I’m sure you have heard of this quote from George Bernard Shaw, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” I have noticed that many times—Business teachers have experienced one or two failed business endeavors. Marriage and Family Therapists come from broken or troubled marriages. Church planting coaches tend to be men whose own church plant failed. So why would anyone want to learn from those who have not tasted the glory of success?
How could our Savior live a life characterized by suffering? Doesn’t that prove he is incapable of achieving success?
Is Jesus just another cautionary tale, someone who disciples others because he didn’t make it as a carpenter? What we will find in these verses is that Jesus’ suffering had a purpose—and Jesus accomplished that purpose perfectly.
Jesus fully represents and personally sympathizes with sinful humans through his active and passive obedience.
Read Hebrews 2:14-18.
Delivered from the Wages of Sin (14-16)
Jesus died in order to deliver us from the enslaving fear of death by destroying the one who had the power of death. Jesus destroyed the devil by his own death on the cross, but that’s only part of the problem. How can sinners reconcile to a holy God?
Delivered from the Penalty of Sin (17)
Jesus became like us in every respect in his incarnation. The addition of humanity does not take away from the Son’s deity. But, in Jesus’ humanity, he was subject to the same limitations that we experience. He took upon himself all of the physical infirmities associated with the human body. In his “flesh and blood” (v.14):
• Jesus was limited in time and space; he was not omnipresent.
• Jesus was limited in his knowledge; he had to grow in wisdom (Lk 2:52).
• Jesus was subject to physical and emotional pain.
It was necessary for Jesus to be like us, fully human, “so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest.” The high priests represented the people before God as they administered the sacrificial system. This will become the theme of a later section (Heb 4:14-5:10), but the author’s point in this verse is to show how Jesus fully represents humanity. Jesus’ likeness to his brothers enabled him to suffer for them. Philip Hughes comments:
“The Son could not have represented men before God, offering, as their high priest, the sacrifice of himself on their behalf and in their place, had he not first become their fellow man. Representation requires identification.”
The fact that Jesus was subject to physical and emotional pain is what the author of Hebrews emphasizes. He has already pointed us to Jesus’ death (Heb 2:14passive obedience), and he is about to point to the temptation he suffered throughout his life (Heb 2:18 active obedience). But before going there, we need to understand “propitiation”.
How Did Jesus Make Propitiation for Sin?
Jesus made “propitiation for the sins of the people.” There are two basic interpretations for ἱλάσκομαι here:
1. Jesus satisfied the wrath of God (propitiation).
2. Jesus removed the penalty of sin (expiation).
No one rejects expiation, but the question is whether this word means to say more than that. For example, in Luke 18:13, the tax collector cries out in prayer, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” The same verb is used there. Is the tax collector asking for his sin to be taken away or is he asking for God to turn his wrath away?
Examining the Biblical Evidence
It is helpful to start with the Old Testament. When Jacob sent a gift to his brother Esau, he believed the gift would “appease” his brother’s anger (Gen 32:20). The same word is translated “make atonement” throughout Leviticus (ἱλάσκομαι is found 49 times in the LXX of Leviticus).
After Moses witnessed the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, we read…
Exodus 32:30 ESV
The next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.”
Moses sought to appease God’s wrath by offering to be blotted out of God’s book, but God rejected the offer and sent a plague upon the people.
When God brought judgment upon Korah, Dathan, and Abiram for challenging the authority of Moses and Aaron the ground swallowed them up (Num 16:31-32). Then he brought fire upon the rest of the men who had joined the rebellion (Num 16:35). The next day, the people grumbled against Moses and Aaron for the deaths of those men. When God was about to consume the whole assembly, Moses told Aaron to take his censer to the congregation and “make atonement for the people” (Num 16:47-48). Aaron’s action appeased God’s wrath, bringing an end to the plague judgment.
Phinehas brought an end to another plague when he drove a spear through two people at once, a man that was openly sleeping with a Midianite woman (Num 25:9).
Numbers 25:11 ESV
“Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy.
The same word is not used here, but redefining one word will not eliminate the concept from the Bible. We could point to several other Old Testament passages, that clearly influenced the authors of the New Testament. Paul speaks of God appointing Jesus “as a propitiation by his blood” (Rom 3:25). The point of Jesus’ atonement was to justify God’s righteousness.
The Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement
Augustine spoke of men as lying under the wrath of God due not only to original sin they inherited from Adam, but also the abundance of their own actual sins. They stand in need of a Mediator who will reconcile them by removing the wrath of God that hangs over them.
Late in the eleventh century, Anselm was the first to make a fully developed case for the satisfaction theory of the atonement. He was influenced by the teaching of the Early Church Fathers—namely, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, and John of Damascus.
In Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man), Anselm argued that sin must always receive punishment or satisfaction. Furthermore, sin against an infinitely great God results in infinite guilt. Thus, only a sacrifice of infinite value could satisfy the demands of God’s justice. At the same time, this offering needed to be made by a man, in order to appease God’s wrath toward man’s sin. The only possible means for salvation was the sacrifice of the God-man, Jesus Christ. Bavinck acknowledges,
“Anselm was the first to understand, and to understand most clearly, that the redemption accomplished by Christ was a deliverance, not primarily from the consequences of sin, from death and Satan’s power, but above all from sin itself and sin’s guilt.”
A few centuries later, Aquinas extended the doctrine further suggesting that all of Christ’s suffering and obedience contributed to the satisfaction of God’s wrath (not only his death). In other words, the total active and passive obedience of Christ was necessary to appease the wrath of God against sin.
Finally, during the twentieth century, C.H. Dodd attempted to re-interpret “propitiation” as merely meaning “expiation”. He argued that the idea of God’s wrath is “an archaic phrase” that was only suited to defend “a thoroughly archaic idea.” Instead of appeasing God’s wrath, Dodd argued, ἱλάσκομαι only had to do with the removal of man’s guilt. As we’ve seen, the word certainly goes further than that to imply the turning away of God’s wrath. John Piper writes,
“The substitute, Jesus Christ, does not just cancel the wrath; he absorbs it and diverts it from us to himself. God’s wrath is just, and it was spent, not withdrawn.”
› Not only are we delivered from the penalty of sin, but we are also…
Delivered from the Power of Sin (18)
This does not mean that sin no longer has any grip upon our hearts. Sin does overpower believers on a daily basis. But this verse assures us that Christ is upholding us and granting us a way of escape (1 Cor 10:13). Just as the author of Hebrews has said we are no longer enslaved to the fear of death, he agrees with Paul, that we are no longer enslaved to sin (Rom 6:6).
Jesus is able to come to the aid of those who are in the midst of temptation, because he knows what it is like to suffer those same temptations (Heb 4:15). The only difference is that he never caved into the temptation. Jesus suffered temptation to its fullest extent—so that he might support us in our own temptation.
I’ve mentioned previously what C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity regarding Christ’s suffering temptation to the fullest extent because he never gave into it. B.F. Westcott said something similar about fifty years before Lewis:
“Sympathy with the sinner in his trial 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.”
A Sympathetic Savior
Jesus’ sinlessness does not make him inadequate to support us. He was made like us in every respect and tempted like us in every respect (Heb 4:15). He knows the depths of temptation unlike anyone else. He has been tempted beyond our own breaking points—because we all know the relief of giving in. The ability for Jesus to understand how much temptation we’re under is unparalleled in humanity.
It’s the difference between the dieter who never cheats and the one who cheats daily. Whose advice would you rather follow? The failed dieter is not much help. He hasn’t proven himself to be worthy of our trust. Misery may love company, but if we want to snap out of it we need to surround ourselves with those who are not miserable.
Jesus understood what it was like to suffer temptation, but he never caved under the pressure. And that’s precisely why he is the perfect person to come to our aid. John Brown provides an illustration of the kind of sympathy that Christ is able to offer us because of his suffering.
“Suppose two friends, equally benevolent in their temper, equally attached to you; the one, a person who had never suffered under the afflictions to which you are exposed; the other, one who had experienced the same, or at least a very similar course of trials: Would there not be a tenderness, and a suitableness, and a minuteness of appropriate attentions and consolations experienced from the latter, which, in the very nature of things, it is impossible that the former, however kindly disposed, should yield?
Who is not struck with astonishment and delight at observing in the plan of salvation such an intimate knowledge of all the peculiarities of our nature, and such a benevolent use made of this intimate knowledge, in securing for man not only the great substantial blessings of salvation, but their being conferred on him in the way best fitted to soothe and comfort him amid the remaining evils of the present state?”
Not only does Jesus faithfully represent us before God in our humanity, but he is able to sympathize with us because he suffered in the same ways that we suffer.
Jesus Is Your Only Hope
We all need to understand that the suffering of Jesus was absolutely necessary for our salvation. God’s wrath is not incompatible with his love.
1 John 4:10 ESV
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
Joel Beeke summarizes it this way,
“When God was angry enough against us to send us to hell, he also loved us so much that he sent his Son to bear that wrath for our salvation.”
Have you come to know Jesus as your merciful and faithful high priest? When you stand before God on the day of judgment, there are only two options; either Jesus Christ will represent you before his Father, or you will stand before him on your own. Only Jesus was capable of turning away the wrath of God by bearing it’s full weight in his flesh as he died upon the cross. Only Jesus can come to your aid when you suffer temptations of any kind. Your only hope is to turn to him in repentance and faith.