Recently, I had the honor of preaching at our Good Friday service. During the message, I made a passing reference to a Hebrews passage that appeared to resonate deeply with some church folk. It was one of those unforeseen moments when a Bible verse pierces the chaos of crazy-busy and taps the brakes so we can slow down and listen.
In Hebrews 4: 15, the author writes, “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.” The high priest we have is Jesus Christ, relocated from Heaven to become the sacrifice and the mediator for His people. But here we learn that this remarkable role carries a most unusual quality, particularly for those who assume that “high priest” means rigidly religious, gigantically judgmental, or dangerously disconnected from real life.
Jesus, our High Priest, is able to sympathize with our weakness.
Don’t rush past that sentence. It invites us to pause and ponder, like a gentle, fragrant breeze gliding across the front porch on a Spring day. It tells us something about ourselves; an elusive reality that can be hard to see and difficult to admit. Jesus assumes we are weak.
Think about this. It addresses you, me, and every living being in possession of a soul. We are fragile sojourners in a fallen world, frail, tenuous, and imperfect. All of us. This verse is not addressing some unique subset of humans who have the misfortune of being flawed. If you breathe, you are weak. More specifically, if you are a pastor, you are weak. It’s not a question of whether it’s true; the question is whether you are clued in or clueless.
Weak Means Me
Recently, I was walking out of Starbucks and tried to unlock my car through my spiffy electronic car key. Nothing happened. My mind immediately went dark, instinctively irritated over the wasted day before me if I needed a new battery for my key (do these things even have batteries?), a new battery for my car (it has a brand new battery!), or if some other unexpected repair was necessary (I hate cars!!). While I was emotionally tanking over the lost hours to a day not yet begun, I spied another car in the parking lot that looked just like mine. Actually, it was mine. It’s a bad omen when a guy starts his day realizing that his key is fine, it’s his brain that’s defective.
I am weak, and every day there are more clues.
Weakness represents those places in life where we are reminded that we are not kingdom-ruling conquerors exercising omniscience, omnipotence, and omni-competence at will. Not even close! We are the fabulously fallen and frail who forget meeting times, wreck our cars, and mistakenly leave the doors open to invite all manner of beast and insect to become squatters in our home. You know what I’m talking about. We are the sleepers-in, the bill-forgetters, the “Oh-Lord-what’s-that-smell” people. We are weak.
And in case you’re wondering, it’s not about sin. Sure, all sin reveals weakness, but not all weakness is sin.
Weak Means Sympathy
To leaders who own this label, this passage offers a mind-blowing message. Jesus gets us. I’m not talking about a kind detachment where Jesus listens well but is actually disconnected from the real frustrations we encounter. Jesus is no Pharisee, rolling his eyes when we fail, outwardly tolerating us but inwardly reviling our weakness. No, Jesus actually sympathizes with us where we are weak. As a loving high priest, he empathizes with the areas where we suffer deficiencies or defects.
But that’s not all. Jesus does not sympathize as an outsider. He’s not the guy who read a book on weakness, or quickly Googled it to become conversant. No sir, the Savior knows you on an experiential level. As our perfect high priest, Jesus is “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are.”
Pastors, slow your pace a bit more, and just think about that: “In every respect, tempted as we are.” Bad week for you in battling lust? Jesus understands. He knows the temptation. Are you struggling with resentful thoughts over some way you were mistreated? Jesus gets it. He was royally shafted by people and wrestled through those very temptations. Fretting over a church matter? Sweating the finances? Feeling forgotten? Jesus knows them all. Tempted to throw in the towel, to give up on your flock? Tempted to say you aren’t cut out for this? Jesus understands that, too. He understands the battle because he’s been to war. Concerning Christ’s temptations, Raymond Brown said, “No one on earth, before or since, has ever been brought through such spiritual desolation and human anguish. For this reason he can help us in our moments of temptation. He is aware of our needs because he has experienced to the full the pressures and testings of life in this godless world.”
Always remember: Jesus knows how a fallen world affects you, how temptations compete for supremacy within your soul. Jesus gets the shame, the demoralizing feeling that accompanies the skirmish between what you feel and who you are called to be. Jesus understands, and he sympathizes with you.
Weak Means Freedom
Church leaders, here’s one final thought to encourage your soul: Because Christ is able to sympathize with our weakness, we don’t need to self-sympathize! If you are like me, any awareness of weakness becomes an immediate invitation to my pity party. “Come join Dave, as he spends yet another day sympathizing with himself over not being God!” But through this passage God speaks another word. “Hey Dave,” he says, “let’s turn the pity-dial down a bit today. Remember, I’m the perfect high priest- your sympathy is my job. I’ve got this whole sympathy thing covered. Why don’t you just think about how to love and enjoy me today!”
In every area of life, the gospel is the game-changer. With self-pity, the gospel breaks into my self-sympathizing tendencies and reminds me that because of Christ’s death and resurrection, I get far more sympathy than I deserve. The gospel proclaims a double-swap. At the cross, I not only avoid getting the just judgment that my sins rightfully warranted, but in place of God’s wrath I receive his adoption, his loving affection, and his compassion for my weakness. Instead of the antipathy I earned, I get sympathy as a child of my Heavenly Father.
Are you feeling weak today? Smacked around, perhaps, by temptations? Have you just printed some invites to your own pity-party? The good news of the gospel includes a Great High Priest. A Savior with a love so vast that he drops into the mundane moments of our weakness and temptation and says, “I get you, and I understand.” Then, at just the right time, he supplies the way of escape (1 Cor. 10: 13).
My Savior gets me. And from that perfect knowledge, dipping all the way down to my DNA, he issues this life transforming invitation, “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” (Heb. 4: 16).
Goodness and grace from the God who gets me. I guess that’s what makes him the Perfect High Priest (Heb. 9: 11-12).