Born to Be “Like His Brothers in Every Respect”

Notwithstanding images of a “super baby” at his birth, Jesus was like any other baby born in this world by a woman. We hear cute little children in Christmas pageants singing, “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” No, the baby Jesus did cry.

Part 1: “The Son Fulfilled the Righteous Requirement of the Law” Download PDF file

Text: Hebrews 2:14-18
Readings: Psalm 110:1-7; Hebrews 2:5-18; Heidelberg Catechism 14 & 35
December 4, 2011

"Adoration of the Lamb" detail in "Ghent Altarpiece" by Jan van Eyck, finished 1432. (Click to enlarge)

"Adoration of the Lamb" detail in "Ghent Altarpiece" by Jan van Eyck, finished 1432. (Click to enlarge)

As Jesus hung on the cross, he exclaimed in extreme anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46) It was not only physical pain or the shame before the mob that made him cry out this lament. The anguish was from the realization that the time of estrangement from his Father in heaven had come, and that his Father’s wrath is being poured out on him. From all eternity, the Trinitarian God shared love and unity with one another, but now he bore his Father’s eternal wrath against the sins of his people. Our finite minds can never fully understand how our heavenly Father poured out his wrath against his beloved, only-begotten Son, yet not ceasing to love him.

When 19 Filipino soldiers died at the hands of Muslim rebels in Basilan two months ago, Filipinos were filled with anger and wrath, and called for all-out war against those responsible for this heinous crime. But the president instead said his response will be “all-out justice,” but only time will tell if he is able to fulfill his promise of justice instead of wrath.

Wrath and justice: for God, these two are interconnected. God pours out his wrath on unrepentant sinners to satisfy his justice. Paul says in Romans 1 that God’s wrath is against all ungodliness and unrighteousness (v. 18), and against those who, knowing God’s law, thumb their nose at God, justify their own wickedness, and approve of the wicked (v. 32).

In Romans 3, Paul tells us that because all have sinned, God’s wrath is against all humanity (v. 23), thus all mankind are headed to eternal death (Rom 6:23). How then would mankind be justified and thus be saved from God’s wrath? It is the gracious God himself who sent Christ Jesus to be born as a man to be a propitiation for the sins of man (vv. 24-25). In this way, he showed his righteousness by being just and at the same time the one who declares righteous everyone who has faith in Jesus (v. 26).

Today in the second part of our series on “Why the God-Man,” we study why Christ had to be born as a child with true flesh and blood. Jesus is a unique Being. He is the divine Son of God, the second Person of the Trinitarian Godhead. At the same time, he is the only Son of Man, true human flesh and blood.

Notwithstanding images of a “super baby” at his birth, Jesus was like any other baby born in this world by a woman. We hear cute little children in Christmas pageants singing, “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” No, the baby Jesus did cry.

These divine and human natures united in one Person qualify him as the perfect founder of our salvation, because he was able to partake of our humanity in his suffering while remaining perfectly righteous.

Our text tells us three reasons why our Savior has to be a God-Man: (1) To Be a Merciful and Faithful High Priest; (2) To Make Propitiation for Sins; and (3) To Help Those Who are Being Tempted.

To Be a Merciful and Faithful High Priest

"The Scapegoat" by William Holman Hunt, 1854-55 (click to enlarge)

"The Scapegoat" by William Holman Hunt, 1854-55 (click to enlarge)

Our Scripture reading tells us that when the resurrected Jesus ascended into heaven, he presents his people to his Father. He is not ashamed to call them his brothers and sisters, and sings with them songs of praises to God in the great heavenly congregation (Heb 2:12). Christ also calls them his children because as the Son of God, he associates himself with the children of his Father (Heb 2:13).

Since Christ was born to save his brothers from sin, “he himself likewise partook of the same things,” that is, his brothers’ flesh and blood. Thus, Christ is a true and perfect human being. But how could he who is the Son of God and superior to angels be at the same time a lowly man of flesh and blood, “who for a little while was made lower than the angels”? (Heb 2:9) This is a great mystery that our creaturely minds cannot comprehend.

In this age, angels are higher beings than man. But verse 16 says that Christ was born not to help angels, because angels in heaven have no need of salvation, and fallen angels have no salvation. In fact, on Judgment Day, believers will sit on thrones judging fallen angels (1 Cor 6:3). No, Jesus was born to help the chosen offspring of Abraham (Isa 41:8, 9), who, according to Matthew, are his brothers, because he too is a descendant of Abraham (Matt 1:1). Who are Abraham’s offspring but all—Jews and Gentiles—who are Christ’s spiritual brothers, “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring” (Gal 3:29).

Israel, God’s chosen nation consisting of Abraham’s physical offspring, needed a high priest to represent the people before God. They offered animal sacrifices for the sins of the people, so they should be merciful and faithful to serve as mediator between God and the people. But soon the high priests of Israel ceased being merciful and faithful mediators, so they were insufficient and lacking as priests.

Jesus was born to partake of his brothers’ flesh and blood so he would be a merciful and faithful High Priest serving both God and his chosen people. How did Christ become our High Priest? The preacher of Hebrews expounds this in more detail in Chapter 7, where he goes all the way back 2,000 years to Genesis 14. Here, we read in three verses about Melchizedek, King of Salem, “priest of God Most High,” who came to Abraham, shared bread and wine with him, and to whom Abraham gave a tithe of everything (Gen 14:18-20).

We don’t read about this priest-king again until Psalm 110, where we read, “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Psa 110:4). In Hebrews 5:9-10, he says that Christ was the source of salvation, “being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.” The writer of Hebrews then makes two connections between Melchizedek to Christ.

First, Christ is not a high priest due to physical descent from Aaron. Like Melchizedek whose beginning or end is not mentioned, Christ too has no beginning or end, “a priest forever” based on his “indestructible life” (Heb 7:16). Compared to an Aaronic priest who cease to be a high priest when he dies, Christ is “a priest forever” because he lives forever. Second, an Old Testament high priest was installed based solely on his descent from Aaron. In contrast, Christ is a better High Priest because he was installed with an oath sworn by the unchangeable Lord God himself (Heb 7:20-21).

But more than just being appointed and sworn in by God, Jesus is also a merciful High Priest. Although the Greek word for merciful in this verse is mentioned only in one other place, in the Beatitudes (“Blessed are the merciful”), its synonym is frequently mentioned as a characteristic of God. Two examples would suffice, both related to the text at hand. After the angel announced the birth of Jesus, Mary praised God in her song, “his mercy is for those who fear him… to Abraham and his offspring forever” (Luke 1:50, 54-55). The writer of Hebrews assures us that we can boldly “draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16).

As our High Priest, Christ is also utterly faithful in his service to God as a perfectly obedient and righteous Servant. In the next chapter, the preacher of Hebrews compares Jesus to Moses. If Moses was a faithful servant of God’s house, Jesus is a more faithful Son in God’s house. He is the “high priest of our confession, who was faithful to him who appointed him” (Heb 3:1-5).

To Make Propitiation for Sins

"High Priest Offering a Sacrifice of a Goat on the Day of Atonement," by Henry Davenport Northrop, "Treasures of the Bible," 1894

"High Priest Offering a Sacrifice of a Goat on the Day of Atonement," by Henry Davenport Northrop, "Treasures of the Bible," 1894 (click to enlarge)

Christ’s ultimate faithfulness to his Father as High Priest was his obedience even in his mission to be a “propitiation for the sins of the people” (v. 17). “Propitiation” is one of those big words that are not popular among both theologians and lay people. But is it only because it is a long tongue-twister? No, the meaning and the implication as to God’s character also come into play. But what does “propitiation” really mean?

“Propitiation” is used for an atoning sacrifice that takes away not only sin, but also God’s wrath. The wrath of God is one of the most important themes in the Bible, being mentioned over 580 times. 1 Pagans fear their gods when the gods are angry, because their gods are arbitrary, capricious and whimsical. But God is wrathful against man for one reason—sin—because he is holy and righteous. And his wrath is a consuming fire. For example, when the people of Israel rebelled against Moses, God sent a plague against them which killed about 15,000. Were it not for Moses’s mediation, all Israel would have been destroyed, “for wrath has gone out from the Lord” (Num 16:46). One of the most terrifying descriptions of God’s wrath is in Isaiah 30:27, “Behold, the name of the Lord comes from afar, burning with his anger, and in thick rising smoke; his lips are full of fury, and his tongue is like a devouring fire.”

If God is wrathful against sin and the sinner, he has to be appeased. An atoning sacrifice has to be offered not only to remove the guilt and condemnation of the sinner, but also God’s righteous wrath. But a God who is wrathful does not sit well with the modern mind, who always think of God the Father as loving, gracious and merciful. So another word, “expiation,” is favored over “propitiation.” “Expiation” is the covering of sin, which is the basic meaning of “atonement.” For example, the blood of Jesus is said to cover—“expiate”—our sins so God will not see them.

So the RSV substitutes the word “expiation” wherever “propitiation” occurs, and most popular translations use “atonement” (NIV) or “reconciliation” (KJV). The problem with this is that “expiation” deals only with the sin-problem by covering it, while “propitiation” correctly deals with the wrath-problem by appeasing a holy God. Thus, Christ’s expiatory sacrifice solves only the problem of man’s sin, but his propitiatory sacrifice solves the problem of God’s wrath as well. In short, sin is expiated, but God is propitiated.

The beauty of propitiation is that the wrathful God himself is the one who makes the propitiation by sending his own Son as a sacrifice for sin, “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith… so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:19-26; also 1 John 2:2; 4:10). In Luke 18:13, the same word is used where the tax collector cries out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Literally, he is pleading, “God, be propitiated to me!” How incomprehensible is this holy God who is wrathful against sinful man, yet he himself provides the wrath-removing sacrifice, his own beloved Son!

But how is it that the wrath of God was satisfied by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross? First of all, he fulfilled the righteous requirement of the Law: perfect obedience, a Lamb without blemish. Secondly, he was “like his brothers in every respect.” He was born flesh and blood like us, partaking of the same things that we experience, including all kinds of human weaknesses. This is why the Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 14 says that God’s wrath will not be satisfied by punishing any other creature for the sin which man committed. Man sinned, man is guilty, and therefore man is punished. But the one who is punished is Christ, who did not commit a single sin, but who bore God’s wrath on his sinful people.

Hebrews 4:15 later says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.” The word “sympathize” is a transliteration of the Greek word synpatheo, which literally means “suffer along with.” He can truly “sympathize” with us because he was like us in every respect, just as a person can fully sympathize with and feel for one who has lost a loved one only if he had himself experienced the loss of someone he loved.

He was born to be like us in every thing so he would become a merciful and faithful High Priest who could sympathize with us who are weak. In his mission to save his people from sin, he too was tempted as we are, yet without sin.

To Help Those Who are Being Tempted

"Temptation of Christ" by Sandro Botticelli, 1481-82. Bacground, left to right: The Devil challenging Christ to turn stones into bread, the two standing on the highest point of the temple, the Devil conditionally offering Christ the world's riches. In the foreground: A Jewish sacrificial scene, explained by Christ on the left. (click to enlarge)

"Temptation of Christ" by Sandro Botticelli, 1481-82. Bacground, left to right: The Devil challenging Christ to turn stones into bread, the two standing on the highest point of the temple, the Devil conditionally offering Christ the world's riches. In the foreground: A Jewish sacrificial scene, explained by Christ on the left. (click to enlarge)

Because he was holy and righteous, Jesus suffered when he was tempted by Satan. The devil has the power to kill through sin, “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44), because death is the penalty for sin. Since man sinned, he is a slave of sin, because anyone who sins is a slave of sin (Rom 6:16-20; John 8:34). Those who are unrepentant and have no faith in Christ as Savior and Redeemer are under this slavery all their lives, and will suffer eternal punishment (vv. 14-15).

The temptations that Jesus suffered were real and literal. In Matthew 4:1-11, Jesus endured 40 days and 40 nights in the desert being tempted by the devil. But unlike us, Jesus was victorious over all the temptations placed before him by the devil. Again, this is inconceivable to the human mind, knowing from our own experience that overcoming temptation is almost impossible for us who know how sin can be enslaving.

This is a problem for many. First, If he was tempted but did not sin, while we are tempted and succumb to sin, how can his temptations be the same as ours? Is he not a privileged human being if he was tempted but did not sin, thus he is not like us in every respect? But temptation itself is not sin, as we see in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were tempted by the serpent, but if they did not surrender to the temptation, they would not have sinned.

Jesus was not shielded from temptations, but he overcame all his temptations and so remained sinless. His temptations became greater and greater as he went through life all the way to a most cruel death, accomplishing all that the Law required of him. In fact, his temptations and sufferings were greater than anyone has ever known.

The other problem for many is this: if Jesus never sinned, then he was never really like us in every respect, never experienced full humanity. But this is a false idea, because it assumes that God created man sinful. In fact, man was created perfectly holy and righteous (Gen 1:31), without sin, just as Jesus was on earth. The Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 6 affirms this, “God created man good and after His own image, that is, in righteousness and true holiness.” This is one of the reasons why Christ is called the Second Adam. If the First Adam did not sin, then there would have been no need for a Second Adam to be born, to suffer just like us, and to be a propitiation for our sins. Sinless Adam and Eve would have inherited eternal life, but still would have been fully human. All their descendants would have inherited their sinless humanity and eternal life.

Conclusion
Brothers and sisters in Christ, this Christmas season, meditate on why Jesus our Savior and Redeemer was born to be like us in every respect.

Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 31 is helpful in saying, “Our only High Priest, who by the one sacrifice of His body, has redeemed us, and ever lives to make intercession for us with the Father.” Jesus is our only High Priest, who gave himself as the propitiation for our sins. Now, God is not wrathful against us, but is merciful and gracious toward us who believe in Christ.

As our High Priest, he also makes intercession for us with the heavenly Father. He is able to sympathize with all our sufferings and weaknesses because he himself was tempted and suffered greater than anyone has ever suffered.

Let us then come boldly into God’s throne of grace, because he has opened the way for us to enter into God’s presence to help us in our temptations.

And we too are priests of God. As Christ offered his flesh and blood as a sacrifice for our sins, we are called to a living sacrifice in thankfulness to our salvation from sin and death:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom 12:1-2).

Part 1: “The Son Fulfilled the Righteous Requirement of the Law”


Notes:

  1. Leon Morris, The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1983), 153.
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