Several of the earliest controversies and key battles in Church History were over Christ’s divine and human natures. One of the classic texts to explain why Jesus Christ had to become fully man, so that He might perform priestly service before God on man’s behalf, is Hebrews 2:17-18. Christ’s priestly ministry propitiated (or turned aside) God’s wrath against man’s sin. The classic explanation of this doctrine was given by Anselm of Canterbury 900 years ago in his towering work, Cur Deus Homo, (meaning “Why God Became Man”).
Speaking of the payment that must be made for man’s sins, Anselm wrote:
“It could not have been done unless man paid what was owing to God for sin. But the debt was so great that, while man alone owed it, only God could pay it, so that the same person must be both man and God. Thus it was necessary for God to take manhood into the unity of his person, so that he who in his own nature ought to pay and could not should be in a person who could.”[i]
Anselm of Canterbury gets to the heart of what the writer of Hebrews teaches in Hebrews 2:17: “He had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest.” The Old Testament priest represented God before man, which was why the high priest was garbed with glory and honor (Exodus 28:2). The high priest’s apparel gleamed, to portray the righteousness of God before the people of God. This is why the high priest wore an ephod of gold, upon which were fastened twelve stones, bearing the names of the twelve tribes of Israel (Exodus 28:9-12).
The purpose of the incarnation is that Christ, as the God-Man, might bear His people’s names upon His shoulders. As the true High Priest, Jesus Christ is garbed in His own perfect righteousness, which He now presents on behalf of His redeemed people. Jesus went forth as the minister and representative of His people, offering His own precious blood—His divine and infinitely valuable life—which alone atones for the debt of, not only one man’s sin, but the sins of the whole world.
The work of Christ was one of turning aside God’s wrath against man’s sin. Christ’s work of propitiation gets to the reason that He was born into the world—so that, by His death as the God-Man, He might break the hold of death on sinners, and set His people free through the cross and resurrection. While this explains the first and second reasons why Christ had to become a man and die, Hebrews 2:18 gives the third reason, “Because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”
Jesus is able to help His people in whatever circumstances they find themselves, because He suffered in His people’s place on the way to His death and on the cross dying for their sins. The fact that Christ has done all of this is proof of His full humanity, in that “he himself has suffered when tempted”. Christians often want to dismiss Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, but there Jesus was afflicted with great hunger and the temptation to accept the crown without the cross. While these were great temptations, Jesus overcame them all. As a result of Jesus temptation and suffering, He knows what His people are going through whether they are struggling with a variety of temptations or going through hard times. Jesus knows what it is like to go through hardship because He endured the sins of humanity on the cross. Jesus the High Priest over His people has real sympathy and compassion for what His people are going through.
Some people think Jesus didn’t know the full range of human experience because He wasn’t a sinner. This questions whether or not He can have full sympathy for sinners. Far from Jesus knowing less than His people do about temptation, Jesus knows far more about temptation than His people do because He endured it to the point of sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, where He felt the weight of man’s sin in preparing to die on the cross.
B.F. Westcott is correct when he observes: “Sympathy with the sinner in his trial does not depend on the experience of sin but on the experience of the strength of temptation to sin, which only the sinless can know in its full intensity. He who falls yields before the last strain.”[ii]
Jesus has real and knowledgeable sympathy with those who are tempted, which is why the Scriptures say that He is able to help His people. Jesus is not “just like us”. Jesus is the Redeemer, and His people are the sinners in need of such a champion. Jesus’ work is hardly impersonal or mechanical; it is heartfelt and sensitive. Jesus felt the nails as they were driven into His hands and feet, so that He might rescue His people from the power of death. The quality of mercy of Christ’s work is intimate, personal, and knowing. This intimate, personal, and knowing work calls His people to love Him as a Savior, who has gone to such lengths to know His people in the midst of their trials, to have the fellowship of suffering.
Jesus’ suffering means that He is able to help His people and understand all of what they are going through. Whenever God’s people encounter difficult circumstances or trials, they have a sympathetic and merciful High Priest who hears when His people cry out to Him. Understanding Jesus as High Priest ought to be a great encouragement to God’s people—that they can turn to the Lord in prayer in whatever circumstances they find themselves in.
One of the major aspects of Jesus’ High Priestly ministry is His ability now to save His people. His ability to save them means His people can trust Him, knowing that death will bring them no harm, but rather bring them to Jesus. His people can trust Him for today, knowing He knows and understands any and all present temptations and struggles. Jesus is able to help His people, by praying for them before the throne of His Father in Heaven, and by sending the Holy Spirit into their hearts, giving them strength that is of Him. This is why Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Despite all of Paul’s many trials, it was with knowledge of Christ’s personal power that he could declare: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, became a man to be a total Savior, sufficient for the whole range of every need. People are lamenting daily in this ‘world of woe’, asking, “Where is God? Why doesn’t He do something?” Meanwhile, He has done everything—indeed, more than they could ever ask for or imagine. God has entered into man’s world. He has walked through the dust of this earth. He who is Life has wept before the grave, and He who is the Bread of Life has felt the aching of hunger in His belly. He has taken the thorns that afflict this sin-scarred world and allowed them to be woven into a crown to be pressed upon His head. He has stretched open His arms in love, that the hands that wove creation might be nailed to a wooden cross. Then He rose from the dead, conquering all that would conquer His people, setting His people free to live in peace and joy before the face of God.
[i] Anselm of Canterbury, Why God Became Man, in Eugene PR. Fairweather, A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselem to Ockham (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961), 176.
[ii] B.F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews (London: Macmillan, 1903), 59.