Jesus was sinless. “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth,” says Peter (1 Peter 2:22). And he remains sinless today. “In him there is no sin,” says John (1 John 3:5). This glorious truth forms the basis of his substitutionary atoning work for sinners. But his sinlessness also forms the basis of why he is qualified to sympathize with us as sinners. And on that point comes a controversy. If Jesus is sinless, doesn’t that mean he never really tasted the power of temptation? How can a perfect man who never sinned — a man who never struggled to get free from a sin habit — how can he truly feel the power of temptation?
This line of thinking is wrong. It’s wrong because you’re not struggling with sin if you’re continually giving in to sin. In other words, the pressure of temptation is felt most strongly by those who most earnestly resist giving in to the sin. And if that point sounds familiar, it should. We covered that theme several times on the podcast already, particularly in episodes on lust like APJ episodes 291, 804, and 963. The pressure of temptation is felt most strongly by those who most earnestly resist giving in to the sin. Pastor John explains in this clip, from a 1996 sermon.
I apologize for about a minute of static in the middle of it. But the clip is too good, and the point too important, not to share here on the podcast. Here’s Pastor John, 25 years ago, preaching on Hebrews 4:15, a text that tells us our high priest can sympathize with our weakness, because he never sinned.
Now, look at verse 15. In spite of the fact that verse 14 presents a magnificent and lofty great high priest, verse 15 describes him in another way.
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.
Notice three things: (1) he was tempted like you are; (2) he never gave into temptation, never sinned; and (3) he is very sympathetic with us in our weaknesses.
Temptation’s Full Force
Fifty years ago, C.S. Lewis was pondering this text, and he heard an objection raised by a scoffer, and the objection went like this: “If Jesus never sinned, he can’t know what real temptation is like. He can’t sympathize, he can’t empathize with me because he’s never tasted the full force of temptation.” And this is what C.S. Lewis wrote in response:
A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. . . . A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later.
And I might add: or a lifetime later — like hanging in there with a tough marriage and resisting the temptation to bail out, or hanging in there against sexual temptation and resisting the temptation, not just five minutes or one hour, but year in and year out, decade in and decade out, until Jesus comes or calls. Talk about knowing the force and power of temptation — only those who do that know the full force. Lewis continues,
That is why bad people in one sense know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. . . . Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means — the only complete realist. (Mere Christianity, 142)
“Jesus was ‘tempted as we are, yet without sin,’ and therefore he knows the full force of what it is to be tempted.”
Don’t you ever think that because you have lived a life of sin that you know more about temptation than the godly person who has walked that razor’s edge of the straight and narrow, gritting his teeth in the power of the Holy Spirit and saying, “No, no, no, no, no,” and fighting his way through every day with righteousness, and laying his head down, and feeling the force of evil upon him day after day after day, and triumphing over it in God. Don’t you ever think that you know more of evil than that person, or that you know more of evil than Jesus Christ. Jesus was “tempted as we are, yet without sin,” and therefore he knows the full force of what it is to be tempted.
In Every Way as We Are
Let me illustrate for you.
Jesus was tempted to lie to save his life. Would you not, surrounded by soldiers, spears, a cross in the corner, nails on the floor, hammers over there, having seen what it was like when they asked you, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the living God?” be tempted to lie?
He was tempted to steal to help his mother when his father died, I do not doubt. There were at least five kids in that family. Widows don’t make it easy. Joseph disappears off the scene early. Jesus was tempted to steal. Jesus was tempted to covet all those things, those nice things that Zacchaeus had. Even after he gave away half his goods, he was a rich man, and Jesus walked out owning nothing. Do you think he was not tempted to covet a home for himself, a place to lay his head down every night?
He was tempted to dishonor his parents when they were tough on him and told him what was right and wrong and set limits, perhaps more than the other boys in Nazareth. He was tempted to take revenge when he was wrongly accused. So often they said lies about him. And with one word, he could have made fools out of them.
He was tempted to lust when Mary knelt down, leaned over, and wiped his feet with her hair. He was tempted to murmur at God’s sovereignty when his friend and colleague and brother, John the Baptist, was beheaded at the whim of a dancing girl. “Where are you, God?” He was tempted to gloat over his accusers when they couldn’t answer his questions.
He knew the battle, folks, and he triumphed over that monster every day, all day, for thirty-three years. And when it crescendoed at the end, he never ever gave in.
Who Will Help the Helpless?
Now, let me close by pointing you to verse 16. The conclusion that we draw from all of this — that we have a great high priest, that he is the Son of God, that he has passed through the heavens with God, that he is sympathetic with us — the conclusion to draw is that we can draw near to God for grace.
Let me pose a problem, as we close, that has kept many people away from Jesus. And I want to make sure nobody falls for this, because there are so many people — I’ve talked to so many. I’ve heard of so many who get to the crisis point of whether to embrace Christ as their high priest, their Savior, their Lord, their King, their guide, their friend, and they push it away.
Here’s why many of them do: everybody in this room knows that you need help.
- We need help with our bodies.
- We need help with our minds.
- We need help with our jobs.
- We need help with our spouses.
- We need help with our kids.
- We need help with our finances.
- We need help with our choices.
Everybody knows we need help. And there’s a second thing everybody in this room knows in your most honest moments: you don’t deserve help. John Piper doesn’t deserve any help from anybody. Why? I’m a sinner. I deserve one thing: judgment. I don’t deserve help. So here I am. I need help to live my life and cope with eternity, and I don’t deserve help.
Grace for the Least Deserving
Now, what are you going to do? This is the trap that keeps many people away from Christ. You’ve got maybe three or four options.
You can deny it all and say, “I’ll be a superman or superwoman and rise above my need for help.” And that might last a year, a decade, and then you’d break.
Or you could say, “I can’t deny it all, but I can drown it all,” and you throw your life into a pool of sensual pleasure.” That’s a possibility.
The third option is very common. It’s looking here: “I need help with my life. My life doesn’t work. I’m not in control. I especially can’t handle my sin and my eternity.” And over here: “I don’t deserve help. Nobody owes me anything, because I’m a sinner. I have wrecked things so many times, and my attitude stinks, and I don’t love God the way I should.” Paralysis and hopelessness. And when you present the gospel to a person like that, if they don’t have ears to hear, they just say, “There’s no way. There’s no hope for me.”
But now there’s a fourth option. And that’s what the Bible is about, that’s what the history of Israel is about, that’s what this text is about. And the option is this: There is a high priest who is the Son of God, who takes the blood of his own death into the presence of God. And he enables us to say, “Yes, I need help — and yes, I don’t deserve it. But no, I will not be paralyzed, because there’s a mediator, and Jesus came to give the undeserving help.”
“The throne of grace is God meeting the need of undeserving people.”
What do you call that? The throne of grace. The throne of grace is God meeting the need of undeserving people. You’ve got to hear that now. I want you to take that out of here in about one minute. Grace comes into your life when you are paralyzed with the sense that you need help and you don’t deserve help, and therefore, you feel hopeless, and you’re either going to superman it out or drown it out or be paralyzed with depression.
And grace comes in and says, “Yes, you’ve analyzed that rightly: you need help. Yes, you’ve analyzed that rightly: you don’t deserve a thing from God. But no, you don’t need to be a superman. No, you don’t need to drown it. And no, you don’t need to be paralyzed. The fourth option is this: “I paid for that sin, and while you don’t deserve any help, God will give you help if you come through a high priest.”