What a Friend for Sinners

Imagine this bleak scenario: you find yourself convicted of a terrible crime and sentenced to life in prison. The conditions are terrible: filthy cells, meager food, and no relationships with people you can trust. The longer your sentence goes on, the worse the suffering becomes. The only way you’re leaving will be in a casket, but you don’t know which scares you more: the thought of living the rest of your life in torment, or the thought of your life ending without a final change in your circumstances. With the only options being suffering and death, you are, in a crushingly real sense, hopeless.

Now imagine that, miraculously, you are given the choice of a single friend. The first option is of a guard in the prison. His power means that he can provide you with better accommodations and food, but it also prevents him from ever engaging you in conversation and sharing in your pain. Or you could choose a fellow prisoner as your friend: someone who can’t do a single thing to change your conditions but who can make life better by sharing your pain as a fellow sufferer. Neither can fully redeem your misery, but both can help in their own way. Which would you choose?

I’m tempted to write something along the lines of “I hope nothing like that ever happens to you!” Yet everyone who reads this finds him- or herself in a not-too-dissimiliar situation. Many of us suffer physically or mentally, unable to alleviate the pain that’s just there every day. Even those of us blessed with good health, happy backgrounds, and material comforts fight inner demons, experiencing the anguish of frustration and loss on a deserted island in the middle of an ocean of prosperity. Even the kings and queens of our world know that, even if their lives consist of nearly perfect joy and happiness, their lives will end in either a bang or a whimper. To paraphrase the great theologian Johnny Cash, God (through death) will cut us all down.

The writer of Hebrews (an even greater theologian!) is writing to provide hope to the hopeless and encouragement to the suffering. He tells us that the answer to hopelessness is not changing our conditions but knowing and trusting a person, Jesus Christ. Not only does he, as the King of all creation, have the power to turn our mourning into dancing; as a fellow human being, he has the experiences to fully understand our real and painful suffering. Look at what he says:

In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. He says, “I will declare your name to my brothers; in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again he says, “Here am I, and the children God has given me.”

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death— that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
— Hebrews 2:10-18

On top of the reasons we’ve already seen in the letter so far, why should we trust that Jesus really matters in our suffering? First, he is the author (or, as the original word could also be translated, the “pioneer” or “esteemed founder”) of our salvation. He himself experienced the suffering of human life in a broken world, and he himself experienced ultimate vindication through his glorious and awesome resurrection. We can trust him because, like no one else we’ll ever meet, he can look at us as an equal and say, “I know how much it hurts.” When Jesus fulfilled the words of the Old Testament that are quoted in verses 11 through 13, the emphasis is on the words “family,” “brothers,” and “children.” Jesus knows what it’s like to stand in a group of worshipers and sing and pray alongside people who suffer Monday through Saturday. Jesus knows what it’s like to have to take God at his word, even when his circumstances made that difficult. Jesus doesn’t look at us in our brokenness and weakness and feel awkward about being related to us. He’s not ashamed of us — he’s one of us.

How is that possible for someone who, as our Savior, had to be all-powerful and unopposable? According to verses 10 and 17, the better question would be, “How could he not suffer with us?” By God’s logic, the Savior had to be a sufferer. It wouldn’t have been fitting for him to forgive us without absorbing the penalty of our sins himself. The devil, who “holds the power of death” (verse 14), had to be defeated in battle, not appeased through a treaty. God’s justice meant that sinners had to suffer; God’s love meant that sinners had to be saved; God’s plan meant that he would send his own Son to be a suffering sinner. And because of that, “he is able to help those who are being tempted” (verse 18).

Which would you rather have: a powerful but unsympathetic advocate, or a compassionate but impotent buddy? Jesus Christ is both greater than us and equal to us, and he is able and willing to bring you to glory.

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