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David B. Garner is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and Pastor of Teaching at Proclamation Presbyterian Church (Bryn Mawr, PA). Pastor, professor, and author, he has also served as a missionary, ministering in Europe and Central and Southeast Asia. From 2003-2007, he served as Director for TE3 (Theological Education for Eastern Europe), a regional theological training ministry based in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Column: Sine Qua Non by David Garner

Sympathy Made Perfect

May 15, 2014 •

This article is the fourth part of an on-going series. The first part is called "Salvation is by Works Alone," the second is titled "God Works Grace," the third is "God's Work in Jesus," and the fifth is "Only Jesus' Grace Works."

In our last column, we surveyed the importance of Jesus’ life as signaled in Luke 2:52: “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.” More needs be said. So we return to this theme of Jesus’ life, with an eye to appreciating further Jesus’ biography of personal growth and maturity, as the means toward his real redemptive sympathy for us.

Most of us can handle Jesus’ growth in stature (years). After all, the birth accounts consume one out twelve months of the preaching experiences in our Western churches. Each December we sing the mysteries, celebrate the humility, and soak in the sweet sentiments of God becoming flesh.

We know the crude and compelling story from the Inn-side out. With no place for the newborn King, Jesus was laid in a feed trough. Vulnerable, dependent, and weak, he nursed at his mother’s breast and lurched along on the arduous night journey toward Egypt.  The earliest harsh realities faced by the Son of God born of a woman and born under the curse of the law (Gal 4:4) drip with a pathos that rightly disarms us. At the same time, the humble beginnings of baby Jesus fill us with joy inexplicable, as we relish the breath-stealing grace associated with God becoming man.

Stunning as this reality is, we must not get caught up in these particular sorrows or sentiments. The birth narratives tell of the incarnation, but the incarnation is not in itself the gospel. The good news is not only born; it must also be made. Born of the virgin mother, Jesus had to engage our lives, our world, and our suffering. He had to live, to suffer, and to work.

Many of us suffer a Christmas and Easter polarity in our thinking about the gospel. With little thought we casually swing from the cradle to the cross, almost as though the good news comes in a two-act play – Bethlehem and Jerusalem, birth and death, the incarnation and the cross. Other than Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry, not much else lies in-between.

Yet if Jesus was ready to be our Savior at the moment of his birth, why endure 30-plus years of life and suffering? Why all the bumps, bruises, and batterings? Why all the criticisms, cursings, and cruelties? Why all the trials, testings, and temptations? Why not face a sudden childhood death rather than an excruciating adult one?

Why did Jesus partake in the sore and sick realities of our harsh world and its pain? Precisely because he needed it; and he needed it because our salvation necessitated it. His identification with us did not come statically as though solidarity with us was mere biology. Yes, he took on human flesh and blood, but he also took on life and its experiences. Full identification with us came progressively: human life, human suffering, and human maturity. Saving identity required saving sympathy. Saving sympathy required immersion in our sin-cursed world.

As Hebrews puts it starkly, the Savior’s life was not merely an inconvenience or a cruel irony; it was a redemptive necessity. “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” (Heb 5:7-9)

In this anguishing work of obedience, he became the perfect Friend of sinners – the saving, helping, and redeeming Friend. Full qualification as the redeeming Son was attained, and this attainment even by denied prayer request. His heavenly Father refused his prayer for the passing cup of his death. It was a cup he had to drink.

And herein lies a critical feature of the pure gospel, one which weds the cradle, the crucible of his life and the cross. In the constellation of sufferings that fully engulfed his life, he came to know us, to really know us. He knows our weakness, our pain, and our suffering. “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.” (Heb 4:15)  Here in Jesus’ life came real temptation, real suffering, and thereby real identification with us.

The argument of Hebrews is striking. Reaching the qualifications to become our Savior required mature sympathy, a charity learned and earned by his chastity. His learned obedience, his “being made perfect,” is the means by which he became the satisfactory sacrifice, the Source of sympathy and of salvation.

But how does Jesus sympathize with us? If Jesus is truly God, how can he really sympathize? Does he really know our sufferings? Does he really identify with our weaknesses?

To whatever degree these questions fail to gain mental traction for us, they reveal our failure to take his humanity seriously. Our thinking requires biblical correction. Twentieth and twenty-first century Bible-believing Christians have celebrated Christ’s full deity. Jesus Christ is God. We know and properly avow that.

But we have not always focused adequately on his humanity. Perhaps in reaction against liberalism’s heretical denial of Jesus’ deity, many of us have swung on the theological pendulum, reacting to the theological error by almost exclusively affirming his deity. That affirmation, however, must be complemented by a rigorous affirmation of his full humanity. Both his deity and his humanity are vital to the gospel. There is no good news if Jesus is not the good Man, the Last Adam, the blameless Son in whom was found no guile.

And what about his sinlessness? Doesn’t his perpetual holiness prevent him from really identifying with my weakness? How can we know my temptations if he has never fallen into one of them? How can he know my failure if he has never failed? Doesn’t sinlessness eliminate any real identification with me in my weakness?

The opposite is actually true. Think carefully about temptation. When does temptation attain its peak of intensity? Before or after we fall into it? When enduring temptation, its jaws clench our hearts unrelentingly. But the moment we give in, the temptation vanishes into thin air! Temptation is no longer tempting when we sin. At the moment of relenting, temptation ends up a distant memory, a forgotten flirt.

So what makes Jesus’ sympathy with us complete is precisely because he was never swallowed by evil enticement. He resisted every temptation to its zenith point and never yielded. Hear that. He never gave in. The value of his saving and sympathizing work lies in his authentic purity, attained by his perfect resistance to temptation. Jesus identifies with us and sympathizes with us precisely because of his sinlessness through each temptation, not in spite of it.

Marvelously, his sympathizing identity with us is complete. As the writer of Hebrews contends, he is no Savior who is not also our Sympathizer. He became the Source of salvation because he has been perfected as the sympathizing Son of God.

To summarize our last two columns, Jesus’ work was to do the will of his Father. He came to die to save his people from their sins. But in order to die with the power to forgive, he had first to mature fully, live perfectly, and die an experienced, faith-tested, suffering-tested Son. And so he did.

He had to struggle, to face and overwhelm all temptation, and to grow in and through it all. He had to be made ready to die by a life of sympathy-producing obedience. And so he did.

He had to identify with us in our weakness. He had to know suffering, in the deepest sense of that word; he had to remain faithful, in the fullest sense of that word. And so he did.

The sympathizing Savior was made, not just born. The Father had prescribed it this way. Our redemption required it this way. Jesus did it this way, even unto an excruciating, humiliating, and separating death.

But the acute temptation in the garden was no match for the equipped Son: “And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”  (Matt 26:39) Readied by his track record of joyful obedience, he welcomed this final step in the Father’s will. And to the cross he went, sympathizing with us and saving us, just as the Father had willed.

Related Articles: "Salvation is by Works Alone," "God Works Grace,"God's Work in Jesus," "Only Jesus' Grace Works."

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