Come to the Throne of Grace, part 3 (Hebrews 4:15-16)

One of the reasons we are encouraged to go in prayer to Jesus Christ with anything we are going through is because He is the ultimate sympathetic high priest.  Hebrews 4:15-16 says…

15 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. 16 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.

Last week we noted that he is able to sympathize with our weaknesses because (1) he has been tempted “in every respect” and that (2) he has been tempted “as we are.”  He has gone through those same temptations that we have faced due to Him sharing humanity with us.

Jesus, our High Priest, has an unequalled capacity for sympathy. It goes far beyond the intellectual, because it is truly experiential.  Jesus does not just imagine how we feel—he feels it!  The word for “sympathize” here means “to share the experience of another”—to sympathize through common experience.  The most sensitive Man who ever lived feels with us.

A third thing we see in this passage is that, although he was tempted in every respect as we are he was “without sin.”  His temptations were genuine.  As a human, Jesus felt the full force of these temptations.  But as God he had predetermined not to sin.  And as God, he had the power not to sin.

Earl Radmacher illustrated how Jesus could not have sinned this way: Suppose you had a thick iron bar and a thin wire.  The bar represents Christ’s divine nature and the wire His human nature.  The bar cannot be bent, but the wire could be.  Yet, if the wire is fused to the bar, the wire cannot be bent either.  Thus, the fusing of Christ’s divine and human natures meant that He could not sin (Salvation, pp. 40-41).

All orthodox theologians hold that Jesus did not sin.  Not only is this affirmed in our present passage (v. 15), but we find this repeated throughout the New Testament and pictured in the Old Testament sacrifices that had to be spotless and without blemish.

For example, 1 Peter 1:19 says, “but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.”  In 1 Peter 2:22 Peter, having been a close observer of Jesus in daily life and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says, “he committed no sin.”  The apostle John concurs, saying “in Him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5) and Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:21 that Jesus “knew no sin.”  He was holy even in the womb (Luke 1:35) and continued so throughout His whole life, as Hebrews 7:26 emphasizes, our high priest is “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners.”  This last phrase does not mean that He didn’t associate with sinners or identify with sinners, but that he didn’t enter into their sinning ways.

When Hebrews 4:15 says Christ was tempted in every respect as we are, yet without sin, we should understand the preposition “without” (choris) as extending both to the outcome of the temptations (unlike us, Christ did not sin) and also to the nature of the temptations (unlike ours, Christ’s temptations were not sinful).  In other words, we are tempted by the world, the flesh, and the Devil, while Christ never faced temptation from His flesh.  Or as John Owen put it, Christ faced the suffering part of temptation; we also face the sinning part.

Christ’s inability to sin does not make his temptations less genuine.  The army that cannot be conquered can still be attacked (W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 662).  If anything, Christ’s temptations were more intense than ours precisely because he never gave in to them.  This makes Christ even better able to sympathize with us than any other person could.

Since Jesus is one person with two natures, and since sin involves the whole person, in this sense, Jesus could not have sinned or else He would have ceased to be God.  But the question remains, “How then could Jesus temptations have been real?”  The answer seems to be that Jesus met every temptation to sin, not by means of His divine power, but rather through His human nature relying upon the power of the Holy Spirit.  As Wayne Grudem explains, “The moral strength of his divine nature was there as a sort of ‘backstop’ that would have prevented him from sinning…, but he did not rely on the strength of his divine nature to make it easier for him to face temptations…” (Systematic Theology, p. 539).

“Yet without sin” means an absolute absence of sin.  He was never, for a single moment, tainted by sin.

This identification with our weakness without sinning is what makes him the absolute best high priest.  He can sympathize because he experienced it all, to an even greater depth of suffering than any of us—because we give in so quickly. 

If he had sinned, he would then have had to make atonement for himself and that would have rendered his sacrifice unacceptable for atoning for our sins.

He would not have been an “improved high priest” had He sinned.  We mistakenly believe He would have understood us better had he engaged in sin.  But in fact, if he had, then He could not serve as our high priest.

Charles Spurgeon pointed out “[D]o not imagine that if the Lord Jesus had sinned he would have been any more tender toward you; for sin is always of a hardening nature.  If the Christ of God could have sinned, he would have lost the perfection of his sympathetic nature.  It needs perfectness of heart to lay self all aside, and to be touched with a feeling of the infirmities of others” (“The Tenderness of Jesus” [Ages Software], sermon 2148, p. 407, italics his).

What makes him able to sympathize is that he had “much greater love, infinitely more sensitive concerns, infinitely higher standards of righteousness and perfect awareness of the evil and dangers of sin.  Contrary, therefore, to what we are inclined to think, His divinity made His temptations and trials immeasurably harder for Him to endure than ours are for us” (John MacArthur, pp. 111-112).

Think about it.  When we are injured, our bodies go numb of into shock to protect us.  The amount of pain we can endure is not limitless.  We can conclude, therefore, that there is a degree of pain that we will never experience, because our bodies will turn off our sensitivity to pain in one way or another.

Similarly, we will never experience the degree of temptation that Jesus did, because no matter our level of spirituality, we will succumb before we reach it.

If we were to place every temptation on a 100 point scale, most of us would wimp out at 30 or 40, maybe if we’re a giant in the faith at 75 or 80.  But Jesus always engaged every temptation 100%, because He didn’t give in.  Satan ultimately had to give up and “return at an opportune time.”

Since Jesus never succumbed, He experienced every temptation to the maximum extent.  Yet He did not give in and sin.

As he approached his death he faced the prospect that following his Father’s will would lead to suffering and death in apparent estrangement from his Father.  Hence the agony of Gethsemane as he strained to commit himself to follow his Father’s will (Matt. 26:37–39Luke 22:41–44).  Jesus’ endurance without sin, meant that he experienced the full depth and suffering of temptation.  All sinners, at some point, relent from the pressure of temptation and succumb; Jesus did not.

This reality led B. F. Wescott to write:

“Sympathy with the sinner does not depend on the experience of sin but on the experience of the strength of the temptation to sin which only the sinless can know in its full intensity. He who falls yields before the last strain” (The Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 59).

“This sinlessness, it should be stressed, is not something passive, a mere state of being, but the achievement of Christ’s active conquest of temptation.  Indeed, it is entirely synonymous with the complete obedience learned by him through all he endured, by which his perfection was won and established and which fitted him to become the source of our eternal salvation” (Philip Edgecomb Hughes, Hebrews, p. 173).

So Jesus understands our every weakness.  He sympathizes with every temptation.  He understands our inability to say “no” to temptation and give in, although He never did.

We all need someone to sympathize with our problems and weaknesses without condemning us.  Sometimes that is enough to get us through—to know that someone else understands what we’re going through and accepts us and loves us.

I read about a boy who noticed a sign, “Puppies for sale.”  He asked, “How much do you want for the pups, mister?”

“Twenty-five dollars, son.”  The boy’s face dropped.  “Well, sir, could I see them anyway?”

The man whistled and the mother dog came around the corner, followed by four cute puppies, wagging their tails and yipping happily.  Then lagging behind, another puppy came around the corner, dragging one hind leg.

“What’s the matter with that one, sir?” the boy asked.

“Well, son, that puppy is crippled.  The vet took an X-ray and found that it doesn’t have a hip socket.  It will never be right.”

The man was surprised when the boy said, “That’s the one I want.  Could I pay you a little each week?”

The owner replied, “But, son, you don’t seem to understand.  That pup will never be able to run or even walk right.  He’s going to be a cripple forever.  Why would you want a pup like that?”

The boy reached down and pulled up his pant leg, revealing a brace.  “I don’t walk too good, either.”  Looking down at the puppy, the boy continued, “That puppy is going to need a lot of love and understanding.  It’s not easy being crippled!”  The man said, “You can have the puppy for free.  I know you’ll take good care of him.”

Well, that is a limited illustration of our Savior’s sympathy for our condition.  Since He became a man and suffered all that we experience, He sympathizes with our weaknesses.  He demonstrated His compassion many times during His earthly ministry.  But His humanity was not diminished in any way when He ascended into heaven.  We have a completely sympathetic high priest at the right hand of God!

Christ’s sympathy for us goes beyond the intellectual to the experiential.  He not only “knows how we feel,” but He has felt how we feel.  It has impacted Him deeply.

The very idea that the high and holy God could sympathize with humanity was an amazing and almost unbelievable idea to the Jews.  They could not comprehend Him experiencing pain, much less temptation.  The Jews believed that God was incapable of sharing the feelings of men.

It was just as hard for Gentiles of that day.  Stoics believed that God’s primary attribute was apathy—being without feeling or emotions.  The Epicureans believed the gods lived between the physical and spiritual worlds and were detached from mankind and suffering.

But the genius of Christianity is a God who drew near to us, became one of us so that he could suffer our pains and be tempted with our temptations.  He has experienced what we have experienced and feels what we feel.

Tim Keller, former pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York, writes:

Christianity does not so much offer solutions to the problem of suffering, but rather provides the promise of a God who is completely present with us in suffering.  Only Christians believe in a God who says, “Here I am alongside you.  I have experienced the same suffering you have.  I know what it is like.”  No other religion even begins to offer that assurance.

After the World Trade Center tragedy, between 600 and 800 new people began attending Redeemer.  The sudden influx of people pressed the question, “What does your God have to offer me at a time like this?”

I preached, “Christianity is the only faith that tells you that God lost a child in an act of violent injustice.  Christianity is the only religion that tells you, therefore, God suffered as you have suffered.”

This wonderful, marvelous reality leads the writer of Hebrews to urge his readers to this action:

16 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.

Here is a call to action.  It is essentially the same call that we saw back up in verse 14.  There we were told to “hold fast our confession.”  Now we are told to draw near with confidence.  These are not two separate actions.  They are connected.  The way that you hold fast your confession is by drawing near to Jesus with confidence.  And when you draw near to Him, you will find yourself holding fast your confession.   So this verse urges us to an action which will help us persevere—consistently drawing near to the throne of grace, availing ourselves constantly of the throne of grace.

The exhortation is based on all He has said about Jesus Christ being the perfectly suited high priest for us in our weaknesses.  We have Him, so draw near to Him.  “Draw near” is in the present tense, indicating a consistent, regular habit of coming into His presence in prayer.

We are to draw near to Him.  It is His presence and His ear that we most need.

Psalm 73:28 says, “But for me it is good to be near God.”  Asaph is contrasting the seeming good life that the wicked are experiencing, with the reality that the only real good life is found in God and in His presence.

James 4:8 urges us to “draw near to God and He will draw near to you.”  He will respond.  God is not the one playing hide-and-seek.  We are.  God is the one who wants to be found.

As sinners, we have a tendency, learned from Adam, to hide from God.  They did it by hiding behind bushes and fig leaves; we do it through psychological barriers like denial and distractions and drugs.

The Old Testament was all about barriers—this far and no further, because we are sinners.

The Old Covenant taught us that we are not welcome, naturally, in the presence of a holy God.

Only the high priest could enter into God’s presence, once a year.  The regular person was cut off from God’s presence.

And God’s presence was very terrifying much of the time.  In fact, in encouraging us to draw near to the throne would be very intimidating in the ancient culture.  Ancient thrones were typically flanked with huge statues of lions, instilling fear and terror in supplicants to the throne.  Kings only allowed an audience through invitation, as we see in the book of Esther.  Free access, much less a bold approach, was unheard of.

But Jesus opened access into God’s presence, dramatically represented by the rending of the veil in the temple during His death on the cross.  He has not only passed through the heavens, but He has also paved the way for us to join him in that adventure (cf. 2:10; 6:20; 10:19-20).

In Romans 5 Paul lists several benefits of being justified by faith (which we wouldn’t have if we could possibly be justified by works) and one of those is access to God.  Listen to Romans 5:1-2

1 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.

We have access to God!

And we are to draw near to God with “confidence.”  This word has the idea of freedom of speech, of being bold in expressing one’s thoughts.

There is no suggestion of disrespect here, but simply that we are to come to God without hesitation or tentativeness.  What a contrast with the trepidation of the high priest when he entered the Holy of Holies!  This is one of the grand revelations of this letter: “Come frankly and confidently to God, brothers and sisters!”

This letter urges us to come into the presence of a God who welcomes us and a Christ who understands us.  To neglect the place of prayer is to rob ourselves of immense and timely resources.  (Raymond Brown, The Bible Speaks Today:  Hebrews, 96-7)

This is the way we’ve been told by the author of Hebrews to persevere, to come regularly and boldly and confidently to the throne of grace.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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