Hebrews is one of my favourite books of the Bible, and the passages about Jesus high priesthood are especially dear to me. Lately, I have been reading “The Heart of Christ” by Thomas Goodwin, and he brought an focus to Jesus’ priesthood that I found particularly helpful. It centers on the verse that tells us that Jesus, as our Great High Priest, is able to “sympathize with our weaknesses”(4:15).
What does it mean to sympathize? Most directly, the word means to suffer alongside another. Does our view of Christ allow for such language, or do we have such a view of Christ as glorified, distant, unaffected, and unable to sympathize with his suffering people? It is an easy misunderstanding to fall into, and one I believe the Devil takes particular interest in.
What are these “weaknesses” that Jesus is suffering alongside his people in? Hebrews 5:2 is the immediate context, identifying them as ignorance and waywardness (5:2) – SIN. If you’re anything like me, you know that some of the worst suffering a believer can endure is the suffering of their own sin. You feel a weight of guilt and shame; you feel God is distant, angry, and disappointed. One of the ways our sin destroys our joy is that it makes it hard to see God rightly.
Do you remember the old Ray Boltz song that asked “do you still feel the nails, every time I fail?” That is the trap we fall into in our sin – thinking that we have further wounded and disappointed our Lord. Rather, because Jesus is our sympathetic High Priest, the pain he feels when his people sin is the same pain they feel.
According to the author to the Hebrews, Jesus so closely identifies with his people that he continues to enter into our suffering – even, or perhaps especially, that caused by their own sin, and he suffers along with us. He sympathizes.
This should give us the confidence to draw near to God at the exact moment we feel most unable. He is not waiting with his belt in his hand, but eagerly wishing to dispense mercy and grace to his wayward children.
To borrow a few words from the Puritan, Thomas Goodwin, “(Christ) …is thus able and powerful to take our miseries into his heart, though glorified, and so to be affected with them, as if he suffered with us, and so to relieve us out of that principle out of which he would relieve himself.”
A human high priest was able to sympathize with those he served because he was subject to the same weakness of sin. Jesus shared in every frailty we experience, yet was without sin. This makes him more sympathetic to our state, not less. His heart has more desire for our good and a greater desire to show mercy than we can even desire for ourselves. His heart is so knit to his people that he cannot but be affected by their suffering – even the self-inflicted kind.
Let that be a great encouragement to come to him in time of need. He will not turn away those whom he bought with his own blood. We have a sympathetic high priest!