I have chosen this text, as that which above any other speaks his heart most, and sets out the frame and workings of it towards sinners; and that so sensibly that it does, as it were, take our hands, and lay them upon Christ’s breast, and let us feel how his heart beats and his affections yearn toward us, even now he is in glory—the very scope of these words being manifestly to encourage believers against all that may discourage them, from
the consideration of Christ’s heart toward them now in heaven.
What would it be like for a friend to take our two hands and place them on the chest of the risen Lord Jesus Christ so that, like a stethoscope letting us hear the vigorous strength of a beating heart physically, our hands let us feel the vigorous strength of Christ’s deepest affections and longings? Goodwin is saying: We don’t have to wonder. Hebrews 4:15 is that friend.
The broader context of Hebrews 4:15 is worth keeping before us. Stepping back slightly, the fuller passage goes like this:
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 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. 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. (4:14 –16)
Verses 14 and 16 each contain an exhortation: fidelity in doctrine about God (“Let us hold fast our confession,” v. 14) and confidence in communion with God (“Let us then with confidence draw near,” v. 16). The “For” that begins verse 15 (the italicized verse above) signifies that verse 15 grounds verse 14. And the “then” toward the beginning of verse 16 signifies that verse 15 grounds verse 16 too. In other words, verse 15 is the anchor of the passage, the surrounding verses drawing out its implications.
The burden of this anchor verse is Jesus Christ’s sheer solidarity with his people. All our natural intuitions tell us that Jesus is with us, on our side, present and helping, when life is going well. This text says the opposite. It is in “our weaknesses” that Jesus sympathizes
with us. The word for “sympathize” here is a compound word formed from the prefix meaning “with” (like our English prefix co-) joined with the verb to suffer. “Sympathize” here is not cool and detached pity. It is a depth of felt solidarity such as is echoed in our own lives most closely only as parents to children. Indeed, it is deeper even than that. In our pain, Jesus is pained; in our suffering, he feels the suffering as his own even though it isn’t—not that his invincible divinity is threatened, but in the sense that his heart is feelingly drawn into our distress. His human nature engages our troubles comprehensively. His is a love that cannot be held back when he sees his people in pain.
The writer to the Hebrews is taking us by the hand and leading us deep into the heart of Christ, showing us the unrestrained withness of Jesus regarding his people. Back in chapter 2 the writer to the Hebrews had said that Jesus was “made like his brothers in every respect” and that “he himself suffered when tempted” (using the same Greek word for tempted/tested that occurs in 4:15).
The real scandal of Hebrews 4:15, though, is what we are told about why Jesus is so close and with his people in their pain. He has been “tempted” (or “tested,” as the word can also denote) “as we are”—not only that, but “in every respect” as we are. The reason that Jesus is in such close solidarity with us is that the difficult path we are on is not unique to us. He has journeyed on it himself. It is not only that Jesus can relieve us from our troubles, like a doctor prescribing medicine; it is also that, before any relief comes, he is with us in our troubles, like a doctor who has endured the same disease.
Jesus is not Zeus. He was a sinless man, not a sinless Superman. He woke up with bed head. He had pimples at thirteen. He never would have appeared on the cover of Men’s Health (he had “no beauty that we should desire him,” Isa. 53:2). He came as a normal man to normal men. He knows what it is to be thirsty, hungry, despised, rejected, scorned, shamed, embarrassed, abandoned, misunderstood, falsely accused, suffocated, tortured, and killed. He knows what it is to be lonely. His friends abandoned him when he needed them most; had he lived today, every last Twitter follower and Facebook friend would have un-friended him when he turned thirty-three— he who will never un-friend us.
The key to understanding the significance of Hebrews 4:15 is to push equally hard on the two phrases “in every respect” and “yet without sin.” All our weakness—indeed, all of our life—is tainted with sin. If sin were the colour blue, we do not occasionally say or do something blue; all that we say, do, and think has some taint of blue. Not so Jesus. He had no sin. He was “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners” (Heb. 7:26–27). But we must ponder the phrase “in every respect” in a way that maintains Jesus’s sinlessness without diluting what that phrase means. That enticing temptation, that sore trial, that bewildering perplexity—he has been there. Indeed, his utter purity suggests that he has felt these pains more acutely than we sinners ever could.
Consider your own life.
When the relationship goes sour, when the feelings of futility come flooding in, when it feels like life is passing us by, when it seems that our one shot at significance has slipped through our fingers, when we can’t sort out our emotions, when the long-time friend lets us down, when a family member betrays us, when we feel deeply misunderstood, when we are laughed at by the impressive— in short, when the fallenness of the world closes in on us and makes us want to throw in the towel—there, right there, we have a Friend who knows exactly what such testing feels like, and sits close to us, embraces us. With us. Solidarity.
Our tendency is to feel intuitively that the more difficult life gets, the more alone we are. As we sink further into pain, we sink further into felt isolation. The Bible corrects us. Our pain never outstrips what he himself shares in. We are never alone. That sorrow that feels so isolating, so unique, was endured by him in the past and is now shouldered by him in the present.
As verse 14 tells us, Jesus has now gone up into heaven. But that does not mean he is distant or aloof from our pains. Verse 15, Goodwin says, “lets us understand how feelingly and sensibly affected the heart of Christ is to sinners under all . . . their infirmities.” Our difficulties draw out a depth of feeling in Christ beyond what we know.
But what about our sins? Should we be discouraged that Jesus can’t be in solidarity with us in that most piercing of pains, the guilt and shame of our sin? No, for two reasons.
One is that Jesus’s sinlessness means that he knows temptation better than we ourselves do. C. S. Lewis made this point by speaking of a man walking against the wind. Once the wind of temptation gets strong enough, the man lies down, giving in—and thus not knowing what it would have been like ten minutes later. Jesus never lay down; he endured all our temptations and testings without ever giving in. He therefore knows the strength of temptation better than any of us. Only he truly knows the cost.
The second reason is that our only hope is that the one who shares in all our pain shares in it as the pure and holy one. Our sinless high priest is not one who needs rescue but who provides it. This is why we can go to him to “receive mercy and find grace” (4:16). He himself is not trapped in the hole of sin with us; he alone can pull us out. His sinlessness is our salvation. But here we are beginning to move over into the work of Christ. The burden of Hebrews 4:15, and of Thomas Goodwin’s book on it, is the heart of Christ. Yes, verse 16 speaks of “the throne of grace.” But verse 15 is opening up to us the heart of grace. Not only can he alone pull us out of the hole of sin; he alone desires to climb in and bear our burdens. Jesus is able to sympathize. He “co-suffers” with us.
As Goodwin’s contemporary John Owen put it, Christ “is inclined from his own heart and affections to give . . . us help and relief . . . and he is inwardly moved during our sufferings and trials with a sense and fellow-feeling of them.”
If you are in Christ, you have a Friend who, in your sorrow, will never lob down a pep talk from heaven. He cannot bear to hold himself at a distance. Nothing can hold him back. His heart is too bound up with yours.