not enough to have a merciful God far off in the heavens. We need a Christ who can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities ere we can come boldly to the Throne of Grace, assured of there finding grace in time of need.
We have two advantages – knowing the example of Jesus in temptation, but also having His active assistance from heaven, providing strength and a way of escape. With these aids we can find victory in the midst of temptation and come out better from being tempted. Jesus did not lose anything from being tempted – He only gained in glory and sympathy and ability to help His people. In the same way, we do not have to lose anything when we are tempted.
How important it is to know that Jesus provides such aid to us in time of temptation.
“This is the most powerful preservative against despair, and the firmest ground of hope and comfort, that ever believing, penitent sinners could desire or have.” (Matthew Poole)
“Were the rest of the Scripture silent on this subject, this verse might be an ample support for every tempted soul.” (Adam Clarke)
So, “With vv. 17-18 the writer prepares to lead his hearers directly into the body of the discourse devoted to the exposition of Jesus as priest and sacrifice. Common to the concepts both of champion and of high priest are the elements of representation and solidarity with a particular people. The presentation of Jesus in 2:10-18 provided assurance that the exalted Son continues to identify himself with the oppressed people of God exposed to humiliation and testing in a hostile world” (William Lane, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 47A—Hebrews 1-8, p. 67).