This is a question from Justin, who asks a really sharp one: “Pastor John, we are told Jesus was tempted, and that he can sympathize with our temptations as a result. But doesn’t it seem like the point of commonality between my temptation and Jesus’s is external? That is, the devil offered him the kingdoms; someone could walk up to me and offer me stolen money. Both of those are external temptations — even if they don’t personally draw us to evil. But with a Christian, temptations seem deeper, on account of indwelling sin (which of course Jesus never had). So can Jesus really identify with me when he doesn’t know the experience of indwelling sin raging war against the Spirit? Aren’t our temptations more powerful than those faced by Christ on earth?”
Oh my, that is a good and hard question. So I will give the answer as I see it in a sentence and then I am going to dig in and try to explain where it came from. Jesus identifies with us to the greatest degree possible that is good for us. If he went beyond that, he would not be helpful or loving. If Jesus identified with you or me by sharing in my indwelling sin, he would cease to be a great high priest. He would be like me, and you, and other high priests who had to offer sacrifices for their own sins and for the sins of others. And he cannot save. He would have to cease being a Savior if he shared in my indwelling sin.
If he joined me in my sinfulness, the only way he would be good for me would be to feel with me, arm around me, guilty as I am, sad, and both of us would fall into hell together. That is not good news even if it sounds good to start with that: “Oh, it would be nice to have somebody who could be a sinner with us, and thus, identify with our sin as a sinner.” If Jesus joins me in my sin, he could sympathize as a sharer in indwelling sin and he would not be God. He would not be a high priest. And he would not be a Savior.
So he does not identify with indwelling sin and he does not identify with deeds of sin. He never did one and he never had any indwelling sin.
Greatest Degree Possible
And that is why we need to go to the text to see what it actually says. Hebrews 4:15 says,
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.
Now those last two words, “without sin,” are addressed directly to Justin’s question. “Without sin” means, no, he does not and cannot join us in our indwelling sin, so anything he said in that verse can’t be taken to mean that he does, which means that we should not absolutize the word “every” and the word “as” when it says “who in every respect has been tempted as we are.”
Behind that phrase “every respect,” which is, I think, what he is stumbling over, we have to ask the question: Is it every? Does the Greek phrase kata panta mean “according to all things” or “according to everything”? It occurs one other time in Hebrews, interestingly, where it says this: “He had to be made like his brothers in every respect [kata panta] so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). In other words, “in every respect” cannot mean sinfulness, because Hebrews 7:27 says he had no need like those high priests to offer sacrifices daily first for his own sins because he didn’t have any. And so even Hebrews 2:17 tells us, “Don’t go there. Don’t take every to mean that because it can’t mean that in these two verses.” So “in every respect” means Jesus identifies with us to the greatest degree possible and in every way possible that is good for us.
In fact, I think I could show this is what Hebrews 4:15 actually means if we knew the Greek. And there are half a dozen people listening to this who do know Greek. So get out your text and see if I am right on this. “He was tempted kata panta,” or “according to all things.” And then here is another kata: kath homoiotēta chōris hamartias.
So literally it is “tempted according to all the ways that accord with the likeness.” All the ways that accord with the likeness. And that likeness there is likeness to us, only without sin. Just like Romans 8:3 when the Son came “in the likeness of sinful flesh” — same word. He is flesh, but he is flesh minus sin. Same thing here. So it is, “He was tempted in all the ways that accord with the likeness” and the likeness excludes sin, so the “all the ways” excludes sin. It’s very complicated but I think valid.
So here is my final response to the question. Should we say to Jesus, when we experience the inner warfare of the flesh versus the Spirit that he didn’t experience, “You don’t know what I am going through”? That is Justin’s question: “You don’t know what I am going through.”
No, we should not say that to Jesus, because Jesus could say this: “Given what I know of being in the flesh, and given what I know of being in the Spirit and having the Spirit and being one with the Spirit, and given what I know of bearing all the sins of the world — even your battle in my body on the tree — and given what I know of seeing into the heart of every saint in every battle in every day this world has existed, and given what I know of temptation and spiritual warfare on Maundy Thursday and Friday morning, I do know what you are going through. I know it in the very best way a Savior can know it. And so because I know your battle the way I know it, I can save you from it. And if I knew it any other way, there would be no saving.”