Sympathy Without Distress

The Exalted Compassion of Christ

“Only remember me,” Joseph requested, “when it is well with you, and please do me the kindness to mention me to Pharaoh, and so get me out of this house” (Genesis 40:14). Though he sat in prison, Joseph had just interpreted the cupbearer’s dream favorably: he would be restored to his former height in three days. “Only remember me to Pharaoh,” Joseph asked.

In three days, the cupbearer was taken from the cell as foretold. It will only be a matter of time now, Joseph thought. Three more days passed. Five days. A week. “Two whole years” (Genesis 41:1). Nothing. Once ascended to his former place, “the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him” (Genesis 40:23).

When you think of the ascended Christ, do you imagine someone like this cupbearer? Has he who once descended into our pit and suffered for our sins — only to rise to a better life three days later — forgotten us?

Perhaps you expect his attention when he returns, but until then, he basks in the angel’s praises, grips the scepter firmly in hand, and with our prison far behind him, you suspect that you remain little upon his heart.

Sympathy of the Prince

William Gurnall (1616–1679) gives a moving illustration in reply:

Suppose a king’s son should get out of a besieged city, where he had left his wife and children, whom he loves as his own soul, and these all ready to die by sword or famine; if supply come not the sooner, could this prince, when arrived at his father’s house, please himself with the delights of the court, and forget the distress of his family? (The Christian in Complete Armor, 31)

Right now, Jesus thinks of me, he thinks of you, as this prince who has left his bride and children behind. He has not forgotten us, coronated as he is in glory, just as any good man could not for a moment forget his family shackled in sorrows in an evil land. If we who are sinful are moved at the distress of our loved ones, how could Christ, whose name is love, disregard the sufferings of his family still on earth?

If you’re tempted to feel forgotten, be reminded that right now Christ loves his bride with a love surpassing knowledge (Ephesians 3:19). His heart toward us from heaven deserves more thought than many of us give it. Consider first how un-cupbearer-like our ascended Christ is, and then why Christ does “please himself with the delights of the court” while still not forgetting “the distress of his family” — and why that is such good news for us.

He Has Not Forgotten

Jesus, our King, has departed into glory, leaving us here on earth. And unlike the prince in Gurnall’s illustration, Jesus prays we remain temporarily apart, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15). But in order that we might not draw false conclusions, on the eve of his death Jesus also says in several ways, “I will not forget you.”

He assures them, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3). He promises, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. . . . Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:18–19).

When sorrow fills their hearts at this news, he ensures that he means their good: “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). He guarantees, “You have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22).

On the darkest night in history, Christ carries his people upon his heart in prayer to his Father: “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24). And this he prays for you and me as well: “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word” (John 17:20).

“Surely Jesus will not forget his bride, the reward of his suffering and anguish.”

These words do not pour forth from a heavenly cupbearer. We can be certain that he who said, “as the Father has loved me, so have I loved you” (John 15:9), and whose life was summarized in those expiring hours with the words, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1) — surely he will not forget his bride, the reward of his suffering and anguish. Nor in a real sense will he ever truly leave her (Matthew 28:20).

He Still Enjoys the Court

Suffice it to say that Jesus Christ will not, cannot, forget his beloved, even if his beloved is prone to forget that she is not forgotten. This is one problem.

But there is another: we can assume that Christ thinks only of us. The spirit of our age would have us picture a needy, codependent, lovesick Messiah. He is in heaven, not really paying attention to the glory there, doodling hearts on the margins of the cosmos with our name in the middle.

Such a spirit omits that Jesus also told his disciples, “You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28). We might be conditioned to believe that his world revolves around us, that he must be perpetually pained in heaven, unable to fully rejoice with his Father or receive praises or enjoy the delights of the court because we are not yet there.

When He Wrote to Her

Consider the love letter he sends from heaven to his hurting, left behind bride in Smyrna. She is a faithful local church (no censure or call to repentance appears in this letter). How does the compassionate Christ speak to his suffering church? To the angel of the church of Smyrna, he tells John, write,

The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.

I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death. (Revelation 2:8–11)

What comfort does he offer? He says that he is the first and the last, the one who died and came back to life. He says he knows their tribulation and their poverty (though they are rich). He tells them that he hears the slander of their enemies who have become a “synagogue of Satan.”

But notice too how he instructs them in their persecution: “Do not fear what you are about to suffer” — Satan’s throwing them into prison will test them, and end up serving greater purposes. Jesus tells them to be faithful unto death, and that he will be waiting on the other side with a crown of life. He tells them that they must conquer so as not to be hurt by the second death, the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14).

He gives to this church what appears to be a masculine comfort, that is, comfort that retains an exhortative tone given its vision of higher priorities (1 Thessalonians 2:11–12) — namely, the church’s eternal well-being.

Christ’s words here are not those of a nursing mother with her child (1 Thessalonians 2:7), though equally full of love. Jesus comforts this church, but not by telling her he cannot enjoy heaven and his Father while she remains oppressed and apart. He does not refuse to sit on the throne before she is seated safely in glory.

Moved, but Not Injured

Jesus cares deeply about us, but not too much — is that what I am trying to say? No. He cares more deeply about his bride than we know, and he is still our God who inhabits a heaven that is bigger than us. He loves us beyond knowledge, and he does not have absolute need of us. Part of the beauty of his love is how freely given, or unrequired, it is.

As our great high priest, Christ invites us to approach the throne of grace because he is able to sympathize with us (Hebrews 4:14–16). But he is not consumed by pity, nor does he feel with us so as to sustain injury. He owns our persecutions as the head of the body — “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me” (Acts 9:4) — yet not in such a way as to be freshly pierced.

Thomas Goodwin (1600–1680) describes it this way in The Heart of Christ:

These affections of pity and sympathy so stirred up by himself, though they. . . affect his bodily heart as they did here, yet they do not afflict and perturb him in the least, nor become a burden in a load unto his Spirit, so as to make him sorrowful or heavy, as in this life here his pity unto Lazarus made him, and as his distresses at last, that made him sorrowful unto death. (47)

“Jesus is provoked to help us; he draws near, moved by our hurt, while not being hurt himself.”

Jesus Christ, once a man of sorrows, has risen and ascended; he is not in heaven sunken that his bride is not yet there. Goodwin claims that the glorified Christ has “no tang of disquietment” or “afflicting affections,” though his “perfection does not destroy his affections.” He is provoked to help us; he draws near, moved in measure by our hurt, while not being hurt himself.

He Sees the Day

This is good news for us, for Christ loves his people without unbraiding all reality by loving them above his Father and his glory. The Son invites us into his eternal, Trinitarian love, without making us the primary focus of that eternal love. He loves us without making us God.

Our final joy and eternal well-being are certain. Jesus has no guesswork as to our fate. While far from unfeeling, he is not tossed by the waves, as we are this side of heaven.

Jesus is the Shepherd of the sheep, the Groom of his bride, guiding us home through a world of distress to springs of living water, promising to soon wipe away every tear from our eyes (Revelation 7:17; 21:4). While he tarries, he can and does enjoy “the delights of the court,” while not forgetting “the distress of his family.”