As I work through an exposition of the letter to the Hebrews at New Covenant I’ve been struck afresh by the greatness of the compassion of Jesus, our great High Priest. So often we hear people say–when they are going through some difficult trial or temptation–something along the lines of, “I just want to talk to someone who has been through this.” This is entirely understandable. In fact, the writer of Hebrews makes “common experience” the entry point into his exposition of Jesus as the great High Priest of His church. He is the one who “was tempted in all points as we are yet without sin.” He can, therefore, “sympathize with us in our weaknesses.” When the writer begins to unpack the OT theology of priesthood–in order to bolster what he is writing about Jesus–he explains that God chose the Priest “from among men” for one very significant reason. If the Priest was chosen from among men he could then “have compassion on the ignorant and those going astray because he himself was also subject to weakness.” The writer explained that the “weakness” to which every one of the Levitical Priests was subject was the weakness of sinfulness. “Because of this he is required as for the people, so also for himself, to offer sacrifices for sins” (Heb. 5:3). It is precisely here that we start to understand better the compassion of Jesus, the Great High Priest to whom all the previous Priests were pointing. But how, you may be asking, does Jesus sympathize with me in my sinfulness since the writer of Hebrews tells us that He was “without sin” (Heb. 4:15)?1
Jesus’ compassion must be understood in two sphere; namely, that of (1) misery, and (2) sin. It can be seen in the sphere of misery in that He “bore our sicknesses and carried our sorrows” and “In all our affliction, He was afflicted.” When He stood outside of the tomb of Lazarus weeping, our Lord “took the grief of these sisters — their present grief, the grief of that particular hour—home to His heart. He made it His own. He groaned and wept, under the influence of His sympathy.”1 Regarding the misery we experience in this life, Jesus “makes it His own; He measures it with our measure.”2 When He stood outside of the tomb of Lazarus, He looked disapprovingly on the worst misery of this life and was grieved by the pain it caused His people. We are often told in the Gospels that our Lord was “moved with compassion” (Mark 1:41; 6:34; Matt. 9:36; 14:14) when He saw various conditions of misery.
It is almost easier for us to understand the compassion of a “Man of Sorrows” for a people of sorrows in the sphere of misery than it is for us to recognize it in the realm of sin; but the writer of Hebrews tells us that He also has compassion on His people in their estate of sin. Here we tread lightly, because He never dismissed, made light of or condoned sin. He never taught His people to ignore or embrace it. In fact, just the opposite is true. Throughout the totality of His teaching, Jesus warned about the just penalty and consequences of sins–the judgment it deserves and that men will inevitably receive if they do not come to Him for forgiveness. On repeated occasions He healed someone and then told them “Go and sin no more.” No one can read through the biblical record without coming across the strongest pronouncements of condemnation on sinful thoughts and behavior; and, while this is true, no one can read through the biblical record without seeing the great compassion of God for unworthy sinners. Our Lord Jesus Christ’s ministry was marked by compassion for sinners. It was against those who thought that their sin was small His compassion is removed. His harshest accusations came in light of the animosity shown to Him by self-righteous religious leaders. But, at every turn, He came to “seek and to save the lost.” “Seeking” and “saving” are verbs of the highest order of compassion. So how do we reconcile our Lord’s strict condemnation of sin and His great compassion for sinners? The answer is found in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross.
The Scriptures are clear that Jesus, though He knew no sin, “was made sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21). The Apostle Peter tells us that “He Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). The Apostle Paul explains that “He became a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13) who were under the curse of the law by nature. The substitutionary nature of our Lord’s saving work meant that He would have to be constituted a sinner for those who had sinned and who deserved judgment. In order for Him to be the sin-bearer, He had to be constituted–by virtue of the imputation of our sin to Him–the worst sinner who ever lived in the sight of God. There is a mystery in the experience of our Lord that we often fail to recognize. Though He did not sin (and though He was constituted a sinner through the imputation of our sin) He not only took the punishment for the guilt of our sin, but He also bore the sorrow and agony of the guilt of our sin. Hugh Martin, the old Scottish theologian, once wrote:
Think of Jesus coming into this terrible position towards the Judge of all – towards his Father and his God – towards him whose approbation and pleasure were the light and joy of his life unspeakable! Think of him consenting to have all the sins of myriads imputed to him by his Father: to underlie, that is, the imputation, in his Father’s judgment, of every kind and degree and amount of moral evil – every species and circumstance and combination of vile iniquity! There is a book of reckoning which eternal justice writes in heaven, wherein is entered every charge to which infinite unsparing rectitude, searching with omniscient glance alike the darkness and the light, sees the sons of men become obnoxious. This terrific scroll, so far as the elect of God are concerned in it, was unrolled before the eye of Jesus at Gethsemane: “the iniquities of us all” which God was about to lay upon him, were therein disclosed: and you have to think of the sorrow with which he should contemplate his becoming responsible and being held of God to be responsible, for all that that record charged – his being accounted of God, in his own one person, guilty of all that that record bore! It was hereupon that the Christ who, in prophetic Scripture as in the fortieth Psalm, proclaimed himself the Father’s willing Covenant servant – “Lo, I come, in the volume of the book it is written of me; I delight to do thy will, O my God; thy law also is within my heart” (Ps 40:6) – exclaims also, as one heavily laden with accumulated sins, and trembling, ashamed, and self-doomed because of them – “Innumerable evils have compassed me about: mine iniquities have taken hold upon me that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of my head, therefore my heart faileth me” (Ps 40:17). And by the consenting testimony of historic Scripture, be began to be “sore amazed” and “very heavy,” and said unto his disciples: “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.”3
Martin went on to suggest that the sorrow and agony that Jesus experienced (by virtue of having our sin imputed to Him) can only be partially understood by the experience of joy that we now experience (His righteousness having been imputed to us). He explained:
Confessedly, it is difficult to understand the sorrow and amazement and agony of a holy being in having sin thus by imputation imposed upon him. It is only a legal or judicial arrangement; so we reason. It is but a scheme of mercy to relieve the miserable. Or, be it that it is more; that it is a scheme of justice also to absolve the guilty; why should not the Surety’s conscious innocence triumph over the sorrow and the shame of this imputed sin? Why should he quail and tremble, filled with anguish and amazement, not merely by the prospect of the penalty which this imputation will ultimately bring, but in the immediate sense of shame, and the immediate endurance of a sorrow, which this imputation itself inflicts? What can there be in sin, when not personally his own, that can thus cause him agonise in pain and prayer, and offer up supplications with strong crying and tears?
There is nothing that we know of in all the history of God’s moral administration that can aid us by comparison in considering how sin imputed by the Judge of all to a personally holy being , should fill his soul with sorrow. But the illustration, which there exists no comparison to furnish, may be derived from a contrast. The sorrows of imputed sin may be illustrated, perhaps, by the joys of imputed righteousness. Sin imputed to a holy one must produce effects directly the reverse of righteousness imputed to a sinner. And thus, perhaps, in the justification of the believer and the Church, through the righteousness of Christ, we may learn somewhat of the terrible shame and condemnation of him who became responsible for all their sins.4
As the sin-bearer, Jesus is able to sympathize with the experience that we experience in the realm of guilt and shame. Every act of sin carries with it the conscience burdening guilt and shame of sin. Jesus, though He never sinned in any thought, word or action, experienced the burden of the consequences of sin’s guilt and shame. His agony in the Garden reflected the weight of sin. His death was a shameful death. The cup of God’s wrath that He first had to stare into and then to drink was a cup that we deserve for our sin. There is, then, a very real sense in which Jesus–like Aaron–has “compassion on the ignorant and those who go astray because He Himself was also subject to weakness.”
But the writer of Hebrews does not introduce the subject of our Lord’s sympathy with this picture. He introduces it with the truth that He is able to sympathize with us because “He was tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus felt the agony of temptation. Though He never experiences the inner corruptions of a depraved heart–drawing Him away after those things that were contrary to God’s holiness–He entered into the experience of temptation in all the spheres of life. We can certainly understand that He was tempted to dishonor His parents, lust after women, be puffed up with pride, etc. But there is a sense in which Jesus can sympathize with us in those experiences He never had (such as loosing a wife or a child) precisely because He suffered in a way that we never did. His suffering was so extreme that any suffering we might endure in this life pales in comparison. He was tempted to turn away from His Father and His destiny as the Redeemer when He was shown in the Garden what He was to endure in His sufferings at the cross. This, it seems to me, explains why the writer of Hebrews introduces the sympathy of Jesus for those being tempted in Heb. 4:14-16 and then moves to His agony in the Garden in 5:7-9. Jesus subjected Himself to the strongest temptations possible to any man, and “learned obedience through the things that He suffered.” He is now the source of victory for us who are being tempted. Though we are “so easily ensnared” by sin (Heb. 12:2) we must never accept that there is no source of victory for us. Jesus sympathizes with us so that we would go to Him for “grace and mercy to help in time of need.” In this way, He has compassion on us in both the weight of sin and in the experience of temptation.
In addition to our need to see and trust in Jesus Christ as the compassionate and sympathetic Savior, there is a participation in His compassion to which we are called. The inevitable implication of our having been made the recipients of His compassion is that we would, in turn, be compassionate toward others who continue in a fallen and miserable condition. Far too often we are speak and act harshly towards those who are in need His saving compassion in the Gospel. C.H. Spurgeon, in his sermon “Compassion on the Ignorant,” explained the significance of the Old Testament Priests having compassion “on those who are ignorant and going astray” (Heb. 5:1-3) when he wrote:
And inasmuch as the ignorance here meant is the ignorance of sin, which is constantly described in the Old Testament as folly, so that every sinner is declared to be a fool—yet concerning this, you and I may well have compassion because we are sinners, too! If God has made us to differ, yet that difference is all the result of His Grace and, therefore, not to be taken to ourselves as a reason for pride and lifting ourselves up above others. No, a sinner yourself, you should be very tender to all other sinners. Yourself indebted—oh, how deeply—to Infinite Love, you should be very gentle to others who need that love! What if you are cleansed from the pollution of sin? It was a fountain filled with blood in which you were washed! Therefore, be you anxious that your fellow man should be washed there, too! What if the power of your sin is conquered? It was the Holy Spirit who worked this victory in you! Should you not desire that other captives should be set free, that other rebels should be subdued, that others who are under the domination of sin should be brought under the rule of your Divine Lord? If you are a man, a gracious man, a man of God, a chosen man, a blood-washed man, you should “have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way.5
2. William Blaikie Glimpses of the Inner Life of our Lord p. 135
3. Ibid. p. 136
4. Hugh Martin The Shadow of Calvary (chapter 2)
5. Ibid., ch. 2
6. Excerpt taken from C.H. Spurgeon’s sermon, ”Compassion on the Ignorant.”